Sunday, 31 May 2009

Visiting Jane

One half of the world
cannot understand
the pleasures of the other.

Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that few people are bothered to visit the historical landmarks on their doorsteps.

Jane Austen's final home, in Chawton, Hampshire, is less than an hour's drive from West Berkshire -- where I live -- and yet as far as I can tell, none of my English acquaintance have ever heard of it, much less visited. I have a good friend who lives almost next door to Basildon Park, which served as Netherfield for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, but has she ever toured this grand house? In a word, no. The Vyne, Winchester Cathedral, Steventon, Bath: all of these Jane Austen haunts are within the close vicinity, but do any of my neighbors bother to make the brief pilgrimage? Not as far as I can tell. Presumably, one values a place a great deal more if one has to travel many miles to see it.

Of course, there might be another explanation -- much as I don't like to entertain the thought. When I asked a close friend if she would visit Chawton with me, she wrinkled her nose slightly, and muttered something about having been scarred by reading Pride and Prejudice for her O-levels. Attempts to cajole my daughters into visiting the house with me were met with outright hostility; (unfortunately, I think we may have exposed them to National Trust properties before they were ready.) Surprisingly, not everyone seems to think that looking at an author's relics is jolly good fun.

Jane Austen's home in Chawton, Hampshire

The gravestones of Jane Austen's
mother and sister, both called Cassandra
at St. Nicholas's Church in Chawton

Jane's sister, Cassandra, is about to be smothered
late-blooming lilac looms overhead

Jane Austen was buried
in Winchester Cathedral
on July 24, 1817

This is a Winchester Cathedral rose currently blooming in my garden

Jane Austen's desk

It gave me chills to think of her
composing Persuasion in this simple spot

Happily, I do have one bookish friend who was willing to indulge me in my pursuit of all things Jane.

Last May, during the half-term holiday we visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. (Frankly, it was a bit disappointing and tourist-trappish. Except for an interesting display of the costumes from Miss Austen Regrets, there was little to inform, please or excite.)

For a good supply of Austen memorabilia, though, the house in Chawton is outstanding. Although I would encourage visitors to go to the house on a Wednesday through Saturday (when Cassandra's Tea Room across the street is open for business), we practically had the house to ourselves on the Tuesday after the recent Bank Holiday. (Although, strangely enough, the famous children's author Jacqueline Wilson entered just as we were leaving.) We were able to admire family jewellery, a quilted bedspread that the Austen women made, copies of letters and manuscripts, and pieces of period furniture without any jostling or jockeying for position. I was also able to debate the merits of various Austen film productions with one of the volunteers there, and learned of an expansion which is currently taking place. In the next six weeks, a period kitchen and research library will be added to the house museum -- and thus, there will be a need for more volunteers.

Without pausing to reflect, I found myself lobbying for the (unpaid) job. Surely my qualifications are impeccable! I'm a teacher, graduate student of English literature, former museum docent, and mostly importantly, lover of all things Jane Austen.

Later, as I shared this exciting news with my husband, a peculiar half-grimace appeared on his face.

My friend Jenni said something along the lines of I wish that I could put into words the expression on your husband's face.

Indulgent ridicule
, said I?

Yes, I think that's probably it
, said Jenni.

Spotted across the street from
Jane Austen's house in Chawton

When we arrived at the Chawton house, I was positively transfixed by the sight of this elderly woman and her pack of rough collie dogs. Apparently, (and if you know me, you won't be surprised to know that I asked), she and her equally elderly husband are driving around England with their beloved pets. What you can't actually see in the picture, though, is that there were actually eight of these sizeable dogs. Only later did I pause to wonder at the vehicle which was transporting this pack all over greater Hampshire.

As the incomparable Jane Austen said . . .

Thursday, 28 May 2009

One fine day in Dorset


Last January, when our youngest children were turning 11, a friend said to me: Let's go fossil hunting in Dorset on the last Bank Holiday in May.

What she didn't say: Let's go play on a pebble beach while we still have the chance . . . before the Adolescent Age (of cell phones, sullen, closed faces, and a general dislike of parents).

Sure, I said. I'm game (even if it means being damp and chilled all day, because you can never count on the weather, no, not even in May). Last time we played on a beach, the wind was a cold whip and my wellies got stuck in the sucking mud. We laugh about it still . . .

We allowed three hours for the trip, but it only took two. (Leave on a Sunday at 7 am for optimal traveling conditions.) By 9:30 we were drinking coffee and eating chocolate chip cookies (just slightly melted) on a picnic bench by the beach.

The weather was glorious: a day like only a handful of days granted each English weather year.

Chipping away the ancient rock
looking for fossilized treasure

For an hour or two, we looked for ammonites and belemnites in the gray rock of the crumbling cliffs. The best fossils are churned up in the February storms, our guide said. I'll take a sunny day in May instead, I thought. Never mind the ammonites . . .

As the day warmed, the siren call of the sea became irresistible. Fossil hunting was replaced by shell seeking.

We three: last days of childhood

As the day warmed, the mothers became laden with discarded jumpers and shoes. My daughter, always a water baby, longed for a swim suit. She is just that bit too old, and modest, for nude bathing.

Day-dreaming of mermaids

The boys grew hungry, as boys always do, but my daughter didn't want to leave the beach.
She was born in the Caribbean, and we often wonder if the sea has imprinted on her in some way.

Last stroll before lunchtime

We wound up the day with a late lunch at The Anchor Inn. Sun-happy revellers spilled out of the pub in every direction and ate on picnic tables which overlooked the sea.

As I stood in a long line at the bar, waiting to order drinks, the man in front of me joked with the barman: Last time I saw you, it was a howling gale and you were in a polo-neck! When was that, asked the barman? Last August! barked the man.

On this fine May day, the sea was a becalmed, beckoning blue.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Moving On

Selling up and moving on
After her husband's death, my great-great-great grandmother
left Indiana for Texas

There's nothing like history for a bit of context.

Over the past year, as banks have been bailed out and the economy has shrunk and anxiety has settled over all of us like a fine choking dust, my youngest daughter and I have been reading through the entire "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had read the books as a child, but it is quite a different thing to approach them from an adult's perspective. Underneath those happy family tales of fiddle-playing and prairie adventures, there is an obvious subtext of privation, danger and lots of darn hard work. Compared to the pioneers of the 19th century, we are all such dabblers. We are so used to our glut of luxuries and comforts and social service safety nets that the use of the word "depression" has suffered from galloping inflation.

Just this morning, on the BBC, I heard some politician pontificating about how we are moving into "uncharted territory" in terms of the economy. Well, in a way, I suppose that is always true. The future is always a new twist on the past, and perhaps we really can't make projections anymore . . . but could we ever? I can't help but think of poor, uncomplaining Ma Ingalls -- who keeps on having to pack up her little china shepherdess and other small keepsakes and move, once again, into completely uncharted territory. A literal frontier; and there's no grocery store on the corner, if you run out of milk.

Last night I was reading a journal that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. It is a diary of the trip that the family took, by covered wagon, from DeSmet, South Dakota to Missouri in 1894. Lane begins the account by describing seven years of drought, of failing crops, of losing the farm, of failing banks, of 25% unemployment, of the rampaging "Coxey's Army" of the unemployed. On the Way Home is not a "story" in the way that the other books have been crafted to be; instead, it is a journal of observations, with most of the feelings left out, although a reader can certainly infer them. Wilder describes the crops in the fields, the brutal summer temperatures, and most poignantly, the other covered wagons -- about half going towards the Dakota Territory, and the other half going to Missouri. With farms failing everywhere, there is the sense that families don't know what else to do . . . other than to "move on" and hope for the best.

The Ingalls Wilder collection are probably the best-known "pioneer" tales, but I wonder how many American families have similar stories to tell? In the past couple of weeks, I have discovered some information on some of my ancestors (with thanks to B.S. Duvall), and these tantalizing fragments from the past have my imagination completely engaged. If given a few details, is it not inevitable that we attempt to fill in the blanks?

One of the most compelling fragments is the Public Sale notice, pictured above. I really cannot articulate the choked feelings I have when I read this record of a family's belongings. Elizabeth Shaw's husband, Andrew Jackson Shaw, had died of Bright's Disease in 1886 -- about three years before this notice. Did she try to carry on running their small farm, with the help of her seven children? What set of circumstances made her decide to sell everything: animals, land, house and furniture?

The Homestead, Daviess County, Indiana

How did a family of nine live in that small wooden house? I know that photographs lie, and this one is sadly tattered, but doesn't it look desolate? There is something so pathetically small and played-out about it. . . as if the wind and bad luck had blown nearly everything away.

After selling the Indiana farm, Elizabeth Shaw and her children boarded a train heading for Ft. Worth, Texas. They arrived on February 4, 1889 -- just a few weeks after the public sale. I have a picture of the faded post card of the train station, and the date, but these small notations can't answer any of my questions: Why did they decide to come to Texas? Did they have a contact there, or had they just heard rumors of a new place with opportunities? How did they begin the story of their new life there?

The Shaw Brothers Dairy
Ft. Worth, Texas

Between the third and fourth "Little House" books, there is a gap of time that Ingalls Wilder chose not to describe. My daughter was indignant about how the story suddenly "skips." For whatever reason, the author barely alludes to the scarlet fever which struck the entire family, and blinded her older sister Mary. She hardly touches upon large debts caused by failing crops and illness. She doesn't mention a younger brother and sister being born; she never mentions that the younger brother died. I wonder so much about the stories that she chose not to tell. Were they just too painful to remember?

In a similar way, I wonder how the Shaws went from selling all of their belongings in 1889 to building up this family Dairy in 1900. Where did they get the capital to build this business? How did they go from that small primitive house to the considerably grander one pictured below? If "moving on" is the quintessential American story it is only because there is always that hope of moving on to something bigger and better.

The farm house by the Dairy
The entire Shaw family lived here in 1900

Elizabeth (seated in middle) and her children
at her 70th birthday party
My great-great grandfather George
is second on the right-hand side

Family legend has it that the Shaws were always strongly matriarchal, in that generation and the one that followed. Elizabeth Shaw outlived her husband, Andrew Jackson by thirty-four years. Her 75th birthday, in 1919, was celebrated at Trinity Park in Ft. Worth -- a place I used to visit with my own Shaw grandmother -- and she was surrounded by a huge crowd of descendents.

The very image of a prosperous family.

But it makes me sad to think of Andrew Jackson Shaw, left behind in a grave in Indiana. His grandchildren remembered a few things about him, as told to them by their parents. He was born in Pennsylvania to Irish parents, who died when he was a young child. An aunt and uncle spirited him away from an orphanage. He played the fiddle -- not just for his family, but at entertainments all over Daviess County.

He was named for the President always associated with the frontier.

Andrew Jackson Shaw

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

I read, therefore I am

a view of the bookshelf
just within arm's reach of my desk

Most bloggers are keen readers -- and as such, will ruefully acknowledge that blogging time tends to eat into the reading time that would otherwise be devoted to novels, poetry, newspapers, etc. Of course, the blogging paradox (just one of many, really) is that blogs are always acquainting us with hitherto-unknown reading material . . . even as they erode the spare minutes that might be used to read all of this wonderful stuff.

One of my favorite "Texas" novels, Moving On by Larry McMurtry, opens with the main character sitting in a old Ford, reading Catch-22 and eating a Hershey bar. These words always stick in my mind: Sometimes she ate casually and read avidly -- other times she read casually and ate avidly.

I've come to think of blog-reading and novel-reading in just this same way. Sometimes blogging is my meat and drink, and novel-reading is just a bedtime snack; at other times, that order of importance reverses itself.

In the past week, I've been feasting on novels -- and been too preoccupied, too satiated, to venture much into the blog-world. In a 24 hour period lasting from Monday afternoon (when I bought the book at Waterstone's in Reading) to Tuesday lunch-time (when I ignored both phone and doorbell in order to finish it), I was gorging myself on the un-put-downable Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. I had exactly the kind of reading experience described by theorists as "unconscious delight." As I child, I experienced the reading trance all the time: the world outside of my book would cease to exist, and I would be in the book. I also think of it as flashlight-under-the-covers reading . . . because just like my childish avid reader self, I could not go to sleep (bedtime or not) until I had completely consumed the story.

I only experience this avidity, this total book greed, a few times a year now . . . and I often wonder how much of it is the book, and how much the need to be lost in reading? Pondering this question made me remember a reading meme that Peggy, of Johnstone Journal, tagged me for a couple of months ago.

Out of all the thousands of books we read, why do certain ones cast a spell? I couldn't begin to answer that question, no more than I could read a strand of DNA, and yet I am certain that there are magical words and worlds that have formed the person that I am.

Childhood favorites:
Dr. Seuss
Frances Hodgson Burnett's books
Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books
Maud Hart Lovelace's "Betsy Tacy" books
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Comfort reading:
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Jane Austen's oeuvre
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Laurie Colwin's novels and short stories
Anne Fadiman's essays
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Gifts from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Journals by May Sarton
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Adult novels that I read at an impressionable age:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Couples by John Updike
The Alexandria Quartet by Laurence Durrell
All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
anything that I found hidden under my mother's bed

Unforgettable literary heroines
Maggie Tulliver
Jane Eyre
Jo March
Lily Bart
Elizabeth Bennet
Isabel Archer
Madame Bovary
Anna Karenina
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Blanche Dubois
Aurora Greenway
Susie Salmon

Memorable books I've read this year:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
A Fortunate Child by Elizabeth Wix
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

I've made up categories to suit myself, but if you would like to see the original meme, read this. Play along, if you please . . .

Monday, 11 May 2009

Haiku Festival

Each year the fresh shock

a tight bud unfurls, reveals

hot pink peony

for a full list of Haiku Festival participants

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Just like you pictured it

Longhorn cattle: an enduring symbol of Texas

TEXAS. I can't help but be aware of the myths, sometimes the stereotypes, that most people of this world conjure up when they hear the word Texas. That is because People are always asking me where I am from, and then sharing what they imagine that place to be: a desert, with cowboys, and the Alamo, flat, and BIG.

I tend to dispel those myths, although I'm not sure why, as it always leads to disappointment. For many years, "my Texas" has been Houston -- and like big cities everywhere, it is cosmopolitan and full of immigrants who bring their food, language and culture; inevitably, the "native" culture gets watered down quite a bit. Also, Houston is semi-tropical and less than an hour from the coast. It is green all year round, and heavily forested in places. The density of population and all that green make it look and feel really different from "mythic" Texas. (Although its massively sprawling size and wide highways might make a non-Texan dispute that claim.)

Here's the truth, though. As soon as you drive out of the cities, Texas looks a lot like the myths. Although the land varies -- and can range from mountains to true desert to prairie -- it is mostly big, flat, empty and dominated by the vast sky. There are lots of small towns, most of them none too prosperous, lots of cows, and fields -- some of them green, but a lot more brown and dusty.

It is not a landscape that comforts me, and I don't find much beauty in it, either. And yet, and yet -- when I am in other places, I long for that wide-open feeling. I will never forget visiting Spain, after a long wet year in England, when I was in my early 20s. When I got off the train, and saw that huge blue sky, I remember thinking: This feels like home.

My feelings about Texas can be characterized by the word "ambivalence."

My accent is a strange one, difficult to pinpoint or typecast. I still carry traces of my Texas roots -- in the way that a "t" sound becomes something softer, more like a "d;" "a" is more like "ah;" and I still sometimes say "ya'll," although less and less as my years in England mount up. I could never pass as English, but Texans don't recognize me either. (They ask me where I'm from, too, at least if I'm in a small town.)

In the past year, it has struck me that my exile from Texas might be a permanent one. For years, we moved back and forth between Texas and England; but my husband has tired of that rolling stone kind of life. America, the land of opportunity that once beckoned to him, no longer appeals. He prefers English humour, English radio, English beer, English countryside. We are in the process of selling our house in Houston right now, and so we continue to cut our ties there. Although my recent visit to Texas was mostly pleasure, there was also that particular business to attend to.

Perhaps this explains why I became obsessed with the family history during my annual trip to my parent's home in central Texas. I spent hours going through old family albums, taking notes from my father's study on our genealogy, inspecting old census records on, and cajoling my parents into taking me on sentimental journey fact-finding road trips.

Our family is pretty typical of a certain kind of American migration. In a twenty year span before and after the Civil War, (which ended in 1865), all of the various branches of my family tree migrated from various Southern states (Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina) to Texas. All of my great-grandparents were born in Texas, bar one, and most of my great-great grandparents. too. This might not sound like much to brag about, but you have to put it into a certain historical perspective and remember that Texas wasn't even a state until 1845. Even more importantly, there was no air conditioning. I'm not being funny; forget the oil boom of the 20s and 30s, the population of Texas didn't really begin to expand until air conditioning came to our punishingly hot state. Summer temperatures go from May to October, but the temperature can shoot up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in any month of the year. Before the 1960s, you had to be tough as a boot to live in Texas.

All of my family settled in a swathe of central Texas that spans the north-south artery of Interstate 35. From the tiny town of The Grove (officially a "ghost town" now) to the big city of Ft. Worth, you can cover the entire territory in two hours of driving. Believe me, that's nothing on the Texas map. For a hundred years, everyone mostly stayed up -- barring the inevitable dislocations of World War II, when my farm-boy grandfathers went to war. And yet none of my parents' four grandchildren were born in Texas. Neither of their children live there now.

Texas garden: limestone, cedar, cactus, rusted wheel and skull
Is this meant to be humorous?
Or is it a matter of doing the best with what you have?

Starting with the old Cox cemetary, which is only 30 miles from my parents' home, my father and I spent a long day driving from one family graveyard to the next. I was on a fact-finding mission, but I also had some emotional need to match the photographs with a place that I could see and make sense of.

I wanted to see the farm that my grandfather grew up on in the small town of Cranfills Gap. I had seen it once, when I was a small child, but it wasn't a place that my grandfather ever wanted to revisit. My grandfather was born in 1920, and his parents divorced when he was five years old. His sisters went with their mother to the more properous side of the family; my grandfather was handed over to his widowed grandmother on his father's side. He had to help work the farm, and it was a hard, lonely life. My father took down an oral account of my grandfather's life before he died, and among many other poignant facts, he shared that he was the only non-Norwegian boy in the local Mustang school. A neighbor, Mr. Knutson, loaned him a horse to ride to school. He ran away to join the Army when he was 16.

Cranfills Gap: Population 358

Cranfills Gap is still a small farming community; I don't think it has changed much since the 1930s when my grandfather lived there. I suppose that the price of agricultural commodities is affected by all sorts of larger world factors that touch upon that tiny town, but it seemed like a timeless landscape when we drove through it. The land is pocked by cedar, and it looks hard and scrubby. There was something heavy and suffocating about the atmosphere there, but perhaps it was just the sky -- choked with dust that day. There was a crazy-making wind, too.

I had been reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, late into the night before, and a description of the gray sky as the "onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world" kept running through my mind.

Cranfills Gap feels terribly remote. It is at least 20 miles away from the county seat of Meridian, and that town only has a population of 1500. There is a large county courthouse that dominates the town, and not much else. These are the features of a small Texas town: the church, the filling station, the saloon, the Dairy Queen.

A Lutheran church
on the Texas prairie

The Lutheran church is one of the few establishments to be found in Cranfills Gap. I think that people need God, or even more so the sense of community, when they are in the middle of nowhere. Every small town has a church -- or even several churches. The church which is pictured above has always fascinated me because it just stands alone in the empty landscape. It is about 20 minutes from where my parents live, and when I see it, I know that we are getting close to "home."

This courthouse is a typically ornate example. It dominates the square of a town whose fortunes have declined, along with the cotton industry, for decades now. One of my great-grandfathers used to have a cafe in the square, but we couldn't pinpoint the exact spot. My father and I spent hours poring over records -- looking for information on the Grizzle and Page families who were his mother's relations. We found the Death Certificate for my great-great grandfather, Jasper Simeon Grizzle, but it was mostly uninformative. "Not known" was the disappointing response to most of the questions that we wanted answered. Texas did not start recording deaths until 1903 -- which gives you a sense of how recently it was a wild, lawless sort of place.

The Horny Toad is a recent addition to Cranfills Gap
It was too early for dinner,
so we passed it by

The Koffee Kup in Hico, Texas
This is where we did eat dinner that day

When in Texas . . .
You need to eat chicken fried steak with cream gravy
onion rings are a nice embellishment,
but mashed potatoes are more typical

The Koffee Kup is one of those restaurants where the waitress calls you "Hon" and keeps the coffee pot constantly circulating. After this highly caloric meal, which I almost never ate when I actually lived in Texas, my father and I sampled the pie: coconut cream and chocolate, both with meringue about six inches high. When I took out my camera, to take a picture of my dinner, it made the other patrons indulgently amused. I could tell that they thought I was a visitor to that place, which I suppose that I was, and you could see the pleased "Only in Texas" expression on their faces.

The Dairy Queen in Gatesville

When I was a child, you could find a Dairy Queen in every small town -- and in many cases, it was the only game in town. My mother grew up in a small town in central Texas called Gatesville. It is one of the few small towns that has grown in size, mostly because it has a growth industry in the form of prisons. It has the largest women's prison in Texas -- a fact that I find extremely symbolic because small towns do feel like prisons to me.

Although it has been renovated, my mother spent a large portion of her teenage leisure hours at this Dairy Queen. Despite my crack about the prison thing, it is a friendly place -- and a group of elderly women were playing bridge in a private room when we arrived there. As my mother and I ate lunch -- and I had the steak finger basket, by the way -- she reminisced about how she and her friends used to pile in a car and go to the DQ for Cokes. Apparently, you could get a driver's license at age 14 back then. (Having a 14 year old myself, this bit of trivia horrified me.) However, out in the country, it is still not uncommon for little kids to learn how to drive the family pick-up truck and every 16 year old thinks a car is their natural birthright.

There is a song by Nanci Griffith, the chorus of which is: Texas back in '69 was drive-in movies and dashboard lights. Apparently, that was true of '55 as well. Larry McMurtry's Archer City was not the only small Texas town to have a drive-in "picture show."

You can still see a drive-in movie in Gatesville

It is in my teenage daughter's nature to criticize everything I do at the moment, but she was particularly exasperated by my interest in delving into my Texas past. "You are obsessed," she kept saying to me. At 14, she cannot imagine why I would be interested in anything "old" -- and she really cannot grasp why I think that understanding where I came from provides some key to understanding who I am now.

Even if I never live in Texas again, I am keenly aware that the prairie, the sky, the small town is a part of me -- ambivalence or not. And of course, as long as my parents are still there, it is still, and will always be, home.

And really, this is a love letter to both of my parents . . . but especially to my mother, for Mother's Day.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

There's always room for one more

Bee: blown away by so much blogging brilliance
(well, really I was at The Savill Garden)

Every now and then I make noises, (mostly mutterings to myself), about not acquiring any new blogs to love. After all, I'm already at saturation point. I cannot keep up with all of the blog-friends that I already feel emotionally committed to . . . and that is not to mention emails, Facebook, and the phone calls that I owe my mother.

And yet, today I found myself falling passionately in love with two new blogs. As with any new infatuation, I wanted to know EVERYTHING about the person and wished that I could read and read until I had absorbed every word.

(Of course, this was not possible . . . as I had already squandered precious time taking children to school, eating breakfast, walking six miles, buying some new plants, tweaking various things in the garden, answering some emails, feeding chickens, making pesto, tutoring a six-year-old, vacuuming the living room . . . you get the idea. I did, however, miss out on the grocery shopping that I had planned.)

The really annoying thing is that I have "known" about these blogs for months, and yet I didn't follow that URL. (The really good thing is that I can still catch up . . . if I stop sleeping, maybe.)

For your reading pleasure:

dovegreyreader scribbles - this self-described "bookaholic" really doesn't need my patronage, as she already has readers and blog-fame galore, but I can't resist her bookish views. I think of myself as fairly well-read, but dovegreyreader is in a class all her own. She reviews a book nearly every single day . . . ! Although I have various hobbies, pursuits and pleasures, reading is the most constant love. This blog makes me feel that, given a good book and a cup of tea, I can always be well-amused.

Ngorobob House: Life from the Hill -- this soulful, beautifully written blog makes me wish that I were a tad bit more adventurous. Janelle has more than one story about being chased by elephants. I'll just leave it at that and let you discover her colorful life in Tanzania on your own.

Had we but world enough, and time . . .

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


Please visit Barrie Summy
for a full listing of
other May book review.

Why do some stories haunt us?

I have been on a reading jag lately, but the book which has possessed me -- and left the stickiest mental/emotional traces -- is Daphne, by Justine Picardie. It was the first novel that I read after returning to England from my Texas travels, and it was an apt choice -- dealing, as it does, with some of the most memorable characters and authors from the canon of English literature: Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre; J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. These fictional characters are embedded as deeply into the English cultural and emotional landscape as any physical features of the country.

After travelling, I always feel the need for a retreat into myself. The mood of this novel, so permeated by characters who are lonely and isolated, suited me well. There is a fine line between escapism and fictional obsession, and Picardie fills her novel with characters who cannot always tell the difference. What reader, longing for the relaxation to be found from 'losing oneself in a novel,' has not experienced something similar? Chores, obligations, family demands -- all of these cease to matter for a time. Real life exists inside of the novel's pages.

Picardie's novel is extremely ambitious in scope, for it interweaves the fictitious with the real, and does so in such a convincing way that these categories become blurred for the reader. She take three narrative voices -- the real writer Daphne du Maurier, the real Bronte scholar Alex Symington and a fictitious young woman who is a deliberate pastiche of the literary characters of Jane Eyre and the second wife in Rebecca -- and she creates a fictional mystery which is based on all sorts of historical (read real) connections. Picardie links these three central characters through a similar mental isolation and a shared literary quest: the excavation of the mysterious figure of Branwell Bronte. During a particularly difficult time during her life, when her husband was having a mental breakdown and she was perhaps hovering in that area herself, du Maurier did indeed devote herself to a biographical study of Branwell Bronte. The authorial voice supposes that "in proving him to be a lost genius, she would also prove herself" (p. 20). Overlooked and orphaned respectively, the characters of Mr. Symington and the young woman embark on scholarship with a similarly and personally redemptive bent.

Not only does Picardie braid together these three lives, but she also peoples the strands with characters real, fictional, and based in fiction. For instance, the real woman who inspires the fictional character of Rebecca appears in Daphne's narrative thread, as does Rebecca herself -- who seems equally, if not more, real to du Maurier. The fictitious character of the young woman is also haunted by her husband's first wife -- the beautiful and glamorous Rachel. The character of Rachel is an academic who specializes in du Maurier and Bronte writings. She has written a poem which is both homage and response to Emily Bronte's 'real' poem Self-Interrogation, which has in turn inspired the 'real' title of du Maurier's first novel The Loving Spirit. Equally obsessed by du Maurier's writings, and meeting her real-life Rebecca counterpart at every turn, the young woman is keenly aware of the fictional resonance in her 'real' life -- a life which is, of course, fiction. Confused? Perhaps I don't explain it well.

Picardie, however, juggles all of these stories and manages to make them seem like a coherent whole. Both du Maurier and Symington really did write about the tragic brother of the famous literary sisters, and Picardie obviously did a formidable amount of research to reconstruct their individual and yet connected stories. Piecing together their writings and letters, she imaginatively fills in the blanks -- and yet what so-called 'nonfiction' writing doesn't do the same, to some extent. Even autobiography is a work of reconstruction. There is another fascinating strand in the novel which touches on the life of Peter Llewelyn Davies, the orphaned boy who is adopted by J.M. Barrie and becomes the inspiration for the fictional character of Peter Pan. Peter Llewelyn Davies is also the real-life cousin of Daphne du Maurier, and his actual suicide is alluded to within the du Maurier strand. The twinned themes of madness and creativity run through the novel, and it is strongly suggested that the fictional Peter comes to haunt the real one. He cannot escape from his more famous, perhaps more real (and certainly more lasting), counterpart.

Although the character of the young woman is 'made-up', paradoxically she is the most real in some ways. She is the only contemporary character, and she helps piece together the story for the reader. In some ways, she takes the dusty relics from the past and throws some light on them. Her narrative strand, which is the only one to be told from the first-person point-of-view, encompasses aspects of all of the stories which still exert such a hold on our collective imaginations. In this way, she is a cipher for the various themes within the book. She is the orphan in all of us. She searches for an identity; she searches for love.

The young woman is also, in some ways, twinned with the author of this story. In the acknowledgements, Justine Picardie reveals that Bay Tree Lodge in Hampstead -- the childhood residence of her fictional character -- was also her own childhood residence. Picardie describes herself as being "utterly possessed by the story," and it is fascinating to discover that the du Mauriers and Llewelyn Davies were her neighborhood ghosts. Apparently, they are buried in Church Row in Hampstead.

In her own self-titled blog, Justine Picardie reveals that she will be discussing du Maurier's work at the upcoming Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey, Cornwall on May 10. I wish that I had my own twin, who could stay in Berkshire and take care of the children . . . while I followed Picardie down this literary trail.