Friday, 19 March 2010

Women's Writing

a view from Persephone Bookshore
Lamb's Conduit Street, London

Yesterday, when I was at Jane Austen's House, I got into a long conversation about women's writing with one of our American visitors.  (It isn't unusual for a Jane-specific enthusiasm to lead to other bookish topics.)  By serendipitous good fortune, this American was spending a week in Bloomsbury -- the once-home of Virginia Woolf and so many other writers, and still the heart of literary London. 

I was delighted to enlighten this kindred spirit about one of my favorite London places:  Persephone, the bookshop and printing press which specializes in "rediscovered" 20th century women's writing.  Although anyone may travel there by website, if you are going to be in Bloomsbury or thereabouts you might as well visit the charming bookstore in person.

I wonder how many of Persephone's customers have been drawn there by womanly word-or-mouth?  Sarah in Oxford told Elizabeth, and Elizabeth in New York told me, and I have told all of my bookish friends about this special place.  It isn't meant to be a best-kept secret, but I'm often surprised by how many of Persephone's most obvious customers aren't aware of its existence.  The induction of an Oregonian is one thing, but some of my fellow Austenians hadn't known about it either.

I often marvel that the minute village of Chawton, Hampshire has become an homage to, not to mention resting place of, so much important women's writing.  Just down the road from Jane Austen's House is Chawton House -- which contains a library of rare works published between 1600 and 1800.  Although the Chawton House Library is well-known to academic scholars in the field, it is a best-kept secret that anyone may make an appointment to visit this unique collection.  There is a monthly reading group, too, for anyone who cares to discuss Mary Wollstonecraft or other "foremothers" of English literature.

Chawton House Library
Chawton, Hampshire
Last autumn, I went to see an exhibition called Rooms Of Our Own:  The Female Academy at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge.  Most of the featured historical texts, including a play called The Female Academy written by Margaret Cavendish in 1662, were borrowed from the Chawton House Library.  (It amused me, at the time, to think that I had driven all the way to Cambridge to discover something from just down the road.  Last week, I visited the Chawton House Library for the first time . . . but not the last!)

Lucy Cavendish College was established in 1965 as a women's college for students over 21, and our guide for the day was a perfect example of the college's aims.  At the age of 40, this 60ish woman had embarked on her first university degree.  Her first career, as a wife and mother, gradually developed into a second career as a student, and then an academic scholar.  At the age when most people are contemplating retirement, this inspirational woman was writing a book on Rosamund Lehmann --  a notable 20th century British writer.  (Our guide had also written a preface for one of the Persephone novels.)

The Female Academy exhibit featured two reconstructed rooms:  one of them was Virginia Woolf's writing study, that celebrated "room of one's own."  The other was a typical student's room from the 1960s -- not much more than a single bed, a simple desk, a lamp, and a pile of books.  Both rooms tugged at my heart and reminded me of my own student's room -- when I studied English literature at a university in London in the 1980s.  There has never been a year, before or since, that could match it for a truly enraptured immersion in reading and writing.

I have so many other distractions now, but there are still some places which remind me of the pleasures of a shelf of unread books and a comfortable chair and the well-lit silence to read by.

Jane Austen's House
Chawton House Library
Lucy Cavendish College
Persephone Bookstore

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A sad lack of jocund company

(seen in last night's Evening Standard)
Bloomin' disaster at daffodil festival
For the first time in 40 years
 not a single daffodil has bloomed in time
 for Britains' biggest daffodil festival this weekend.
  More than 10,000 people usually visit
 the Hertfordshire village of Thriplow
 to admire its displays.

Yes, we have no daffodils.
I've yet to hear anyone quote Wordsworth.
Those green shoots are still stubbornly closed.

It's the middle of March, and the only daffodils to be found are the ones on my new teapot.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

We still have Paris

Some years ago, my friend Jenni and I decided that we would go to Paris for her 50th birthday.
How far away that prospect seemed . . . how distant was the horizon of 50.

Despite all of those years of talking about Paris, we find ourselves just two weeks away from our Eurostar reservations . . . and with no real plans.

All day long I have been trawling through websites, looking at places to eat and sleep.  But when you only have a few days in Paris, you really want it to count, right?  How to find those really special places off the tourist-track?  Jenni and I have both been to Paris, several times in fact, and we no longer need to wait our turn to climb the Eiffel Tower.  What else could be waiting in Paris for us?

Any suggestions, bloggy friends?


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Home Safe

Elizabeth Berg is a favorite writer of so many women, but for some reason I've been late to join the appreciation society.  I've read a few of her books -- and liked them; even liked them a lot -- but it wasn't until Home Safe that I experienced  the sort of fervor which made me want to run straight over to the library and check out everything on the shelves.  (I actually did that yesterday; and what I couldn't find, I ordered off of Amazon.)

I think that Berg should probably be declared the literary patron saint of middle-aged woman.  This begs the question:  Can a person use the term middle-aged without sounding the teensiest bit derogatory?  The other week I referred to one of my friends as middle-aged, and she took offense -- even though she is 48.  I myself am not offended by the description, but perhaps that is because, as my teenaged daughter is fond of telling me, I like "being an old person."   I like baking, and gardening, and talking about the weather, and listening to classical music.  I am middle-aged:  sandwiched between my mother's generation and my daughters'.  Most of us are middle-aged, really; youth is actually a short stretch, and so is old age that will admit itself as such.   Middle-age is fertile ground, full of changes and transitions and growth -- no matter how stodgy and dowdy the term might sound. 

The protagonist of Home Safe is a writer named Helen whose life has just become seriously unstuck, just as she thought she would be entering a serene state of semi-retirement.  She is also suffering from writer's block, just to add insult to injury.  Helen is losing the biggest safety nets of her life -- husband, father, career, identity as a mother -- and she is forced to create a new scaffolding for herself.   At the age of 59 she has to grow up, or "step up" as her best friend Midge describes it. 

Berg begins this novel with an interesting premise: What if you were given your retirement fantasy?  Sometimes, especially when his work isn't going well, my husband likes to speculate about his retirement.  I, too, enjoy playing that game of What Shall We Do?  Do we want a wide life, or a deep one?  Do we want to know many places casually, or one place profoundly?  Dream house in the country, or an apartment in the city?  Do we want to put down roots, or travel light?  Of course, fantasies don't have to worry about trade-offs or compromises.  And sometimes we really don't get to choose -- at least not in the way that we expect to.  After all, how many aphorisms are there that express the foolishness of making plans?

Man plans, God laughs.
One of Berg's gifts is that she doesn't gloss over the difficulties or losses of life, but there is still a sense of optimism and hopefulness.  Her novels are easy to read, but never superficial or dumb.  I share many of Helen's foibles, and perhaps that is why I so identified with her.  Although I wouldn't have made the same choices, perhaps, I always felt like the novel played out in a way that was emotionally honest and true. 

Berg's writing is like slipping into a warm, scented bath.  Frankly, a middle-aged body can appreciate that.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Cultivating patience

miraculous green shoots

I was an impatient child.

I can remember waiting at the train station with my grandfather – waiting because we had come too early, way too early. (My grandfather was not a man to cut it fine, to race the clock, to risk being late.) I remember wanting to cry, such was my frustration, and then actually crying . . . for no other reason than that I could not stand the limbo of waiting.

I suppose that motherhood helps cultivate the quality of patience. All of that waiting, all of that forced stillness -- as you let a child learn to dress herself, or sound out the letters of a word, or eat a meal with a clumsy knife and fork and a dreamy disinterest in the plate’s contents. And that’s not to mention piano scales, or ballet practice, or all those many hours waiting in a car for someone else to finish. But still, I am childishly impatient – and I have learned to always carry a book, so that I can be entertained – so that I can escape.

I once bought a card that featured a cantankerous elderly woman. She said, “Lord, give me patience. And can you hurry it up.”

My favourite exercise has always been walking – but always outside; never on a treadmill. I want to breathe the fresh air, and observe the landscape as it changes, but most of all I want the sensation of movement. I want to feel that I am going somewhere.

This winter, for the first time since we have lived in England, there have been long stretches (weeks, months) where the weather has been too bad to go outside. Unable to walk, I’ve had to look for some other form of mental/physical exercise; and I’ve discovered an unexpected affinity for yoga – that practice associated with stillness, and concentration, and patience.

Necessary parenthetical caveat: (But having said that, I started with yoga on the Wii – which encourages the rather un-yoga-like competitive aspect. Although the various beeps are helpful for correcting one’s form, and getting a score for each pose is wonderfully motivating, I don’t think the desire to beat your teenaged daughter’s scores are wholly within the yogic spirit.)

Last Friday, for the first time, I graduated (transcended?) to a real yoga class. For 90 minutes, we breathed, we stretched, and we held our poses in silence. I had a more or less empty mind for once, hearing only the crackling of the wood-burning stove and the howling of the wind outside. The time passed quickly . . . or maybe not quickly, but it passed without my being conscious of counting it, or minding it, or ticking it away. I don’t remember thinking, not even once, that I wanted it to end so that I could move on to something else.

Yesterday I was reading a novel in which a woman, who lives in Chicago, is offered a dream house in California. All winter, I have dreamed of living in California. I’ve longed for blue skies, with an angry, deeply impatient sort of longing. Take the house, I say to the fictional character! Are you crazy? But the woman thinks this: “she probably really does need the seasons, their lessons of birth and rebirth, the rich variety they offer, even when the offering is a freezing day full of howling winds and driving snow.”


Yesterday, we had that blue sky that I’ve been yearning for. We also had a sun hot enough to encourage me to put on my gardening gloves and dig my spade into the cold, damp earth. I turned over the soil – “airing it,” even as I aired out my own winter-weary body. I felt this deep sense of – well, exultation, really. I just felt so joyful, so grateful, for this most optimistic of all seasons.

And even though I can’t wait to see everything come into full and glorious bloom, I actually felt content to appreciate and admire these first few signs of spring.

miniature iris
enjoy their brief moment,
because they are a favorite snack
 of the muntjac deer who often visit