In which I’m reminded that I need to read more Wilkie Collins……

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WHEN I first saw him, he was lost in one of the Dead Cities of England—situated on the South Coast, and called Sandwich.
Shall I describe Sandwich? I think not. Let us own the truth; descriptions of places, however nicely they may be written, are always more or less dull. Being a woman, I naturally hate dullness. Perhaps some description of Sandwich may drop out, as it were, from my report of our conversation when we first met as strangers in the street.

He began irritably. “I’ve lost myself,” he said.

“People who don’t know the town often do that,” I remarked.

He went on: “Which is my way to the Fleur de Lys Inn?”

His way was, in the first place, to retrace his steps. Then to turn to the left. Then to go on until he found two streets meeting. Then to take the street on the right. Then to look out for the second turning on the left. Then to follow the turning until he smelled stables—and there was the inn. I put it in the clearest manner, and never stumbled over a word.

“How the devil am I to remember all that?” he said.

This was rude. We are naturally and properly indignant with any man who is rude to us. But whether we turn our backs on him in contempt, or whether we are merciful and give him a lesson in politeness, depends entirely on the man. He may be a bear, but he may also have his redeeming qualities. This man had redeeming qualities. I cannot positively say that he was either handsome or ugly, young or old, well or ill dressed. But I can speak with certainty to the personal attractions which recommended him to notice.

For instance, the tone of his voice was persuasive. (Did you ever read a story, written by one of us, in which we failed to dwell on our hero’s voice?) Then, again, his hair was reasonably long. (Are you acquainted with any woman who can endure a man with a cropped head?) Moreover, he was of a good height. (It must be a very tall woman who can feel favorably inclined toward a short man.) Lastly, although his eyes were not more than fairly presentable in form and color, the wretch had in some unaccountable manner become possessed of beautiful eyelashes. They were even better eyelashes than mine. I write quite seriously. There is one woman who is above the common weakness of vanity—and she holds the present pen.

So I gave my lost stranger a lesson in politeness. The lesson took the form of a trap. I asked him if he would like me to show him the way to the inn. He was still annoyed at losing himself. As I had anticipated, he bluntly answered: “Yes.”

“When you were a boy, and you wanted something,” I said, “did your mother teach you to say ‘Please’?”

Wilkie Collins, ‘Miss Morris & the Stranger’ (1881).

Yesterday, while sorting through some of the free e-books that I have been greedily busy accumulating for quite some time in my e-reader, I came across a collection of short stories entitled ‘Little Novels’ by Wilkie Collins. This is a collection of fourteen short stories which revolve around the theme of love and marriage, frequently across the social barriers of class and money. I remember reading one of the stories ‘Mr. Lismore and the Widow’ sometime last year and had quite enjoyed it but then had set the rest aside (probably in favour of some other books that were calling out louder for attention at that time!), until yesterday. Reading the teaser above reminded me once again of how I much I enjoy reading Collins, and why there’s absolutely no reason I should wait any longer before diving right back into his books.

I just love his wit and writing style, ever since having first tasted of it in ‘No Name’, one of my favourite reads ever!
And if you have yet to be acquainted with Collins yourself, I would strongly urge you to. He is definitely worth it. 🙂

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A Traveller in Little Things

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It is surely a rare experience for an unclassified man, past middle age, to hear himself accurately and aptly described for the first time in his life by a perfect stranger! This thing happened to me at Bristol, some time ago, in the way I am about to relate. I slept at a Commercial Hotel, and early next morning was joined in the big empty coffee-room, smelling of stale tobacco, by an intensely respectable- looking old gentleman, whose hair was of silvery whiteness, and who wore gold-rimmed spectacles and a heavy gold watch-chain with many seals attached thereto; whose linen was of the finest, and whose outer garments, including the trousers, were of the newest and blackest broadcloth. A glossier and at the same time a more venerable-looking “commercial” I had never seen in the west country, nor anywhere in the three kingdoms. He could not have improved his appearance if he had been on his way to attend the funeral of a millionaire. But with all his superior look he was quite affable, and talked fluently and instructively on a variety of themes, including trade, politics, and religion. Perceiving that he had taken me for what I was not—one of the army in which he served, but of inferior rank—I listened respectfully as became me.

Finally he led the talk to the subject of agriculture, and the condition and prospects of farming in England. Here I perceived that he was on wholly unfamiliar ground, and in return for the valuable information he had given me on other and more important subjects, I proceeded to enlighten him. When I had finished stating my facts and views, he said: “I perceive that you know a great deal more about the matter than I do, and I will now tell you why you know more. You are a traveller in little things—in something very small—which takes you into the villages and hamlets, where you meet and converse with small farmers, innkeepers, labourers and their wives, with other persons who live on the land. In this way you get to hear a good deal about rent and cost of living, and what the people are able and not able to do. Now I am out of all that; I never go to a village nor see a farmer. I am a traveller in something very large. In the south and west I visit towns like Salisbury, Exeter, Bristol, Southampton; then I go to the big towns in the Midlands and the North, and to Glasgow and Edinburgh; and afterwards to Belfast and Dublin. It would simply be a waste of time for me to visit a town of less than fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants.”

He then gave me some particulars concerning the large thing he travelled in; and when I had expressed all the interest and admiration the subject called for, he condescendingly invited me to tell him something about my own small line. Now this was wrong of him; it was a distinct contravention of an unwritten law among “Commercials” that no person must be interrogated concerning the nature of his business. The big and the little man, once inside the hostel, which is their club as well, are on an equality. I did not remind my questioner of this—I merely smiled and said nothing, and he of course understood and respected my reticence. With a pleasant nod and a condescending let-us-say-no-more-about-it wave of the hand he passed on to other matters.

W. H. Hudson, A Traveller in Little Things (1921)

Some of you may be more familiar with Hudson’s classic travelogue ‘Afoot in England’ where his sensitive observations of nature, people and buildings are charmingly recorded. In comparison, A Traveller in Little Things may be a lesser known work of this author, who was also a naturalist and ornithologist who grew up studying the flora and fauna in Argentina. Hudson eventually gave in to the yearning he had always had for England when he settled down on English soil in 1874.

This collection of essays offers a delightful range of interesting titles such as A Story of a Walnut, A Wonderful Story of a Mackerel, Wild Flowers & Little Girls, and A Story of Three Poems, among others. You can take a closer look for yourself at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7982 , if this sounds like your cup of tea.

And if you do find that these form of travel writing does indeed appeal to you, you might want to also check out another writer who is great at travelling in the little things, H.V. Morton. Morton’s style of writing and the wealth of stories he has to share of the people and places that he encounters, are sheer reading pleasure that is bound to appeal to the ‘traveller’ in each of us, little or large. 😉

Villages of Britain (more of the Cotswolds charm)

After putting up my post on the Cotswolds last week, I just felt that one post was insufficient to do the villages proper justice. And since I still have quite a few pretty pictures to share, I thought I will continue with that today if you don’t mind. 😉

I have also pulled out my much-treasured copy of Villages of Britain by Clive Aslet to go with this post. This was one of my best finds for last year and quite unexpected too.  I had been keeping a lookout for a copy of this for quite some time after having acquired another book of his, The English House : The story of a nation at home, at a sale last year. That is one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever owned. I just love the dust jacket and the illustrations in there!

Anyway, back to the Villages of Britain, which although was found without its dust jacket, is still a rather beautiful specimen to add to your shelves. I love dipping into the book and picking on a village to read at random. The book tells the history of the countryside through the stories of five hundred of its most noteworthy villages and settlements.

On to the photos …..

Trout fishing in Bibury.
The lovely Swan Hotel.
One of the best Club Sandwiches we ever had was found in the Swan Hotel.
Snowshill Lavender.
Can you spot the bees?

The view from the top of Broadway Tower. It is said that the view surveys an expanse of up to 16 counties.
The animals round and about the tower grounds.
The Model Village of Bourton-on-the-Water.

 

Lovely shopfronts at Bourton-on-the-Water.

A Book… A Place… A Time… (The Cotswolds)

The Book(s) : Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee / The Well-Loved Stranger by Valerie Grove

I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began. The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt though the air like monkeys. I was lost and didn’t know where to move.

Thus, begins one of the most evocative and poignant memoir of a boy growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s. We get to see a vivid and moving portrayal of village life through the innocence and wonder of the young Laurie Lee. The book managed put a smile on my face almost as effortlessly as it could move me to tears. It also transported me back to a place and time that had yet to be touched by the modern amenities and inventions which we now so easily take for granted. It was a truly enjoyable experience reading this little gem.

The book has sparked off my interest in Laurie Lee, and am looking forward to reading his biography, The Well-Loved Stranger as well as his most famous piece of work, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning which accounts for his travels in Spain.

The Place : The Cotswolds, England

I had actually read the book not too long after coming back from my trip to the UK, which included The Cotswolds. Although I did not get to visit the village of Slad (the village where Lee grew up in), I think this photo below reminds me most of how I would imagine Slad to be.

Arlington Row, Bibury
A closer look.

Every little village and town has a unique flavour and charm of its own.

Our base, at Bourton-on-the-Water.
Bourton-on-the-Water, also known as the Venice of Cotswolds.
Pretty as a picture.
Happy ducklings.
Chipping Camden.
Don’t you just love the bicycle?
Broadway Tower (once a country retreat to WIlliam Morris).
I never knew there were such lavender fields in England.
Snowshill Lavender (we were there just in time before the harvest!)
The Old Post Office in Castle Combe.
A tree grows in Castle Combe …..
One of my favourite photos, taken at the Minster Lovell ruins.

The Time : Summer of 2010

Thomas at My Porch‘s recent blog posts on his travel adventures to the Cotswolds have stirred up memories of my own to the old world charm of the villages and towns that make up the Cotswolds. It lays claim to being one of the most ‘quintessentially English’ and unspoiled regions of England, a place where time has stood still for over 300 years.

I couldn’t agree more.

A Graceful Debut

Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself –and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.

On the cusp of World War II, this warning resonates with Britain’s fearful population. But to Nora Lynch, these words carry another layer of meaning, one more intimate and shameful. And for more than fifty years, she will keep her lips tightly sealed.

Catherine Hall, Days of Grace .

 When the war breaks out, twelve-year-old Nora is one of thousands of London children evacuated to the safety of the English countryside. Her surrogate family, Reverend Rivers, his wife, and their daughter, Grace, offer Nora affection and a wealth of comforts previously unknown to her. All the initial anger and resentment which she felt towards her mother for sending her away is quickly replaced by a love for her new way of life in rural Kent with the Rivers family. 

 

 “I did not know then that things are often not what they seem. There were dark places in the countryside with only the birds to see what happened in them. The rectory had carpets to sweep bad news under. There was space for secrets. The war wasn’t the only phoney thing that autumn, but I didn’t notice. I was wonderfully happy, happier than I ever thought possible. Each morning I woke up knowing that by the time I went to bed again, I would have learned something new. … It was as if I had been born a second time, into a life that was so thrilling that sometimes I found it hard to breathe.”

 
The story is told in both the compelling voice of the teenage Nora, struggling to keep her secrets and forbidden desires during the war, as well as in the quiet and repressive voice of the elderly Nora, who is slowly succumbing to her terminal illness. Although the chapters alternate between the past and the present with two parallel storylines going on at the same time, the writer has done a remarkable job in weaving both the stories together almost seamlessly. I was hooked from the first page by the voice of the elderly Nora, being made curious to know what was the story behind this old, lonely woman whose only comfort is in books, who seemed to have withdrawn  herself from the world around her and was so weighed down with secrets that are far more painful to bear than the actual physical disease that is eating away at her.

Days of Grace is a beautiful and tender piece of writing on many levels. Reading the book, I was transported to another place, another time, going through the same heartaches and pains as experienced by both the young, and the elderly Nora, in equal measures. 

“I imagined myself in a hospital, being prodded and poked by strangers who would come to know everything about me. I would be there for everyone to see, laid out on a bed as if I were already on a mortuary slab, unable to hide a thing. …. I wanted to shout out for everyone to hear. Don’t you see? I surrendered a long time ago….. I carried on dying all the way through the war, while everyone else was trying so damned hard to stay alive. Now it’s time to finish the job.”

“My reflection made me shrink away in horror. My eyes stared out from hollow sockets, their faded blue the only colour in a face in which skin stretched over bone in a ghastly premonition of a skeleton. My lips were cracked. They collapsed inwards, pressed together, the lips of someone with secrets. A few strands of hair straggled over my scalp like grasses left after a harvest. The disease had made me into something inhuman. My wickedness was on display to whoever cared to look.”

It was heart-wrenching to read pieces like these from the elderly Nora especially when one has already been privy to some of the secrets of her younger self.

“Sometimes it was a relief to be alone. After Spitfire Summer, I had started to feel things that made me afraid. I didn’t tell Grace everything any more. I didn’y want her to know about the dreams I had, troubling dreams that jolted me awake at night. I would make out Grace’s shape under the bedclothes, rising and falling as she breathed, imagining myself drawing back the blanket, then the sheet, lifting her nightdress so that I can see her body’s new curves. I wanted to touch her skin. I wanted to press myself close to her, winding around her like the creeper that covered the front wall of the rectory.
I knew that if I told her I would ruin everything. I followed the rules. I was careful what I said. But the rules didn’t say I couldn’t think about her. I thought about her all the time.”

There are quite a few more finer points and plots to the story which I think is best left to the discovery of the reader. The author had commented in one of her interviews that she was struck by the psychiatrist and scientist Wilhelm Reich’s description of cancer as “a disease following emotional resignation… … a giving up of hope.” And found it to be a fitting description for Nora.

The blurb at the back of my copy of the book describes it as ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne du Maurier’. I would prefer to give the credit to Catherine Hall in her own right, though, especially considering the fact that this is only her debut novel. She has certainly proven herself to be a writer to look out for. The blurb also says that in this book, Hall has written beautifully about the exquisite pains of unrequited love.

That, I could not agree more. 

If only you knew, I thought. If only you knew how you could make somebody want you. It doesn’t take communion wine and a sunny afternoon by the lake. I want you on rainy days when we’re drinking tea with your mother in the kitchen. I want you in the morning when your eyes are still full of sleep. I want you when you don’t know the answers to your father’s questions on algebra and you’re ashamed of it. But I can’t tell you any of that because I know you don’t want me.

A Book… A Place… A Time…

The Book : The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay–Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched southwestern leg–and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong possibilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.

For the longest time ever, I have had this strange misconception about the book, of it being something of an entirely different nature to what it actually was. And as a result of this, I never had the interest or intention to read the book at all. That is until two years ago, a friend insisted that I watch the 1981 adaptation (brilliantly portrayed by the sublime Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons), in order to put an end to my misconceptions. And I am glad I did. For not only did I enjoy the film adaptation immensely, but it had also renewed my interest in the book, and in the writer.

“It is all too easy to be transported into the world so vividly created for us by John Fowles, as he details the love affair between Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, whilst simultaneously exposing the hypocracies of Victorian England. Haunted night and day by the face of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (Sarah Woodruff) Charles Smithson struggles to forget her and concede to a life with the entirely more conventional Ernestina Freeman. Theirs is the expected and typical Victorian pairing, but as the action progresses, Charles finds his initial curiosity towards the enigmatic Sarah developing into attraction and eventual desire. In his novel, Fowles powerfully depicts Charles’s inner conflict between head and heart, painfully illustrating the consequences of allowing the heart to overrule in such a repressed, hypocritical society.”

The Place : Lyme Regis, Dorset – England

The sleepy fishing village of Lyme Regis.

 

 

The famous Cobb (also featured in Jane Austen's Persuasion).
The only bookshop I managed to peek into.

Lyme Regis, often called the Pearl of Dorset, is a sleepy fishing village situated on the border between West Dorset and East Devon, right in the middle of the Jurassic Coast.  This is the back-drop upon which the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is told.

The Time : Summer of 2010

I had the wonderful opportunity of travelling to the UK with two other tavelling companions during the summer of 2010. Our journey saw us driving all the way from Dumfries (south west of Scotland) right up to Lands End which is the most westerly point in Cornwall (south west of England).

Since one of my travelling companions was the same one who made me watch the film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and so happened our travel route would see us passing by Lyme Regis, of course we couldn’t miss out on the golden opportunity to stop and savour the atmospheric setting for both the book and film. We didn’t have time to explore much as we were rushing to make it to our next pitstop, Torquay (home to dame Agatha Christie), where we were to put up a night.  However, despite what little time we had strolling the Cobb and being accompanied by light drizzle together with the “most disagreeable easterly wind” blowing at us , Lyme Regis still managed to have left an indelible impression upon us. Enough to make us want to return to it again, someday. If for nothing else, at least there is the Herbies cheese burger that surprisingly turned out to be one of the best we ever had, to go back for! 😉

Throughout the trip, we also made the following stopovers :

Conwy, North Wales (where we went into the Smallest House in Great Britain!)
Llangollen (home to the famous Two Ladies of Llangollen)
Hay-on- Wye (Town of Books, need I say more?)
Brecon (known for its beautiful walks)
The Cotswolds
Stonehenge
Bournemouth
Thomas Hardy's cottage
Torquay (home to Agatha Christie)
Penzance (this station being the most westerly station in England, is truly the end of the line)
St. Michael's Mount
St. Ives
Minack Theatre (the most amazing open-air theatre ever!)
Lands End

And of the books that were related in one way or another to these places (ie: bought from, set in, read about, listened to….) I’ll leave that to another post, another day, another time.  😉

 

Note :

‘A Book… A Place… A Time….’ is (hopefully) going to be a recurring feature in this blog. In it, I hope to be able to relate books I’ve either read or planning to read, listened to, or watched an adaption of, to the places I’ve travelled to in the past, or hope to travel to in the future. Hope this idea will somehow translate well onto the blog. 🙂