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“Rome seemed an often-shaken kaleidoscope” #ATimeInRome #ElizabethBowen

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A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

It must be fairly obvious to anyone following me on social media that I’ve been on a bit of a Bowen Binge recently… I love the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, and I do have all of her novels plus the collected short stories. However, I was nudged in the direction of her non-fiction when I shared my Bowen shelf on Twitter; and I discovered that she was a prolific author of essays, reviews, broadcasts and all manner of works. Additionally, there was an enticing-sounding volume in the form of “A Time in Rome”; and I was fortunate enough to manage to procure a copy via the wonderful Hive website, so I could go vicariously travelling with Bowen for company…

I say travelling, by which I mean visiting Rome; however, there’s a certain amount of time travelling involved too, as this is no simple, straightforward narrative of a journey and the sights of the city. Instead, Bowen takes a perhaps unusual angle, and though anchoring her book in the city and her extended stay there in early spring 1958, she uses this as a launching pad to explore the city’s long and turbulent history, through its architecture and its people.

This book is not even my footnote to your guidebook; it is my scribblings on the margins of mine. I claim to be little help to anyone else.

“Time” is divided up into five long chapters, with titles ranging from “The Confusion” to “The Set Free”. In each of these, Bowen takes a particular element of her Rome and riffs on it; for example, “The Confusion” starts with her sense of disorientation on arrival, when she’s put in a hotel room which doesn’t work for her, and explores her attempts at grounding herself and finding her way around the city. She discusses the city’s architectural past, as well as its political history and the ever-changing rulers and regimes, and each angle is fascinating; her dismay at the complexity of the family relationships of some of the Roman Emperors is palpable! As she rambles, she constantly comes across the juxtaposition of old and new; Rome in the late 1950s is constantly changing, as it has over the centuries, and her explorations of the fate of many of what we regard as now fixed monuments reveals layers of history.

Gasworks, slaughter-houses, rubbish dumps, cattle markets, an abandoned shooting gallery, a defunct racecourse, duststorms of demolition, skeletal battles of construction, schools, asylums and hospitals, squatters’ villages, marble-works, and other relics of pleasure or signs of progress crop up according to where one goes. Each demands to be taken into the picture. Crazy or neat, no structure is out of use; if it has lapsed from one it has found another.

The changes Rome was undergoing in the post-WW2 period were obviously dramatic, and it has to be remembered that Bowen was visiting a place which had been through much during that conflict, switching sides halfway through and being bombed on a regular basis. So the city was, like so many in that period, going through yet another process of rebuilding and reinvention, and Bowen meets this on many of her travels, while musing on the city’s past and present.

But the core of the revolution is public transport – I know of no system more far-reaching than Rome’s, more energetic or more capacious: hilarious buses, electric road-railways zooming into the hills in ascending spirals, small eager trains darting from stop to stop across reclaimed marshlands or to the coast. One way or another, thousands hurl themselves forth…

The chapter entitled “The Smile” was a particularly powerful one, exploring subterranean Rome and then its gardens. This leads to an extented section on Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, with whom Bowen seemed to feel a strong connection. Her description of Livia’s life and achievements is an evocative and often powerful one, and this particular part of the book really struck me. It has to be said that Bowen’s writing is often exquisite; and in the passages on Livia, who comes to represent Rome’s ‘smile’, it soars to Woolfian heights.

However, Bowen is not without her lighter moments, and her dry wit often reveals itself – her short and punchy comment on a particular era made me laugh:

On the Middle Ages, I cannot find it too tempting to dwell at all. One could feel that they were endured by mankind in order that they might fascinate the historian…

And she posits a dizzying array of reasons for wanting to *leave* the wonderful city she’s visiting, which reflects the often turbulent political set up of the past:

Reasons for getting out are among the constants of Roman history – danger from personal enemies; an exposed conspiracy; civil disturbance; noxious weather; pestilence; persecution or pogrom; need to tone up in fresh air or reflect in calm; spleen; fashion; annoyance by barbarians; banishment; military or administrative duties; care of country estates; health; imminent scandal; financial crisis. A whole range, back through how many centuries, between desire and compulsion.

She also reveals her human side, confiding at times how tiring wandering round Rome can be, leaving the visitor with sore feet; and revealing her difficulty in adjusting to the idea of the midday siesta when everything comes to a halt.

Rome 1950 (via Flickr – Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/10370497245)

Reading “A Time in Rome” was a wonderfully involving and distracting experience; Bowen’s prose is beautiful, often impressionistic, and repays slow and thoughtful reading. The book’s heady mix of her thoughts on the city as she experiences it, together with her exploration of the past, is wonderful, and I’m not sure I’ve read another work like this. Up until now I’ve only read Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, which I absolutely; but having encountered her non-fiction voice in this marvellous book, I really want to read more…

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

On My Book Table…7 – modest ambitions!

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After the excitement of all the reading and sharing from the #1920Club I was as usual a bit uncertain as to what I wanted to read next. I went for some Golden Age crime of various sorts, but then I decided it was time to have a bit of a reshuffle of the book table to see if I could focus on books I fancied tackling in the immediate future. Plus, a few new titles have made it through the blockades so I thought I would share those too! So here we go…

First up, let’s take a look at the contents of the Book Basket. Some of these are the same as when I last  shared this on social media – the Nairn and the two Huysmans are still WIPs. However, another sneaky little Notting Hill Editions hardback has crept in, in the form of Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” – yes, another addition to my growing Barthes pile! That’s a recent arrival, as is the Dickinson volume. I’ve had a skinny Faber selected volume of her poems since my teens but I’ve been hankering after a complete edition for some time now. When I saw this one available for a reasonable price I snapped it up – ideal for dipping!

Chunksters! Let’s have some big books! All of these have been hanging around waiting for me to notice them for some time now; the Mollie Panter-Downes “London War Notes” volume is a beautiful Persephone I picked up some time back when they had a special offer. It seems like it would be apt reading for these times. The Chateaubriand is a lovely review copy from NYRB (I need to catch up….) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. And Carlyle’s “French Revolution” jumped back into my line of sight recently when I read the marvellous Persephone Jane Carlyle book. All would be wonderful to sink into for hours…

Then we have a few random titles which happen to appeal, mostly unearthed after a recent reshuffle. The Colette is one I’ve intended to reread for ages, but somehow never get to despite it being the perfect recent read for 1920… The Bachelard is a more recent acquisition and one which my radar picked up again recently (you might understand why next week). And “I Burn Paris” had been started a couple of times; it’s a beautiful hardback Twisted Spoon edition and although the subject matter is perhaps going to be a little triggery in these pandemic times, I do want to get to it sooner rather than later.

Last but not least, some recent arrivals. Needless to say, because of Outside Circumstances, the books making their way into the Ramblings have reduced in number – no browsing in charity shops nowadays, alas. But I *am* acquiring the odd one or two! The NYRBs are review copies – thank you! – and I’m very excited about these, particularly the Malaparte. “The Yellow Sofa” was one I read about on Tony’s Book Blog and I loved the sound of it (and it’s slim…). “Paris Then and Now” is pretty pictures of the place – ’nuff said. And the Mansfield is a most lovely first edition of her “Novels and Novelists” collection of reviews which I snagged at a Very Reasonable Price online. Last, but definitely not least, “People, Places, Things” is a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s essays. This is a scholarly publication – but why her non-fiction isn’t more widely available is a mystery to me as I love her writing.

So there you have it. Plenty of reading available for this strange lockdown world in which we find ourselves. As I write this, I’m just coming to the end of another wonderful and comforting Golden Age crime read from the British Library Crime Classics series; so where I go next is anyone’s guess… ;D

Simmering heat and tensions

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A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

It’s official – polyreading does *not* work for me… I wanted to read an Elizabeth Bowen book for the wonderful Read Ireland Month hosted by Cathy’s at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging; and I tried to read it alongside a collection of Cortazar short stories. However, I simply ended up failing to get into either book and went off to read the John Dickson Carr instead. So having finished that, I applied myself solely to the Bowen book and things went much better. No more polyreading for me…

I have many of Bowen’s books on my shelves (although mostly unread) so I was spoiled for choice; I picked at random without looking, and “A World of Love” popped into my hand and so that was the one I read! A slim volume, published later in her career in 1955, it’s set in Ireland in the decaying country house of Montefort. The place houses an odd kind of family; it’s owned by Antonia, a renowned photographer, and she inherited it from her cousin Guy who was killed in WW1. Guy left behind a fiance, Lilia, but no provision for her and so Antonia basically marries her off to Fred, another cousin, on the understanding that they will live in Montefort and Fred will manage it, freeing her to go off and have her career. Also living there are the couple’s two daughters, Jane and Maud. It is 21-year old Jane who is crucial to the story, which takes place over a few days during a blisteringly hot summer.

Exploring the attic, Jane stumbles upon an old dress, wrapped in which are a packet of letters from Guy. She assumes these to be to her mother, although no name is given, and spirits them away. The somewhat naive Jane is bewitched by the letters, enchanted by Guy and his spirit is almost summoned by the sudden attention. Her action brings unresolved issues to the surface – Lilia’s first lost love, Fred’s jealousy, the cracks in their marriage, the relationship between Antonia and Guy, and also that of Antonia and the rest of the family. Jane is taken up by a visiting local aristocrat, Lady Latterly, and dazzled by the lifestyle she sees, and her connection with them will have a pivotal effect on her future. Maud meanwhile moons around talking to her invisible friend, attempting to extort money from a family member, and general being contrary and unpleasant. As the story progresses, there are gradual revelations and an unravelling of the past with eventual resolution of sorts, although there is ambiguity from the start which runs all the way through the story.

Bowen’s Court – the model for Montefort?

It took me a while to get on with this book, and I’m not sure it was only the polyreading issue. Bowen’s prose is beautiful but there is often an elusive quality to the narrative; things left unsaid between the characters in the house are also left unsaid to the reader, and the relationships aren’t always clear, with undercurrents needing to be picked up by the reader. Also, there’s a lyrical, lilting quality to the writing which you have to get used to. Because of these traits it is sometimes hard to get a handle on the story, and initially there were occasions when I found myself drifting off slightly. However, once I committed myself properly I was completely drawn in to the setting and the story, and it really is a wonderful book.

One of the things Bowen does do brilliantly here is create atmosphere: the hot summer days, the subtle tensions between the characters, are wonderfully rendered so that you feel as if you’re actually there. there is a sense of decay and ennui in both characters and landscape, and her description of the local town of Clonmore conveys exactly why Lilia in particular finds where she lives so claustrophobic:

….alternately dun and painted houses,. cars parked askew, straying ass-carts and fallen bicycles. Dung baked on the pavements since yesterday morning’s fair; shop after shop had insanely similar doorways, strung with boots and kettles and stacked with calicoes – in eternal windows goods faded out. Many and sour were the pubs. Overexposed, the town was shadeless – never a tree, never an awning. Ice cream on sale, but never a cafe. Clonmore not only provided no place to be, it provided no reason to be, at all.

Faced with that, it’s hardly surprising that an offer by Antonia of a trip to London becomes something she’s suddenly very keen to take.

The interconnections between the main characters are very subtly drawn, and the tensions between them are often simmering under the surface. Guy’s presence hovers over the whole book, and the letters are passed from person to person like a hot potato; it is not clear until the end why the letters affect everyone so much and why no-one really wants to take them. The relationship between Fred and his daughter Jane is unsettlingly close; he dotes on her and worries about her and the impression is that she’s the only important thing in his life. Certainly, as his marriage with Lilia seems on rocky ground, his relationship with his daughter seems invested with more significance than anything else.

Bowen’s Court – the book!

Montefort itself, crumbling and decaying, is a strong presence in the book too. Bowen, of course, had inherited the family property, Bowen’s Court, in Ireland which she wrote about at length and which she was eventually forced to sell before it was finally demolished. The state of Montefort and the fading landowning aristocracy perhaps mirrors what she saw happening in her country, although much like Antonia, she remained based in England and only made visits to the Irish country house.

The end of the book is interesting, and in some ways unexpected. Jane (with the hideous Maud in tow) accompanies Lady Latterly’s chauffeur to Shannon airport; this sudden step into modernity is a shock because, despite what I presume is a post WW2 setting, the country life is so steeped in tradition that it seems timeless. I’ve seen what transpires in the final pages criticised, and without wanting to give anything away, I can understand why. Personally, I found the whole book wonderfully enjoyable and evocative in the end, and I think there was probably much more lurking under the surface than I’ve covered here – it’s the kind of book you find yourself musing upon days later and picking up other little things you’ve missed.

Bowen in 1955

But I return to Bowen’s wonderful prose – here’s just a short description of some of the characters out in the sun and it makes you feel as if you were there with them:

Lilia, holding a cup and saucer, wore cotton of an extinct blue, of a shade only less indolent than the sky’s – side-by-side on a stone bench, she and Antonia were under a twisted apple tree silvered over with lichen. Jane had found a bed inside a box-edged oval; and not far off stood the sundial, around which old poppies lolled, bees dozed on the yellow lupins. Below, the river had almost ceased to run; a nonchalant stillness hung over everywhere. It was thought to be about eleven o’clock.

Even that last sentence, with its “thought to be”, conveys the atmosphere of a lazy, hot summer day. Elizabeth Bowen was a marvellous writer, and I’m glad I picked this book up to join in with Reading Ireland Month. Certainly every book of hers I read makes me keen for more, so it’s rather nice that I have a shelf full of titles to choose from!

Visions of Wartime London

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The Demon Lover and other Stories by Elizabeth Bowen

Much as I like the idea of a complete or collected volume of stories or poems, I do tend to find that they have a negative effect on my reading; they’re often so large that they actually put me off reading them, and I have a number of these books scattered all over Mount TBR which is shameful. And to get to the point, one of these is the Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. I haven’t read enough Bowen – what I *have* read has been quite wonderful so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pick her books up regularly. However, it took a chance find of a fragile old Penguin collection “The Demon Lover & Other Stories” in a charity shop to actually get me to read some of her short stories – and they really are amazing.

bowen demon

The book was published in 1945 and collects together 12 stories written by the author during the War years. Bowen worked as an Air Raid Warden as well as continuing to write, and all of the stories in the book are rooted in the conflict that was going on – most of them being set in London. However, these aren’t just tales of conditions in wartime; instead Bowen reaches deep into the psyche of her characters to explore the effects on people during conflict and results are really rather remarkable. It goes without saying, of course, that the prose is wonderful – Bowen really could write beautifully and her descriptions are just stunning.

Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way. The futility of the blackout became laughable; from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened island would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

Several of the stories, including the title one, feature ghosts or supernatural happenings, but oddly enough these sit well in the setting of a broken London. Bowen also draws on mythology and folk tales to underpin some of the strangeness reflected in her fictions. I’m not going to go into specifics, because that would spoil the impact of the tales, but I will say that “The Inherited Clock”, “The Cheery Soul”, “Pink May” and “Green Holly” all deal with the spectral in some shape or form; “In the Square”, “Sunday Afternoon” and “Careless Talk” show how things have changed because the War and reflect how people’s lives are fractured and unlikely to be the same again; “Songs My Father Sang Me” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” look back from within wartime to events in the protagonists’ pasts; and the three remaining stories, “The Happy Autumn Fields”, “Mysterious Kôr” and the title story itself all deal with illusions and delusions and are probably the stand-outs in what is a first-class collection.

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

Elizabeth Bowen, by Angus McBean, 1948 (NPG)

“The Happy Autumn Fields” is a powerful piece, juxtaposing two different times which may or may not be related, and shows how what is almost hallucination was necessary for mental survival during the conflict. In “Mysterious Kôr” the transformative power of the full moon works its magic on the damaged city, allowing vital fantasy into a girl’s life. As for “The Demon Lover” itself – well, apparently it’s one of Bowen’s most anthologised stories and I can see why; it’s spooky, atmospheric, effective, chilling and ambiguous. The wartime setting and the atmosphere of a damaged city add to the suspense but like many of the stories in this book, it harks back to the past and the previous war. I’m still getting goosebumps thinking about it!

If you just want to read the stories in the book, they do appear in the “War Years” section of the Collected Stories, along with some other titles. However, this lacks the fascinating afterword from Bowen in the original collection where she discusses the genesis of the stories and what it was like to write them through the War. All in all, “The Demon Lover…” is one of the finest short story collections I’ve ever read; each story is distinct, gripping and memorable, and yet each makes up part of a whole, leaving an impression of the strange, surreal atmosphere of wartime living. Even though large volumes of short tales tend to put me off reading them, I’m really feeling drawn to Elizabeth Bowen’s collected stories now…

The 1938 Club : Some earlier reviews

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The list of possible reads for 1938 turned out to be a long and fascinating one, and some of the books I’ve already written about on the blog. So rather than re-read or re-post, I though I’d share a few links here to previous reviews.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

The original Puffin cover

The original Puffin cover

I read this one as part of All Virago/All August, which includes Persephone, and found it great fun, as well as a real eye-opener about the hard work involved in day-to-day living back in 1938.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

pettigrewcover

One of my favourite Persephones – a real feel-good read, that had me with a grin on my face all the way through – just thinking about it makes me want to read it again!

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

heart

My first read of Bowen, and what a wonderful one it was too. Her prose is quite something – beautiful and complex, sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I really do need to read more Bowen!

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

secret islandA bit of a blast from the past here – I grew up reading Blyton and these stories were some of my favourites. I couldn’t resist a revisit and was happy to read an original version, not one which had been sanitised and updated.

A Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

child

This was a wonderful read – my second Keun, and capturing the sense of dislocation and insecurity in Europe in the 1930s. Also a very successful child narrator. Which reminds me that I need to get on to the other Keuns I have on the TBR!

So that’s a few 1938 books I’ve already covered here. I’m really becoming convinced this was a golden year for literature of all sorts, despite (or in some cases because of) the rumblings going on in Europe. One more book to go! 🙂

Rediscovering Virginia Woolf at the NPG

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– and also having a lovely day out in London!

Yes, I managed to escape for a day to the Big City and had a wonderful time taking in an exhibition, shopping and lunching. The catalyst was my oldest friend J. (who accompanied on my first visit to the Persephone Shop) as she had a free weekend in her very busy schedule and suggested we get together. I can’t remember which of us mentioned the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, although I know I had mentioned I wanted to see it, and so this seemed like an ideal time to go. J. also reminded me that I’d expressed a wish to pop into the “Slightly Foxed” bookshop on the Gloucester Road. And of course there is the lovely shiny new Foyles…..

virgina-woolf-exhibition-npg

So the date was pencilled in and the tickets for the exhibition book. Pleasingly enough, Middle Child is also a bit of a Woolf-aholic, and so decided she would join us in London for at least the NPG section of our day – which was lovely!

The trains from here to London are usually pretty reliable, so I was able to get ‘into town’ by about 9.30 with no problem and headed off to Foyles in Charing Cross Road where J. was waiting and we had a pleasant reunion. The new Foyles itself is absolutely gorgeous – packed to the gills with wonderful volumes but, as Middle Child pointed out, very light and airy because of all the glass and the largeness and openness of the layout. One of the things I like most about the shop is its recommendations – shelves with unusual juxtapositions, books and publishers you wouldn’t necessarily know about or gravitate towards. And of course, they have many, many volumes of books by my favourite publishers like Hesperus and Pushkin – in fact, it was a little table of Pushkins I kept coming back to, and eventually purchased one:

ayme
Middle Child joined us at Foyles after a few detours on the Tube and settled for a volume of Margaret Atwood’s poems – a good choice in my view! We very much approved of the new cafe, too, where we had a quick pit-stop before we had to head off down Charing Cross Road to the National Portrait Gallery. Frankly, I could have happily spent all day in Foyles, but we had time limits….. 🙂

The Woolf exhibition was entitled “Art, Life and Vision” and as the NPG website states: “Virginia Woolf was one of the most important and celebrated writers of the twentieth century. This extensive exhibition of portraits and rare archival material will explore her life and achievements as a novelist, intellectual, campaigner and public figure.” That sums up pretty well what the expo is – it’s deceptively small, taking up four small areas of a divided up room, but it’s actually packed and took us about an hour to go round properly. The portraits are an excellent selection – by and of artists like Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, and covering just about everyone in the Bloomsbury Group, including one of my favourites, a lovely pencil self-portrait of Carrington. The archive material was impressive – letters, manuscripts, photos, pages from albums and, movingly, Woolf’s last letters to her sister and Leonard (which had us feeling rather emotional). One of the most surprising (and chilling) items was a ‘black book’ belonging to the Nazis, produced in 1940; it was known as Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (which means Special Search List), and contained the names of those to be arrested immediately the Nazis invaded Britain. Amongst the list of over 2,300 politicians, activists and writers such as H.G. Wells, were the names of Leonard and Virginia Woolf… Despite my constant reading of and about Woolf, I don’t think I was aware of this before and it quite shook me.

I can’t praise or recommend this exhibition highly enough. It’s many years since I first discovered Woolf’s work, read everything she’d written plus her diaries and letters, and became a real Bloomsbury obsessive. That love of Woolf and her writings has never really gone away and it didn’t take me very long in the NPG to remember how much I loved her and how much I need to re-read her!

After recovering from Woolf, we headed upstairs for a quick look at a stunning portrait of Christabel Pankhurst which is on display, and which MC had heard about and wanted to see. It’s a remarkable painting by Ethel Wright of Pankhurst in a green dress and if you’re in the area of the NPG it’s most definitely worth a visit. Then followed a nice visit to the shop (postcards! Lytton Strachey fridge magnets! bookmarks! books on the Bloomsbury group by Frances Spalding!) before we sloped off in search of lunch.

bloomsbury
There are of course lots of eateries in the area, but one of us (not me, but I can’t remember who!) spotted a little Mexican place called Chipotle which had a veggie option so we were happy! I was also happy because I spotted the plaque marking the former site of Marks and Co, 84 Charing Cross Road – and insisted on a photo opportunity!

As I’ve just read Helene Hanff’s “Q’s Legacy”, spotting this was quite emotional

Middle Child had to leave us at this point so she had time to pop to the Tate before heading off home, so J. and I carried on to the Bloomsbury Oxfam Bookshop. This is always a treat, and you can be sure of finding *something* you need there. In my case, it was an Elizabeth Bowen book I don’t have:

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And in J.’s case it was “The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson! J. has been reading Jansson longer than me and this was one book she needed so it was a lucky find!

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The next stop was of course “Slightly Foxed” – a recent discovery for me as a journal, and of course this is their lovely bookshop outlet. It’s small but perfectly formed, containing choice selections of new books (with lots of lovely favourite publishers like Persephone, Pushkin, Hesperus and NYRB), as well as a generous collection of second hand works. We had a lovely browse – and I was very restrained and picked up nothing, despite there being many books which took my fancy. However, J. was keen on the book about Jan Struther by her daughter, and so went away with a lovely pristine copy!

It was still early in the afternoon and so as we didn’t have to get trains yet, we decided to go on an explore!! The subject of Thomas Carlyle had come up during the exhibition as Woolf wrote a piece about his house, and J. mentioned that she had been and we could go along – getting in free as she has National Trust membership. It was just a case of remembering where the house actually was…. J. knew it was in Chelsea but wasn’t sure what Tube was nearest the bridge she remembered it being close to. So we ended up Tubing to Pimlico and walking Quite A Long Way down the embankment until we finally stumbled on the place (with the help of a passing tourist’s guide and the various Boris maps dotted about on the bus stops.) We only had a short visit to the house, but it was fascinating – how dark Victoria houses were (wood panelling, furniture, fabrics), and how hard it must have been for the servants, going up and down the narrow stairs all day.

What was also quite exciting was that we were in quite an artistic area and kept spotting blue plaques all over the place – including this one of George Eliot which you can just see in the background of this picture of J.!


By this time, I confess we were absolutely exhausted! However, the friendly guide at the Carlyle House pointed us to a convenient bus which took us back to Victoria station for the parting of the ways – J. to catch her train home and me to Tube back to my station and homeward-bound train. It was a wonderful day – old friends, offspring, books, art, London – what more could you want? Definitely I need to visit London more often!

(Incidentally, I think I did quite well on the book front, restraining myself to 3 volumes – especially as at least a dozen more have come downstairs to leave the premises! Although there were many volumes I *could* have bought, I restricted myself to books I *will* read. Quite pleased with myself!)

Recent Reads: The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Hotel” is only the second book I’ve read by this author – which is a crying shame, bearing in mind that her books have been on Mount TBR for, oooh, at least 25 years. Shocking, isn’t it? I finally broke my duck and read “The Death of the Heart” last year which I did enjoy very much. “The Hotel” is Bowen’s first novel, quite a slim volume, and I was inspired to pick it up after reading Booksnob’s lovely review here.

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TH is set on the Italian Riviera of the 1920s. The eponymous building house a variety of British ex-pats spending their summer months in the sun – amongst others, we have the Misses Pym and Fitzgerald, loving companions; Mr. and Mrs. Lee-Mittison, heartily enjoying the company of younger guests and organising picnics and outings; the Lawrence family, with their perfectionist father and three lively daughters; Mrs. Kerr, a manipulative, middle-aged woman; and young Sydney Warren and her cousin Tessa. Sydney is in thrall to Mrs. Kerr, and it seems as if there are lots of female emotions under the building’s roof, as the book opens with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald having a dramatic quarrel.

Into this volatile mix are thrown the middle-aged Rev. James Milton, who instantly offends two of the lady guests by using a bathroom they’ve reserved for their exclusive use; and Mrs. Kerr’s son Ronald, a strange, surly character who seems out of the place in this genteel milieu. Milton is immediately struck by Sydney, who is displaced from Mrs. Kerr’s affections by Ronald, and the delicate balance maintained in the hotel is thrown out of alignment.

“It was another one of these idyllic evenings, agonizingly meaningless; the evening air brought out the scent of the lemons. The Lawrences, shrugging up their wraps round their shoulders, slid forward in their chairs luxuriously and sank down into themselves like cats into their fur. Thin blue smoke drifted away through the clearness.”

This is an intriguing novel in which, on the surface of things, not a great deal happens. However, underneath there is seething emotion of all sorts: the relationship between Sydney and Mrs Kerr is never entirely made clear (in the way that that of Misses Pym and Fitzgerald is) but Sydney obviously very much worships Mrs. Kerr. The latter is an unpleasant, manipulative character but ultimately pathetic as we see at the end when Sydney leaves. Milton is a sad specimen too, and exists more to be a foil for Sydney than anything else. The various ex-pats who live in the hotel are all in some way damaged and there are so many undercurrents that it’s rather alarming.

First off, I should say that the writing is quite beautiful, as you’d expect from Bowen, and the whole book is so atmospheric that I felt as if I was on the Riviera myself.

“Three days afterwards the weather along the coast was once more fulfilling the expectations of visitors. Only a little wind remained to disturb the sea, to rustle dryly through the palm-trees out on the promontory where the coast road disappeared towards Genoa and to rush to meet one round street corners with a disconcertingly ice-cold whistle. Against an opaque, bright blue sky the expressionless faces of the buildings had again their advertised and almost aching whiteness. The sounds, like the shadows, were exact and clear-cut, no longer blunted by the rain.”

Bowen is an expert at nuance and says plenty without actually saying it. Oddly enough, I found myself thinking that the writing was somehow like a hybrid of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, with a slightly glacial quality to it. Her descriptions of the landscape and nature are spectacular and she’s expert at capturing how surroundings can affect mood. When a love-affair of sorts develops around Milton and Sydney, we are not surprised but it would be a foolish reader who expects a traditional happy ending from a Bowen book!

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I read this book quite rapidly for a Bowen, eager to find out what happens, and yet at the end I was left with a tiny feeling of dissatisfaction. I think this was because of the subsidiary characters – Bowen peoples the start of the book with a wonderful array, gradually introducing them one at a time, and yet once the Milton/Sydney plot takes off they are almost abandoned. The Lee-Mittisons in particular were a loss – a potential plot here of why they flitted around hotels with no children of their own was underdeveloped. And the Lawrence family, with the three marriageable daughters, could have been so much more. Much as I enjoyed this book, I was left with a nagging feeling of something missing – there were too many untold stories, lost characters and their tales, only hinted at in the narrative, and that niggled. It may be this was the effect that Bowen was striving for, to emphasise the transient, shallow nature of acquaintance in a hotel, but I personally felt there was a slight imbalance in the book when Sydney and Milton took centre stage.

However, this is a small quibble and I enjoyed The Hotel very much. The quality of Bowen’s writing alone makes her work worth investing time in and I very much look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

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