Dante’s Florence

I’™ve never ever had any inclination to read Dante’™s Divine Comedy before, but I’™ve now ordered a copy from Amazon. This is because I have enrolled on a course called Dante’™s Florence. My initial interest was Florence not Dante. We have had some beautiful holidays in Italy; the last one (in 2000) was near Florence and then we only had one day in Florence itself. I loved Francesco da Mosto’™s TV series on Italy and have wanted to go back to see more of the country ‘“ in particular Florence and Venice. So when a friend said she was taking a course on Dante’™s Florence I jumped at the chance to find out more.

It was the first session yesterday and I really enjoyed it. This is the description of the course: ‘œStudying Dante could not be more divine! Experience the Florence of Dante’™s day, including the art and architecture and the poet’™s relationship with his native city as conveyed in his writings.’ My impression of Dante’™s Inferno was that it is long and difficult and this was reinforced when the tutor said that most people who read The Divine Comedy manage to read through Purgatory and Hell, but few reach Paradise. It’™s not necessary to read it for this course, but now I want to know more.

It’™s only a six week course and covers a lot of topics including Florentine art and architecture of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Dante’™s relationship with Florence with reference to The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, and his legacy in art and literature.

Dante’™s Florence was a much smaller city than today, but there are still some buildings from that period. I was pleased that I had visited some on our visit in 2000, in particular the Baptistry. This was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and Dante was baptised there in 1265. I remember sitting in the Baptistry, gazing with wonder and admiration at the magnificent ceiling decorations in its dome, and walking on the ancient mosaic floor. I have always been fascinated by mosaics, the intricate patterns and marvelled at their composition.

Dante loved learning, hunting and sport, was involved in the struggle for power between the Church and the State, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. The great love of Dante’™s life was Beatrice Portinari, who he met when he was nine and she was eight. They never married. Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday shows him gazing at her as she passes by ignoring him.

I hope we will be looking at the Pre-Raphaelite paintings when the tutor discusses Dante’™s legacy to art, as one of my favourite paintings is Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante wrote La Vita Nuova in despair at Beatrice’™s death and we’™ll be studying that next week.

Quirky – Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:


Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

I take ‘quirky’ to mean characters that are odd, who act in unexpected ways, are a bit peculiar or different, maybe a bit outrageous or unusual in some way. They’re the type of character that makes a book either very good or boringly bad. It really depends on the situation and whether they fit into the story or are there just for effect.

There are so many characters that can be described as quirky but one that came to my mind as I read the question is Alice in Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth. She is certainly eccentric and peculiar, nothing she does is what people expect of her. The book starts off: ‘The madwoman in the attic was standing at the window.’

Her neighbours think she is simple, strange and definitely mad and are outraged by what she says and does. It’s a bizarre story mainly seen through Alice’s mind which because she lives mainly in the world of books is a very strange place indeed. It’s funny, well ludicrous at times, full of literary and musical references and I got lost in it for hours.

Winter In Madrid by C. J. Sansom

The devastation, desolation and waste of war had me in tears as I was reading Winter In Madrid. I already knew from reading his 16th century crime thrillers that C. J. Sansom is a master storyteller and this book exceeded my expectations. It is an action packed thrilling war/spy story and also a moving love story and historical drama all rolled into this tense and gripping novel.

Sansom vividly conveys the horror and fear of the realities of life in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War. The opening chapter dramatically sets the tone for the book with the brutality of the Battle of Jarama in 1937 then leaps straight into the bombing of London in 1940. Then Harry Brett, traumatised by his injuries at Dunkirk is sent to Spain to spy for the British Secret Service. He is plunged into the terrible living conditions in Madrid where people are starving, children are left homeless to fend for themselves and wild dogs roam the rubble of bombed houses.


He turned into a square. Two sides had been shelled into rubble, all the houses down, a chaos of broken walls rising from a sea of shattered bricks and sodden rags of bedding. Weeds had grown up between the stones, tall scabrous dark-green things. Square holes in the ground half filled with green scummy water marked where cellars had stood. The square was deserted and the houses that had been left standing looking derelict, their windows all broken.

Harry had never seen such destruction on such a scale; the bombsites in London were small by comparison. He stepped closer, looking over the devastation. The square must have been intensively shelled. Everyday there was news of more raids on London – did England look like this now?

This is a long and detailed book, but it moves along rapidly, with believable characters, including the bullying Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Alan Hillgarth, the chief of intelligence (both of whom are real historical figures), diplomats, Spanish Monarchists and Falangists and the ordinary Spanish people. Franco’s Madrid is shown as a place where fear, poverty and corruption stalk the streets; where hatred and suffering are paramount. It’s a chilling picture, but Harry finds love too when he meets Sofia and plans her escape with him to England after he has completed his mission.

The question is will Franco maintain Spain’s neutrality and enter the war in support of Hitler? Harry’s cover is as an interpreter, whilst his mission is to make contact with Sandy Forsyth, who he had known at public school in England, gain his confidence and discover the truth behind the rumour that gold deposits have been discovered in Spain, which would boost the economy making Spain less reliant on British support. Harry, a reluctant spy, soon finds himself in danger. He is plagued by memories of another school friend Bernie Piper, an ardent Communist who had enlisted in the International Brigades and had disappeared, reported killed at the Battle of Jarama. Barbara, an ex- Red Cross nurse, now Sandy’s girlfriend and Bernie’s former lover is convinced Bernie was not killed She appeals to Harry for help in finding Bernie, and so the story moves to its climax.

With its haunting themes of corruption, murder, the power of authority and heroism Winter In Madrid captivated my imagination. I expect it will be made into a film but I don’t think I could bear to watch it after enjoying this book so much.

Note: This book qualifies for the following Challenges – From the Stacks (I’ve had it unread for months), the Chunkster Challenge (it’s 530 pages) and What’s In a Name?

Bear With Me

Normal book posts will be resumed as soon as possible.

In the meantime the bears have been clamouring for a mention. This is Little Big Ted and he is the first miniature bear that I bought, so he’s my favourite. I found him at a Bear Fair at Woburn Abbey and he’s seen the Queen. His arms and legs snap off (press studs) and his maker popped him in his shirt pocket and took him to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen (I can’t remember why).

This started me off collecting miniature bears ever since. Some of them are Steiff bears but others are just plain little bears and they’re all welcome here. There are specialist shops and museums where they can be found.

Some of them like to sit on the bookshelves.

That is when they don’t get together with the others, including a few bigger bears.

Where was Agnes Born?

Family history has taken up so much of my time recently. It’™s amazing how much you can find out without leaving home and there are so many websites that it’™s bewildering at first. Be warned if you’™re thinking of looking up your family history, it has taken me hours of staring at lists of people in the various indexes assessing if and how they fit in to the family tree. It has seriously distracted me from reading and from writing this blog!

I started with my husband’™s family as my sister has already done a lot of research on our side of the family. It has been surprising. I have not got very far with his mother’™s side of the family. We knew the names of his mother’™s parents (his grandparents) and easily found the details of their parents (his great grandparents) from birth certificates. I have been looking at the Census Returns through ancestry.co.uk which has name indexes to the Returns and record sheets for each person.

Here is the surprise: his great grandmother is recorded in both the 1881 and 1891 Census Returns, giving her place of birth as America and in the record sheet for the 1891 Census it gives her place of birth as American Samoa. I can’™t see anything on the actual Census Returns at all that indicates Samoa, so where has that information come from? I’™ve emailed Ancestry and so far haven’™t heard back. I don’™t know where to find any more information ‘“ looking at the indexes it seems as though you have to know in which state a person was born before you can check their details. I cannot find their marriage in the Marriage Index for 1837 ‘“ 1983 so it seems like a dead end. Her maiden name is on her daughter’™s birth certificate in 1878 as Agnes Henderson when the family was living in Chorlton, Manchester. She was born about 1850 or 1851 going off her age as stated in the Census Returns.

Photograph of American Samoa from Wikipedia Engraving of view of Manchester (Cottonopolis) from Wikipedia

It is difficult to find out when Agnes came to England and when and where she was married. If she was from American Samoa she must have found Manchester in the 1880s very different. There are some records of immigrants in the National Archives, but it may be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Celebrate the Author Challenge – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and the wife of Leonard Woolf. Fearing that she was going mad, she weighed her pocket down with a large stone and drowned herself in the River Ouse on 28 March 1941.

She wrote many books, works of non-fiction as well as novels, short stories and essays. I’ve only read a few – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, and A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume).

For this Challenge I decided to read The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, a book I bought in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago and have never read. This was originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished. In an Editorial Note he wrote that the first four essays ‘were written by her, as usual in handwriting and were then typed out in rather a rough state. I have printed them as they stand, except that I have punctuated them and corrected obvious verbal mistakes. I have not hesitated to do this, since I always revised the MSS. Of her books and articles in this way before they were published.’


I am reading these essays very slowly, just one or two a day, letting them sink into my mind as I eat my breakfast. The Death of the Moth is one of the previously unpublished essays. It is very short – just over 3 pages long. So much meaning is packed into these three pages. It is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane.

He was little or nothing but life. … there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.

As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. She watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life: ‘As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder.’

The essays I’ve read so far have a melancholy, sombre tone, considering the nature of the self in Evening Over Sussex, beautiful Sussex facing the sea with its ‘mottled and marbled’ fields‘, and the poignancy of death in Three Pictures and Old Mrs Grey.

Street Haunting: a London Adventure is lighter in mood telling of the pleasures of rambling through the London streets, watching other people and visiting a second-hand bookshop. This description expresses so well the pleasure of browsing among second-hand books:

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books: they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub shoulders against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

Also on a more cheerful note is ‘ Twelfth Night’ at the Old Vic (written in 1933), discussing the differences between reading Shakespeare and watching his plays acted on the stage. This seemed so timely to me as I’ve been bemoaning various TV productions of adaptations of books that I have loved reading.

Virginia Woolf expresses it so much better than I ever could. Not only is the scenery upsetting:

The actual persons of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Olivia and the rest expand our visionary characters out of all recognition. At first we are inclined to resent it. You are not Malvolio; or Sir Toby either, we want to tell them; but merely impostors. We sit gaping at the ruins of the play, at the travesty of the play. And then by degrees this same body or rather all the bodies together, take our play and remodel it between them. The play gains immensely in robustness, in solidity. The printed word is changed out of all recognition when it is heard by other people.

She continues to discuss how we begin then to criticise the actors’ performances and compare their versions unfavourably with our own. Still the performance has made us read the play again and whetted our appetite for other performances that are still to come. I felt the same when I saw Twelfth Night last year in Stratford. As I described here the RSC’s performance was not how I read the play. But I think I enjoy the performance of a play more than an adaptation of a book. As Virginia Woolf wrote Shakespeare was writing for the stage. Novels however, are meant to be read and that is why I think I have difficulty accepting a filmed version.

On Wednesday I went to see the film The Golden Compass and reacted mostly as she described in this essay. I thought the setting was good, the acting was fine, but yes Lyra was not my Lyra, Lord Asriel was not my Lord Asriel and so on through all the characters, although Ian McKellen was just right as the voice of Iorek. At the end of the film I felt a sense of anti-climax. The Golden Compass only covers the first of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and there is so much more in the books than is in the film.

Yet to come in this collection are essays on Henry James, E M Forster, the Art of Biography, Why?, Professions for Women and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. I’m not going to rush reading these, but intend to savour every one.

Huh? – Booking Through Thursday


What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody ‘knows’ those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, ‘Huh? Never heard of it?’


Oh dear, my mind went blank when I read this question. My favourite book – which one is that? And one that other people haven’t heard of? I tend not to talk about books much to anyone these days apart from my family and people at the book groups I go to and talking to these people we usually find out about books the others haven’t heard of. Reading blogs I come across so many books that I haven’t heard of too, so maybe other people haven’t heard of the ones I like.

Trying to think what is my favourite book I looked at my catalogue on LibraryThing. I liked The Poisonwood Bible – 6,578 other people own that book – so not unknown. How about Things Fall Apart? No, 3,805 others have that. So on and so forth.

I think I’ve mentioned Melvyn Bragg’s book A Son of War before, but that is one book I liked that not many other people on LibraryThing own (41 others). The Man Who Listens by Taylor Caldwell is another – only one other person has that in their catalogue. How about Lambs of God by Marele Day (75 others have it) or Winter in the Hills by John Wain (10 others)? I liked these too, but I’m not sure they’re my favourites.

There is poetry. No one that I’ve talked to has heard of Jack Mapanje or his books Of Chameleons and Gods (4 others on LT) and The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1 other person). I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I was really taken with these, maybe because I first heard them read by Jack when I was at a Summer School for an Open University course on English Literature. Jack was imprisoned in Malawi from September 1987 to May 1991, detained without charge or trial. Hearing him tell of his experiences was so moving.