The Mysterious Miss Austen marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, and will feature around 80 items including paintings, illustrations, letters, clothing and other objects. Five portraits of the author (some in private collections) will come together under one roof for the very first time, while on loan from the British Library will be the manuscript of an alternative ending to Persuasion. Also on show will be Jane's silk pelisse (pictured), her purse, and her case for sewing materials.
The exhibition is being curated by Louise West, former curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum and chair of the Jane Austen 200 working group, and Professor Kathryn Sutherland, a leading Austen scholar.
Janeites who do not already know the Austen Only blog will find a wealth of information there.
There's a scholarly article about the pelisse here.
"To watch rain pock the surface of a chalk stream, feel mizzle on the chill skin of your face or smell petrichor rising from summer-dry soil is to be baptised into a fuller, older, and more deeply felt relationship with the natural world."
Michael Deacon offers this tip in today's Telegraph:
"Keep a notepad by your bedside table. Each time you finish reading a book, write down its title, its author, and the date you finished it. Nothing else. Just title, author and date.
[...] It barely even sounds like a tip at all. But the mere presence of the notepad is significant - because it guilt-trips you into reading more. A tiny, anxious part of your brain starts worrying about how you'll feel at the end of the year, when you open the notepad and see how little you've achieved. And so, to avoid this moment of shame, you read and read and read.
I started keeping my notepad on the first of January, and have already finished three novels, two books about politics, and an autobiography. That's certainly more than I would in a normal month. Yet I'm no less busy at work. Fatherhood is no less demanding. The only difference is the arrival of the notepad, peering across at me like a suspicious teacher. Hastily I snatch up another novel, desperate to win the notepad's approval.
Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time, a beautifully wrought, unsettling novel of contemporary rural England, impressed me greatly when I read it a couple of years ago. Although that was fiction, the author's skill as a nature writer was more than apparent in it, so I didn't hesitate to buy her most recent book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, "an evocative meditation on the English landscape in wet weather".
I'm currently reading the second of the four walks, in Shropshire in April. On Easter Sunday, in a country lane, the cow parsley is starting to come out, and it reminds Melissa of Edward Thomas's poem 'It Rains', "with its lovely sense of the lushness of spring rain on new green growth, and its clear sense of rain's oblique relationship to memory and the past:
It rains, and nothing stirs within the fence Anywhere through the orchard’s untrodden, dense Forest of parsley. The great diamonds Of rain on the grassblades there is none to break, Or the fallen petals further down to shake.
And I am nearly as happy as possible To search the wilderness in vain though well, To think of two walking, kissing there, Drenched, yet forgetting the kisses of the rain:
Sad, too, to think that never, never again, Unless alone, so happy shall I walk In the rain. When I turn away, on its fine stalk Twilight has fined to naught, the parsley flower Figures, suspended still and ghostly white, The past hovering as it revisits the light."
This and another Thomas poem, "Rain", are discussed here.
More recently owned by a Rolling Stone, the house was a country retreat for the Milne family for three decades, the surrounding countryside providing the locations for the exploits of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and friends.
Shown above is the sundial book initialled AAM, with Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Rabbit and Owl carved into the stone.
"He had said he was no story-book hero. It was true. And it was the measure of the magic of the place that she had been betrayed into accepting that as a confession of weakness. It was, she saw now, the reverse. A story-book hero had by definition no place in life; he battered his way through twenty victorious chapters, faded out on a lustful kiss, and was gone for good. But at the end of this story there was still a new chapter to open. England, Oxford, Cherry Close ... herself and Stephen ... It came to Jennifer quite clearly what the next chapters must contain."
Brightening my inbox this morning was the nicest email from Deborah, thanking me for recommending Sue Gee's Reading in Bed which helped her through a recent illness.
It's always lovely to hear that books I've enthused about have been similarly enjoyed by people who have picked them up as a result of my urging, but it's particularly gratifying to learn that a book has been useful in some way, or helped at a difficult time.
We often talk about comfort reads and the good they can do, but following on from Deborah's kind message I wondered if anyone could suggest books which have been helpful on a deeper level. When we need more than just a cosy day on the couch, but rather reassurance, wisdom, the feeling of being in safe hands - true comfort at times of anxiety and stress - is there an author or book (fiction or non-fiction) you've found to provide that?
No need to give personal information when answering that question, but if you have any candidates for what we might call a bookish first aid kit or literary medicine cabinet, it would be good to hear about them.
The ladies of Priorsford, "a busy, brisk community" in the Scottish Borders, pay calls on one another, knit socks, make marmalade, buy pan drops in Miss Smart's sweetshop, and live in rooms full of books and flowers with views over the Tweed valley and the hills at their backs. Much as in Cranford or Tilling, their days are passed in habitual fashion with newcomers ever a talking point and little to properly ruffle feathers; that said, they are not blind to the concerns of the wider world, and even douce Priorsford cannot keep misfortune at bay, but the reader knows from the off that all will be well in the end for that is the kind of good-hearted book O. Douglas's* novel is.
Lady Bidborough, formerly young Jean Jardine, has come back to spend the winter in her family home. Her husband has taken an invalid friend abroad to aid his convalescence, so Jean and her children leave the splendours of their Cotswolds mansion for the plainer comforts of The Rigs in Priorsford where housekeeper Mrs. McCosh ministers to them, and old friends welcome steadfast Jean's company once more. "There's something finer than the ordinary about [Jean]; a gentleness that goes right through, a deep clear sincerity, and with it, a great sense of the ridiculous, and a liking for the queer waifs of life ...". With the help of her secretary Miss Barton she has an inherited fortune to manage, that is, to give away to deserving cases and causes, but her absent husband and her small children are her main concerns and the source of her delight in life, and as such her hostages to fortune.
Little happens in Priorsford and pleasure is taken in the simpler things, whether a good walk on a blithe and bonny day, or a heartening talk with a wise old friend, but the novel doesn't set out to be anything other than a charming portrait on a small scale and it's none the worse for that. One character, novelist Mirren Strang, writes "pleasant books with a Scots flavour", "the sort of books you'd leave on the table if you expected the vicar to call". How like the author herself Mrs. Strang is I couldn't say, but the description of her work fits this novel perfectly, and I'm glad to have read O. Douglas at last.
" 'Picture to yourself an old house standing in a green glen through which runs a stream called the Laverlaw Water. There are lawns all round it, which run into the heather in the most enchanting way. The walled garden lies to the sun on the slope of the hillside, and, I am told, is a sight to see in its season, for Mrs. Elliot has 'a way' with flowers. She has also very definitely 'a way' with a house [...]
This room is panelled in oak and has a thick blue velvet carpet from corner to corner, which makes it deliciously comfortable. Heavy curtains of dull gold and blue cover the three windows, and a Chinese rug like a square of sunshine lies before the bed. There's a bookcase filled with all the books one would like to read at bedtime, and a stand on the table holds some of the latest published. When the maid brought in my tea this morning - blue and gold china to match the room - I lay and watched the first streaks of light touch the Laverlaw Water. Where's your Riviera now?' "
Back in May I found three O. Douglas novels* in the secondhand books shop down the road; it has taken me until now to begin the first of them, but so far Priorsford (1932) - set in a small Scottish Borders town - is a comfy, cosy, couthy read, and just the thing for a day of snow flurries and bitter cold.
My bit of spring cleaning has extended to this blog as well, so you'll find the sidebar lists of 'Readers', 'Writers', and 'Publishers' (down there on the right) have been given a lick and a polish. Links have been updated where necessary and new finds added, but if there's a bookish site you think we'd all enjoy, please leave its name in a comment and we can then pop over and visit.
I am grateful for all the kind, thoughtful comments on yesterday's post, and I'm interested to see that thus far and in terms of the wider questions the post raised, they are firmly in favour of traditional blogging over other forms of social media. Even when we don't have the time, inclination or sufficient 'original thought' to comment, posts long and short are still appreciated and enjoyed, it seems.
While not moving on just yet - further conversation is welcome, should you feel moved to join in - I thought I'd step sideways within book group territory, take a deliberately quick look through the 68 books* the CBG has read and choose 15 personal favourites, books I'd read again or ones that made me keen to explore their authors' other work. Each title below is linked to our discussion on it, so if the book is new to you or one you want to revisit, you can read a range of views besides mine. They are listed in the order in which we read them, beginning with our very first:
Elizabeth left a kind comment yesterday, asking whether the book group was still "a going thing". This is a subject I should have addressed before now, my only reason for not doing so being that I simply didn't know the answer to that question.
Over the course of about seven years we read 68 books, and many readers participated in most if not all of our discussions. I was and am grateful for everyone's energy and interest, and I relished the conversations we had about a wide range of books, some well known, others less so. At the same time as running the group I was reviewing a great deal not just for this blog but for other publications, and deadlines governed my life. While the book group meant reading to a self-imposed deadline, it was a fixed date nonetheless, and represented a not inconsiderable amount of work from choosing the book (far more complicated than you might think given that whatever was selected had to be easily obtainable in the UK and abroad, in libraries as well as shops), to writing an introductory post, slotting the reading of the book into my full schedule, and then writing a review post which invited everyone's thoughts and impressions - and there was baking the cake, as well!
As I say, I got a lot out of this, and thank all those who took the time and trouble to be a part of it, but there comes a point when perhaps enough is enough. I was particularly struck by the fact that when I suggested after a hiatus that we pick up where we left off, and read Jane Eyre (the last book we did) the positive response was enormously heartening, and yet when the day came to discuss the book, many fewer people than had enthused over the choice actually turned up and commented. That is, of course, the way of these things - we're not all masters of our own time, the best laid plans, etc., - but it made me feel that the group might have run its course.
On top of that my reading life changed greatly with the demise of The Good Book Guide for whom I'd reviewed well over 400 books. Reading for it took up the lion's share of my time, and with that gone I was free to take a breath, take a break, and read purely for myself for the first time in years. I have relished the freedom that has brought, although it's had the unexpected effect of making me read less in recent months than I ever have before, and my appetite is still not what it was. That said, I am reading things which never appear here on the blog as I pursue slightly obscure interests of my own, but the result of all this is that Cornflower Books itself has lately been meandering, rather than flowing with its customary direction and vigour, and for the moment I'm inclined to accept that and see where it leads.
Not much of an answer to Elizabeth's question, then, except to say that while I have not definitively closed the door on the group, nor am I ready to fling it wide open again just yet.
On a related note, I'm not the only one to have noticed that the blogging world has been changing. I find it interesting that when I post about a book on Instagram (which I don't do very often as I prefer more obviously 'visual' subjects), the response is much greater than for a similar post here on the blog. Perhaps it's the relative ease of commenting there - I don't know - but whereas blog posts can sometimes feel a bit like speaking to an empty room, or a silent audience, an IG picture and even quite lengthy text seems to engage the bookish community in a more vibrant and immediate way. What that says for the future I don't know, but it too contributes to my disinclination to reinstate the group just now, and indeed to question the blog's own reason for being, or perhaps to try to determine a new focus.
So much for my musings, if you have any thoughts on any of these topics, please let me know in comments, or privately, if you'd prefer. I'd be interested to hear what people want from book blogs these days, and how best we can keep the literary dialogue going - or has it all moved to Youtube? Finally, if you've read this far - thank you!
"While he was in the trenches, [Hugh Lofting's] children at home begged him to send them illustrated letters. There seemed little he could write about, for most of the news was unsuitable on account of the horrors of trench warfare and the dictates of strict censorship. However he had become interested in the part animals were playing in the war, particularly the horses who were learning to take the risks amid bursting shells as quietly and bravely as the soldiers themselves. But it seemed hard that, whereas a wounded man was carried carefully away behind the lines to the casualty clearing station and the field hospital, a horse if wounded at all seriously was simply shot. There ought, he felt, to be doctors and hospitals for horses, just as there were for men. But, wishing to write something for the children as far removed as possible from the horrors all around him, Lofting imagined a doctor in a sleepy country village in England giving up tending human beings and spending all his skill on doctoring animals. The natural step was for this doctor to learn his patients' language and become their friend as well as their medical adviser.
Here was the subject for those illustrated letters, and Elizabeth and Colin Lofting soon became familiar with Dr John Dolittle, the small tubby man with the top hat and the black bag, and with his animal friends, Jip the dog, Gub-Gub the pig, Dab-Dab, Polynesia, Chee-Chee and the rest who dwelt with him in the little house with the big garden at Puddleby-on-the-Marsh."
From Tellers of Tales by Roger Lancelyn Green, who goes on: "the early Dolittles stand supreme, for their 'mixture of homeliness and imagination, of drollery and simplicity, of poetry and the most prosaic naturalism', to quote Forest Reid. 'Woven into the very texture of these stories is a spirit of innocence, an extraordinary freshness and sweetness - qualities, I should imagine, that wear uncommonly well." '
The illustration above is from the title page of my childhood copy of The Voyages of Dr Dolittle, given to me when I was seven by a family friend, and much loved. I see there is an audio version read by Alan Bennett.