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

February 5, 2016

Only connect: On Downshire Hill

Read this morning, on the bus
If Mrs. STC had not gone to live with them, Sara might not have managed so well, but as it was, in the summer of 1830 Sara and Henry found a house big enough for both a new baby and Mrs. STC. Sara was sad to leave Highgate for its proximity to her father, but, without her mother, she struggled to manage the servants and the endless domestic decisions baffled her. The new house, 21 Downshire Hill, in Hampstead (which Sara always grandly called No. 1 Downshire Place), was perfect in every way, except that it was too far from Lincoln's Inn for Henry to commute to work each day. ... Downshire Hill had been newly developed less than 15 years before. The house he returned to each Friday was a simple brick villa with a pretty iron grille above its front door. ...

from The Poets' Daughters:  Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge
by Katie Waldegrave

Reminding me that
From the late 30s onwards, [Elizabeth Jenkins] lived in a pink-washed Regency house in Downshire Hill, Hampstead (The View from Downshire Hill was the title of her 2004 autobiography). There she eschewed modern comforts amid surroundings little different from those in Keats House across the road. As property prices started to rise to crazy levels during the 80s, Elizabeth, like many others, passed her days in a house worth a fortune without the means to run it. Yet she was uncomplaining and in many ways preferred the Victorian kitchen and one-bar electric fires.

Nicola Beauman {of Persephone Books} writing in The Guardian 

And then there had just been this
'...And I did promise Leonora I would take her and Ned to see Keats's house. He has to go there for his work, you know.'
      Humphrey was silent, confronted by the force of a promise to Leonora and Ned's 'work,' though the latter cut no ice with him, as he put it. He was at a loss to understand this new turn things had taken since Ned had come into their lives. What was James up to?  First a mistress and now a lover. And why was Leonora making such a fuss of Ned? For all his charm it was obvious that she didn't like him. How much more sensible it would be for her to admit defeat and give up.
      'Very well, then,' he said at last. 'I shouldn't like you to disappoint Leonora, of course, but don't make a habit of it. A pity it's such a wet afternoon,' he added, not without satisfaction.
      Leonora came out to the car in the beautiful iridescent raincoat she had worn when she went to meet James at the air terminal. One was not at one's best in the rain, obviously, and one needed to be that now as never before.  She had pictured a golden autumn afternoon for the excursion — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, wasn't it? — and in the past she and James had always been lucky in their weather.
from The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym

It's things like this that make my day. :)

February 4, 2016

Dinner for one

      All the same, the overcast skies and dripping rain spread a pall of sadness over the little house, with its simple bare rooms. There was nobody else looking over it except for a middle-aged woman wearing a mackintosh pixie hood and transparent rain boots over her shoes. She was carrying a shopping bag full of books, over which lay the brightly coloured packet of a 'frozen dinner for one.' Leonora could see the artistically delineated slices of beef with dark brown gravy, a little round Yorkshire pudding, two mounds of mashed potato and brilliantly green peas. Her first feeling was her usual one of contempt for anybody who could live in this way, then, perhaps because growing unhappiness had made her more sensitive, she saw the woman going home to a cosy solitude, her dinner heated up in twenty-five minutes with no bother of preparation, books to read while she ate it, and the memory of a visit to Keats' house to cherish.
from The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym

January 30, 2016

Perfect for today...

I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses. …
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy—have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
from 'At Least," by Raymond Carver

{From this morning's The Writer's Almanac.  How did they know?}

{And that little table. From Pinterest. Yearning for it. :)}

January 25, 2016

The Nutmeg Tree, for Margery Sharp Day

Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine, robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual; for on this particular summer morning  the bathroom, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia's clothes, a single-bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag, The customary echo was therefore lacking; and if the ceiling now and then trembled, it was not because of Julia's song, but because the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had not yet finished removing the hired furniture.
If you were a person who loves old movies (of the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn/Greer Garson/Myrna Loy sort}, and who was in the mood for something light and sparkling, and who couldn't wait for Margery Sharp Day, after being introduced to her last year by our friend Jane — in other words, if you were me — an opening paragraph like this one might make you a little giddy with thinking you had found the book you were most hoping for. And even though the opening scene does set the stage for The Nutmeg Tree, this delightful novel (first published in 1937) offers so much more.

There's a plot (though it's not what drives the book):  after a brief entanglement with young Lieutenant Packett before he heads back to World War I, Julia finds herself pregnant, is surprised when Packett insists on marrying her, and is taken in by her kindly, respectable and understanding in-laws when her husband dies two months later at Ypres. But even then, Julia knows herself; she is grateful to the Packetts, but she's bored and lonely; 'it must be admitted that to have held out as she did, under such conditions for a year and seven months was extremely creditable; and no less so because at the end of that time she gave up the struggle and went thoroughly back to the bad.'  (The 'bad' being eking out a living as a chorus girl, or by having little flings, and eventually by moving in with Mr. Macdermot.)  When we meet her in the bath, she is trying to avoid her creditors and come up with enough money to travel to France;  her daughter Susan, who she has not seen in sixteen years, wants to get married, against her grandmother's wishes, and has written to Julia to ask for her help.

As I noticed before {when I read Lise Lillywhite — still my favorite — and The Flowering Thorn}, I think Margery Sharp has such a gift for drawing characters, and this is what draws me in.  Julia is an aging girl-about-town who wants to pretend to be a lady for her daughter's sake. When she meets the unsuitable young man, she's dismayed to discover that he's all too much like her, and not a good match for her lovely but priggish daughter. Julia's antics are delightful, but she's also wonderfully true to herself,

A number of us read different books for this celebration, but there seems to be a common thread that we're hoping to find, and read, more of them. It's Margery Sharp's birthday today, but we've gotten the presents. {Thank you, Jane, very, very much, for inviting us to the party and introducing us to this writer.}

{Julia Misbehaves, a movie of the sort I like best, was made from this book in 1948.  I first saw it a few years ago, before I knew about Margery Sharp, and I think I'll watch it again tomorrow, just for fun. But Frances is absolutely right; the book can't help but be better.}

January 24, 2016

A view in common

But the glory of the place was the view. From the top of the vineyard, which mounted directly behind the house, one looks straight across a vast circular plain, — mountain girdled, dotted with villages, varied by little hills, cultivated over every foot, — whose centre was the tiny bishopric of Belley. It was the joke of the village that the back door at Les Sapins was two hundred feet higher than the front; and the pride of the villa that from it one could see Mont Blanc.
from The Nutmeg Tree, by Margery Sharp

(It was very hard, at least for me, to take a picture that captures it ... and it's often completely hidden in the clouds ... but there's our mountain, behind the first row of Alps, in the place where they dip lowest, just right of the center of the photo.)

January 9, 2016

A bientot...

Off to one of my favorite places, so I'll be offline, mostly, for a little while. (I don't know who the dashing gentleman is, but perhaps this is a sign.)

I've got The Nutmeg Tree for Margery Sharp's birthday in my bag, and an overstuffed Kindle, with Mrs. Dalloway on it for the #woolfalong, ... and a treat for February already lined up.  Frances, JoAnn, Darlene and I are going to read Henry's (we call him Henry) What Maisie Knew together, and watch the modern film adaptation.  Won't you join us?  Let us know!  (And have you heard about Frankenstein?  Hmmm...I won't be all that far away from where it all began.}