Springtime for Miss Read (and Mrs Griffin)

Cover of Mrs Griffin Sends her Love

A Country collection…

This latest post is going to be a spring-themed blog post, to continue the recent seasonal bent on The Landing’s sister blog, Curiously Creatively. It is also another of those literary digressions where I sideline my TBR Pile in favour of a library discovery (or in this case a re-discovery of sorts). For anyone who came across the Miss Read (real name, Dora Saint) ‘Thrush Green’ or ‘Fairacre’ books many years ago, to discover a relatively new publication is a great find. As is my wont, I was browsing in the local library despite the presence of plenty of unread volumes on my shelves. Having spotted Mrs Griffin Sends her Love in my favourite section for serendipitous discoveries (AKA the ‘Just Returned’ shelf), I threw caution and the TBR pile to the winds. I may have also picked up a couple more books in addition, but let us not go into that little matter now.

Mrs Griffin Sends her Love is a collection of short pieces and articles compiled by Dora Saint’s daughter Jill and her former editor Jenny Dereham, to mark what would have been Mrs Saint’s 100th birthday in 2013. Some of the pieces were originally published elsewhere, some only discovered after Dora Saint’s death. They are a mixture of essays, humorous articles and extracts from longer works. The anthology includes articles on education (originally for the Times Educational Supplement), as well as pieces taken from Tales from a Village School and Time Remembered. Included also is part of a projected book on ‘The Village Year’ only discovered after Dora Saint’s death and some diary extracts from 1963, begun while Dora and her husband were housebound due to the heavy snow that winter. Just for the record, it has to be said that Mrs Griffin does not get a very big part, given that she provides the collection’s title

My favourite pieces are the ones about village school life: particularly the extracts from Time Remembered and a set of articles gathered under the heading ‘The Joys and Perils of Teaching’. As you might imagine it is the telling of the perils that is the most entertaining to read. In one article entitled ‘Scriptural Matters’ one youngster observes ‘Why didn’t God make us knowing everything? It would have saved a lot of trouble’. Saint describes her own early years as a pupil at a village school after her family moved from London to the Kent countryside. She reminds us how boring school life could be, and how the smallest things could be a fascinating distraction to pupils: ‘Small pieces of pink blotting paper, torn from the precious three-by-four allowed, were surprisingly nice to eat, and occasionally an obliging fly would settle on the arid desk top and create a diversion’.

Dora Saint had a real love of the natural beauties surrounding her on her walk to school as a youngster new to the countryside. The descriptions of the flowers and fauna are a joy to read and it is clear that Saint loved the country sights from a very young age. She recalls her very first experience of arriving in Kent, ’I discovered dog violets and harebells in the North Downs countryside, as well as old friends like buttercups and daisies’. However, Saint was not enamoured of all aspects of country life. She disliked seeing, ‘poor dead rooks hanging upside down from sticks among the crops, their black satin wings opening and shutting macabrely in the wind.’ I can’t say that I blame her, it must have been an unnerving sight for a young child.

Cover of The Year at Thrush Green

Two more Miss Read books …

Having picked up this library book inspired me to have a root around on The Landing shelves and see what Miss Read books I could come up with to re-read. Miss Read is one of the authors that I discovered many years ago, courtesy of my mum’s reading tastes and I borrowed several from our local library as a teenager. We have a couple of Miss Read titles here on The Landing, so I have just been dipping into The Year at Thrush Green, looking at the seasonal changes that she describes. Taking the February entry, here is her observation of signs that spring is beginning in Thrush Green,

Soon yellow primroses would star the woods, and the daffodils would blow their trumpets in the gardens of Thrush Green. Yellow, gold and green, spring’s particular colours, would bring hope again after the bleak black and white of winter.

Miss Read also has an eye to the spring garden, as she describes the vicar wandering in his garden one bright March morning, seeking respite from a particularly trying parishioner. Blackbirds and thrushes are busy looking for food, while daffodils and narcissi promise better things to come and ‘polyanthus plants turned their velvety faces to the morning sunshine, bright yellow, orange, red and a deep mauvish-blue’. Add an almond tree scattering blossom and you have a very inviting seasonal snapshot.

Her evocation of the colours and imagery of spring scenery is delightful. By the merry month of May, ‘the roses were showing plump buds’, wisteria ‘drooped massive tassels against the Cotswold stone’ and along the lanes was ‘cow parsley frothing each side as far as the eye could see’. I particularly like the wisteria analogy as it is one of my favourite climbing plants and there are some lovely examples to enjoy around my part of Dublin.

I think that I will now head into June (in a literary sense if not in reality) and see what is growing in the hedgerows and gardens. I might even catch up with a few Thrush Green inhabitants at the same time. There sure to be a bit of gossip circulating…

Drop a line in the comment box if you are a Miss Read fan!

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Sir Walter Ralegh: A Gallant Adventurer

 

TBR Pile Brum

My TBR annex!

My latest Landing Tales read is technically a newcomer to The Landing, yet has long been on my TBR Pile. If that sounds like a riddle, blame The Bookworm and The Hobbit for the riddling influence. What I should explain is that That Great Lucifer: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh (Margaret Irwin, Chatto & Windus, 1960) has been on one of my other TBR Piles for more years than I care to remember. My book on Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) is one of several that I have finally liberated from my parents’ house and lugged back over the water to The Landing. Sadly, I now have no idea where I bought it and I have left no clue on the inside pages. The only thing I can definitely say is that Ralegh is not one of my ex-library finds as there are no stamps or marks of any kind. The inside cover does not even have a dedication or name from a previous owner to jog my memory a little. It did however have a published price of 25s, which is amazing considering the price of hardbacks now. I am hoping that if I stop trying to remember, then the light may yet break through my literary fog. I do like to be able to ‘place’ the acquisition of a book, especially a second-hand one, as it adds a layer of personal memory.

However, to return to the story of the gallant Walter Ralegh (this spelling of his name was the one that he apparently used) and to Margaret Irwin’s telling of his life and career. In writing the book, Irwin allowed Ralegh to speak for himself as much as possible, quoting from his surviving prose and poetry. Irwin tells Ralegh’s story in two sections, dividing his career into the periods under the two monarchs under whom he served, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and James I [IV of Scotland] (1566-1625). Woven in between Ralegh’s exploits are pen portraits of his contemporaries, some friends, some enemies (some, such as Robert Cecil were a little of both). Irwin gives scenes to the tempestuous young Earl of Essex (another of Elizabeth’s favourites) and to England’s sworn foe Phillip II of Spain. I was amused at her description of the formidable and devout Phillip as ‘A born Civil Servant, who believed in paper as devoutly as in God, he would have revelled in forms in triplicate’. I have a mental picture of him transported to the 21st century and firing off testy emails around the Spanish Empire.That Great Lucifer book jacket

Irwin describes in her preface how John Buchan gave her a first folio edition of Ralegh’s History of the World (1614) and says that ‘from then on I had his World as my own to enter at will’. Irwin put her extensive reading to good effect, bringing this scholar, poet, adventurer, sailor and courtier to vivid life in her biography. She did point out that she was not intending to pen a comprehensive biography, but a portrait of Ralegh and his circle and their lives and times. In this, I think she has succeeded very well, personalities, scheming and politics leaping off the page. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering how anyone stayed alive and sane in the hotbed of Elizabeth’s court. Margaret Irwin obviously had a soft spot for Ralegh, though she does acknowledge his faults and blind spots. He seemed to be blithely (and unwisely) unaware of the potential danger to his safety amidst the conflicting loyalties of the court. Irwin quotes biographer John Aubrey (1626-1697), who says that ‘he was damnable proud’, which naturally enough did not endear him to his fellow courtiers especially since Queen Elizabeth listened to his advice. Writer and politician Sir Robert Naunton (1563-1635) said ‘she took him for a kind of Oracle, which nettled them all’.

I probably shouldn’t plot spoil (so to speak) for those of you who haven’t read anything about Walter Ralegh, but suffice to say that he did not hit it off as well with the Scottish king as he did with Elizabeth I, his ‘Lady whom time hath surprised’. Ralegh and the queen had their differences, most notably when he secretly married his own Elizabeth, Bess Throckmorton, but Sir Walter appears to have been a most steadfastly loyal subject and advisor. James I however, did not appreciate advice from Ralegh, once saying that he was ‘too saucy in censuring princes’. James also resented that his eldest son Prince Henry, Prince of Wales was a great admirer of Ralegh and his ideas. Ralegh spent many years in prison during James’ reign, but he used his time in extensive scholarly reading and writing. He wrote the intended first volume of his History of the World, dedicating it to Prince Henry, ‘that glorious prince’ after his sudden death. Not all of Ralegh’s writing has survived, as Margaret Irwin mentioned; she says that he wrote a study of Queen Elizabeth, a ‘Description of the River of the Amazons’ and a treatise on the West Indies.

Painting: The Boyhood of RaleighAfter reading the Margaret Irwin book, I decided to scout around for an up to date biography of Sir Walter. On a trip to the library, I came up with Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams (Continuum, 2011). It probably isn’t fair to compare the two books as Irwin didn’t intend to write a scholarly biography, so I don’t intend to try. Irwin’s book is tremendously readable and is certainly as factual as she could make it, but of course, the later book benefits from recent scholarship. Of course, the authors also take a more academic approach to their subject, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Having said all of that, Nicholls and Williams still manage to tell a rattling good story in their study of Ralegh. I was interested to note that despite using the spelling ‘Raleigh’ in the title to satisfy modern preferences, the authors use Ralegh’s own chosen spelling throughout the text. I am still only half-way through this book but enjoying it very much and I plan to follow up the references to Ralegh’s surviving work. The authors also mention a book that I read years ago, The Creature in the Map by Charles Nicholl about Ralegh’s voyages of discovery, which is an excellent read.

I’m not sure yet what will be next up on The Landing, so call back soon and take a look!

Additional picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks, for ‘Raleigh’s Boyhood’.

I didn’t mean to go to the Trinity Book Sale again…

Trinity Book Stash

My (our) latest stash

Well, when I say that, I really mean that I fleetingly considered not going to the Trinity Book Sale this year as I still have the inevitable pile of un-read books. However, as I managed to miss last year’s event due to its move away from an end of the week spot, I thought that I would make the effort and toddle along. The more I considered the matter, the less I wanted to risk missing any book bargains, especially as I am an aficionado of the half–price last day. Previously held on a Saturday, but now a Thursday, it is my ultimate book bargain pleasure.

This year, my final tally was seven volumes for a modest six euro; though two of the books were for The Bookworm, (I also blame her for drawing another couple of titles to my attention). As is usual at book sales, I felt that I could easily have gone along picking up books left, right and centre. I have done this at a library sale before now and virtually needed a fork lift truck to carry my purchases home. On this occasion, only a carrier bag was required to lift the spoils.

Miss Brown's Hospital

An early pioneer of women’s medical training.

As you can see from the photos shown here, I brought home an interesting mix of fiction, biography and classic works. The Bookworm sneaked in an extra visit on the previous day, so here is our combined haul of reading matter for the next wee while. I was particularly struck by the little book, Miss Brown’s Hospital by Francesca French (1954). This is the story of Dame Edith Mary Brown who was the founder of Ludhiana Medical College in Eastern Punjab. I had not heard of her before, but Miss Brown apparently had ‘many claims to distinction: as scholar, doctor, educationalist and pioneer’. She was a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, studied for a medical diploma in Scotland and obtained her MD in Brussels.

Edith Brown was also devoutly religious and ‘at the back of her mind was the unswerving determination that in applying her medical skill to the benefit of mankind she must combine it with the great emancipating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. She decided to focus both her medical skills and her spirituality upon the women of India in the role of a medical mission. Her appointment in 1891 to the medical mission at Ludhiana gave her the opportunity she sought. This led to her establishing a medical training centre for Indian women. I hope to return to Miss, or rather Dr Brown in a future blog post when I have had a chance to read the book properly and perhaps also to delve a little more into the period and the location.

Sir Christopher Hatton

Elizabethan statesman and courtier

I was particularly pleased to discover the book on Sir Christopher Hatton (Eric St. John Brooks) as I have been having an extended Tudor-related reading period. This ties in quite nicely with a few other books that I have read over the past few months (some previously featured on this blog). Christopher Hatton was one of Elizabeth I’s favourites, a statesman and councillor who held the office of Lord Chancellor. As the lives of the courtiers in Elizabeth’s hotbed of political scheming were inextricably entwined, Hatton has popped up in my historical reading several times. This book, first published in 1946 was apparently an attempt to present a balanced view of Hatton’s life and achievements. The blurb claims that ‘Hatton’s part in the history of his times has been largely misunderstood’. It may be that later scholarship has superseded Brook’s study, so I will check to see if anything has been published on Hatton since then. Anyway, after enjoying an account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s life recently (Margaret Irwin), I shall look forward to reading it. No doubt I will meet up with Raleigh again as I read about Hatton, as I note that he merits several entries in the index.

 

Now, I am off to decide which of my Trinity Book Sale acquisitions to tackle first!

 

Oscar Wilde and ‘The Woman’s World’

I am beginning the New Year rather late this year as you might have noticed. Clearly, either my body clock has taken a while to kick in or I have been in a state of denial about the existence of 2017 (note also that I am glossing over my blogging inactivity in December). However, I do intend finally to begin my blogging year and return to tackling my Landing Bookshelves Reading Challenge albeit with the usual digressions along the way. As you will know, said digressions tend to be frequent, so my TBR pile is not getting any smaller; and will in fact probably never shrink appreciably. I will just have to live with that, (it’s a hard life!). bookc cover: Wilde's Women

True to form, my first post of the year features a non-TBR book, Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons (Duckworth Overlook, 2016). The sub-title runs: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, and this was the part that particularly attracted my attention. Wilde is probably more widely associated in the public consciousness with the men in his life, rather than the women. The author has given both his mother and his wife their rightful due in this book. Eleanor Fitzsimons’ exploration of the female angle in Wilde’s life interested me because I have previously read Joan Schenkar’s fascinating biography about his niece Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde (the daughter of Oscar’s older brother Willie and his second wife Sophia Lily Lees). As it turned out, Oscar’s enduring charisma and reputation cast a long shadow over Dolly’s frequently unhappy life. She bore a striking physical resemblance to her famous uncle and consequently spent her life trading upon it. As Eleanor Fitzsimons points out, this tendency caused awkwardness in her relationship with Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland when they finally became acquainted in adulthood. She was said by her mother to have inherited ‘a fair share of the family brains’ but Dolly was perhaps damaged by the weight of expectations put upon her so young.

Of course, properly speaking Dolly Wilde cannot be counted as one of Wilde’s Women (as defined by the terms of the sub-title) since she was born while he was imprisoned and she never actually met him and so represents a rather sad epilogue to the Wilde story. If however we do include Dolly Wilde in an account of the women of Oscar Wilde’s family, then it becomes apparent that his life and work was bookended by two striking and fascinating women. At Oscar’s genesis, we find his mother Jane Elgee Wilde (known by her pen name Speranza) and towards the end of his life, the birth of Dolly, bearing the Wilde mythology onwards. On the face of it, it appears that Speranza provided the seeds of the literary and artistic talent, which blossomed into Oscar and yet which failed to bear fruit in Dolly Wilde. No story is ever that simple however, but such a literary legacy would have been difficult to follow for any descendent. I wonder how Oscar’s sons coped with the pressure of his literary legacy, to say nothing of the effects of losing his presence in their lives after the trial.

Magazine cover: The Woman's WorldThe section of the book that intrigued me the most was the chapter discussing Wilde’s stint as editor of a women’s magazine, an episode that was completely new to me. In April 1887, Oscar Wilde was invited by the publishers of The Lady’s World to revitalise and generally to add celebrity lustre to the struggling magazine. This was an illustrated monthly magazine, on sale for a shilling, which was struggling in a busy market. For instance, The Ladies’ Companion was another illustrated magazine aimed at a similar audience at the same price. Wilde was interested in editing and writing for the magazine but he insisted on a name change, more in keeping with his progressive ideas, hence The Woman’s World. Wilde suggested that the latter was much more suitable for a magazine that wished to be, ‘the organ of women of intellect, culture, and position’. He wanted to create a magazine that talked about what women thought and felt and not merely, about what they wore. I was amused to note that fashion was pushed to the back of the magazine in this brave new venture. Some previously included sections vanished altogether under Wilde’s editorship, such as ‘Fashionable Marriages’ and ‘Pastimes for Ladies’. However, I cannot help feeling a vague curiosity about the nature of those suitably ladylike activities!Cover from The Ladies' Companion

Fashion Plate

From The Ladies’ Companion.

As Eleanor Fitzsimons makes clear, many intellectual and professional women liked and respected Oscar Wilde and were very happy to contribute articles to his re-vamped journal on various important subjects. One topic covered by The Woman’s World was women’s dress and its suitability, practicality and healthiness. Wilde, as well as his wife Constance Lloyd was an active supporter of the Rational Dress Society. In an article for The Woman’s World he wrote,

From the Sixteenth Century to our own day, there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous Fashion.

As I am writing this, I wonder what Wilde would have thought of the current UK parliamentary enquiry into the issue of women forced by employers to wear high heels at work. I am sure he could have come up with a riveting deposition to the enquiry on the subject. His idea was that in time, ‘the dress of the two sexes will be assimilated, as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits’. Sadly, it seems this has not yet happened; apparently, women still need to wear heels to do exactly the same job that a man does in flats. We certainly need a witty Wildean epigram for the shoe question.Cover of The Rational Dress Society magazine

As I said above, Wilde attracted many talented female contributors to The Woman’s World including trade unionist Clementina Black, feminist writer Julia Wedgewood, suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett and journalist Charlotte O’Connor Eccles. Therefore, not only was women’s dress debated within the pages of the magazine but also the extension of the suffrage to women and women’s right to be educated and to live useful and worthwhile lives. This range of content is what surprised me the most and Fitzsimons has added a great deal to my impressions of Oscar Wilde, with his support for so many radical women writers and activists. It is easy to think of Wilde in terms of witty epigrams and sparkling conversation, without stopping to think about what lay beneath the polished surface.

Sadly, Wilde’s stint as an editor did not last very long; the last edition bearing his name came out before the end of 1889, so he clocked up a mere two years. Fitzsimons makes clear that Wilde did much that was worthwhile in his role, but admits that,’ While his sincerity and sympathy were never in doubt, his suitability to deal with the day-today challenges of bringing out a magazine on someone else’s behalf was’. Turning up regularly to the office and dealing with the minutiae of getting a magazine to press proved to be beyond his capabilities. Tellingly, The Woman’s World did not long survive Wilde’s departure, having reverted to its original style of content without his dynamic input.

Because of reading Wilde’s Women, I am in danger of encountering many literary digressions; I plan to follow up ideas that I have gleaned from the wonderful range of sources used by Eleanor Fitzsimons. My hopes of acquiring a copy of one of the volumes of The Woman’s World was somewhat dashed however when I saw how much a dealer on ABE Books was charging. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that I might be able to buy one for only a few euros…

Credits: Many thanks to Eleanor and the publishers for The Landing’s copy of this book. If you wish to discover more about her work, here is a link to Eleanor’s blog:  https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/about/

Additional pictures: As ever, thanks to Wikipedia and also to the website of the British Library.

TBR Pile Update: It’s growing larger, not smaller

TBR Pile Bedside Table

Not getting any smaller…

I am yet again becoming worried about the size of my TBR Pile, as I seem to be adding to it faster than I am reading it. The interesting aspect of this TBR growth is that new piles have begun to accrete in different places. To be strictly accurate, the growth in the bedside table pile is not a new phenomenon, but the strangely solid, immovable quality is a new feature. In the past, bedside table books tended to come and go, so the whole pile had a fluid feel to it. However, for the best part of this year, the books on the pile have been behaving like a sticky post or a pined tweet, and staying firmly put. That is not a good sign. Now, I will admit that books have remained on my bookshelves unread for about twenty years, but a bedside reading table isn’t supposed to work like that. I am not sure why, but it just isn’t. This is not a restful state of affairs I can assure you.

Strangely enough, a couple of books on the Bedside TBR pile have no right to be where they are, as I have actually read them. Why I have not re-homed them by now, I have absolutely no idea. Well, except for the small matter of running short of shelf space in the fiction section (AKA the bedroom bookshelves). An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears) and a Presumption of Death (Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh) will definitely be heading for a charity shop soon. I brought them back this summer from another TBR Pile at my mum’s house. The Iain Pears novel had languished unread for years and I am glad that finally I managed to read it, as it was both gripping and atmospheric. As you might recall, I am fond of historical skulduggery and this was an excellent example of 17th century political and religious machinations.

My guiltiest TBR confession is that Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone has been awaiting reading since I received it as a ‘Secret Santa’ gift last year. I did begin to read it a few months ago but I put it aside after becoming distracted by something else. I think I made it to page twenty-two before Mary Queen of Scots came between us. My only excuse is that I must have still been in a historical frame of mind at the time. I think this was after Arbella Stuart and Elizabeth I, but before An Instance of the Fingerpost. As it happens, I still haven’t finished My Heart is My Own (John Guy), having paused for breath round about the time of the Earl of Bothwell’s marriage to the queen. If anyone had poor judgment in husbands, it was Mary Stuart, though to be fair the first one (the French Dauphin) was not her decision.

The Other TBR Pile…

TBR Pile Desk

Even more reading here!

The recently instituted Desk TBR Pile is largely composed of library books and new additions (OK, I know there aren’t supposed to be any new additions, but it just sort of happens to me). I am looking forward to reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven, passed on to me by a friend. I started reading it on the Luas on the way home and was immediately taken with the story, though I decided it could wait its turn while I finished something else. The library book of the moment is a collection of pieces, Mrs Griffin Sends her Love by Miss Read (Dora Saint) that I spotted recently and picked up in a fit of nostalgia. My mum first introduced me to Miss Read’s chronicles of the fictional English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, when I was a teenager, so I was pleased to discover this collection. Dora Saint’s daughter Jill has written the foreword to the book, published in 2013 to mark her mother’s centenary year. The onset of winter is an apt time to be reading these short pieces, as it reminds me how hard life would have been in rural England (and Ireland) a comparatively few years ago. Thank heavens for indoor plumbing!

I probably should return to one of my TBR Piles now… How is yours getting on these days?  

Eleanor and Sarah: The Llangollen Ladies

I can’t believe that so much time has slipped by without a Landing update. The whole of October seems to have sunk without trace, although I have been quietly reading behind the scenes so not all is yet lost. However, I feel as though I have many loose ends to tie up, with various books lying about that I have planned to record on the blog. Some books have been genuine TBR subjects while others have been serendipitous library finds.

The Llangollen Ladies

A reprint of a 1936 title by Dr Mary Gordon

One Landing TBR Pile title tackled earlier this year was The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby known as the Ladies of Llangollen. I had heard of the Ladies before I spotted this book, so when I saw the title I jumped at the chance to discover something about the women’s history. Yet again, I have one of the Trinity College book sale events (in 2009) to thank for this little find (and even better, I bought it on half price Saturday).

This book by Dr Mary Gordon is a reprint (John Jones Publishing, 1999) of her earlier title, Chase of the Wild Goose that originally came out in 1936. Gordon tells the story of the relationship between the two Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler (1745-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) who left Ireland to make their home in the Vale of Llangollen in 1778. Gordon was a devoted fan of the Ladies and was keen to put forward a fresh view of the story. Gordon felt that time had obscured the real background of the Ladies’ flight from Ireland to Wales and that over the years, rumours and gossip had become myth. In this book, she set out to revive the Ladies’ reputations and to return to available contemporary evidence such as surviving journals and letters from one of the Ladies’ friends.

The two women met and became fast friends at Eleanor Butler’s family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Subsequently they fled from their families and social obligations to live in a modest cottage in north Wales, which caused much consternation amongst friends and family. Neither woman wished to obey their family and make advantageous matches. They wished to live independently and have the opportunity to study and develop their minds. I admire their urge for freedom from the constraints of marriage, but the ladies were no revolutionary spirits. They were very aware of their social status as ladies and so this was not a bid for the freedom of earning a living or roughing it in rural poverty.

The Libray, Plas Newydd

An undated interior image of the house, taken from the book.

The Ladies lived In Llangollen for the rest of their lives, turning a stone cottage (renaming it Plas Newydd) into a place where, over a period of fifty years, the great and good were eager to visit. Not that Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah by any means admitted all of their putative visitors. They were rather choosy about callers, never forgetting their respective aristocratic backgrounds.

Several writers have since written about the two women and their relationship. Were they a lesbian couple or were they simply fleeing from the limited opportunities then available to women. Romantic, even passionate friendships between women were common at this time. This extract from a Telegraph article by Anne Campbell Dixon refers to another biography on the Llangollen Ladies that I have found (details below),

My guess, from reading Elizabeth Mavor’s excellent biography, is that Eleanor was a lesbian, whether she realised it or not (likely not, as it was unheard-of until an outbreak of “sapphism” at the French court brought it to English society’s notice in 1789); but that Sarah – if she had not met Eleanor at the impressionable age of 13, and if she had not needed to escape from her guardian – might have settled down just as happily with a husband.

I suppose at this stage, nobody can ever give a definitive opinion on the Ladies’ sexuality. Especially, since social mores have changed so much. As Campbell points out, ‘The word romantic simply meant fanciful or eccentric in the 18th century. And it was the fashion for friends – male as well as female – to write and speak to each other in language which we now reserve for sexual partners. Nor was it uncommon to share a bed with a sister or friend.’ I also discovered an essay by Alison Oram in Re-presenting the Past: Women and History, entitled ‘Telling Stories about the Ladies of Llangollen: the construction of lesbian and feminist theories’, which I have yet to follow up on.

The intriguing story behind the origins of this book is that Mary Gordon claimed to have seen and spoken with the ghosts of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby in their former home in Llangollen. I am not sure that the story convinces me, as I am sceptical of ghost sightings in general. Part of me would like to believe that Gordon did indeed meet the Ladies, and had a cosy natter, but part of me feels that it was it was simply a good way to frame her story. I suppose we will never know for sure. However, her book introduced the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby to a new audience, despite the ‘did she/didn’t she’ question hanging over its ghostly origins.

Mary Gordon freely imagines conversations taking place between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (such as on their first meeting) as well as other family interactions, so the book reads more as a sentimental novel than a rigorous biography. Clearly, Gordon was biased in her admiration of the two women and she is not particularly interested in examining their actions with any degree of criticism. For instance, it is plain that though the Ladies wanted to be free to live in their own way, they also expected and assumed that there would be financial support appropriate to their social station. Gordon places much emphasis on the aristocratic status of the women as which comes over to a modern ear as somewhat obsequious.

The book did however inspire me to delve further and I discovered two books by Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (Viking, 1971) and Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (Viking, 1984). The latter is a fascinating collection journal extracts, arranged to give a flavour of country life from season to season, year on year. I have written a blog post on some of the recipes given for Curiously Creatively, though I haven’t got around to trying any out yet. I would recommend either of Elizabeth Mavor’s two books, as a better way of getting to know Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah.

Now, back to my reading….

 

Culture Night: Owt for Nowt?

Brocure Cover

Our passport to culture!

Last Friday evening saw yours truly, accompanied by The Bookworm heading into Dublin’s city centre for some more Culture Night activity. As usual, we had been studying the brochure and marking possible activities. We had decided to more or less stick to the ‘Trinity and South Georgian Quarter’ to be handy for the Luas. In no particular order (as if memory serves me), here is our final tally of venues visited: The Arts Council, Merrion Square; the Pepper Canister Church; the National Gallery of Ireland; and the Science Gallery. We listened to musical offerings at the NGI and Pepper Canister and then explored differing ways of seeing at the Science Gallery. I am not sure whether tea and cake at the NGI counts as a cultural activity, but it was very tasty all the same. We were disappointed that three of our book marked events were cancelled, but it was not clear whether this had any connection to the bus strike or not. Particularly, we felt the loss of the light show at the Royal College of Surgeons as we had planned to round off our night seeing the 3D display before jumping on the Luas to head home.

On the morning after the night before, I scrolled though plenty of tweets from happy, satisfied Culture Night goers and event organisers. However, poet Colin Dardis made the reasonable point that ‘If you loved the free events at #CutlureNight remember to support your local artist and pay for their work during the rest of the year!’ Art practitioners and writers clearly all need to eat and welcome paying punters. One commenter, The Fingal Pimpernel went a stage further and declared ‘Great as I think #CultureNight is it shows up how stingy fuckers will turn up in huge crowds for free but won’t pay their way other 364 days’. I’m not sure whether the latter comment was intended to be genuine or tongue in cheek (such is the peril of Twitter) but as a dedicated Culture Night-er, I felt vaguely miffed at being apparently included under this tag. Confession: I admit to a liking for free stuff to do; after all, what parent doesn’t welcome the opportunity to do interesting (even educational) activities with kids that doesn’t break the bank. Having said that, I am not averse to paying for events etc and I frequently do so during the rest of the year. As a member of the book trade, I try to do my bit by attending (paid) events to hear my favourite writers. Now, I can’t be sure how many other Culture Night visitors fall into that category, but inevitably you are going to get folks who always want something for nowt and will never pay for anything. To some extent, I suppose such people fulfill a function on occasions such as Culture Night, by performing the role of ‘warm bodies’ to help to give the event its air of success.

Nevertheless, I  feel that complaining about ‘stingy f****s’ misses a couple of the great aspects of Culture Night. One of the big attractions for me, (and judging by the queues, I am not alone in this) is the opportunity to view places usually closed to the public. It’s a chance to see behind the scenes, in a way that another great festival, Open House, also offers. In other words, many people are just plain nosy, rather than miserly in their Culture Night activities. For example, one of the biggest queues I saw on the night was to tour Iveagh House, home of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There is usually a queue of similar length to have a tour of Freemasons’ Hall; to the extent that it took us about four years of dedicated event queue monitoring to nab an Open House tour in a quiet-ish moment last year. One of my regular Culture Night/Open House goals is to add another previously unexplored building to my repertoire.

Culture Brochure

Deciding on our culture route!

Another great aspect of Culture Night is that institutions and charities not directly involved in the business of culture open up and invite visitors to learn something new. For example, Concern Worldwide, The Mendicity Institution, Amnesty International and Focus Ireland were all giving talks and raising awareness of their work. Add to that various community groups such as the Irish Polish Society and the Afghan Community of Ireland and you can see that there is much more to Culture Night than an open invitation to free loaders. It is also worth pointing out that many of the places open, such as the national cultural institutions would be free to visit anyway (though donations are requested). There is the additional pleasure of visiting cultural venues after hours, which can only be good for encouraging people to take the time to browse the exhibits. Visiting places out of hours feels like a delicious treat to be savoured.

I think it is reasonable to suggest that many people who visit places during this events will follow up new discoveries and pay for events or buy a piece of art in the future. All in all, I think that the Culture Night is a positive initiative one which should have a productive knock-on effect over the years. Or maybe that is just my wishful thinking. I admit though, that it is going to be hard to calculate the benefits in terms of hard cash to various arts organisations, practitioners and writers.

I would be interested to know your thoughts on this question…