The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

August 18, 2016

'Best of all, there were books. ...'

... Although it didn't take rain to get us reading in the Big House (in fact, reading inside on a sunny day gave us a deliciously guilty feeling), on an overcast afternoon people would be curled up with a book in almost every bedroom, with three or four of us draped over the sofas in the living room, physically proximate yet in different worlds.
      Summer reading is different. There's no agenda, nothing assigned, nothing mandatory. One reads at one's own pace -- a few pages now and then, or a sudden all-day binge. Summer house libraries are a hodgepodge. Their contents tend to arrive as haphazardly as flotsam washing ashore. Some are refugees from winter homes; others are house presents; others are brought by visitors and abandoned. One doesn't weed out summer house libraries as easily as one does a winter collection; the books belong to a larger number of people, no one of whom can be entrusted with the responsibility. ... 'Summer libraries are like trifle,' Aunt Ellen once observed. 'They're in layers.' ...
      The Big House had no one room set aside as a library, but thirteen rooms had a least a shelf's worth of books. Every bedroom and hallway had its own cache. (The only bookless rooms were the bathrooms, a policy in keeping with the WASP trait of concentrating on the business at hand.) I don't believe anyone has ever formally sorted the books in the Big House, but over the years, volumes of a loosely similar nature tended to settle in certain places, and when I was a child I knew where to turn, depending on my mood.
      For a visual journey through the sweep of English literature, there was the mission oak hutch opposite the living room fireplace, where my great-grandmother's sets of nineteenth-century novelists, arrayed on the shelves, composed a kind of colorful flag:  a short maroon stripe of Thackeray above the long carmine stripe of Trollope above the sea green stripe of Bronte above the olive and gold stripe of Dickens. ... For sheer splendor, there was the bookcase near the dining room fireplace, which held the Life Nature Library and back issues of Horizon. For Francophiles, there was the Yellow Room, stocked with travel guides and French novels, many of them dating from Aunt Sandy's college years. For escapist fare, there was the kitchen wing, whose narrow second-floor hallway was lined with W.H. Hudson, Angela Thirkell, and other authors whose books my great-grandmother deemed worth keeping but not worth keeping on the first floor ...
      Within this rough order, there was delicious disorder. The hallmark of a summer house library is serendipity. Foraging a summer house for books is like beachcombing, in which a small stretch of shorelines may yield a mermaid's purse, a rusty fishing lure, a claw from a boiled lobster, an empty milk carton. A guest staying in Grandma's Dressing Room will find, on a single shelf, a collection of speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes; Fairies Afield by Mrs. Molesworth, a handbook on sprites and pixies, as straight as guide to wading birds or salamanders, published in 1911; Paris Through an Attic*, by A. Herbage Edwards, the memoir of a young married couple living abroad at the turn of the twentieth century; a biography of Dag Hammarskjold. A slender edition of Housman's poetry bumps up against huge bound volumes of Punch dating to the 1850s ...
      In summer houses, one reads books one might never otherwise read, because one would never come across them in an alphabetized, Dewey-decimalized library. ... In a summer house one doesn't want a librarian's organizing hand. When I was twelve, I spent several days sorting the books on the third floor, filing them neatly on the shelves I labeled 'Poetry,' 'Biography,' 'Classics,' 'Essays,' and so on. But when I had finished, I felt that mix of awe and regret I felt on family trips to the barbershop as I watched, in the mirror, the barber dampen, comb and cut my unruly hair into submission.

from The Big House:  A century in the life of an 
American summer home, by George Howe Colt

*Already found at the library. :)

{The painting is Young Boy Reading, by Henri Lebasque, found here.}

August 17, 2016

Books and chocolate

      The lady of the house, the former Ellen Forbes Russell, contributed her share of crotchets (along with wealth and social prestige) to the family mix. Shortly after her engagement to Ned Atkinson, she had a nervous breakdown and was sent away for a 'rest' that lasted two years. During that time, it seems, she was permitted neither visitors nor newspapers, lest they roil her fragile sensitivities. ... I find it extraordinarily touching that, without ever once seeing her while she was 'resting,' my great-grandfather waited. They were married soon after she came home.
      The story goes that while she was recovering, my great-grandmother was told by her doctors never to read anything more serious than Trollope and to cover her nerve endings by eating chocolate. Apparently, she followed their prescription all too well. At the Big House, she spent much of the day on the piazza, a volume of Trollope in her lap and a Whitman's Sampler on the nearby table. Within a few years, she had read all sixty volumes of Trollope -- and weighed so much (family estimates run as high as three hundred pounds) that when she went to the doctor she had to stand on two scales. Elderly Wings Neckers tell me that when Ellen Atkinson came calling in her chauffeured Franklin limousine, she didn't get out of the car; the woman she was visiting would come out to sit with her. ... I assume she was sensitive about her weight, for though there are dozens of photos of her husband in the Big House, there is only one of her, taken long before her marriage. It hangs on the stairwell wall. Although the portrait is nearly life-sized, I paid it little notice until I was a teenager, when, newly aware of the opposite sex, I was drawn to this slim young woman, holding an open book, her raven hair parted in the middle and pulled back from her delicate face. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I had no idea it was my great grandmother.
      Her nerve endings must have been successfully protected, for Ellen Atkinson never had another breakdown. Indeed, she was, by all accounts, a strong, lively woman of unfaltering opinions, accustomed to getting her way. According to Aunt Mary, when she came across a book she considered inferior -- even if it came from the Bourne library -- she burned it in the fireplace. (She had a particular aversion to the 'modern novel'; as she put it, 'I don't want to read about the hero brushing his teeth.') ... Believing that reading on an empty stomach was harmful to the eyes, she had a tin of Ritz crackers placed in he room of anyone she suspected of opening a book before breakfast.
from The Big House:  A century in the life of  an
American summer home
, by George Howe Colt

August 15, 2016

Henry-spotting in Gloucester

      One winter night there was a dinner in the red-and-black Octagon Room next door, and everything was suave and formal. Lord and Lady Gregory were there, and Amy Lowell and Henry James were there, and several other aficionados of words and victuals. 'The only other character present under sixty and 180 pounds except myself,' Sleeper related, 'was a polite young Spanish professor from Harvard.'
      The talk, he said, was violently intellectual. 'I really stuffed 'em,' he chuckled. 'By coffee and brandy there wasn't a female stay in the place, that wasn't creaking. To save their lives, the wonderful Aunt Amy Lowell (not smoking her cigar that night) suggested we all play games. So we played musical chairs, here in the Golden Step Room. After each pause in the music, and the rough-house scramble for chairs, the whole company rocked and yelled and wept with laughter. Some sat on the floor, because they could not rise. I thought I had a mass apoplexy on my hands with all those overfed elderly brains. After a few stanzas, the grave young Spaniard came to me and whispered:
     'Senor Sleeper -- may I make a suggestion? You are, of course, the host. But I think that if we had just one more chair, much of this confusion might be averted!''

from Beauport at Gloucester:  the most fascinating house in America
'the pictures by Samuel Chamberlain, the words by Paul Hollister' {1951}

Beauport, the rambling house built by Henry Davis Sleeper in the early 1900s, is one of my favorite places to visit, and finding this dusty old book before I go there again in a few weeks is a treat.  {So is another encounter with Samuel Chamberlain, after this first one.} And so was this, most of all... I'll never ever walk into the Golden Step Room {one of the house's five dining rooms, the one for when he was serving seafood} again without imagining this unimaginable scene. :)

August 14, 2016

The Mistresses of Cliveden

Five biographies, linked to an English stately home ... I''m sure this book went on to my list the minute I heard about it. Still {this happens a lot}, I hesitated to start it until I could really spend time with it, and in the end I'm glad I did, because it was a wonderful book to sink into.

This is just my limited knowledge showing, but one of the things that surprised me was that Cliveden wasn't the family seat of one noble family for centuries, in the Downton-esque mold. Instead, the house was bought, sold, leased, rebuilt, redecorated and rescued by a series of owners whose connections were formed by their place in the English aristocracy, and often through the social and/or political positions they held at court.

This isn't an unbroken story {there are decades and generations in between}. The story begins with a duel, fought in January 1668 between the 11th Earl of Shrewsbury and the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, over Anna Maria Talbot, Shrewsbury's wife and Buckingham's mistress. At the time, Cliveden, or Cliffden, is an estate on the banks of the Thames, not far from London, with a pair of hunting lodges and a well-stocked deer park, and the Duke planned to transform the estate into a 'grand love nest...hunting by day, dancing by night.' for his affair with Anna Maria. The earl is killed, and Anna Maria and Buckingham start their lives together in a menage a trois with Buckingham's wife,  Mary, with Anna Maria's position as a court mistress contrasted with Mary's as a courtier's wife. {Mary's story is more understated, but she is a very interesting figure, and arguably the actual mistress of Cliveden...}. After a series of political intrigues and a growing sense of scandal, the House of Lords orders Buckingham and Anna Maria to have no further contact with each other, and in the end, although Buckingham completed his work on Cliveden, Anna Maria never lived there.

The second story focuses on Elizabeth Villiers, almost coincidentally the Duke's second cousin. Elizabeth was famed for her intelligence and gift for conversation, and was first a lover and then a confidante of William of Orange.  In gratitude for Marys assistance in supporting a political transition, Willliam arranged an introduction to George Hamilton, the Earl of Orkney, and a marriage that began as a 'straightforward trade:  Elizabeth could offer George financial stability, while George could provide her with respectability ... a standard arrangement for a time when the absence of love was not a bar to marriage.'  Still, Elizabeth 'found contentment' with her husband, and the couple bought Cliveden shortly after they married, from Mary, the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham, working together on a substantial redesign of Cliveden and turning it, in time, into a family home. {I had not known much at all about this period in British history, so I enjoyed learning, really for the first time, about the reigns of William and Mary, then Queen Anne, and later the first two King Georges, through Elizabeth's presence at court. We're also introduced to Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, a wonderful figure in her own right.

The next mistress is Augusta, the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the heir to and estranged son of George II, who together created a second, rival court for the 'king-in-waiting' and leased Cliveden as a country retreat from Elizabeth's daughter not long after her death. Frederick died before his father, leading to the accession of George III instead; I had enjoyed reading about these figures and their family relations in Janice Hadlow's excellent book last year, and it was interesting to meet them again in a story told more from their point of view.

Cliveden reverted to Elizabeth Villier's daughter, and then her granddaughter Mary, who resisted a request to sell it to George III as a country retreat for his large family.  The house was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1795, and was eventually sold in the 1820s.  In 1849, it was purchased by George Leveson-Gower, the 2nd Duke of Sutherland, and his wife Harriet as a domestic retreat for Harriet after years of family tragedies and stressful intrigues at court.  I think she was my favorite of the five women who were profiled; born into an aristocratic family of her own, she was married at sixteen to a man 20 years her senior, had eleven children, and became a society hostess and a close friend and Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria.

There's another fast-forward to the last mistress, Nancy Astor, who received Cliveden as a wedding gift at her marriage to William Waldorf Astor in 1906.  The Astors turned Cliveden into a hospital during World War I, before Nancy's historic agreement to run for Parliament in 1919, when her husband inherited his father's title and was reluctantly elevated to the House of Lords. I found this section a little less interesting, but only because the others were newer faces. The five stories are book-ended by the Profumo scandal in the 1960s, when the Prime Minister, visiting Nancy's son for a dinner at Cliveden, met and began an affair with a young woman who was also involved with an alleged Russian spy.

The Mistresses of Cliveden is well-researched, and well-written, and Natalie Livingstone does a wonderful job of bringing all of the figures she writes about to life {as you might guess, in lieu of a family tree, the five-page cast of characters at the beginning was very appealing to me. :)}  Another example of why biographies about people I've never heard of {three out of five, anyway...} can be one of my favorite things to read.

The Mistresses of Cliveden:  three centuries of scandal, power, and intrigue in an English stately home, by Natalie Livingstone
Ballantine Books, 2016
Source:  As mentioned above, I received galleys of  The Mistresses of Cliveden first from NetGalley and then from LibraryThing, in exchange for writing about the book, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to read it.

August 9, 2016

'A charming fiction'

Childe Hassam, Isles of Shoals, Broad Cove, 1912

      ....painting out on the headlands of Appledore could not be an unalloyed pleasure. One has only to stand on the exposed rocks where Hassam painted to marvel at the artist's fortitude. The midsummer sun irradiates the rocks to a squinting brightness. A half-day's exposure would have left the painter scorched, even if shaded by an umbrella. Gusty salt breezes that might have danced the hollyhocks and poppies of Celia Thaxter's garden would have played havoc with a stretched canvas, unsteadily propped on an easel out on the rocks. ...
      In most of his painting away from Babb's cove and the hotel complex, Hassam presented Appledore as a deserted -- if not a desert -- island, untrammeled, almost primeval in its isolation. This was, of course, a charming fiction.  Today, one can sit at many of Hassam's painting sites and have only the gulls for company, but such solitude was hard to find in the heyday of The Appledore House. At the height of the summer season, the small island would have swarmed with hotel guests and day-trippers, the more youthful or adventurous exploring the secret coves and headlands, accessible without too much effort from cross-island trails and the two-mile gravel-and-plank road that ringed the shore. Surely Hassam, a genuine celebrity at the hotel, would have attracted onlookers as he worked away at his canvas. However, the playful, curious and probably annoying guests rarely figure in Hassam's paintings. His behavior was perhaps similar to a camera with a long exposure time: anything moving blurs or registers not at all ...
from American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and The Isles of Shoals
edited by Austin Barron Bailly and John W. Coffey

When I look at paintings, most often it's without knowing the stories behind them, so I've enjoyed spending time with this book in advance of seeing the exhibition. And this is a wonderful glimpse, isn't it?

I've also learned that Celia Thaxter, a poet, essayist and gardener, grew up in The Isles of Shoals, where her father was a lighthouse keeper.  Her father opened The Appledore House in 1848, and Celia lived and gardened in a cottage nearby, where her visitors also included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sarah Orne Jewett,  The hotel burned to the ground in 1913, and the house is no longer there, either, but the marine laboratory on the island has recreated her garden.

August 8, 2016

The poet and the painter

{Childe Hassam, From the Doorway, 1892}

In 1886, Hassam made his first extended stay on Appledore. ... During that visit, he completed two oils and a dozen watercolors... As is evidenced by their descent in local families, Hassam gave away most of these bright and illustrative paintings as souvenirs to friends staying at the island's famous hotel, The Appledore House. Nonetheless, they indicate that Hassam had clearly come under the spell of  the island.
{He would visit it almost every year for the next thirty years,painting it more than 150 times.}
      Here, on her hop-shaded piazza and in her flower-bedecked parlor, [Celia] Thaxter presided over a coterie of visiting writers, artists,and musicians, drawn to the islands by the poet's celebrity, but also her polite cajoling. A prized ornament in Thaxter's salon, Hassam relished the attention. Until Thaxter's death in 1894, her cottage was the center of the artist's social and creative life on Appledore. And her garden provided his first great subject.
      Over  four summers, he painted the garden from the cottage piazza, and from inside and outside the board fence. At times, he lost himself in the ecstatic swirl of petal and leaf, the paint strokes responding not only to form and color, but also to nature dancing in the Atlantic breeze. ...
from American Impressionist:  Childe Hassam and The Isles of Shoals,
edited by Austin Barron Bailly and John W. Coffey

{Childe Hassam, Flower Garden, c. 1892}

Some of these garden paintings were commissioned as illustrations for Thaxter's 'still-celebrated' book, An Island Garden, published in 1894.  I have a pretty, modern, slipcased edition of this book, , a gift a long time ago, and a book that I've  never paid much attention to, but will now.