Tuesday, 24 August 2010

But at my back I always hear Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near

The view from my study window

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell is one of my favourite poems as I understand that sense of urgency about life. Obviously, his goal is quite different from mine! But, I am finding myself more and more with a feeling that there are just not enough hours in the day. Had I but world enough indeed as I make endless plans to get things done and find that the week has flown by once more. So, I am turning more and more to the beautiful sky that I have found over Oxford - it is amazing how little sky I saw in London. Why wasn't I looking? Now I just can't seem to escape the overwhelming beauty of it as it catches my eye everyday.

But, as Marvell's poem encourages, I just need to crack on and wade through my Nile-length to do list - it has been almost a week since I went along to a book group in Oxford that Simon (Stuck in Book) was kind enough to take me to, as he is a regular at two book groups. I had a lovely time and the book was Frankenstein which Simon posted about here. I had great fun disagreeing with Simon and some other members of the group about who we should sympathise with, Frankenstein or his creation. I am a member of 'Team Creation' myself as I find Dr Frankenstein a completely unlikeable character not least because he never takes responsibility for his actions. I could go on at length here as I did last Wednesday but I will spare you my rant. I think I actually started to foam at the mouth at one point so perhaps they won't let me go back!

The next book on the list is Villette, I sometimes wonder if I am in the Truman Show as someone somewhere must have rigged it so that the books for the next couple of months are nineteenth century. Still, I have vowed to read more nineteenth century so I shall give it a go. Although, I am making poor headway with Jane Eyre. Which is another thing that I must finish.

Recently, I have been reading novels set in Oxford, The Lessons by Naomi Alderman was really interesting but I will do a post on that soon. I am now reading a crime novel by Veronica Stallwood, Death and the Oxford Box - to be honest it isn't blowing me away but then nothing compares to a Colin Dexter or Dorothy L. Sayers. Which, reminds me I had planned to read Gaudy Night again which I love. Harriet Vane, with her backbone of steel, is such a great character. More on that anon.

So, lots of reading plans. And now I have booked to go to the Iris Murdoch conference in September which I am really looking forward to but I need to swot up before I go! I nipped into the Oxfam Bookshop on St Giles today and found a copy of Bruno's Dream which I snapped up. Perhaps I should stop looking at the sky so much - and that way, I might yet make the sun run!

Monday, 23 August 2010

A trip to Hay on Wye

Booth Books

As soon as we bought our very own car I was determined to go to Hay on Wye to indulge myself with abandon in book browsing and book buying. So, at the weekend we packed our bags and drove to Hay via Hereford where we gazed at the Mappa Mundi. It rained the entire time that we were in Hay but that merely added to the cosiness of the trip and meant that I didn't feel at all guilty for not marching up the Brecon Beacons (something which does not appeal to me in the slightest but Mr Bell was quite keen to break in his new walking boots - I have never been more grateful for the rain).

There are approximately thirty secondhand bookshops in Hay and I traipsed around most of them. I have to say that the majority are blatantly over-pricing books; ripping off unsuspecting tourists. For example, one shop was selling secondhand Colin Dexter books for £2.50 - these are ten a penny in any secondhand bookshop and I wouldn't pay more than 50p for an indulgent Inspector Morse session. In another bookshop I saw a very battered copy of The Group by Mary McCarthy for £4.50 - absolutely ridiculous.

So be warned - Hay on Wye is every booklovers' fantasy BUT shop around. I then went into another shop and saw The Group for £1.95 - much more reasonable. But, I still didn't buy it as I am desperately trying to use the library and keep book acquisition to a minimum. I bought five books in Booth Books which I recommend to anyone planning to go to Hay. Not only is it a total emporium but books are reasonably priced and they have delightful reading areas. I stumbled upon this very happy cat, fast asleep on the sofa.

I feel that I was really boring in my purchases as I stuck to what I know, here is the list:
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)
The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann (Virago)
Rumour of Heaven by Beatrix Lehmann (Virago)
No More Than Human by Maura Laverty (Virago)
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (Penguin)

I just can't help myself when it comes to early twentieth century literature written by women.

We left Hay in brilliant sunshine and stopped off in Tewkesbury for a look around the Abbey which not only boasts the largest Norman tower in Europe but also a rather delicious Mulberry tree in its grounds.

As we were on the road to Oxford I saw the sign to Swinbrook so I immediately made Mr Bell do a handbrake turn into the single track road which leads to the churchyard where Nancy Mitford is buried. She has been an idol of mine for years so I was so pleased to have the chance to visit her grave. Her sisters Diana, Unity and Pamela are also buried in the churchyard. Unfortunately, Unity and Nancy's graves are covered in lichen which, whilst being very pretty, means that it is really difficult to read them. Unity has a longer epitaph and I have googled to find out that it says "Say not the struggle naught availeth" - which, when you think about it, is both touching and defensive. When it comes to sisterhood I am a teeny bit soppy so I was pleased to see their graves in a row - yes, they bickered and didn't always understand each other but the bonds held fast. Having said that, I doubt my sister would forgive me if I shopped her to MI5 thereby causing her imprisonment!

Monday, 16 August 2010

...that bearing boughs may live

And so autumn is slowly ripening the fruit of summer's labour. I found this bounteous tree in the grounds of The National Trust's Chastleton House. A moment in between drenching rain showers took me off into the wilds of Oxfordshire with my oldest friend. We have known each other since we were seven years old and have been aspiring, in our tastes, to be middle aged ever since we met. We are long used to being the youngest people wherever we go. So, on Saturday we went for a hearty pub lunch and gentle stroll at Great Tew and then on to Chastleton House for an idyllic afternoon spent wandering the grounds and eating the mulberries.
Chastleton House

A chocolate box cottage in Great Tew

If only wild music did 'burthen every bough' as Shakespeare declared in Sonnet 102. For if it did then the fruit trees at Chastleton House would be truly raucous. Mulberries, plums, apples, quinces and even peaches are scattered throughout the grounds making me wonder why we import fruit at all. I look forward to late summer every year for so many different reasons but to hear my mother (as I did today) say she is going out for damsons is absolutely one of them; as I know that on a cold winter's night I will go home to a jar of her damson jam. Spreading it thickly on toast, I will think of the late summer sun and my mother's jam making magic combining to produce the best comfort food that you could wish for when the boughs are bare and the bounty of summer seems a lifetime away.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

For the rain it raineth every day

Well, this is the view from my (newly finished) study window this morning which immediately brought dear old Feste to mind. Summer seems to have scurried off and left us between seasons. While I wait for the burnished bronze of autumn to sweep in and save us from limbo I am reading three books, fuelled by copious amounts of warming tea and rather too much cake. The trouble is that I need to focus on one as I keep flitting between them.

I have started and am really enjoying The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, not least because it is set in Oxford so it is helping me get my bearings in this new city. I am still reading Jane Eyre, which is perfect to read on a grey day as it is steeped in grey. Grey people, grey places, grey plot, grey, grey, grey. And finally I am reading An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, which is also set in Oxford and is great bed time reading.

I am off in search of a hearty pub lunch and, hopefully, a fire to sit beside!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Bimbling about

I am pretty sure that bimbling is not a word. But it is what I spend quite a lot of time doing. This week has been a 'bimbling' week. I have drifted about doing bits and bobs and not very much all at the same time. I was a bridesmaid for a very beautiful bride up on the moors in the far north. I still have the lovely flowers (above) in a jar on our mantelpiece. On our way back down the spine of the country we veered westwards and found tea and cake in Stroud.

I gorged myself on treacle tart and looked on in horror as Mr Bell devoured a coffee and walnut cake; I detest coffee and walnut. Actually, that was probably a cunning tactic on his part so that I wouldn't want to steal any of his.
We found a view to look at before returning back to Oxfordshire.
It is easy to make friends in the country - here is one that we found in a pub in Bampton
As I sat eating a bag of chips in this churchyard last Friday night,
I caught the smallest whiff of autumn. I wonder if summer knows that the next season is impatiently waiting its turn? There is time yet though before the apples fully ripen, so I am going to go and sun my toes in the grass.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Weather in the Streets - Book Review

What better way to spend a sunny afternoon than by sitting in the garden, picking at a fresh bowl of strawberries and reading Rosamund Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets. I promise I am attempting to read Jane Eyre (still the saga continues) but I needed a quick fix of early twentieth century literature before fully embarking upon the epic tome. Anyway, I digress.

The Weather in the Streets is a continuation of the story of Olivia Curtis who is the protagonist in Lehmann's Invitation to the Waltz. Here, Olivia has grown up, separated from her husband and is at a crossroads when a chance encounter with an old acquaintance leads to a heady love affair.

Olivia is a nervous and vulnerable person. She never feels that she can match her sensible sister Kate who has married, produced children and is living the textbook life of domestic serenity. Feeling a failure in every sense Olivia goes home to see her sick father. It is on the train journey home that she meets Rollo Spencer, the brother of her old friend Marigold. Olivia always had a soft spot for Rollo and the reader is quickly made aware of a sense of missed opportunity as each reveals that they are not happy.

Rollo is married to Nicola, and it quickly transpires that she is not physically forthcoming. Olivia has always admired Rollo and they start having an affair. What struck me was how passively Olivia accepts Rollo as a dangerous liaison. She loves him but she is aware of the inevitability of her getting hurt as she lets him rule the relationship. Olivia has no delusion that he will leave his wife but she struggles with the constant and overwhelming presence of Nicola in all that they do. Nicola controls Rollo and, ultimately, she is his priority. Filtering down from this, Olivia is beholden to Nicola's whims. If Nicola wants to go away, then Rollo will take her. If she stays, Rollo will look after her. Olivia has to snatch her time and be grateful for it.

Nicola is a silent presence, she is given no voice in the narrative. But, arguably, hers is the strongest. The protagonists are circling around her at all times and the reader is caught between sympathy for this unknown character and the desire that she would release Rollo from her grip. Interestingly, Olivia discovers that she is pregnant just as Rollo goes away with Nicola for a long holiday. Throughout the ordeal of Olivia concealing her morning sickness from her family and her booking a termination the reader is left on a precipice of hope. Surely, Rollo will come back for her? Surely, it will be alright? But Olivia calmly goes through with it as she knows that she is only second in Rollo's affections and that he will never leave his wife.

Painfully, Olivia tells Rollo when he returns and although he is distressed through shock, he barely manages to comfort her. Rather she comforts him. Nicola, of course, becomes pregnant and Olivia realises how fickle Rollo really is. Relations restored with his wife, his attentions towards Olivia become slack.

Lehmann's characterisation is so piercing that the reader feels dragged into the mind of each character as they become entangled in a web of messy relationships and journeys of self-discovery. Olivia is both perceptive and resigned. She is striving on the one hand for understanding, love and reassurance but on the other she knows the truth of the situation and she makes huge personal sacrifices as a result.

I wondered as I was reading, whether Olivia embarked upon the relationship out of a combination of both nostalgia and safety. Nostalgia because Rollo was her first girlhood crush, her friends glamorous older brother. And safety because, having left her husband, she wasn't really looking for one hundred percent commitment. I gained a sense that this bright girl was struggling with the realisation that she has not achieved all that she thought she might with the consequence that she drifted into a relationship to consume all her attentions rather than pursue her writing, her dreams and ultimately, rather than find herself.

Moments of strength would quickly fade as Rollo charmed Olivia back into the cycle of being his mistress. If this isn't a man who wants his bread buttered on both sides, I don't know what he is! I was exasperated as Olivia just couldn't make that final break. And my mind would stray to Nicola. We know she doesn't love Rollo but does that make it alright?

I was left with a mixed feeling of bewilderment as Lehmann leaves the reader reeling from Olivia's passive acceptance that she and Rollo will remain lovers. Is Lehmann pointing out that some women sacrifice too much for men? Obviously, I am not reading this book through the eyes of a young woman in 1936, rather I have the legacy of feminism sitting on my shoulder. Am I being too hard on Rollo and Olivia?

Reading books like this in the 21st century is fascinating as I sometimes realise that we haven't necessarily 'come that far'. There are plenty of books being published now in which a female 'heroine' compromises herself to keep 'her man'. But reading this article a few months ago I started to wonder if something was brewing. But I thought nothing more of it as life drifted on. Yesterday, I treated myself to a magazine - I bought ELLE, an old favourite. This month there is a feature on passivity within relationships and it cites Laura Munson (see article) as an example. Something is indeed brewing here. Is it new - or is it a resurrection of the age old hatred of the shrewish woman?

Either way, a thread is being spun in the women's lifestyle pages at the moment. Remaining passive in the face of relationship difficulties will apparently steer the relationship back on course. Erm, I am no expert but I have found that an equal amount of work from both parties will carry a relationship through the rocky times. And once through the rocky times, you are both reassured that the other is investing themselves fully in making the relationship work. A great sense of fulfilment, respect and love is borne through this knowledge. The women behind the two articles I have found on this topic seem to imply that the majority of women react hysterically to the prospect of a relationship breaking down. Do we? If so, yes, a certain amount of calm might be worth investing in. But passivity?

I think I would always wonder if the relationship was still breathing merely through his apathy bred as a result of the lack of response he had got from me. It is, after all, easier to stay in a rut than jump out. Do we really want to stay with men who announce that they don't want to be with us? And then stay, because we continued to feed them, clean for them and not make any demands of them?

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word passive as being synonymous with submissiveness. An interesting thought for modern times. Lehmann, in 1936, made it clear that Olivia's passivity made her both unhappy and submissive. She didn't strive for a solid relationship instead she tiptoed around Rollo and ended up aborting their baby so as not to cause him the anguish of having an illegitimate child. I think Lehmann was trying to tell women something and, it appears, her message is as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Struggling through Jane Eyre

The Oxfordshire Sky

I promise I am trying but I am struggling. Don't get me wrong, it is a great plot and I like the grey/gothic undertone but good lord the syntax. Round and round we go swooping up and down and under and over. I will persevere but in the meantime I'll talk about what I have been up to this week. Whilst avoiding nineteenth century literature.

This week we bought our very first car so that we can do a myriad of not very exciting things like go to the supermarket (no I haven't given up on the market but I like to bulk buy cleaning products) or the local recycling centre. We like to find excuses to celebrate so last night we took ourselves off for a celebratory 'we have a car' meal at the Trout Inn at Wolvercote. A totally picturesque pub outside Oxford with the river running by and this lovely bridge connecting one side of the garden to the other. The pub also boasts its very own pet Peacock which struts around looking for attention.

On our way home we caught a glimpse of Godstow Nunnery through the hedge.

Godstow Nunnery

I immediately made Mr Bell stop the car and I leapt out and climbed over the fence to go and have a poke about, leaving him bemused to wait whilst I basked in a ruin glowing with evening light. Godstow Nunnery was finished and dedicated in 1139 and was made famous through the fact that it was the final resting place of Rosamund Clifford or 'Fair Rosamund'. Rosamund was the mistress of Henry II (who accidentally ordered the murder of Thomas Becket) and is the focus of several legends including the legend that Henry II's queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had Rosamund poisoned out of revenge.

'Fair Rosamund' was immortalised in John William Waterhouse's painting of her which he painted in 1917.

As I walked around the site I wondered about the lives of these women. Were they all dedicated to a holy life or were some of them there against their will? Sold to the church to ease their family's financial burden. I had only cows for company as I wandered around a silent site which would once have been bustling with activity. The Nunnery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and passed through various different hands until it was eventually acquired by the University of Oxford. Apparently, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) took Alice Liddell (aka Alice in Wonderland) to the site for picnics.

Jane Eyre is calling. I fear this is turning into an epic journey of realisation that my veins flow with the juices of modernism - and there is nothing that consumptive nineteenth century types can do about it. But we shall see.