London in the Autumn

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I love this time of year. Autumn is my absolute favourite season, and living in the countryside as I have for the past couple of years now, I have gained an even greater appreciation for it. I have watched the landscape grow increasingly more muted in hue over the past few weeks, with the greens of the trees, fields and hedgerows slowly turning golden, the sky taking on a milky pearlescence in the weakening sunlight, and the lavishness of fields filled to bursting with bright, over-ripened crops being shorn back to their earthy roots. It is cold here in the evenings, and the mornings are misty. I crunch through thick layers of leaves as I scuttle between buildings at school, and my nephews scramble over themselves to show me their hordes of pine cones, acorns and conkers gathered from the fields and woods that surround their house. The air is scented with woodsmoke and the nights draw in ever more quickly. I have rooted my wellington boots out from their cobwebbed hiding place. Autumn in the country is telling me to withdraw from the world and spend my evenings by the fire, but London in the Autumn is aflame with things to do, and I am not quite ready to hibernate just yet.

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Lately, I have been taking every opportunity to walk my way from place to place in London, taking detours that enable me to see how the different neighbourhoods of central London connect with one another. I look up and down, spotting little things I have never really noticed before, like the Blue Plaque for Edith Cavell on the Royal London Hospital, the amazing 17th century golden weathervane perched atop a building in Aldgate that was surrounded by brand new glass and steel skyscrapers, or the blue-painted police call box that had an air of WWII about it, still affixed to a wall by St Paul’s Cathedral. It never ceases to amaze me what survives from the past, especially when you consider what the 20th and 21st centuries have thrown at London. Whole swathes of London are forever being remodelled and updated, their history being erased with each new office or luxury apartment block. It heartens me to see the glimpses of 17th, 18th and 19th century London that appear down hidden lanes or behind forgotten hoardings, making me think that a resident of that time could be transported back and still find their way to their old haunts. A fantastic example of this is the haunting Tower Hamlets Cemetery in East London; surrounded by 1960s high rise council estates, it is filled with overgrown plants that are strangling the thousands of crumbling Victorian gravestones, that tell of a population quite removed from the current demographic. It is the closest to Highgate Cemetery that I have found in central London, and I wonder why more people do not come here, especially at this time of year when the trees are ablaze with colour and the decay of nature adds to the atmosphere of romantic neglect.

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On my walks, I have been particularly exploring the city, where there are so many fantastic buildings, statues and monuments that I have had quite the education over the past few weeks. Walking alone gives me the opportunity to linger as long as I like, reading inscriptions and plaques, making connections between people and places, and checking facts on my phone to enrich my understanding of what I am seeing. I love how the architecture changes from street to street, and I particularly enjoy seeing where bomb damage has left its mark, signalled by an abrupt installation of a post-war building amidst a street of otherwise perfectly uniform Georgian terraces. One of the best sights to see in the centre of town at the moment is the marvellous and thought-provoking installation of fibreglass poppies spilling out of the walls of the Tower of London and forming a sea of red around its base, representing the millions of victims of WWI. It is a remarkable sight and one I could not get enough of exploring.

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My wanders have also seen me photographing the many plaques of Bloomsbury, a project that made me realise for the first time just how many of the great and good of London’s intellectual elite lived here at the same time. I cannot imagine how amazing it must have been to have stepped out of your front door and bump into the likes of Virginia Woolf and Millicent Fawcett; how much I would give to have been able to listen in to one of the many conversations that must have happened in the leafy squares at the heart of each of the terraces! The dark bricks of the terraces here look even more beautiful when framed by the golden leaves in the gardens, and they also set off the grey monoliths of the Art Deco architecture of the many University of London buildings that sit alongside their Georgian predecessors. I was delighted to find the University of London branch of Waterstone’s, which is housed inside a gloriously original Art Deco building, complete with fantastic period fixtures and fittings, and is given almost entirely over to selling cheap remainder copies of current books.

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As always, however, the river has been my favourite haunt. I never tire of seeing the boats sailing up and down, and of viewing the skyline from different angles as I make my way over bridges that cross the Thames at varying points. I love watching people down on the mud with their metal detectors and spades, looking for ancient treasure, and wishing I was down there amongst them to dig up clay pipes and Roman coins. I love seeing the sun hit the dome of St Paul’s as I stroll over to the Southbank, which is always full of people and art and stalls and music. I love the neo-Gothic spires of the Houses of Parliament and the glowing letters on the OXO tower. In the pale glow of the Autumn sunlight, it all looks so much more beautiful, and Southbank and the Embankment between Westminster and Pimlico become carpeted in golden leaves.

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London really does look its best at this time of year, and nobody could persuade me otherwise. The museums of London also bring out their best for the Autumn, with so many new exhibitions to see that I will be seeing something new every weekend until Christmas. The Gothic exhibition at the British Library, the Turner exhibition at the Tate, the Constable exhibition at the V&A, the WWI exhibition at the London Transport Museum and the very exciting William Morris exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery…I shall certainly have no time to hibernate out in the countryside. I just hope that our lovely clear and crisp golden days last, as I have much leaf crunching to do in London yet.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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When Miranda chose this for our first Old Fashioned Girls Book Club, I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit a novel that has long haunted me. Despite the effect it had on me the first time, I had forgotten just how absurdly good it is, and was surprised by how addictive I found it from the very first page. I first read it years ago, when I was a teenager; my mum bought it for me after I devoured Rebecca, and I remember finding it one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had. Re-reading it brought rushing back that sense of feeling utterly disempowered by the narrator, and infuriated at not being able to work out the truth of the situation being described. As I closed the pages, I was absolutely exhausted with the emotional strain of it all, and still no more decided upon whether I thought Rachel was evil or innocent than I had been the last time I read it. I had hoped that a second read would highlight previously unnoticed details, and reveal more of a concrete trail of evidence than I had spotted before, but it didn’t at all. Du Maurier’s genius in this novel is in her decision to leave the reader just as uncertain as her narrator; the mysterious Rachel’s true personality is not something that can ever be solved with satisfaction, and so the reader shares completely in the torment of the men who loved and lost her.

The novel opens with the harrowing image of Philip Ashley, the narrator, remembering watching the blackened body of a hanging man swinging when he was a child, having been taken to see it as a lesson by his cousin and guardian Ambrose. Philip has never forgotten seeing that man, someone he had seen regularly in the local town going about his business, brought to this decaying ruin through a crime of passion. It haunts him especially now that he sees himself as a criminal, and he spends the novel explaining how he too is a man condemned thanks to his relationship with his mysterious, beguiling and irresistible cousin Rachel.

Philip, an orphan, was brought up by his much older bachelor cousin Ambrose, whom he adores and admires with an unquestioning devotion. Ambrose owns an impressive mansion and several hundred acres of land near picturesque Bodmin in Cornwall, which Philip knows will all one day be his. He and Ambrose are passionately interested in everything to do with their estate, and so satisfied are they in their own company and surroundings that they have little time or need for others. Ambrose has never sought a wife, and Philip does not anticipate seeking one for himself either, despite everyone thinking that he will eventually marry his godfather’s daughter Louise, who is Philip’s only real friend. They are perfectly happy in their strictly male-only establishment for many years, until Ambrose’s health begins to fail and it is recommended that he goes to the continent for the winter. Ambrose goes and returns without incident a few times, but on what will be his final trip abroad, Philip is surprised to find Ambrose writing to him of a distant relative, Rachel Sangalletti, the widow of an Italian Count, whom he has met in Florence. They seem to be spending a good deal of time together, and Philip is shocked and much upset when Ambrose writes to tell him that he has in fact married Rachel.

Some months pass, with Ambrose’s letters becoming less and less frequent, and Philip is angry at the thought that he has been forgotten by the cousin he loves so much. However, Ambrose’s letters contain increasingly strange comments, and when Philip receives a letter suggesting that Ambrose is in danger from Rachel, and that she is somehow killing him, he leaves immediately for Florence, only to find on his arrival that he has already died, and Rachel has fled. With Ambrose’s cryptic last letter weighing heavily upon him, and suspecting foul play, Philip confides in his godfather, who reveals that Ambrose’s father died of a brain tumour and it seems likely that Ambrose succumbed to the same fate. Philip is not so certain and is determined to blame Rachel, but when she turns up in England, wanting to come and stay at the home that would have been hers, Philip cannot in all decency turn her away. He is determined to hate her, but he is surprised by what he finds in the woman his cousin loved and seemed to despise in equal measure. Rachel is beautiful, intelligent, kind and loving, full of charm and grace and compassion for Philip. Quickly he falls under her spell, and finds himself falling in love, but will this woman be the undoing of him as she has his cousin, and is she quite as innocent as she initially appears?

The growing relationship between Philip and Rachel is fascinating to read, but also infuriating, as it is clear that Philip is an unreliable narrator and cannot be trusted to report the facts. He is possessive and controlling; Rachel is always ‘my’ cousin, a belonging of his, and his obsession with her and desire for her to behave in a way he deems acceptable is disturbing. Does Rachel really behave in the way he depicts her to? Does she mean to come across in the manner Philip perceives her? He is so inexperienced with women, so childish and self centred; can he really understand or attempt to know what a woman is thinking or feeling? Can he be trusted to read a woman’s words or actions with accuracy, given that he has so little knowledge of them? Even so, he is also very convincing in his portrayal of the events, and at the same time as damning Rachel, can see her as an innocent too, and recognise his own paranoia. Just as I decided that she was a horrible, manipulative and deceitful woman, with her eyes purely on the Ashley fortune, I would have seeds of doubt planted in my mind and be able to see an entirely different side to her. It is interesting that a woman is considered untrustworthy and suspicious when she chooses to spend money extravagantly, assert an unpopular right to what is legally hers, or enjoy a close platonic friendship with a member of the opposite sex. If Rachel had been a man, would a reader respond in the same way to her? I wonder. Ultimately, Philip finds Rachel utterly unknowable, and she therefore remains so to the reader right up until the end, too. I could discuss her for hours, dissecting her words and actions until I was blue in the face, but still I don’t think I could come to a conclusion I would be satisfied with. As characters go, Rachel has to be one of the most thought provoking and skilfully written I have ever come across, and if you want to read a book that will have you sitting on the absolute edge of your seat and tearing your hair out by the end, then this is the one for you. I know I shall never quite be able to get Rachel out of my mind!

On Writing

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One month into my first determined effort to write a novel, things are going quite well. I’m not convinced the book itself is going to be particularly fantastic, but my priority is actually less about producing a beautifully written, marketable book and more about getting to the completion stage. Ever since I was a small child, I was obsessed with writing stories. I would spend my weekends writing terrible tales about idyllic families and countryside exploits that took me far away from my suburban world. These stories were not particularly long, spanning perhaps six or so A4 pages, and I never actually managed to get to the end before getting discouraged and giving up. Since those early attempts at creating an imaginary world on paper, I have tried many more times to write something meaningful, but always without actually getting to those two magical last words: ‘The End’. I took creative writing classes in my early twenties, which I hoped would help me with this problem by providing me with the knowledge of the structures and processes behind writing a longer piece of work, but unfortunately it just left me feeling frustrated and even more inept. As I listened to the wonderful prose being produced by my classmates, my own seemed so amateur in comparison, and I lost my confidence in myself completely.

Shortly afterwards, I started blogging as a way to try and resurrect my love of writing. Rather than the panic and embarrassment I had felt about sharing my writing in front of the other members of my creative writing class, I felt empowered and freed by the notion of publishing my work anonymously. I could receive honest feedback, both negative and positive, and take time to reflect on what could be improved in my writing. I could write about whatever I wanted, at whatever length I wanted, and each post was a finite piece of work that allowed me to feel a sense of completion and achievement every time I pressed ‘publish’. Over time, as I built up a readership and found my own distinctive voice, writing became something that was a real pleasure and a way for me to truly express myself, and I came to love the times when I would sit down to plan and produce a new blog post, crafting my sentences and choosing my vocabulary carefully to create the perfect response to a novel, a trip or whatever else I was writing about.

Blogging really gave me my confidence back, and for the last few years I have been increasingly thinking about writing something longer. I have occasionally started a novel, but have always given up after the first few pages, convinced that it was absolute rubbish and that I was being stupid by even trying to write a book in the first place. However, I went on a course at work just before the summer holidays that was all about focusing on personal goals and putting plans into action to ensure that they are achieved rather than remaining pipe dreams. We were given plenty of time to reflect on our own about the things we would like to aim for in our lives, and the first thing that came into my mind was writing a novel. I have been so passionate about writing for so long that I know, deep down, I will never be satisfied with myself unless I genuinely give writing something for publication a go, and so I sat down over the summer and planned out the book I am currently writing. For the first time, I have an entire plot and a cast of characters fleshed out, and I am, as of writing this, at 30,000 words, which is a record for me and feels like an enormous achievement. I am making myself write something every day so that I can reach a goal of 30,000 words per month, and while it is a challenge to fit this in around work and social commitments, it is such a thrill to see the word count creeping up and my story coming to life on the page. I am finding many of my thoughts becoming possessed by the characters I am creating, and it is adding a real excitement to the usual routine of my every day life. Even if nobody but me ever reads it, I don’t care: at the moment, I am just thoroughly enjoying the process and I cannot wait until the moment when I will finally write ‘The End’!

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

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Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is one of those childhood classics, like Anne of Green Gables, that managed to pass me by when I was young. I was obviously too busy inhaling the terribly addictive Babysitters’ Club series to take in anything more edifying, and as such, I missed the chance to meet yet another remarkable heroine who might have taught me more than just how to make a bit of cash on the side after school. It’s interesting, when you dig around in the archives of 19th and early 20th century children’s novels written for girls, just how many women were anxious to provide a different narrative to the expected one of marriage and motherhood. L M Montgomery’s Anne and Emily, Louisa May Alcott’s Jo, Gene Stratton Porter’s Elnora, and now Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca are all girls whose desire is not for a man and a kitchen of their own, but a good education and opportunities for personal fulfilment. I wonder what impact this had on the girls who read these novels when they first came out; no doubt they had access to a variety of fairy and adventure stories, and did not suffer as much from being beaten around the head by Christian moralising as the previous generation, but did they find these stories unusual or revolutionary in any way? Were they inspired by them, or were they frustrated by them, especially those girls who could not have hoped for access to the education and opportunities for creative fulfilment they were reading about? I’d love to know more.

Rebecca is cut from the same cloth as L M Montgomery’s heroines; an irrepressible little thing, with a mouth that won’t stop moving and a fanciful, romantic spirit, she is sent away to live with two spinster aunts after her father dies and her mother can no longer afford to keep seven children. Aunt Miranda and Aunt Jane live in the ‘brick house’ in Riverboro, Maine, where they are pillars of their small community. Aunt Miranda is hard hearted and a stickler for rules and neatness; she has no desire to take Rebecca into her home, and only does so out of duty towards the younger sister she blames thoroughly for her own misfortune, having married a feckless drifter she knew full well would come to nothing. Aunt Jane is Miranda’s opposite; sweet, kind and docile, she is thrilled at Rebecca’s arrival and does her best to lessen the harshness of Aunt Miranda’s regime and make Rebecca happy.

Rebecca, despite missing her beloved ‘Sunnybrook farm’ is keen to please, and tries her best to do right by her aunts, often with the hilarious consequences one would expect of a girl who just can’t help herself from getting into trouble. The plot of the novel revolves around Rebecca’s friendships with a number of locals, from the elderly, childless Cobbs, for whom Rebecca becomes a surrogate granddaughter, to Emma Jane, the dull but pretty blacksmith’s daughter, who follows Rebecca everywhere. Life is full of the small pleasures, excitements and victories of childhood, and Rebecca brings a delight and a glory to the previously narrow lives of Riverboro’s young people. One of her greatest achievements is in selling enough soap to win a poor family a lamp, in the doing of which she meets a local young philanthropist, Adam Ladd, who becomes her ‘Mr Aladdin’ and will go on to support her through her high school days in neighbouring Wareham, where the world becomes even bigger for the ambitious and talented Rebecca.

It is a charming book, if not a little heavy handed in places, and Rebecca is an absolutely adorable heroine, who is a perfect example of how to make the best of a bad job in all situations. I very much like Douglas Wiggin’s attitude that the innocent goodness of children can bring about change in even the hardest of hearts, and I loved the ending, thinking it a wonderful example of feminism in action. In fact, there is much of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that is echoed in Anne of Green Gables; such was its popularity when it came out, L M Montgomery must have read it and been influenced by it, because the similarities are striking. It is not as enchanting as its successor, but it certainly is worth reading nonetheless. I am delighted that Hesperus Press are continuing to republish such fantastic examples of classic children’s literature, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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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