Heroine – Booking Through Thursday

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Thursday has come round very quickly – it’s Booking Through Thursday again.

My immediate response to this question was Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for her quick wittedness, good sense and spirit, then Jo in Little Women because of her independence and intelligence and Cousin Helen in What Katy Did as she was such a good person. But these are all characters from books I read a long time ago; there must be some more modern female characters that I like.

Again, one that came to my mind quickly is Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for her courage and determination. Then there is Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Amazing Grace, aptly named as I think she is amazing and enigmatic and like the other female characters I like she is full of courage in her desperate situation. Susan Ward in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is another strong female character; and Astrid in Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson – she is reclusive and an introvert and also a strong, determined woman.

It seems I like strong, determined women with a mind of their own and able to cope with difficult situations. So why is Elizabeth Bennet such a favourite, after all she didn’t have to cope with serious illness, or live in poverty, or deal with manipulative, domineering, homicidal men, or make a home in the American west? I think maybe it’s because I see her through rose-coloured glasses and because she is the first female character that caught my imagination when I first read Pride and Prejudice, possibly the first adult book I read.

Dante’™s Florence – Week 3

During week 3 we looked at the expansion of Florence as more people came into the city. In Dante’™s day there were about 45 towers, or 90 or more, depending upon the source you check and today there are about 20 still standing, showing the progression from the early plain and simple tower into the grander palaces, with more and bigger windows, columns, loggias and decorated with the families’™ coats of arms.

We looked at slides of a number of towers showing the development from defensive, military type towers to house towers and palaces.

La Castagna – The Chestnut Tower (also known as Dante’™s tower), across from Dante’™s House is an example of a plain, simple military tower, used in Dante’™s time by an order of priors who voted on decisions by placing a chestnut in a box – hence the name. The holes are where there were planks joining the tower to neighbouring houses and the windows decrease in size higher up the tower.

An example of a tower that existed during Dante’™s day is the medieval Mannelli Tower, located at one end of Ponte Vecchio. This was built to defend the bridge and shows the development of the design from the simple cube, having more windows (in pairs) and decorated with lions’™ heads. It’™s interesting because when the Vasari Corridor was added to the bridge at the end of the 16th century to enable the Grand Duke to move freely from one side of the bridge to the other, the Mannelli family refused to demolish it to make way for the Corridor. So the Corridor had to be built around the Tower, thus bypassing it.

We also looked at the cylindrical Pagliazza Byzantine Tower that was a prison in Dante’™s day and is now part of the Hotel Brunelleschi, the Buondelmonte Tower, and the Alberti Tower.

As the city prospered new city walls were built bringing the churches outside the original walls within the city boundaries. By the end of the 13th century the population had grown to approximately 90,000 and was second only in size to Paris. Its wealth came from textiles and banking, with an emerging merchant class coming into the city for employment. This also brought social problems and the mendicant orders ‘“ travelling preachers from Umbria and Emilia who wanted to enrich the people’™s spiritual life. These were different from the monastic orders, reaching out to people. Dante’™s writing forms a parallel as he wrote in the vernacular making his work accessible to all.

The Church of San Miniato on the opposite side of the Arno was in a wild and woody setting when Dante knew it. In the Divine Comedy he likens the entrance to Purgatory to the ascent to the church. It is an ancient church from the 11th century with a 13th century Tuscan Romanesque style façade similar to that of the Baptistery ‘“ green and white marble. Inside there is a beautiful 13th century gold and black mosaic in the apse in the Byzantine style, with the palm symbolising the Resurrection accompanied by the symbols for the four Evangelists.

Illustrations (except for the Chestnut Tower) are from Wikipedia.

To follow: Banking, Guilds and Art of the Period.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

I really like books that grab my attention from the start, have believable characters, a good story and are thought provoking. Hearts and Minds meets all these criteria. From the first page I became involved in the world of St Radegund’™s College, Cambridge as Dr Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor working against deadlines, wrestles with writing an article, has difficulty refocusing her eyes from the computer screen to look at her watch and is not relishing the prospect of confronting a delegation of students angry at the proposed rent increases. As I read further it was obvious that this is a book to be read slowly and relished.

For one thing it is full of details about how the university college functions, how the staff and students inter-relate, and the idiosyncrasies and bureaucracy of academia. For another I didn’™t want it to end, so I didn’™t read through at breakneck speed in my usual way, but rationed myself and took it slowly. It may look from the book jacket that it is a light and fluffy love story (well there is a love story in there), but it is much more than that, posing moral dilemmas that are not limited to the academic world. I’™m not sure I would have picked up this book just from its cover, so I’™m really pleased that Rosy Thornton, who is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, sent me a copy to read.

St Radegund’s College, an all-female college has just broken with 160 years of tradition by appointing former BBC executive James Rycarte as its new Head of House as successor to the former Mistress, the much-loved Dame Emily. The problems facing James seem to mount as, in addition to the rent strike by the students, he has to contend with opposition from some of the Fellows to his headship. There is the thorny question of his title ‘“ should he be called ‘˜Master’™ which has ‘œunfortunate resonances’ in a women’™s’™ college or some other title such as ‘˜President’™ or ‘˜Provost’™ or ‘˜Warden’™; for a while he goes by the title ‘˜Mistress’™ before settling for ‘˜Master’™. The library is sinking into the Cambridge fen mud and there isn’™t enough money in the building contingency fund to pay for the remedial work; and Martha’™s post of Senior Tutor is coming to the end of its period of office, the only suitable candidate being Dr Ros Clarke, who is leading the opposition to James as Head of House.

The perfect solution appears when Luigi Alvau, an old friend offers James a large donation. This would cover the costs of repairing the library and enable the college to set up scholarships for students who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The sting in the tail is that Alvau’™s daughter is applying for a place at the college. James with Martha’™s support gradually wins over some of the Fellows. Martha meanwhile has her own problems. Not only is she faced with the problem of continuing her career, she has a depressed teenage daughter who refuses to go to school and spends her days in bed and a husband who seemingly exists on writing one or two poems in Italian every now and then, spending much of his time ‘œthinking’. The only comfort she gets at home is from her ginger tomcat Maynard. Through Martha’™s situation we are presented with the classic situation of how to balance work and home, with the added complications of difficult mother/daughter relationships between Martha and her daughter and Martha and her own mother.

Relationships are a key theme in the book, as James works to establish his relationships with the staff, the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship with his son and his increasing reliance on Martha. Then there are the students and their relationships with each other and the Dean. How James survives in a ‘œwoman’™s world’ provides much scope for gently poking fun – for example I loved the tale of the SCR curtains, agreed upon by the Pictures, Plate and Furniture Sub-Committee and James’s amazement that this is discussed by the entire academic staff at the annual meeting of the Governing Body. Opinion is divided between a traditional William Morris print and a more geometric Mondrian-style pattern.

More seriously the book raises questions, such as should the college compromise its integrity and take a donation when it cannot be sure of its origins? When its origins could be ill-gotton gains from bribery and corruption? Should the library be left to sink? And what about the question of donations from parents ‘“ are they evidence of bribery for a place or a genuine means of raising funds? Should students be penalised if they can’™t afford their education? Or indeed should students be denied a place if their parents make donations? I was intrigued to read on and see how or if these questions were resolved?

There are echoes of C P Snow’s novels, that I read and enjoyed many years ago, particularly The Masters in the Strangers and Brothers series and I noticed in the acknowledgements that the book developed from a joke about Snow. This is an intelligent and witty novel which kept me greatly entertained and gave me food for thought. I do hope there will be more books from Dr Thornton.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton, published by Headline Review, 2007, hardback, 341 pages.

Glimpses of Edward Gibbon at Sheffield Place (Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex)

Each day during this last week I’™ve been reading one of Virginia Woolf’™s essays from the collection in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Each one has provided some fascinating glimpses into the lives of a number of writers including Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794), about whom I know very little. In fact before I read her two essays “The Historian and ‘˜The Gibbon’™” and “Reflections at Sheffield Place” all I knew was that Gibbon had written The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I didn’™t know about his connection to Sheffield Place and was interested when I realised that this is now Sheffield Park in Sussex. Although the house is privately owned, the National Trust owns Sheffield Park Garden. I visited it several years ago when I had no inkling that Gibbon had also visited it some 300 years earlier. The garden was originally designed by ‘Capability’ Brown for John Holroyd (who later became Lord Sheffield) in about 1775. So, Gibbon who was a great friend of Lord Sheffield would have seen the garden when he stayed with Lord Sheffield, but I doubt that he would have walked round very much of it as, according Maria, Sheffield’™s daughter, Gibbon was “a mortal enemy to any person taking a walk.” To her he was a figure of fun “waddling across the room”, but she admitted that he was ‘œthe most delightful of talkers’ and she was genuinely fond of him.

Woolf in her essay Reflections at Sheffield Park ponders whether Gibbon had paused in front of the ‘œgreat ponds ‘¦ bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other.’ I wish I had known that when I visited. I remember how beautiful Sheffield Park Garden was with its colourful displays of flowers and trees surrounding the lakes; I could have stood there imagining that maybe Gibbon had stood on the same spot and seen a similar display! The lakes, cascades and waterfalls make this one of the most picturesque gardens I’ve visited. I can’t find the photos we took when we were there, so this photo is from Wikipedia, showing one of the lakes. The National Trust website has a few photos showing the Garden at different times of the year.

Woolf’™s description of Gibbon’™s appearance as well as his character caught my imagination and brought him to life. He was fat and ugly, talked incessantly, was sickly and had none of the advantages of birth. She describes his appearance as ‘œridiculous ‘“ prodigiously fat, enormously top-heavy, precariously balanced upon little feet upon which he spun round with astonishing alacrity.’

Gibbon apparently abandoned his purple language and wrote racy colloquial prose to Sheffield and was the only person who could restrain Sheffield’™s extravagance. The contrasting characters of his eccentric Aunt Hester and his Aunt Kitty who brought him up after his mother died show the complexity of his nature. Woolf wrote that Aunt Hester’™s view was that he was ‘œa worldling, wallowing in the vanities of the flesh, scoffing at the holiness of faith.’ Aunty Kitty on the other hand, thought he was a prodigy and was intensely proud of him.

Virginia Woolf’™s essays are brief but give enough facts and a general impression of how Gibbon grew up and became a historian to make me keen to find out more. Gibbon did of course write in a very ornate, ironic and elaborate style, but Woolf considers reading it is like being ‘œmounted on a celestial rocking-horse’, which then becomes a ‘œwinged steed; we are sweeping in wide circles through the air and below us Europe unfolds; the ages pass; a miracle has taken place.’

I still have essays on Coleridge, Shelley, Henry James, George Moore and E M Forster to read in this little book ‘“ such a wide sweep of literature yet to explore.

Sunday Scenes

OutsideI looked out of the window first thing this morning and saw these four pheasants. One was motionless in the middle of the field watching the other three as they walked in procession along the boundary fence. I grabbed my camera, and this is the best shot I could get before they disappeared beyond my view. I’m sorry that they don’t show up very well.

Later in the morning D said he wondered what people were looking at opposite our window (we get quite a few hikers walking by at the weekend) and then realised it was this cat sitting staring at the field. The pheasants were long gone, but the hedge is a haven for mice and voles, as well as birds and the cats are always on patrol, but we’ve never seen one sitting on top of the hedge before.

I decided it was about time I sorted out the pile of bedside books, which were in piles on the floor. Some of these I’ve read, some I’ve started and others are ones I want to read. Sometimes I can’t decide what to read which is why there are so many in these piles – 19 books! I am only actually reading Hearts and Minds at the moment, and Virginia Woolf’s book of Essays, and Half of a Yellow Sun, but they are downstairs.

From left to right they are:

Dead Language, by Peter Rushforth
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Author, Author by David Lodge
Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
W. Somerset Maugham Collection
Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
The Genealogist’™s Internet by Peter Christian
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton
Florence and Tuscany a Dorling Kindersley travel guide
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
Back from the Brink, autobiography of Paul McGrath
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

The Illusionist is the third book I’™ve read recently on the theme of illusions. The Magician’™s Assistant by Anne Patchett was the first followed by Paul Auster’™s The Book of Illusions. Of these three I found The Illusionist the most satisfying. Jennifer Johnston is a new writer to me, but from the biographical details in the book I see that she has won many awards ‘“ the Whitbread Prize in 1979, the Evening Standard Best first Novel Award in 1972 and was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1977. I’™m sorry I haven’™t come across her books before, but I’™ll be looking out for them from now on.

Once I started this I stopped reading the other books I have on the go and read this through in about two sittings. I wanted to find out what happened and why. Set in Ireland and England, it starts with Stella, looking back on her life after the death of her estranged husband, Martyn. Thirty years earlier they had met on a train when he had taken the book she was reading out of her hands and asked if she would like to play cards. Now if a stranger had done that to me I wouldn’™t have been too pleased but Stella is charmed by him, and after a very short time they are married, against her parents’™ advice. Martyn has a full time job but practices magic tricks, although he corrects her description of him as a conjuror ‘“ he is an Illusionist. However, it’™s not long before she begins to have misgivings, particularly when he won’™t tell her anything about his background or his job or what is in the locked the room where he is devising an extraordinary new trick, with the help of two mysterious men.

The situation gets worse as Stella is manipulated and controlled by Martyn, so much that she gives up her own job and they move with their daughter, Robin to a large house in the countryside. Eventually, as things become so bad and Robin is alienated from her mother, Stella has to take action.

There are various themes running through the book; the nature of love and trust, how much you can trust or know another person, what is real or illusory, and above all about preserving one’™s integrity in relationships between husband/wife and mother /daughter. It’™s so easy to read this book as the words just flow across the pages, bringing to my mind vivid pictures of the countryside:

‘œOut beyond Clifden the world seems to end: hills, islands, clouds drift together in the hugh ocean of the sky. Sometimes the sun overwhelms both the sea and the sky with its glitter, sometimes pillars of rain move across the emptiness, then the colour, the texture of the land and sea change as the rain falls, from blue to grey, sometimes to black. Other times a shawl of mist hides mountains, sea and sky.’

The characters also came alive in my mind and I began to dislike Martyn more and more as the book progressed and I found myself wanting to support and encourage Stella in her struggle to survive. There is so much in this book that I liked and here is one example indicating the themes explored within the story:

‘œSome words lurk in the darkness of your mind, like young men lurk in the shadows, waiting to damage, maim, or merely frighten unsuspecting walkers once the light has gone.

Words can be like missiles or rose or travellers to another world. You can play delightful games with them, that will make you and others smile, feel light-hearted, or you can kill; you can hide the truth or manifest it.’

Format – Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday’s question this week is – All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

In a perfect world I’™d have both.

I like reading hardbacks (hardcovers) although their weight is often a problem if they are long books, both in carrying them home from the library and also when reading, particularly when reading in bed. These days some hardbacks are just as liable to fall apart as paperbacks, but on the whole I do think that last longer. Some paperbacks have those covers that curl open once you start reading and some are so tightly bound that you have to break the spine to keep the book open whilst you read it. But a paperback is much easier to carry around and I like to take a book with me just in case there’™s an opportunity to read.