The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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It’s always rather galling when you come across a book that’s exactly the sort of thing you wish you had written yourself. Victorian people who enjoy learning about all of the scientific advances of their age, and spend their time collecting botanical specimens and travelling to exotic, uncivilised climes are definitely Victorian people I want to spend time with, and Gilbert’s huge, sweeping and incredibly ambitious novel certainly had me wishing this was a research project I’d had my teeth stuck into. A fictional tale with enough reference to non fiction to make it feel like I was reading about a living, breathing person, it tells the story of Alma Whittaker, born in Philadelphia in 1820 to a wealthy English botanical importer and his intensely practical, phenomenally intelligent Dutch wife Beatrice. Her father being one of the richest men in America, Alma grows up surrounded by wealth and luxury, but she is no pampered miss. Her mother’s love of intellect and reason ensures that Alma grows up with the most excellent of educations, and she is fluent in several languages, conversant in all of the latest scientific theories, and an expert in botany before she even reaches two figures. For a child who loves nothing more than books and the natural world, Alma’s life could not be more perfect. That is until one night a tragedy occurs on the family estate, and a beautiful little orphaned girl, exactly Alma’s age, suddenly becomes her sister when her parents decide to take her in.

Alma and Prudence, brought up by the emotionally cold Beatrice, their minds focused solely on developing knowledge and reason, have no understanding of how to become sisters, or to make friends. Despite being the daughters of a colossally wealthy man, they are not considered a good catch due to their odd ways, and their world becomes increasingly closeted as they reach marriageable age. Alma, sexually awakened thanks to the discovery of a pornographic book in her father’s library, quivers with sexual desire and longs to marry, but her plainness and terrifying intellect have created a formidable barrier to such emotional fulfilment. She watches as her unfathomable, seemingly emotionless sister inexplicably marries their former tutor, and then her only friend marries the man she has loved from afar for some years, leaving her alone and responsible for the running of her father’s business after the sudden death of her mother. However, Alma, ever rational, does not fall into despair at this disappointment; suppressing her sexuality, she devotes herself to her botanical work, determining on becoming the world’s foremost expert on mosses. She achieves much success at this, and derives great pleasure from it, but when love comes to her once again, much later in life, she finds that suddenly all else pales in comparison, and her emotions will lead her to travel paths she could never have otherwise imagined in the pursuit of trying to understand that most unanswerable of natural mysteries: the vagaries of the human heart.

The Signature of All Things is a fascinating, enormously wide ranging novel, taking in all manner of topics, from natural history to slavery, to the position of women and colonialisation. It is an incredibly ambitious attempt to encompass the nineteenth century spirit, and while it is by no means perfect, and could have done with a little more editing, it is a fantastic story with some brilliant characters, and looks at the nineteenth century from a far different perspective to any other historical novel I’ve read. Alma is a wonderful central force whose struggle to find a place for herself in a world that has not given her what her heart desires is incredibly moving but also very inspiring, and she leaps to life from the pages. I have to say that initially I had low expectations, considering that I had only known Gilbert’s name from her Eat, Pray, Love fame, but she is far more than just a new-age memoir writer, and I would recommend this to anyone who wants to be entirely transported elsewhere for a few days. I was quite bereft when I finished, and have a list as long as my arm of places and people and topics I now want to research – nineteenth century female botanists are about to become my new obsession!

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Florence

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I have just spent a lovely four days in Florence, which is a city I have so often heard people gush over that I went with sky-high expectations of being utterly blown away by its beauty and charm. As always, the arrival in any foreign city begins with disorientation, navigation through questionable train/bus/airport neighbourhood surroundings, and regret at having packed so much stuff you probably won’t need as you hulk your suitcase along thronged streets, sweating profusely. However, Florence manages to assuage most of these inconveniences by having a beautiful train station – a lovely piece of modern architecture – and though it’s surrounded by an unpleasant road, within moments you emerge from a small and slightly seedy side street into a spacious, elegant piazza, presided over by the gorgeous church of Santa Maria Novella, which has a small garden to the side with cypress trees, a facade of coloured marble and a general unruffled air of being comfortably and peaceably settled in its own corner of paradise. The piazza is ringed with genteel, shuttered-windowed buildings, and our hotel was one of them. Within moments we had relieved ourselves of our cases and were relaxing in our room, which had a direct view of the church and made us feel very cosmopolitan.

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Once recovered from our journey, we set off to explore, doing a leisurely lap of the city to take in the main sights. We first of all stopped at Santa Maria Novella to take in the gorgeous interior decoration of the church, and enjoy its peaceful, shady cloisters. It’s not on the main tourist trail, but is definitely worth a visit, with some work of significant Renaissance artists to be found inside. Once we had fully drunk in the beauty of the church, we went back out into the ochre coloured streets of the city, which all lead to the Duomo. Its famous dome loomed up before us from unexpected corners until we come out onto its surrounding piazza and had our breath taken away both by its size and its incredible beauty. I had seen pictures of it, of course, but to see it in the flesh is something else entirely. The coloured marble, the red-roofed dome, the slim tower of the campanile and the perfectly preserved carvings are like nothing else I have ever seen, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I can’t even begin to imagine what the travellers of the past must have made of it – no wonder Florence was such a key site on the Grand Tour. Once we’d had a good walk round the Duomo, we went off to see the Signoria, which used to house the government of Florence, and then through the colonnade of the Uffizi Gallery down to the banks of the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewellery shops, which provide fantastic window shopping opportunities – I tried on a beautiful necklace that turned out to be 6,000 euros – obviously I made a hasty exit! – as well as gorgeous views out to the surrounding Tuscan hills. On the other side of the Ponte Vecchio we enjoyed looking in the small independent shops selling handmade marbled papers, before walking up to see the grand Medici palazzo, the Palazzo Pitti. By this time we were starving and tired out, so we headed off to a pizza restaurant to rest our weary feet and fill our stomachs before an early night in preparation for the following day’s adventures!

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We had booked in advance to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi  – this is highly recommended to anyone thinking of taking the trip, as the queues can get very long. Climbing up the Campanile early in the morning afforded us a fantastic view over the city, and the Duomo’s Baptistry is a stunning work of art, with amazing Byzantine style decoration. The Duomo itself was nothing much to look at inside, apparently – I wouldn’t know as I was prevented from entering by a male security guard who decided my knee-length dress was too short – as a man wearing shorts far shorter than my dress was allowed to walk in ahead of me. This made me so furious that I refused to buy a scarf to cover my perfectly decent legs with and instead waited outside while my friend went in to see the church. My feminist anger still seething, we then went off to see the Signoria, which is a beautiful building with fabulous, ornate state rooms and a very nice art collection, as well as a fantastic tower that can be climbed for impressive views of the Duomo. After lunch and a nice relax in our hotel, we went off to the Uffizi to see the many famous works of Renaissance art found inside, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, before hiking it up the hillside on the other side of the city to enjoy the pretty rose garden and the lovely views of Florence nestled amidst the surrounding Tuscan hills.

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Our final full day in Florence saw us starting early at the Palazzo Pitti, which is beautiful inside, with gorgeous, mainly 18th century interiors, and an impressive artwork collection. However, the main draw of the palazzo (in my opinion) is its extensive gardens, which are a real oasis in the city and offer magnificent views across the countryside. The palazzo was definitely my favourite place we visited, and I could have stayed in its rose garden, looking out at the green expanse of Tuscany all day, but we had much more to see! After lunch and a quick rest stop, we went off to visit the Santa Croce, which is Florence’s Westminster Abbey, housing the tombs of many of Italy’s greatest names, such as Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo, and has gorgeous frescoes by every famous Renaissance painter imaginable. We then went off for a walk and came across the Botanical Gardens, which aren’t extensive but are a nice spot for a stroll, before heading back into town for another rest and then our final dinner.

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I had a wonderful time in Florence – it’s a beautiful city that is small enough to easily walk around, and yet just big enough to keep containing plenty of lovely surprises as you wend your way through its streets. The architecture is certainly not as impressive as that of Rome, but when seen from a height, the red roofs cupped in the verdant palm of the surrounding countryside are a truly magnificent sight. I’m glad I’ve finally seen this little gem, and it’s now made me desperate to see more of Italy!

Fancy reading some of my fiction?

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I’ve been toying with putting some of my fiction on here for a while, but I’ve been quite nervous about it for a number of reasons. However, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the benefits of having the opportunity to share and discuss my writing with people will surely outweigh the negatives, so I’ve decided to take the plunge. As anyone who writes will know, there’s always an element of fear involved in sharing your work. It’s hard to open an intensely private part of yourself up to the public eye and risk criticism and rejection. However, I write because I love telling stories, and rather than forever keeping my writing hidden away on my computer, I do want to share it with people. I’m not part of a writing group and I would love the opportunity to have conversations about my writing and how I could make it better. So, I’m hoping that by posting some of what I’m writing on here, I will be able to learn and develop by hearing what people honestly think of my stuff.

So. If you fancy seeing what I’m working on, you can find it under a new tab at the top of the blog – ‘My Writing’. I’ve posted the first three chapters of a book I recently finished writing, and any feedback – positive or negative! – would be very gratefully received.

Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood

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Tirzah Garwood was the wife of the mid century artist Eric Ravilious, whose work has been enjoying a much-deserved renaissance in recent years. The air of tragedy about him, lost in his prime over the Icelandic sea while working as a war artist, has only added to the appeal of his romantic, unsettling, marvellously modern watercolours, largely of the rural English landscape. However, behind every great man is an even greater woman, as the saying goes, and Tirzah Garwood is no exception. A highly talented artist in her own right, her ability to pursue her work during the years of her marriage to Eric was stymied by childrearing and illness, and so she has not received the lasting recognition she deserves. Hopefully, the reprinting of her autobiography, and recent renewed interest in her woodcuts, will change this. Her lively, vibrant voice and passionate interest in art and creativity sing out from this marvellous book, that chronicles not only the life of an artist and her friends, but that of an ordinary woman struggling to carve out a life for herself amidst the everyday drudgery of childcare and housework. For as much as the Ravilious’ life was glamorous and bohemian, surrounded as they were by illustrious friends and well-connected relatives, it was also beset by the banal concerns of all of our lives, from eccentric landladies to frozen pipes, broken heating to unwelcome guests. It is these observations of the ordinary that make this book so special; not the accounts of what such and such a famous person said or looked like, but how Tirzah coped with the many and various challenges her life threw at her, while still managing to maintain a sense of joy, wonder and impressive acceptance of the world she lived in.

Great Bardfield, in the depths of rural Essex, was the village where the young Raviliouses, alongside many of their artist friends such as Edward Bawden, lived for several years in the 1930s and 40s. They shared homes, lives and even partners, and the village itself seems to have been home to a great deal of eccentric types who provided plenty of colour to what was often a hard existence. Anyone who fantasises about English country life should read this book to understand the reality of what living in unheated, unmodernised houses in the middle of nowhere was really like; there is very little romance in the drudgery of hauling buckets of water up several flights of stairs, wading through muddy lanes to get to a shop, and wearing fifty cardigans to keep warm in a house so cold you can see your own breath. There was much to entertain, too, of course; parties at the local manor, bonfire night celebrations, countryside rambles, picnics and endless sources of gossip, alongside the constant stream of new artist friends joining what swiftly became a close community of creative types who seemed to have few qualms about falling in love with each others’ partners. One of the most surprising things about this memoir is just how relaxed and open Tirzah was with discussing her sexuality and her feelings. She and Eric were openly unfaithful in a marriage that was much more complex and tumultuous than I had realised, and the requited and unrequited love affairs they had amongst their circle of neighbours and friends caused troublesome fractures of friendships that clearly preoccupied much of Tirzah’s energies during her time in Great Bardfield.

Tirzah did not intend for this to be read by anyone but her family, but it is a valuable and precious account of pre-war life that offers a fascinating insight into both an artistic life and the life of a woman brought up in the Edwardian era. So much of history deals in stereotypes and generalisations, and the impression we are given of women of this time always seems to place them at an impossible distance from our own existence. However, Tirzah paints a portrait of a thoroughly modern woman, living with thoroughly modern people, whose lives were just as complex as our own and certainly not ruled by the strict social standards historians seem to want to place pre-war life within. Tirzah’s approach to life was impressively reasonable, fair, refreshing; she loved freely and forgave freely, and never begrudged others for their failures. She did not have an easy life; Eric’s early death was devastating, as was her own protracted battle with the cancer that would eventually kill her, leaving her unable to see her children grow up, but she faced it with an irrepressible curiosity, fearlessness and zest that made me wish I had known her. This is a marvellous book, that is so much more than a glimpse into the world of the Great Bardfield circle of artists, and even if you know nothing – or care to know nothing – about them, it is worth reading for Tirzah’s generous, lively and wonderfully honest depiction of a woman’s life in the pre and post war era alone. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Northumberland

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Over the Easter holidays, a friend and I went on a lovely week-long break to Northumberland, the border county between England and Scotland. Every time I travel to Scotland on the train, I’m enchanted by the gorgeous glimpses I catch of long stretches of sandy beach, wide open skies, wild, rugged landscape and tantalising ruins as we speed through Northumberland, and I’ve been itching to explore the area properly for a long time. So, an airbnb cottage booked (this lovely place, if anyone fancies following in my footsteps) and a car borrowed from my parents, we headed north for the almost seven hour journey. It’s a long and boring drive, being largely motorway, so we broke the trip up by stopping off at a National Trust property, Belton House, on the way, and we also very much enjoyed spotting the famous Angel of the North statue as we drove through Newcastle. Arriving in the tiny little village where we were staying was wonderful; surrounded by fields and sheep, the silence was quite astonishing for people used to living amidst constant noise, and that evening, on our way back from the pub, we gasped in amazement at the sky, filled with stars that we never normally see from the streets of London.

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After an excellent night’s sleep, on our first morning we headed off to the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, crossing briefly into Scotland in order to do so. Berwick sports a fantastic viaduct, lovely sea views and a charming, historic town centre. We loved sitting by the water, eating chips and watching the trains to Edinburgh and London whizz past across the viaduct, and we also thoroughly enjoyed a rummage in Berrydin Books, a very well organised and friendly second hand bookshop where I picked up some bargains. We then headed down the coast to Lindisfarne, which has been a must-see of mine ever since I was enthralled by the stories my history teacher told me back in Year 7 of the terrifying Viking raid on the poor defenceless monks who inhabited the windswept island, only accessible via causeway to the mainland. It was a thrill to drive across the narrow road, surrounded by sea, and studded with terror-inducing signs warning you of the dangers of not checking the tide times and ending up trapped, car filled to the roof with sea water. We arrived safely on the island, and my imagination was running wild with visions of atmospheric ruins. Disappointingly, my visions were nothing like the reality; the ruins of the old priory are at the end of the village street, and there was little sense of the isolation or mystery I had pictured in my history lessons. Whilst it was amazing to be on the island and to see the priory ruins, I did wish I hadn’t built it up so much in my head before going! There is also a wonderful National Trust run castle on the island, but it’s closed this year for renovations, unfortunately. I’ll have to go back another time! On our way home we stopped by Wallington, an unexpectedly beautiful National Trust house filled with impressive pre-Raphaelite paintings and a brilliant gallery of Victorian curios – we only stopped by to have a cup of tea, but found ourselves enchanted by it. It was actually one of our favourite places throughout our whole trip and I’d highly recommend a visit.

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The following day, we went to see Cragside, another National Trust property. It’s a famous Victorian landmark, being the home of the engineer Lord Armstrong, and the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. It’s an absolutely incredible place; beautiful inside and out, with spectacular gardens and a pinetum built within the quarried slopes of the surrounding land. The views are breathtaking, and there is so much to see and do; you can see the servant’s quarters and the labour saving hydraulic devices Lord Armstrong had fitted, the suite of rooms decorated with owls just for the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and an iron bridge built across the gorge to provide spectacular views of the house from the garden. You could spend all day there, but we had other things to do – we went off to Alnwick for lunch, home to the castle that was Hogwarts in the Harry Potter film, and the amazing Barter Books, housed in Alnwick’s old train station and filled to the brim with second hand books – before enjoying a wonderful windswept walk along the beach to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, which has sat majestically by the sea for around a thousand years, and is a truly breathtaking sight.

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Keen to see more of the coast, the following day we drove out to Bamburgh Castle, which is still inhabited, and contains a very interesting collection of quite random objects. However, its main attraction is the spectacular views across the white sand dunes that are at the foot of the cliffs below, and out to the Farne Islands, which are famous for being the home of Grace Darling, the Victorian heroine. We loved walking across the shimmering sand of the beach, which seemed to move as the sand slithered about in the wind, and we were incredibly lucky to have a glorious blue-sky day on which to enjoy the scenery. The village at Bamburgh is incredibly pretty, and has an attractive Victorian church and an RNLI museum dedicated to the story of Grace Darling, which is well worth a visit. We also had a delicious afternoon tea at the historic Copper Kettle tearoom; much needed sustenance after all that hiking across sand dunes!

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We loved every minute of our time in Northumberland; the history, the landscape and the glorious sense of space and freedom made possible by its sparsely populated stretches of countryside make it a place where you truly can escape from the realities of your everyday life.  I already can’t wait to go back.