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



March 2, 2014

The View from Downshire Hill



My father bought me a charming little house in Downshire Hill in 1939, just before the outbreak of war. I was to live in it continuously for fifty-five years until an accident which severely restricted my ability to walk forced me to move into a flat nearby in Hampstead.
      Built in 1832, the house was one of a pair of the style that showed the last flicker of Regency architecture. Its narrow frontage had three sash-windows, one above the other, whose upper panes had glazing bars in Gothic arches. It was not convenient; it had only two rooms and small landing on each floor - and a roomy double-basement, the front of which contained two generous cupboards, transformed by shelves into a larder and pantry, but originally meant, as one saw by the fleur-de-lys shaped airholes in the upper panes of each door, to accommodate truckle beds for servants. The kitchen range now enclosed a coke boiler. My father cut the spacious, beautifully aspected top front room into a small sitting room, a bathroom and upstairs lavatory. One of the previous owners ... had installed a bath on the top landing surrounded by a wooden horse-box, with the result that steam had reduced all the wallpapers on the top floor to hanging ribbons.
    The offices at which I worked during the war were all on the 24 bus route, so that on the return journey I often got off at Camden Town and walked up the Chalk Farm Road, passing a good many humble but active second-hand furniture shops which, owing to air raids and general disturbance of people's homes, were able to assemble a collection of chairs, tables, chests of drawers and looking-glasses such as I could never have afforded in normal conditions, and still have now, when the process of antique furniture have skyrocketed. ... I was able. even with my small means, to do away with the Edwardian furniture from home with which I had originally furnished the house, and replace it with pieces of about the 1820-1830 period. Even in those favorable circumstances, I could not have afforded the 1790-1820 range, but I had no unsatisfied longing when I saw how harmonious the interior of 8 Downshire Hill at last became. I had in all this much help from my mother; her standards were rigorous. It was not that she did not sympathize with my love of antique furniture; one of the most charming things I have, she gave me -- a bow-fronted chest of drawers topped by a beautiful oval looking-glass on a little stand with drawers in it, which had belonged to her grandmother. But she felt that shabbiness was not to be tolerated even for the sake of elegance.
     
There's almost nothing I like to read more than a literary biography with hundreds of pages, and a family tree, and pictures, and footnotes, and a bibliography that I turn to long before I finish the book because I already want to read more about the subject.  So it's really kind of wonderful that I can be so captivated by a literary memoir that has none of these things. :)

I first learned about Elizabeth Jenkins a few years ago, when people were reading The Tortoise and the Hare, and then I read (and also loved) her biography of Jane Austen.  I would always be drawn to a writer who is both a novelist and a biographer, and thanks to the college library, I was able to find
this memoir. And thanks to the college library's academic practices I have had this book checked out since (ahem) sometime in 2012. Since it's due back (with no more renewals) next September, I thought I should probably get it read. :)

The real reason I picked it up again was that I had just read a book {a different kind of literary memoir} that pushed all of my reading buttons, and I was feeling a little restless, wanting to read something that I might like as much.  This was perfect; I loved this book.  An interesting, wide-ranging life told on a small scale, so that the things that happen on the next page are often surprising.

As in, when E.J. was a student at Cambridge, the Principal of her College was Lytton Strachey's sister {'to know whom, even slightly, was one of the experiences of a lifetime'}.

As I was going down from Newnham, Miss Strachey asked me, with her usual detached elegance, if I would like an introduction to Virginia Woolf?  It seemed to me, at the time, that life could afford no more exciting prospect. I was almost speechless. She added, encouragingly:  'She's always asking me why I don't send her any of my young ladies.' However speechless, my enthusiasm and gratitude must have made themselves plain, for she then gently added that people in Bloomsbury Society were apt, sometimes, to be rather unkind in what they said. I exclaimed that I was sure I should not mind that. She had given me the warning, but nothing was going to prevent my rushing toward the precipice. ...
      Mrs. Woolf's simple note arrived, asking me, if I were free, to come to them on Thursday evening after dinner. The address was Tavistock Square ... As her subsequent invitations were all of the same kind, my recollection of them begins with going on foot, through the dusk and silence of Doughty Street, through the brisk modern cheerfulness of Russell Square, to the gloom, once more, of Bedford Square, where a bust of one of the Dukes of Bedford stood on a plinth in its gardens, under sweeping boughs.
      Tavistock Square, of later date than other Bloomsbury squares, had a many-windowed, lofty brick frontage. The Woolfs occupied a flat on one of the upper floors, and Leonard Woolf himself came down the stairs to let me in. His gentle kindness, his simplicity and his distinction made an unforgettable impression on me, which never altered. He and Mrs. Woolf were alone in a sitting room on the upper floor. The furniture was covered in worn cretonne upholstery, the walls were painted in a series of latticed arches, done, as I afterwards heard, by Mrs. Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, in the curious idiom, hyper-fashionable at the time, of a startling absence of perspective, and a sort of staggering crookedness. There were lighted candles on the mantelpiece and their light was strengthened by the glow of a large coal fire.
      Virginia Woolf was tall and angular. Her face, despite a slightly exaggerated length, was very beautiful. Her nose was delicately aquiline, her eyes, a bluish grey, very large and deep-set. At that time she was wearing her silvery-grey hair brushed back from her forehead and pushed behind her ears, reaching half-way down her neck. It was an era when skirts were very short, and her extended legs were exposed, stretched out, long and fragile, like stems of old-fashioned clay pipes. I was struck at once by her complete lack of self-consciousness. ...
      The conversation was not exactly interesting in itself, but of extreme interest because it was uttered by them. Some of it concerned young people who had left home to be independent but were struggling to make ends meet. Suddenly Mrs. Woolf said, with an introspective stare, as if she were looking at something under glass:  'Are you poor, Miss Jenkins?' Snatching for an appropriate reply, I said:  'Well, not necessitous' and they both burst out laughing.
There's a lot more in the book like this -- brief glimpses of her friends {including Elizabeth Bowen}, and writers she likes {or doesn't}; stories about how she came to write her books and become involved in other projects {she was one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society}.

There's a chapter later in the book where she talks about Vera Brittain {another writer she doesn't like} and her book Testament of Youth:

...none of the subsequent books equalled the reclame of that first one, in which the subject, her experiences as an army nurse in the 1914 war were so deeply felt and so important in themselves, they overpowered any personal elements. The subject floated her.

I remembered that passage not just because I loved that last phrase, but because it seemed like this lovely, very personal book is the exact opposite. Even when she was talking about people I didn't know, her descriptions were worth reading because they were uttered by her. 

I would love to read more of her books now, though they are hard to find. Has anyone read Harriet?
     
{I found the image of 8 Downshire Hill here.  I was not
meaning to go house-hunting while I was
looking for it, but I will be
moving into this one,
down the street, as soon as possible. :) }


2 comments:

fleurfisher said...

I am so pleased you found a copy of this book - I loved it. And I think you'd love Harriet too.

JoAnn said...

Oh, the joys of a college library! Glad you loved the book, Audrey :)