Month: August 2009

Beautiful Bath

Well who doesn’t enjoy pretending to be in Jane Austen novels and generally flouncing about in historical locations? Certainly not me, as I had a brilliant time in ‘historical’ Bath, which shoved its history in your face at every corner, but in an endearing way. Costumed guides? Check. Every other building named after a Jane Austen novel/character/place? Check. A ye olde tea room on every street? Check. It all added up to a holiday as only good old England can do, and once I had recovered from five days of camping in a sodden field and feeling like the dampness and tiredness would never end, I got into being a tourist and got my camera out at every opportunity!

Like every self respecting Bibliophile, my first stop was the Oxfam Bookshop. An excellent selection of books, plenty of Viragos (so many I had to leave several behind, so if you’re in the vicinity, get there as soon as you can!), and for a tenner I became the new owner of old green Virago copies of A Pin to See the Peepshow, The Soul of Kindnessand A Game of Hide and Seek, and a biography of Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, one of the first ‘Dollar Princesses’ and her sisters, called Fortune’s Daughters, that I’d been wanting to read for a while.

Onwards to the Jane Austen Museum, which was nice but frankly a bit disappointing; I’d expected more from my £7 entrance fee than some displays showing the historical context of early 19thc Bath and a few costumes from not very well known adaptations. Jane Austen doesn’t even have a connection with the building the museum is housed in. If you’re going to Bath and were fancying a trip, I’d advise you skip it if you already have a good knowledge of Austen and her books. I’ve heard Chawton, her cottage in Hampshire, is much better for getting a real feel of Austen and how she lived, so I shall try that for my next trip outside of London.


We followed this up by a trip to the Abbey which was absolutely stunning. The walls are literally covered in commemorative plaques to the good, great and also ordinary citizens of Bath from the 1600s to the Victorian times. Absolutely fascinating, and humbling, and wonderful to be able to see a glimpse of what these now largely unknown people meant to those they left behind.

The next day we went to the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum which was housing a touring V&A exhibition on The Supremes (work follows me, it seems) alongside its usual displays. It was fantastic and as I have a particular interest in the history of fashion this was one of my favourite Bath sights. The Assembly Rooms were very interesting too but I didn’t really get an impression of the space as the Supremes exhibition was taking up the ballroom.

After this we went to the Circus and the Royal Crescent, which we ran along Anne Elliot style, much to the amusement of passers by. The architecture in Bath really is breathtaking; its uniformity is very soothing to the eye and it is fantastic to see how new buildings have to conform to the stonework and style of Georgian Bath. The grandeur of the Crescent, looking down over onto the hills beyond was wonderful, and I almost had a moment of thinking I would like to live there, but then I pulled myself together…I am a Londoner, after all.

I came across a terrific independent bookshop down a side street, Mr B’s, which sold Persephones and the anniversary hardback Viragos…and upstairs they had a Reading Booth where you can pay by the hour to have sole use of a soothing room in which to enjoy uninterrupted reading…it’s a truly delightful shop and well worth a visit.

And yesterday…we went to Tyntesfield, a fairly newly acquired National Trust property that is covered in scaffolding as it’s a ‘live conservation’ project, the Trust’s first. Fully restored, it will be amazing; it’s a Victorian gothic pile that had a collossal amount of money spent on it at the time, inside and out, to create an authentic ‘Gothic’ look. The inside was stunning but in a very bad condition, and like the land time forgot…old perambulators, umbrellas, toys, etc, just hanging about as if the family just upped and left yesterday. It was fascinating to see the conservation in progress and to understand a little more the sheer scale of work that goes into bringing a property up to a standard that will allow public access. I shall be sure to go back in a few years’ time to see the completed work.

After Tyntesfield our final stop was The American Museum in Britain, the only museum of Americana outside of the US. It was hands down one of the best museums I’ve ever been in. Interactive, interesting and varied displays, striking objects, and a wonderful layout, not to mention a brilliant exhibition on Folk Art and a world renowned collection of stunning quilts. I would have driven from London to Bath for the day just to visit, it’s that good. The cafe does excellent cakes and cookies too, and there’s a lovely gift shop that’s set out like a General Store. AND you get to dress up as a pioneer!! Please do go if you get the chance.

I’m now at home and exhausted. But I must finish Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories so that I feel I haven’t missed out on Persephone Week completely. Review forthcoming!

I hope you enjoy the pictures. Oh, and please do look at Naomi’s wonderful blog that I recently discovered after she emailed me…it turns out we work down the corridor from one another at the V&A and I have now been busted at my habit of blogging whilst at work…tsk tsk!!!


Off to Bath!

I am sitting in my office, listening to the sounds of the Brompton Oratory’s organ practice next door, and the dulcet tones of pneumatic drills from the building site of the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries which are being finished off beneath me (opening very soon – and they look spectacular!), and am very much looking forward to my trip to Bath which starts tomorrow. I’ll be gone Saturday to Saturday so no posts for a week, but no doubt I’ll have lots of photos to delight you with when I get back.

With me on my trip I will be taking the book I am currently reading, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s In Connection With the De Willoughby Claim, which is Victorian melodrama at its best and if you like that sort of thing it’s highly recommended! I will post a more in depth review when I am back and also bore you with photos of my FHB collection, following on from Elaine’s wonderful post on the topic last month. I will also be taking Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories so that I can still take part in Persephone Reading Week so brilliantly thought up by Verity and Claire.

I am greatly looking forward to pretending to be Anne Elliot running through the streets of Bath to find Captain Wentworth and tell him that she does indeed accept his proposal, and will never be persuaded otherwise, to visiting the American Museum in Britain (which I have been longing to visit since Persephone mentioned it years ago when they were doing an exhibition on Dollar Princesses, the American heiresses who came over the Atlantic to marry titles in the late Victorian era, which made them decide to put forward the release of The Shuttle), and also to visiting Tyntesfield, a fantastic Victorian Gothic monstrosity of a house that the National Trust is in the process of restoring. So it’s going to be a busy week, the first part of which I will be volunteering at yet another Christian youth event called Soul Survivor, but it’s going to be immensely good fun. I just hope I manage to fit some reading in!

See you all in a week!

The Third Miss Symons by F M Mayor

After having spent almost two weeks reading The Lost Traveller, I was in the mood for a shorter novel. The Third Miss Symons is incredibly short; it must have taken me no longer than an hour and a half to read it. This would probably make it more of a novella than a novel, I suppose, but I’ll say novel anyway, because it didn’t feel short while I was reading it.

I have read an F M Mayor before, The Squire’s Daughter, which I wrote about here, and I greatly enjoyed it. The Third Miss Symons shares a common theme of women and their place in the world, but while in The Squire’s Daughter there is a happy ending and a likeable heroine, in The Third Miss Symons there is the portrayal of a woman who is both pitiable and contemptable, and it is really quite difficult to feel for her, even though there are plenty of reasons why you should.

The central character is Henrietta ‘Etta’ Symons, a plain, uninteresting member of a large family with a nasty temper yet a great capacity for love. However, due to her temper and diffident character, she is considered difficult and unloveable by others, and so her attempts at friendship and generosity are frequently rejected and people simply cannot be bothered to try with her. Etta has a chance at marriage, but this is thwarted by her older sister, who marries not long afterwards, and Etta becomes very bitter about this. As the years go by and her sisters get married and become mothers, she is left bored, roleless and increasingly bad tempered. The sadness of her life is that she is not useful or necessary to anyone; her presence is merely tolerated by others with all the gifts of a full life involving husbands and children and friends, and while she understands that it is her temperament that makes her unlikeable, and she tries to change, she finds herself unable to become the woman she would like to be, loving and loved.

Etta is the odd one out, the ‘difficult’ person we avoid talking to because it’s awkward or uncomfortable. I have met many people like her; people who seem to not have been born with the innate social grace most of us take for granted; the ability to have easy conversations, to enjoy the company of others, to say the right things, to listen, to sympathise, to have a good laugh, to share life’s joys and sorrows with honesty and love and compassion. While Etta longs to be able to do those things, she just doesn’t have the capacity to. And as she grows older, she loses the desire to be agreeable and just accepts that is who she is. Unlike many of the ‘surplus’ women written about in late 19th and early 20th century fiction, Etta doesn’t pine for marriage or children; she doesn’t particularly want it for love or companionship, she just wanted the status it would have brought her, and she seeks that status by being irritable, controlling and throwing money around where it is not wanted. She has the incredible misfortune of being a woman desperate to be loved and important to others, and somehow never grasping how that is achieved.

Mayor sums up perfectlythe lack of status unmarried women had in Etta’s father’s attitude towards her. As a man hasn’t chosen to marry her, her father thinks she cannot be worth much, as a man’s opinion of a woman is how he judges women. As no man thinks Etta is worthwhile, no one thinks she is worth much, and she is left to drift aimlessly through life, unwanted, unloved, and with no real purpose. Of course Etta has brought most of this upon herself, but still, it is a sad state of affairs that made me feel an intense sorrow for the many women who must have lived lives like this; unmarried, unwanted, a burden on their families and with no place and no role, brought up solely for marriage and so when left alone they have no ability or capacity to do anything apart from ‘good works’ amongst the poor. What a narrow life they were condemned to.

I went through a phase of reading ‘single surplus woman’ type books a while ago; Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Rachel Ferguson’s Alas Poor Lady, Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Singled Out, E M Delafield’s Consequences…but this was by far the most depressing of them all. Other women have found a use, a hope, in their singleness, but Etta, well, she was content to do nothing with her life. She lived with no hope in anyone or anything, because no one and nothing had any hope in her. This is a quietly tragic and profound novel, and I look forward to reading the final F M Mayor published by Virago, The Rector’s Daughter. As a single woman herself, Mayor certainly understood the women she wrote about, and I have heard The Rector’s Daughter is her best.

The Lost Traveller by Antonia White

This time my post is about a traveller with two l’s. And they’re not travelling in time, they’re just lost. Metaphorically. This is because I just read Antonia White’s sequel to Frost in May, which I wrote about here, entitled The Lost Traveller, about the heroine of Frost in May’s journey into young adulthood. Confusingly her name is changed from Nanda to Clara…because White felt like it, apparently, but once you’re past that it is easy to tell that Nanda and Clara are one and the same. I haven’t read White’s autobiography yet but I gather that Nanda/Clara are supposed to be her at their age, and so I assume much of what happens to Clara in this book also happened to White, which makes me feel very sorry for her and anxious to read her autobiography, which I saw in a bookshop for a cheap price the other day, so I may just head back and pick it up.

But anyway, I digress. This is a lengthy yet marvellous book. It has taken me over a week to read it, which is a long time for me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s journey from being an innocent, fervent, naive and confused convent school girl to a more sexually awakened, ambitious, intelligent and questioning teenager. Her experiences as she grows from youth to burgeoning adulthood leave her wondering about religion, and love, and what her calling in life is, and why she doesn’t feel as deeply about things as she should, and also struggling with her guilty feelings towards the parents she desires to please but is secretly afraid she doesn’t really love.

This heady, passionate, confusing and often painful time that is being a teenager is perfectly described by White. The often stiflingly close friendships that are ever changing, the hatred of everything our parents hold dear, the dreams and ambitions and attachments and feelings that all come together to cause moments of joy interspersed with grief and self doubt and despair…it’s all there, and it’s so close to the bone that it took me right back to being a 17 year old again, lost and self conscious and eternally worrying over what my future would hold.

It tells of Clara leaving the convent school and going on to sixth form at a London girl’s school, where she makes close friends and dreams of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ and going to Cambridge, but then the war breaks out and she heads off to become a governess, before returning back to London and embarking on a course of events that will turn out to be a terrible mistake, which is the cliffhanger the book ends on. Clara doesn’t do an awful lot, but it’s her emotional life that is the real story here, and the inner turmoil she seems to be permanently in is so vividly described that it made me feel almost like I knew her.

Clara’s story also touches on that of her parents and their mistakes and shortcomings, showing the increasing awareness we have as teenagers and adults that our parents are not perfect and that they have desires and dreams and disappointments too. I found these strands of the story very powerful, and touching. It must have been painful for White to write about her parents, if Isabel and Claude, Clara’s parents, are, as I suspect, a depiction of her own. I felt through the way she describes Clara’s relationship with her mother and father that there was a real sense of regret in the way she had viewed and treated her parents as a teenager. I wonder whether this book helped her come to terms with that.

This is a wonderful coming of age novel, a story not just of one girl, but of every girl, I think. I highly recommend it and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next phase of Clara’s life, depicted in The Sugar House.


So I saw The Time Traveler’s Wife at the cinema last night (yes it does pain me to write traveler with one l). I have been looking forward to the release of this film for a while as I adore the book beyond all measure as I wrote about here and I had high hopes. I don’t know why I did, as literary adaptations never cease to disappoint me in some measure, and I usually end up having a moan after watching films of my favourite books about how so and so wasn’t a bit like they should have been, and how they missed such and such an important storyline out etc . I find that filmed versions of novels, especially dense and complicated ones with various characters and an emphasis on conversation rather than plot can never live up to the imagined version you have of a book, and so you do have to adapt your expectations accordingly. However, I am also an eternal optimist and so I was determined to hope for the best and was prepared to be swept away and into the world of this remarkable story.

I was. To an extent. But I was also bitterly disappointed in the complete exclusion of certain characters, like Mrs Kim, and how Clare’s mother’s mental disorder was not even mentioned, how little Gomez and Clarisse feature, how small a role Henry’s father has, and how very little of the shared past Clare and Henry have before they meet in ‘real’ time is shown. Unless you have read the book, you will leave the cinema confused, as many threads are picked up and then never really explained; I suspect some overzealous editing is the culprit. The emotional intensity of Clare and Henry’s relationship is obvious; if they’re not kissing, they’re in bed; but they don’t actually talk much, and unless you know their characters from the book, you would struggle to understand why exactly they feel so passionately about one another.

It was a fairly good go at a very complicated book and I can understand why they cut out periphery events and characters because they do only have 2 hours or so to fit it all in. However, it all fell a bit flat really and didn’t give enough background or depth to Clare and Henry’s relationship to make the film as emotional as I wanted it to be. I wanted to have a good sob like I did at the book, and yet it wasn’t until the final scene that isn’t even in the book that I cried my eyes out and had to grope around in the dark for a tissue.

I am very fussy when it comes to adaptations of my favourite books and I am sure that if I was coming to the film without having read the novel I would have enjoyed it more because it wouldn’t have been vying for supremacy over my imagined version of what the book on film should have been like. One of my friends who came with me hadn’t read it and she still enjoyed it, but my other friend who has read the book also was a bit disappointed, though that didn’t stop her from crying for most of the way through the film!

It’s worth a watch but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. It has made me think though of what does make a good film adaptation of a novel, and it is, I think, making sure that characterisation is not sacrificed over plot. My favourite film adaptation (by film I mean cinema release, not tv adaptation) of a novel is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma because Gwyneth Paltrow is exactly how I imagined Emma to be, and the film captures the spirit of the book perfectly in my opinion. I’d be very interested to hear what are your favourite adaptations, and why?

In other news, I made Simon’s chocolate orange cake the other night and it was delicious, despite me having no caster or icing sugar and having to use granulated sugar for everything. This was due to my own laziness at not being bothered to trek to Morrissons at 9.30pm. The cake turned out fine with granulated, and I used 4 eggs rather than Simon’s three, but I wouldn’t recommend using granulated sugar for butter icing – the gritty crunchiness is still tasty but a bit wearing on the teeth! However, needs must and it still tastes good! See photo. It’s now almost all gone as my flatmates and our friends have been hacking slices off left right and centre. Also, excitingly, I bought a zester, which has actually IMPROVED THE QUALITY OF MY LIFE and therefore you all must buy one too. Gone are the days of having to spend half an hour brushing zest out of my cheese grater with a pastry brush – the zester takes it all off and drops it right into the bowl with no mess and no fuss and no wastage. Such joy! £1.49 in Morrissons. I love Morrisons. So thanks to Simon for a fabulous recipe. I’ll definitely be making it again, it was absolutely delicious!

I am now sitting on the sofa watching Persuasion as I am going on holiday to Bath not next week but the week after and I want to pretend I am Anne Elliot running along the Royal Crescent to meet Captain Wentworth when I am there. So romantic! All I need to do is find myself a Captain Wentworth…a girl can dream!