Back to Charleston

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Just before the end of the summer holidays, I decided to return to Charleston, country home of the Bloomsbury Group, so that I could see the house at its best. When I first visited a couple of years ago, it was during the coldest Easter I can remember, and the bleakness of the sleet-filled sky and the lack of any life in the gardens made the experience a little less than what it should have been. Of course the interior of the house was not dimmed by the freezing wasteland outside, but everything does look better when it’s sunny.

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As Charleston doesn’t open until midday, I took a brief detour to the picture postcard village of Alfriston first, which I have longed to visit for a while. Its main street is ridiculously pretty, packed as it is with a hodge podge of historic and beautiful cottages, shops and pubs that look as if they have been around since Domesday. Much Ado Books, a well known and much loved independent book shop, has pride of place on the high street, and I loved poking around inside. They have a marvellous selection of the latest fiction, as well as plenty of tempting second hand books and ephemera at reasonable prices: well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Further up and behind the main street lies the impressive village church, known as the Cathedral of the Downs due to its large size and gorgeous views across the undulating countryside. Alongside the church sits Alfriston Clergy House, a medieval thatched weaver’s cottage that is famed for being the very first property acquired by the National Trust. The whole village feels like a place where time has simply stopped; it is difficult to find villages like this nowadays, that still have thriving shops and have retained their original buildings and historic character. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to live.

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Once I had my fill of exploring Alfriston, I went on to Charleston, which took my breath away once again as I drove up the narrow lane surrounded by the soft humps of the Downs and found the gorgeous Georgian house at the end of it, reflected in its own pond and wreathed in flowers. Walking around the beautiful rooms, filled with the furniture, paintings and spirits of the fascinating and phenomenally talented crowd of people who once lived and stayed here, I felt goosebumps rise on my skin as I imagined the conversations that must have taken place at the dining table, and the sparks of inspiration that must have flown on the air. Once again I was struck by what a magical, lively and fun place this must have been, alive with talk and laughter and passion. The studio is a particularly extraordinary space, and it was even more beautiful than I remembered, perhaps because the garden was in full bloom, and formed a stunning backdrop against the glass doors.

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It was too cold to properly explore the garden last time I came, so I took great pleasure in seeing the colourful flowers and the fantastic array of mosaic and statue art that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant left behind. It is amazing that their hand painted tiles and artfully placed mosaic paving has survived, and it makes the garden into just as much a canvas for their creativity as the interior rooms. I could just imagine Virginia on her deckchair, or Angelica running around, or Vanessa pottering amidst her flower beds. The greatest joy of Charleston is in the feeling that they have all just got up and gone for a walk and will soon be returning; this is no museum, but a chance to see life as they lived it, and the house still vibrates with their energy at every turn. I loved every second.

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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This was one of the novels on the Booker Prize longlist, and when I saw it on display in my local library, I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve never read any Siri Hustvedt before, but I’m aware of her reputation and I was a little worried that she’d end up being a little too cerebral for me. The premise of this novel certainly sounds rather highbrow; Harriet Burden, a widowed artist, has spent her life seeing her work and intellect overlooked and unappreciated by the male dominated cultural elite. Married to New York’s premier art dealer, Felix Lord, Harriet was always Felix’s ‘eccentric’ wife, and found herself unable to create an identity and a reputation in her own right. As such, after his death, she convinces three very different male artists to put on one-man shows in which they present her work as their own. Harriet plans to conduct a social experiment to see whether the culturati really do view art through a gendered lens, and will finally give her the accolades she feels she deserves when her work is assumed to have been made by a man.

The story is told through the construct of being a report by an academic researching Harriet Burden and the truth of her claim that she was the artist behind the three New York shows in question. The academic presents her findings through providing transcripts of interviews with a range of Harriet’s friends and family members, as well as the male artists, their representatives and other acquaintances of interest, plus Harriet’s private notebooks. Harriet published a confession in an obscure academic journal before her premature death, but this confession was disputed by one of the artists, also now dead, who claimed that Harriet had been delusional, and that he had not been a front for her work: everything produced was his own. The academic claims to have no definitive answer to the truth of the whole affair, but instead presents all of the information she has gathered to enable readers to come to their own conclusions. This is quite a daring approach, and provides a thought provoking and highly interactive reading experience which enables readers to consider their own deeply ingrained and often unconscious prejudices and assumptions.

What I found most interesting about the book was that Hustvedt chooses to make Harriet’s male-masked exhibitions not particularly successful or widely noted anyway. This raises the question of whether Harriet’s obsessional desire to make the point that she has been ignored because she is female is indeed delusional, and a way for her to avoid accepting that her work is just not that worthy of praise. Harriet is an incredibly intelligent, well read woman with a range of fascinating ideas about psychology and philosophy, with a particular interest in gender and how women have been silenced by patriarchy throughout history. As she reaches middle age and finds herself becoming increasingly marginalised in a society that only really values women for their beauty, her anger becomes more and more visceral towards the men who seek to ignore her. After considering what everyone had to say in the matter, I had begun to think by the end that Harriet had been driven beyond the realms of sanity by her anger and frustration, and I was also rather frustrated by her inability to accept personal responsibility for her problems. After all, it is easy to say ‘I was prevented from being successful’ rather than admitting ‘I just wasn’t good enough.’ Though, at the same time, the ease in which I came to that conclusion and was willing to dismiss Burden’s claims of gender discrimination probably says something in itself, and I felt rather conflicted by the time I finished the book.

Hustvedt uses The Blazing World to raise many pertinent questions about gender and perception, and gender and power. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to become engaged in a text that was so challenging and provocative, and I loved learning about Harriet’s favourite female writer, the 17th century aristocrat Margaret Cavendish (there is a lovely analysis of one of her poems here), whose experimental science fiction novel gives the book its title. Hustvedt is a clever writer who pays close attention to detail; I thought it was very witty to have Harriet’s surname be ‘Burden’ and her husband’s ‘Lord’, playing wonderfully on traditional gender roles, and her ability to create a number of voices for a hugely diverse range of individuals was astounding. This is definitely not a light read, but it is an immensely rewarding one. I’m so pleased that I gave it a try, and I think it’s a shame it didn’t make the Booker Longlist, as it was certainly the best out of the three I’ve read that made it through.

Yorkshire

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When Miranda and her mum invited me to spend a week with them in Yorkshire this summer, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I adore everything about the county: its dramatic natural landscapes, its fantastic range of historic buildings, its quaint cathedral cities and picture postcard villages, and the warmth of its locals. I would move there in a heartbeat. We stayed in a cottage just outside Ripon, which is a gorgeous little city with a historic market square and impressive cathedral that inspired some of the details of Alice in Wonderland, as Lewis Carroll’s father was once the cathedral Dean. There are plenty of independent shops, one of which is a favourite of mine and Miranda’s, the fantastic art gallery Hornsey’s, where neither of us could resist picking up a print by a Yorkshire artist we both love, Emily Sutton. Right next to our cottage was the entrance to Fountains Abbey, which is one of the most breathtaking sights I have seen in this country. Ruined after the dissolution of the monasteries, the owner of the land in the 18th century created stunning water gardens around the Abbey, which form a fabulous backdrop to this fairytale-like place. You can walk into still roofed rooms, looking out across the surrounding parkland, and imagine what it must have been like to live and worship here hundreds of years ago. It is a truly unique experience and one I already can’t wait to repeat.

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We thoroughly enjoyed an expedition to the lovely seaside town of Whitby, also famous for its stunning Abbey ruins that look dramatically out across the foaming sea to one side and the rolling purple moors to the other, and for its jet jewellery and associations with Dracula. Roaming amidst its cobbled streets and climbing the ancient steps up the cliffside to the Abbey feel like wandering back in time, and there is nothing better than eating fish and chips in the fresh salty air, watching boats bobbing in the harbour. We also loved visiting the smart spa town of Harrogate, which is full of Georgian splendour and boasts a large branch of our favourite Yorkshire restaurant, Betty’s, and the neighbouring RHS gardens at Harlow Carr, which are well worth stopping off to explore if you’re passing. The pretty town of Ilkley also delighted us with its independent shops, especially The Grove Bookshop, and of course, its very own branch of Betty’s.

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Probably my favourite place we visited, however, was Newby Hall, a privately owned stately home designed by Robert Adam and containing some of the most exquisite furniture and interior decoration in the country. Our tour around the house was filled with fascinating details about the history of the building and its inhabitants, including the murder of a son by Greek brigands in the 1800s and an owner who brought back crates and crates of ancient sculptures from his grand tour to create his own purpose built sculpture gallery. The nicest thing about the house is that it is still fully lived in by the family who own it, and it feels very much like a home rather than a visitor attraction. The gardens are glorious, too, and there is an outstandingly good restaurant that serves proper food in lovely surroundings. It was an absolutely brilliant day out, and the jewel in the crown of a spectacular trip to God’s Own Country.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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This is not the kind of book you can review without destroying the reading experience of others coming after you, so I’m not going to review it, as such. I’m sure everyone knows by now that this book is about a hitherto rather obscure painting of a goldfinch by the 17th century artist Carel Fabritius, in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. The basic premise is that this painting is in an exhibition at the Met that Theo Decker’s mother takes him to see one morning when he is thirteen. While they are at the museum, there is a huge explosion caused by a terrorist bomb, and while Theo survives, his mother dies. During the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Theo regains consciousness and manages to crawl across to a dying old man who gives him his signet ring and tells him where to take it. He also tells him to steal The Goldfinch, which he does. Theo then escapes the museum undetected, and the rest of the novel charts Theo’s life from that day into his late twenties, from which perspective Theo narrates the events of the novel. I initially thought it was going to be about Theo discovering some sort of mystery connected with the painting, but there is no real mystery here at all. To say much more would ruin how pleasurable it is to have the story and characters evolve beneath your eyes, in so many unexpected directions.

What I will say is that this is a fantastic, fantastic novel, creating a world so realistic that I was utterly absorbed within it. I felt I knew the characters, who are so convincingly portrayed that I could hear them and see them as I read. I wanted to know everything about them, and became desperately concerned about their fates. The settings were places I felt I had visited, so well does Tartt realise them on the page. I have seen some reviews that complain The Goldfinch is bloated, self indulgent and needs editing, but I couldn’t disagree more. The length of the novel allows it the time and space to weave its spell of realism on the reader. Yes, a few scenes could have been cut slightly shorter, and there are events that are probably not entirely necessary, but if they weren’t there, then the depth of the characters and the understanding the reader gains of them would be compromised. This is a character driven novel, and the length reflects the excess of experiences the young narrator lives through in a relatively short period of time. I wouldn’t have missed a page; each one was a pleasure to read, and each character a masterpiece of portraiture.

I read a similarly long novel earlier this year entitled The Luminaries, which won the Booker Prize and triggered a considerable amount of debate. It was very clever and it was very well written, but it had no heart that I could find. It was a mask of the kind the literary establishment seems to praise of late; something of style but no substance, something that makes the reader marvel at the skill without taking away anything to treasure in their heart. I was worried that The Goldfinch would be of a similar vein, but it was an utter joy to find that it was not. Tartt is a phenomenally intelligent writer with the ability to manipulate the language she uses in order to create characters that are utterly individualised. Her purpose when writing is not merely to impress, but to write a story that captures the heart and the imagination, whisking readers away into another world. In the act of doing so, she also manages to write something that is complex and profound, something that challenges and questions, while simultaneously being easy and pleasurable to read. Accessible literary fiction is hard to find; it is rare to come across people reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel on a beach, but this is just that sort of novel; one that appeals to many, and is accessible to all. This is the kind of writing that deserves plaudits; this is the kind of writing I compare novels such as The Luminaries to, and rightly therefore find them lacking. Donna Tartt has no rival I can think of; The Goldfinch is perfection, and everyone should read it.

ps. I have started a facebook page for the blog so that I can give updates on what I’m reading in between blog post – you can sign up by clicking on this link!

Changes Afoot

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Some of you who subscribe to my other blog, Old Fashioned Girls, which I write with my dear friend Miranda, may have seen that yesterday the blog was updated, moved to a new website (here) and contains the exciting news that Miranda and I are going to be running our own online book club and launching our first online Quarterly publication in December. We are both very pleased with how the site looks and are looking forward to branching out into new territory. I really do hope that many of you will pop over and join us. Our first book club will be in September, which Miranda will be leading, and the book is going to be My Cousin Rachel. More details are all on the new website so do go and have a browse when you have a moment.

Following on from this, I am planning on scaling back my posts on Book Snob until the New Year. This is because I have started writing a novel, which I have been planning and drafting and thinking about for a very long time, and I am determined to get it finished. Making it public is hopefully going to spur me on, as I have a tendency to give up on anything I write after a few pages, and I have also signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, which will give me the structure and deadlines I need to complete a first draft. As such, I need to make sacrifices, and Book Snob will be one of them. I can’t stop working, and reading and writing reviews takes up far more of my time than my Old Fashioned Girls posts, so it seems an obvious solution to scale back on here. I’m not saying that I won’t be blogging any more; I very much hope to still maintain a once-a-week post, but November may be more scanty than that when the writing starts to take off with real urgency to meet the NaNoWriMo deadlines.

So, in a nutshell, you will be seeing far more of me on Old Fashioned Girls than you will on Book Snob over the next few months, and I would love to see some of my lovely Book Snob readers joining us over there for our monthly book clubs. I’ll be running the October and December clubs, so do keep your eyes peeled for the book choice announcements.

Thank you in advance for your patience; I know my posting has become increasingly erratic since I started teaching, and I appreciate you sticking with me as I work out a balance!