28 August 2017

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding

Serendipity played a hand in my reading this book, but a session of dusting the bookcase in the spare room can have that effect.  Seeing 'Jermyn Street' on the spine brought to mind my time spent walking there while on holiday in July.  Although, Rosa Lewis occupied this part of Mayfair long before congestion charges, it was the horse and carriage moving people from place to place.

Rosa Lewis was born on 26 September, 1867 in Essex, the fifth of nine children.  Leaving school at the age of 12 to work in domestic service, she soon progressed from washing floors to an interest in cooking.  Honing her skills while working for the exiled Comte de Paris in France, it wasn't long before members of the upper classes were eager to taste her creations.  Once back in England, Rosa was in demand to prepare meals for society balls.  At the peak of her catering career, she prepared food for 29 balls in a single week.  A regular customer of Covent Garden, Rosa was there each morning at 5 am to choose the very best of what was on offer.

While having definitive ideas about worldly dishes, Rosa regarded herself as 'one of the lads' and would lace her Cockney accent with a torrent of expletives.  An early marriage to a man she wasn't in love with ended quite early, leaving her to shoulder a large debt.  Working all hours of the day and night, she cleared those debts and saved ownership of the Cavendish Hotel.  Running the hotel as though it were her home, rather than a business, Rosa would do as she pleased.  She would sometimes short the bill for poorer clients and then tack those charges on to the bill of someone financially better off.  She would decide when it was time for a guest to leave or refuse a customer altogether, particularly if those potential guests were writers.  Also, during the Great War, Rosa distributed white feathers to gentlemen as she saw fit.

While writers were persona non grata at the Cavendish Hotel (for some unknown reason of her own), the welcome mat was most definitely rolled out for artists.  The likes of Whistler, Sickert, Orpen and Sarpent were visitors to the hotel as were royalty and the aristocracy.  When Doris Delevigne was mentioned for her famously gorgeous legs and list of rich suitors, a quick Google search proved my suspicion...she's the paternal great aunt of Cara Delevigne.

Doris Delevigne (Viscountess Castleross) and painter, Sir John Lavery

Having come a long way from the Edwardian era, Rosa was aging and becoming increasisngly confused.  A lack of leadership at helm, as well as some serious damage sustained during the Blitz resulted in the beginning of the end for the original Cavendish hotel.  As early as 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter...
'It was like staying in a run-down country house - large comfortable rooms, but everything shabby and a bit dirty.  We were not bibulous, so much have been a disappointment to Rosa Lewis.  However, she put up with us.  Once, I remember, a young man in what the lady novelists call 'faultless evening dress', top hat and all, came swaying into our bedroom at almost 2.30 am., and had to be pushed out.  How sad, but how inevitable, that the hotel should now be doomed to destruction.'

Rosa Lewis died in her sleep in 1952.  Her funeral was held a short walk from the hotel at the Georgian church of St. James's, Piccadilly followed with burial at Putney Vale Cemetary.

The Duchess of Jermyn Street by Daphne Fielding is a fascinating read.  As Evelyn Waugh writes in his preface...'It was most desirable that a definitive study should be made before she passed into legend'.  While Waugh didn't feel he was close enough to the situation to writer Rosa's story, Fielding was a close friend and many of the details in the book are first-hand accounts. 

And coincidentally, as so often is the case, a new book features Rosa Lewis as one of its subjects (thanks, Mary)!

Rosa Lewis at the end of the Edwardian era.

20 August 2017

The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2 1920 - 24

My Rose Macaulay book has been put aside for the moment, in favour of Virginia Woolf's diary entries.  With Monk's House still on my mind since my visit there, I placed an inter-library hold on Caroline Zoob's beautiful book Virginia Woolf's Garden.  Once it arrived, the pressure of a due date loomed so a good bit of spare time has been spent on the patio enjoying it.

As National Trust tenants, Caroline and her husband lived at Monk's House for ten years, beginning in 2000.  I enjoyed and so appreciated the intricate embroidery that illustrates various locations of the property before realizing they were all done by Caroline herself.  A loving tribute that I would love to see as an exhibit in itself one day.  Could it ever happen?

The Woolf's purchased Monk's House in 1919.  A date that reminded me of owning a volume of Virginia's diary (a more decrepit copy you'd be hardpressed to find) that begins in 1920.  One peek at entries describing the comings and goings at Monk's House in Rodmell, Gordon Square in London and Hogarth House in Richmond and I couldn't stop.  While sympathizing with Virginia's fragile mental health and physical ailments, the ability to switch back and forth between city and countryside sounds appealing.  Although, there were times when the feeling of being settled took days, and then the guests appeared.  Sometimes stimulating, but also intrusive for someone wanting a quiet mind in order to focus on work.

Reading this volume of Virginia's diaries before venturing too far into her fiction has widened by view of her situation and mindset.  It's also incredibly readable!  Nothing missed her gaze and sometimes the remembrance was both brutal and vivid, such as describing soldiers at Waterloo station, missing limbs, as 'spiders propelling themselves along the platform'.  But with wonderfully restrained humour she wrote ' Lytton stays at home with Lady Strachey, who has taken to fainting on the floor'.

No other author seems to consume Virginia Woolf, at least in this volume, as Katherine Mansfield.  She praises her work, then cuts it, and questions a feeling of relief at her death...'a rival the less'.  Virginia continues to mention Katherine at intervals throughout the diary but I was shocked by a comment towards the end of this volume.  Despite being dead almost two years, Katherine was still hovering in Vriginia's consciousness as something of a threat or competitor....

'The thought of Katherine Mansfield comes to me--as usual rather reprehensibly--first wishing she could see Southampton Row, thinking of the dulness (sic) of her death, lying there at Fontainebleu--an end where there was no end, & then thinking, yes, if she'd lived, she'd have written on, & people would have seen that I was the more gifted--that wd. only have become more & more apparent.'

Usually I would find that sort of arrogance off-putting but the many facets of Virginia Woolf make me want to learn more about her.  For all of the images I've had of this remarkable author, not one of them involved her in the kitchen making bread but she was quite good at it.  Thinking of Virginia as having days of happiness while enjoying the garden, walking the fields in Rodmell with their dogs, canning fruit from their trees balances the stories of a complex writer struggling under the weight of depression.  Now to track down the other volumes of her diaries.

The experience of visiting Monk's House has certainly lingered and if I could, I would line up today to take it all in again.

Leonard and Virginia at Monk's House

9 August 2017

Larking About on the Thames

The history of mudlarking goes back hundreds of years when people, particularly children, would scour the shore looking for anything to sell on or use themselves.  For me it was an opportunity to connect with the past - to hold something that was once in a Victorian home, or perhaps even a pin that held a young girl's hat in place.

In less than an hour on the shore of the Thames I found a handful of bits and pieces lying among the pebbles.  As each wave rolled in and out, making an almost chiming sound as bits of rock went back and forth, my eye was drawn to something new.

Over the past few weeks I've spent some time trying to find out more about my bits of treasure.  What I initially thought was the broken lip of a bowl (lower right side) turned out to be a horse's tooth!  The bit of shoe leather I thought might be no age at all, is possibly over one hundred years old.  There's a saying that clay pipe stems littering the foreshore are the cigarette butts of the seventeenth century - so true.  But it's fascinating to hold a piece of clay that once soothed someone in a moment of leisure.

The button has a brass pin shank and I'm still trying to figure out if it's Bakelite, celluloid or lucite.  I don't think it's casein because that doesn't hold up well in water.  In any case, it's quite likely my button was holding a garment closed at some point between 1930 - 1950.

The piece of brown pottery at the bottom is quite pitted and only glazed on one side (not showing).  Initially thinking this was a bit of roof tile, a bit of digging around on the internet has shown it to possibly be a bit of medieval pottery.  You can't help but think of the person who formed it, carted it about, and what it was used for.

The threaded piece at the top looks like a bit of piping.  When it dried and I took a closer look, it's more like tooled leather.  I have no idea what it could have been used for...as decoration on a trunk?  And the very ugly green bit of glass to the right of that....when it's wet you can see through it, but what was it from?  Perhaps it wasn't anything - a piece of melting glass cast off as waste.  Anyway, it looks like an old slug.

My husband and I have a glass container for the lake glass we find while playing with the dogs over the years.  The difference between the shores of Lake Ontario and the Thames are a world apart - literally.

1 August 2017

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

While browsing the display tables and shelves of London's bookshops, I was hoping to find another story like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  Not a replica of the characters, setting or plot, but something matching its tone of fresh mixed with nostalgia.  Something well-written and atmospheric.  When Rachel (Book Snob) mentioned she was reading Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, I asked her if it was good.  Little did I know just how perfectly it would fit the bill.

The prologue reveals two characters, the first is a woman scanning the landscape through a cottage window.  The second is a woman on the verge of freedom outside the gates of Holloway prison.

The story begins during the summer of 1940 in rural England, on the edge of the Downs.  The family farm is being solely run by Elsie, the last member of her family willing or able to do so.  Being something of a gentle soul, the calmness of empty lanes and rolling hills provide the perfect setting for Elsie.  The extra help supplied by Land Girls is necessary but the idea of sharing the space and view is far from relished.  The next recruit, Rene Hargreaves, is about to arrive.

Miss Hargreaves' background is more complex than Elsie's.  Breaking free from a marriage to a man with a gambling addiction meant housing her children with relatives.  To walk away from a marriage is one thing, but to walk away from small children is akin to one of the harshest crimes committed by a woman.  With her past kept as a closely guarded secret, Rene begins a new phase of her life as an independent woman and Elsie's partner.  A relationship soon flourishes between the two and they become inseparable.

A promise to return the favour of help when it's needed most brings the past flooding back to Rene with dire consequences.

In one of those fabulously lucky circumstances, part of this story is set in Winchester.  As descriptions of the city centre are mentioned I'm reminded of my time spent there only three weeks ago.  My day in Winchester was sunny and bright but Malik paints a picture of dreary and relentless rain.

'Ventilation was poor and the damp atmosphere held on to every smell: there was a heady whiff of breakfast fry and strong, sweet tea. fresh tobacco and late-night booze along with the tang of curious chemical compounds:  mothballs and Coty, Camay and hair oil'.

It would have been easy to sensationalize the story of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, but there is none of that here.  It's a beautiful story with a bite; a slow simmer that turns into something of a boil.  And to learn that it's based in reality adds to the fascination - Rene Hargreaves is the author's grandmother.  Blending fact with fiction, Rachel Malik has produced a wonderful debut novel that ticked all sorts of boxes and I certainly hope she's going to keep writing.

Thanks for recommending this book, Rachel (Book Snob)...I loved it!

   Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious, 1939