22 December 2020

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

Oh this is such a beautiful book for so many reasons.  Won during my early days of blogging when dovegreyreader offered it up as a promotion on her blog.  In fact, it would have been in 2008 when The Morville Hours was first published.  While busily in the throes of discovering the work of various neglected female writers from the twentieth century, I promptly popped this book onto a shelf where it suffered the same fate - neglect.  Finally, the time came when a book about a garden called loudest from the shelves.  What took me so long!  This book offers so much more than that and has gone straight onto my list of favourite reads.

   I came here to make a garden.  In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails.  A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil.  Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt.  Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown.  Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window?

Oh Katherine Swift....we are going to get along. 

Swift was commuting between Oxford and Dublin where she worked as Keeper of Early Printed Books at Trinity College.  Her husband owned a bookshop in Oxford and all of the toing and froing must have been arduous because, as Swift writes....Morville was his plan to lure me home.  The Dower House in Shropshire was taken on a lease for twenty years.  A short walk away from the house is a church built in the twelfth century where four wooden Evangelists sit, chroniclers of the village for four hundred years.  Rich with details about the history of both the house and land I absolutely wallowed in every tidbit from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons via Mercia and how languages merged to the house's previous owners.  Before the history lesson could get too weighty, Swift turns the spotlight on her daily life, such as how her cats hate the snow, preferring the warmth of the Rayburn.

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.

As a National Trust property, plans nurtured by Swift were closely scrutinized before she was allowed to put spade to grass.  She had ambitious plans involving a Cloister Garden and creating several large areas for other ambitiously themed plots.  Despite having a shy folder when it came to experience in a venture of this size, the people at the National Trust were won over.  And Swift also included three beehives which tied in nicely with a recent read about bees that I enjoyed very much.  Other anecdotes about butterflies and birds being welcomed into the Dower House through an open door made for warm images.  And I smiled at the notion of watering your lawn in the evening to conjure the worms so badgers can eat their fill.  We don't have badgers here in Ontario but it seems like a nice thing to do...unless you're a worm.

Every now and then, the author shares stories from her childhood and the tenuous relationship she had with her parents.  At times both touching and sad, the writing is never syrupy or maudlin.  And I could so relate when Swift admits she can feel a bit fed up with all of the work in the garden by August.  Ignoring sections, leaving them to do what they will, Swift was often surprised to see that seeds blown from other beds nearby will create an unstructured beauty of their own.

I have a burning desire to find out what damsons taste like and will buy the next jar of jam I find.  Apparently doctors knew when it was damson season because villagers would start coming in with broken limbs from reaching for the fruit on weak branches.

Reading back through my notes it's so tempting to go straight back to the beginning and enjoy its pages all over again.  Previously housed in a bookcase in the spare room The Morville Hours will have a new home on the bookcase in my bedroom and I'll return to it often.  Find a copy for yourself and anyone else you know who will enjoy a book filled with rich history, wonderous nature, fascinating memoir and some trials and tribulations in the garden.  I loved this book more than I can say.

 Garden at Morville Hall
(photo credit here)

4 December 2020

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

 My 'light' winter coat and boots have been pulled from the depths of the spare room closet.  There's a bit of snow on the ground and more Christmas trees in front windows than ever before this early in December.  It makes a cheery change!  Christmas will be different this year in many ways but for some, a slower pace just might mean it's better.  There was a case of Covid at the library but thankfully our staff member is having mild symptoms.  It's made me hate the idea of wearing both a mask and face shield a little less.  Perhaps it's not so bad to feel as though I'm working inside a terrarium if it means I'm protected.  Actually,  I've passed the point at which wearing a mask is weird....it will be a bit weird not to.   

Jacob's Room begins with Betty Flanders at the beach with her children.  She is writing a letter....

  Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them.  The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun.

Flanders.  The word alone conjures a vision of poppies in a field, as described by John McCrae in his poignant poem published in 1915.  By giving Jacob the surname of Flanders, Virginia Woolf has suggested the image of wartime but the events of the Great War are still many years ahead.  In the meantime, Betty Flanders writes letters to friends and relations, mends her children's clothes and sees to the older boys' education.  In other words, life goes on from one day to the next.  

When Jacob is nineteen he leaves for Trinity College Cambridge.  As his circle of friends grows, Jacob becomes the centre point for a wider pool of characters.  Woolf explores the characters of those who form attachments of one sort or another with Jacob:  the friends he makes from various social circles, the women he has relationships with, his travelling companions while in Greece and Italy, Cornwall and London.   Indulge me in the joy of descriptive quote featuring a place I've explored many times....

   The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans.  Swinging down Lamb's Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half-frightened, half curious. 

Also, as you would expect from Woolf, there is commentary on the status of women in society.  One such character is Mrs Jarvis who is married to a clergyman.  She wanders the moors when she is unhappy and hides a book of poetry in her coat for reading when she is away from the house.  Mrs Jarvis contemplates leaving her husband but the scandal would ruin his career so she stays.  And another character, the feminist Julia Hedge, collects her books at the British Museum....

Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay's name.  And she read them all round the dome - the names of great men which remind us - 'Oh damn,' said Julia Hedge, 'why didn't they leave room for an Eliot or Brontë.'

Jacob's Room doesn't receive its share of the spotlight when it comes to Woolf's novels so I wasn't completely aware of what it entailed.  That it centred around a young man was obvious and the topic of the Great War was also attached to it but not much more than that.  But you won't find battlefield scenes, artillery or water-filled trenches.  In fact, at the halfway point I started to wonder whether I had muddled the synopsis of  Jacob's Room with something else.  The impact of the war does appear but not until the end of the book when Woolf's pen goes straight for the reader's heart.  For anyone who has read Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and was left feeling a bit pale when it was done, you'll recognize the feeling.  

Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf's first experimental novel, exceeded my expectations.  I'm still on the outside looking in when she writes about Greek gods but that's okay.  For me, a novel by Virginia Woolf would make the best sort of desert island book because there are seemingly endless things to discover, learn and enjoy.  

Portrait of a Young Man by Reginald Grenville Eves (1876 - 1941)