3 December 2018

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


My healthy respect for Virginia Woolf's writing began a few years ago, but her books were at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and I wasn't sure about the testing the water.  After spending an afternoon at Monk's House in East Sussex while visiting London in 2016, Woolf's writing seemed a little less insurmountable for realizing that she was, after all, human.  A few postcards and a copy of To the Lighthouse were chosen from the souvenir shop and I was delighted when the woman ringing up my purchase asked if I would like the book stamped.  Yes, please!  Being ridiculously precious about the whole thing, the book was popped on the shelf to wait for the right time.  A year and a half later......

Set just prior to the Great War, Mr and Mrs Ramsey have gathered their eight children at their summer home on the Isle of Skye.  Also staying with them are a few friends of various ages and backgrounds.  Charles Tansley, one of Mr Ramsey's philosophy students, is something of a bore, a misogynist, and rather pedantic....

   'She could not help laughing herself sometimes.  She said, the other day, something about 'waves mountains high'.  Yes, said Charles Tansley, it was a little rough.  'Aren't you drenched to the skin?' she had said.  'Damp, not wet through.' said Mr Tansley, pinching his sleeve, feeling his socks.'

Charles Tansley is also quick to share his opinion when it comes to the skill sets of women; he doesn't think they can paint or write.  Which is very interesting as another guest, Lily Brascoe, has made a goal of painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait while on a break from keeping house for her father in Old Brompton Road.  Despite contemplating the downward turns of her own marriage, Mrs Ramsay seeks to play matchmaker between Lily and Mr Bankes, a childless widower just past middle-age.  Another match orchestrated by Mrs Ramsay is between a young couple, Paul and Minta, who seemingly trust the instincts of their hostess enough to go along with the idea.

While many of the characters in To the Lighthouse feel some level of affection for Mrs Ramsay, her husband is cold and distant.

'I am by way of being devoted to her.  Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window - nothing, nothing.  He only wished to be alone and to take up that book.  He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her.  The truth was that he did not enjoy family life.'

And then, with a skill that sets writers apart, Virginia Woolf begins a pin-point sharp examination and concise volley from Mrs Ramsey....

'I'm so sorry,' said Mrs Ramsay, turning to him at last.  He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and done dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them.  Yet he must force his feet into them.  He must make himself talk.  Unless he were very careful, she would find out this treachery of his; that he did not care a straw for her, and that would not be at all pleasant, he thought.  So he bent his head courteously in her direction.'

Tragedy and sadness crumbles the traditions of the Ramsey family and their holiday home is left to ruin.  After sitting empty for many years, the housekeeper arrives to give it an airing.  I absolutely loved the description of the beam of light from the Lighthouse casting its eye over the debris left behind and the rat, swallow and thistle that have taken up residence. 

To the Lighthouse is a book to be read very, very slowly.  There were times when I read paragraphs, and sometimes pages, twice because they was so beautiful or thought-provoking.  At other times it was because I had forgotten who was speaking because of Woolf's long sentences where 'She' can suddenly morph into a different person if you're not paying attention.   

So what did I take away from this book?  To the Lighthouse reminded me of Mrs Dalloway for its atmosphere of perception, perspective and Woolf's well-honed art of observation.  There's a myriad of thought and emotion flowing through every character, how much they choose to conceal or convey could change the course of events for better or worse.  It's something we all play at many times throughout our day which makes Virginia Woolf feel both modern, and of her era.  Another interesting aspect is the way in which Woolf portrays married versus single women; there is joy and pitfalls in both camps.  Pressed to choose which book I preferred, Mrs Dalloway edges ahead of this novel but it might have something to do with the smatterings of London porn.  Another possibility is that I found myself paying quite a lot of attention to the writing in To the Lighthouse, so much so that the characters probably suffered for it. 

My next read in Woolf's oeuvre will be Night and Day, but I'll end this post with one last quote from To the Lighthouse simply because it's too lovely not to.....

'For in the rough and tumble of daily life, a sense of repetition - of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.'

Portree, Isle of Skye by Jonathan Wheeler

11 November 2018

The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

I had no idea who Geoffrey Fletcher was when I found this book at a thrift store last Spring.  The charming ink sketches were a clue that he was both artist and writer.  As it turns out, Fletcher wrote and illustrated a column for the Daily Telegraph from 1962 until 1990.  Wikipedia points out that he focused on such mundane sights as gas lamps, Edwardian tea rooms, and cast-iron lavatories and crumbling terraces.  Mr Fletcher and I would have got on quite well because they are the sorts of things that I linger over too.  If you like social history (and I do!) there`s nary a wall of brick that fails to make me wonder about the person who trowelled the mortar into place those many years ago.

In his introduction, Fletcher writes...

`I should be glad to see London explorers boarding buses (and quite positively the best way to see London is from the top of a bus - the pity is that the old open-topped ones were withdrawn) simply because they like the look of the name on the indicator, and to give the well-known sights, which we all know about, a well-earned rest.`

A selection of Fletcher`s favourite places or observations...

....in Edgeware Road, the old houses have almost gone, but there is a rich supply of delights, architectural and otherwise, as, for instance, Smiths the Butchers, where they take the meat away after the close of the day`s business and sell hot salt beef sandwiches and lemon tea until midnight.

....the gas lamp in Carting Lane, by the side of the Savoy...it`s iron column is hollow to allow for the passage of sewer vapours.

Camden Passage, Islington

....Of all the London cemeteries, Kensal Green, in Paddington, is, I think, the most melancholy.  ....opened in 1833, a product of the movement in favour of something less grotesque and more hygienic than the old churchyards.

....Undertakers` parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late.  People stare through the windows of undertakers - at what?  Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.

Spitalfields

....It is no wonder that Sickert found so much material in Camden Town - those delorous bed-sitters, the damp basement flats where life, seen through lace curtains, is a succession of human feet wearing out the pavement tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

,,,,Probably the greatest aesthetic pleasure is obtained from the cast-iron urinal at the far end of Cheyne Walk.  This also is lit by a ghostly gas lamp, and behind are the curious assemblage of boats, converted wartime craft, ancient Thames barges, and the like, that house the floating Bohemian population of Chelsea.  This lavatory is also best seen at night and in the autumn, outlined against the plane trees and shining oily river.

....But Gothic architecture, being little understood, produced some weird churches in London and their provinces; `Commissioners` Gothic` the style came to be called.  Nearly all were so utilitarian as to be eminently unromantic, but I have in general a liking for them, especially when, furred with soot in the north of England, they tower over manufacturing town, over the chip and tripe shops and pigeon-haunted backyards.

Star Yard, Holburn

....Off the High Street is one of the most remarkable streets in the East End of London, Albury Street, with its extensive collection of doorways.  Both sides of the street have a succession of early eighteenth-century houses of two or three storeys.

....One of the finest and least-known London pubs is the Crown, Cunningham Place, on the edge of St John`s Wood and the mistressy Maida Vale.  The Crown is magnificently late Victorian, full of old wallpaper and marble, and possessing a billiard room complete in every detail, down to the horsehair seats.  Go there in a straw boater in summertime; smoke a Woodbine, and think about Kitchener.

If the reader was in any doubt about Geoffrey Fletcher`s stance on the future of the landscape of London, he drives it home in his closing paragraph....

`The old London was essentially a domestic city - never a grandiose or bombastic one.  Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions.  Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better.`

Areas such as Spitalfields, which Fletcher considered long collapsed, are bustling and thriving with independent ventures by hardworking entrepreneurs.  I hope he would be pleased about the transition some neighbourhoods have made from dark and derelict to ones filled with neighbourhood pride.  In any case, I loved reading his thoughts on the parts of London he was passionate about and I`m curious to see if I can spot a few of them during my next trip. I`m no more a fan of glass `beehive` tower blocks than Fletcher was, but there`s usually something close by that is beautiful enough to steal my gaze.  As for eel-pie saloons....some things are best left in the past.

A wonderful read for fans of London, architecture or social history!


2 November 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Our sleepy garden

The remnants of Halloween candy, leftover from Wednesday night's trick or treaters, sit on the counter, it's getting colder by the day, and an almost relentless mist/rain spits from grey skies.  And ten days ago, my sweet two year-old Border Collie bit me on the chin for nine stitches.  Never kiss a sleeping dog!  When I showed up at work a couple of hours later, colleagues asked if a plastic surgeon was called in because the wound was on my face, which made me laugh.  The image of a diva, bleeding through her gauze, rebuffing the help of the attending resident comes to mind and I'm much too practical for that.  As it turns out, I'm healing fantastically well and like to tease that Vogue just might reconsider cancelling my contract.  So yes, the atmosphere has felt distinctly Gothic around here lately.  But on to Melmoth....

Helen Franklin, an English ex-pat living in Prague, works as a translator.  She lives in austere surroundings with a meddling woman in her ninetieth year, whose clothes are nearly always dotted with previous meals.  Helen's most meaningful friendship is with Karel Pra┼żan, whom she met while studying at the cafe in the National Library of the Czech Republic.  She seems slightly out of place in the city`s landscape, despite being a resident of it for twenty years.  The same amount of time Helen has been denying herself the pleasure of eating until satisfied; the first clue that something haunts her from the past.

Karel befriends a curmudgeonly old man, who sits every day in the same carrel at the library for long stretches of time.  Josef Hoffman writes obsessively, filling page after page, but no one knows what it is he works away at so diligently.  Then one day, Josef's heavy leather file is delivered into Karel's possession with a note....

'How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!'

Josef has felt the stare of cold black eyes following him, but when he turns around, there is no one there.  Having made a study of collecting stories in which a female spectre has haunted people throughout the ages, Josef feels the black eyes of Melmoth now boring into him.  He has been compelled to face his actions while still a child in the face of Nazi occupation.

Through a series of vignettes from the past, we realize the stories that make you cringe with horror are no more horrific than what unfolds on the news each day.  Melmoth bears 'witness to what must not be forgotten'.  So is Melmoth a symbol associated with our conscience?  It certainly feels that way to me, but I`m unfamiliar with Charles Maturin`s book Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the inspiration for Perry`s novel. Something to rectify at a later date....

Regardless of how you choose to interpret this character, Perry has been extremely clever about it.  Midway through the book there was a moment when I felt that the story wasn't what I had bought into....but it quickly passed.  The sections of bizarre imagery such as a broken seed pearl necklace, continuing to spill in streams onto the people below while watching an opera, and sinister jackdaws perching on windowsills reminded me of reading dusty fairy tales.  The parts of the book that made me pull my knees up a little higher on the sofa are the tragedies from the past, but they are examples of tragedies that continue to happen on a daily basis.  A sobering thought we are all aware of, but how deeply do we contemplate it?

I doubt the characters of this book will stay with me for very long, but the message certainly will.  And I applaud Sarah Perry for delivering three different reading experiences from each of the three books she has written.  I have no idea what to expect next, but I`m looking forward to it!  In the meantime, I`ll distract myself with a nice book about London until my nerves have settled.

21 October 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by our local bookshop for a copy of Town & Country, the Autumn edition.  It hadn't arrived from overseas yet, but a wander around lead me to the Mystery section.  It's not a part of the store that I venture into all that often, and even then it's usually to root out something for my husband.  But then I noticed Dorothy L. Sayers' books; they've been reissued with eye-catching covers and Gaudy Night had the highest page count of the bunch....oh, go on then.

'Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically call the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game.  But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.  A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture.  She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.'

Bloomsbury and Oxford - two of my favourites in a long list of favourite places in England.  Gaudy Night should have gone over a treat, but alas....it did not.  I love nothing more than to sink into the prose of Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, so I found myself ever more frustrated at the seemingly clinical way in which Sayers doled out late night episodes of vandalism in the colleges of Oxford.  Epithets spray-painted on the wall of the library were apparently too shocking to share, but I wanted to know the topic of the vandal's ire.  I'll admit that I judged the poison pen letters sent to Harriet and other members of staff with a does of twenty-first century cynicism, because the waves of negativity on social media has hardened me.  When Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene to help Harriet wade through a few clues, I laughed out loud.  Would someone employed by the Foreign Office have the time of day to deal with a disgruntled busybody?

I emailed Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) the other day to complain about the lack of description when it came to food in Gaudy Night.  Where were the gas-rings?  The mouthwatering descriptions of cake?  Harriet had been back and forth to her flat in Bloomsbury but I was still none the wiser about the pattern on her curtains or her bedclothes.  Does Harriet wear perfume?  Elizabeth Jane Howard gave her readers all sorts of detail when setting a scene, painting a portrait with words.  Mary was quick in her defense of the author which led me to point out a tea basket pulled out from under the seat of a punt while touring the river.  Not one mention of what was inside said basket until a page and a half later when Wimsey feeds crumbs to the ducks.  Crumbs from what, I ask you?

My favourite character in Gaudy Night is Lord Peter Wimsey's unabashedly entitled young nephew, Lord Saint-George.  Charm and handsomeness aside, his posh ignorance as to the cost of anything was more entertaining than it should have been.

Then a message kept creeping in - equality for women and the desire to choose education and profession over marriage.  It was what drove me to keep turning pages, because I couldn't have cared less who was sending poison pen letters to women at the college.  Although, I did gasp when Harriet left a women, while drunk and unconscious, flat on her back as she went for help.  Didn't they know about the recovery position in the 30s?  I digress.

It wasn't until the last handful of pages that I warmed up to Harriet Vane, or rather Dorothy L. Sayers' writing.  A heartwarming scene at the end of the story won me over...it probably had something to do with the fact it was absent of a single clue or red herring!  I wanted more of that style of writing, but it wouldn't be the sort of writing that made Sayers so popular.  The problem is all mine.

We drove to the lovely university city of Guelph yesterday, to scan the tables at their annual Friends of the Guelph Library book sale (a must if you live within travelling range!).  My husband came looking for me with a book in a pretty shade of blue in his hand....a Folio Society, no less.


I'm willing to give Dorothy L. Sayers another chance....