Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats



“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.


Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.


Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?


Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading

“Walk With Me” Said A Thousand Poets

 “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion


The first tempestuous storm of autumn is over. We ventured out last night to talk a walk in our immediate neighborhood to survey the damage and get a breath of that freshly scoured air. It was more of an early evening, really, when the air had grown calm and a bit of sun began to peek out to give us a spot of cheer before dusk.


‘Listen! the wind is rising,
and the air is wild with leaves.
We have had our summer evenings,
now for October eves.’

~Humbert Wolfe, 1936


I was afraid of what we would see—of what we know is inevitable. Part of the ambiguity we feel during this time of year comes from the startling changes to the landscape, when the winds strip the trees of color, and our lovely, leafy neighborhoods become a wasteland of soggy leaves and twisted limbs. The view that greets our eyes might resemble the ‘Aged warriors’ of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tone poem, ‘thinned of half their tribe’:

‘When reeds are dead and straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like Agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe; an over the flattened rushes, 
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak…’


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used a warrior imagery, as well, in the awesome beauty of a piece simply titled ‘Autumn’:

‘Magnificent Autumn! He comes not like a pilgrim, clad in russet weeds. He comes not like a hermit, clad in gray. But he comes like a warrior, with the stain of blood upon his brazen mail. His crimson scarf is rent…. 
The wind…. wafts to us the odor of forest leaves, that hang wilted on the dripping branches, or drop into the stream. Their gorgeous tints are gone, as if the autumnal rains had washed them out. Orange, yellow, and scarlet, all are changed to one melancholy russet hue…. 
There is a melancholy and continual roar in the tops of the tall pines…. 
It is the funeral anthem of the dying year.’  

Then again, our altered landscape might be more George Meredith in poetic scope with all his grim, Victorian melodrama, of which the following is just the merest snippet:

‘Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration
In the moist breath of decay.’

Thus we ventured out after the storm, expecting all of the above. How pleasantly surprised we were to find, no gothic drama, no melancholy Millay, no stain of blood, no shivering gray, but vistas of a curious, tousled charm at every turn.

There was color around every corner.

Tiny vignettes of moist, sparkling abundance.


The squirrels were busier than ever in their new windfall of riches; they scarce had time for even a disapproving glance in our direction, and I missed their usual scold.

Perhaps the poet of our current landscape was a bit more William Blake in tone?

‘Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.’

~William Blake (1757-1827), “To Autumn”

I could even see the ‘delicate textures’ of John Burroughs, who was apparently more of an early riser for his autumn walks…:

‘Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept….’ ~John Burroughs, “The Falling Leaves,” Under the Maples


Since Austen wrote the above quote in the header, in her novel Persuasion, over 200 years ago, there have been many anthologies of poetry—spun from the ‘minds of taste and tenderness’— that showcase the poet’s love for autumn days. We need not rely on memory alone, though the whispered cadence of poets past murmuring along our steps is not unpleasant.

Some of these gems are sprinkled in and around the scenes from our walk after the storm.


‘Songs of continued years I sing.’ ––Walt Whitman, Autumn Rivulets (note the river view through the iron circle; courtesy of a thoughtful neighbor whose garden borders our narrow path)

‘Wild is the music of autumnal winds;
Amongst the faded woods.’ ~William Wordsworth

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay…That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.” ― Ray Bradbury


“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne

I hope you enjoyed your walk with the poets!

In Which I Look for Ethel, and Find Her Not



The cross-pollination of ideas is always fascinating to me. This post has so many disparate ideas criss-crossed and be-sprinkled and tossed about on erratic breezes that I hardly know what it is about. Perhaps by the end I will have figured it out. Or you will have figured it out, and kindly tell me.

In the process we will have landed on such flowers of thought as Persephone (Books), the American Dionysius, the mysteriously disappearing Ethel, tiddlywinks—(new and improved); we will have buzzed lightly over the far-sighted Mrs. Peasgood, Johnny Appleseed’s hidden agenda, pippins without peer and love-struck carrier pigeons, then we round off the whole with some triumphantly brilliant comments from an author bearing the fortuitous name of Pollan. His book The Botany of Desire, is on my to-be-read list.

It all began with the news this morning that Persephone had just issued The Cookery Book, by Ambrose Heath. (I just love the fact it is called a ‘cookery book’) I am ordering it, thank you.


Persephone showed a picture of the old edition on their Facebook page, which reminded me that the magazine Country Life didn’t just issue ‘cookery books’, but garden books, as well. I have a treasured copy of an old Country Life book in my library.


This book, while valuable in its own right, is something of a curiosity. It is written by a clever, witty woman named Ethel Armitage. The publisher’s forward reads:

‘The publishers believe that in this volume they have found a gardening classic and moreover, a book which will appeal to generations of garden and country lovers as Gilbert White, Cobbett and other countryman’s books still do today.’

Well, you know what I think of Gilbert White!  You know what the entire country of Britain thinks of Gilbert White!

But wait, there’s more. There is the significant detail that this book by Ethel Armitage has been masterfully illustrated by none other than John Farleigh. His woodcuts are highly collectible. Any book that has been illustrated by John Farleigh is usually considered valuable. He illustrated for writers such as George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, and Sacheverall Sitwell. As an antiquarian book collector, I am keenly interested in woodcut illustrative art in particular. The name of John Farleigh is associated with the best, and it is likely because of John Farleigh that this book by Ethel Armitage is in my collection.

What happened to Ethel?

Ethel is a conundrum—I can find nothing else about her. This twentieth-century echo of Gilbert White has faded into obscurity. No face, no bio. No pictures of the lovely garden she wrote about with such wit and tenderness. No reprints by Persephone. (yet…?) The internet is silent, except for  the fact that she wrote two other books that are also out of print. As far as I can discern, Ethel Armitage wrote a total of three books:

A Country Garden (1936)

Garden and Hedgerow (1939)

Flower and Leaf (1946)

Perhaps she wanted to remain obscure. Yet it is only natural to want to know more about the woman who wrote:

‘Early in April a carrier pigeon was found, in a very exhausted state, in the orchard, and after being given some food, recovered enough to be taken to the loft, where he remained for two days in a more or less invalid state. He then took a little flight round the garden, which seemed to completely restore him to health, for he became quite perky, following us down the grass path and gobbling up any wood lice found for him, though he resolutely refused to have anything to do with slugs.’

‘One morning he failed to appear for his breakfast, but three days later turned up very tired, and from then remained with us…we hoped he had forgotten all about his birth-place and had really adopted us. But an even stronger instinct than the homing one came over him, for the last week he collected a companion—a wife, we suppose. She was a strange-looking bird, and with a dingy white head and drab colouring, not the least sleek and beautiful like our pigeon. Perhaps she was the only spinster left over in the marriage market, for it was certainly rather late in the season. She showed, at once, that she did not care about us or about the place, for after remaining half a day, they both went off, never to be seen again, as if she had said to him: ‘This is not nearly good enough for me.’.

In the process of finding out nothing about Ethel Armitage, I did manage to find out something about Mrs. Peasgood.

Mrs. Peasgood of Grantham, Lincolnshire, sounds like a remarkable woman. In 1860, at the tender age of 16, she received five pippins and knew what to do with them. (It’s stories like hers that make me realize how dull my teen years were) She planted them. And waited. And waited.

She got married, and waited some more. Finally, one of those pippins, or the seeds therein, became a tree and bore fruit.

John Farleigh engraving

John Farleigh engraving

Somehow she knew this was no ordinary apple, and entered it into a competition. It won, and the rest is history. A single apple of Peasgood’s Nonsuch, as it became named, can weigh over one pound. The Peasgood name is all over the world now; the apple having been presented to the Royal Horticultural Society, who then presented one to the Queen. It has been described as ‘the most handsome apple in the world’. It is also very good in a pie, as well it should be. This apple has even been known to change otherwise indifferent apple eaters into madly keen pippin aficionados.

You may be wondering how this all relates to the notion of an American Dionysius. Or not. And let’s not forget Ethel, of whom we still know nothing. Except for the curious note, on page 145 of her book, that in October, sometime during the 1930′s, they planted in their orchard a ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’.

As it turns out, there are Peasgood family legends that hint at a curious story regarding America’s own emissary of the apple— Johnny Appleseed; that he was actually a Peasgood, and went about America sowing seeds of the Peasgood fortunes.

Well, guess what? That can’t be true, because everyone knows (well, okay, I didn’t know until just this morning) that apples can only stay true to type if you graft them. Every single seed in an apple, if planted and productive, will result in a different kind of apple. Random apple seed scattering just results in confused, mushy little apples of no distinction. Except in those rare cases of Mrs. Peasgood who hit a sort of apple lottery with her pippins while her husband was inventing tiddily winks. (He patented his new design in 1891…true story; you can’t make up this stuff)

But here is the good news. Those genetically confused, random apples grown from seed produce wonderful cider that sweetens with age. Suddenly we—meaning me—are now on familiar territory, being both geographically and chronologically fixed in apple cider land. (We—meaning me—love cider. We just toured cider country where the bottling and tasting is going on; in case you missed it, here is a picture or two.)

In this NPR interview with author Michael Pollan, (and in his book The Botany of Desire), he states that Johnny Appleseed had very strong views regarding the proper way to apple propagation, and it was not to be done by grafting. Only by seed sowing. This would make Johnny Appleseed, in effect, the American Dionysius. According to Pollan, he was bringing the gift of booze to the frontier with his little pocket of seeds, because the apples he planted would have only been fit for cider.


All very interesting. Because I took this circuitous route to cider, and back home, by way of Ethel Armitage, (of whom I know nothing).

Even now, as I write this, I have the picture in my mind of Ethel planning for the next spring. It is laced throughout her book–this happy notion of spring. It’s a powerful notion, and no doubt one that carried her through to somewhere. I know not where, but I hope it all ended well for her.

Now it’s time to go curl up by a warm fire, listen to the rain pelt the windows outside, drink a cool cider fresh off the local orchards, think about the power of words and the fragility of flesh, and read what Ethel was writing about on October 24th, 1936:

‘Most of the fruits of the earth are now gathered in, and the loft is full of a delicious smell of apples. From the cross-beams hang strings of bean and pea pods, and alongside them range huge sunflower heads and parsley, all ripening their seed in preparation for next spring’s sowing.’

Strange Music in the Blue Shadow’d Hills





‘There was an audible stir breaking upon the silence of the solemn woods, the leaves were rustling together, and drops of moisture began to patter down…the clouds were falling apart, the mist had broken into thousands of fleecy white wreaths, clinging to the fantastically tinted foliage, and the sunlight was striking deep into the valley.’  Charles Egbert Craddock

The rains abated, so out the door we went. Our destination? The Columbia River Gorge, for color gawking, wine tasting, cider sipping, apple sampling, geese-spotting, and even to walk a bit in the moccasin-ed tracks of Lewis and Clark, laid down around 1805. A tall order for one day….


Literary destination for this trip? Charles Egbert Craddock. It’s not a name that rings with magic, certainly, but for the owner of this vigorously masculine nom de plume, it was deliberate; chosen to mask the fact that the author was actually a frail, crippled young woman.

There was nothing frail about the incisive mind of Mary Noailles Murfree. I’ve written about her before, in Virile Strokes of Ink. She is a subject I will return to now and again, as I do with other favorite authors. But for now…the poetic richness of a fine autumn day and clear vistas down the gorge had me longing for just a bit of what I call impassioned ‘Murfree-prose’.


‘High up, the mountain, shielded by the shadow of its own crags from this reflection of the west, showed a dark green shade of an indescribable depth and richness of tone, never merging into dusky indefiniteness. Through a gap in the range to the east were visible the infinite blue distances of the Great Smoky peaks, their color here and there idealized by the far-away glamours of sunset to an exquisite roseate hue, or a crystalline and perfect amethyst against the amber horizon. Down the clifty gorge—its walls of solid sandstone, cloven to the bare heart of the range by the fierce momentum of the waters—the bounding river came. One mad leap presented the glittering splendors of a glassy-green cataract, and in its elastic spray an elusive rainbow lurked.’ Charles Egbert Craddock [Murfree]: In the Stranger People’s Country.

Since my recent post focused on John Muir, and his tireless treks through wilderness regions, I have been thinking about the contrast offered by Mary Noailles Murfree.

Like Muir, she wrote passionately of the mountains she loved—though ‘her’ mountains were the Cumberlands of Tennessee and the distant blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. She was a novelist, not a nature writer or activist. But in an ironic contrast to John Muir, Murfree’s delicate health and partial paralysis kept her from being able to ramble about freely in her beloved mountains. She rarely left the small sphere of her family life, and the close confines of four protective walls.

The second home of Mary N. Murfree was in Beersheba Springs of east/central Tennessee. Here was a source of natural hot springs that likely offered Murfree much needed relief from her muscular pain, and perhaps a pathetic hope of a cure for her paralysis. It is in Beersheba Springs, in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, where Murfree ‘observed’ the life of the Tennessee mountaineers, and then wrote of it with an air of authentic experience.

Her clever ear picked up the nuances of their curious speech, and she attempted to render it faithfully. It is this generous helping of ‘local color’ dialogue that can make her novels, at times, slow going. But it is also part of what makes the stories linger, as though a strange, insistent music keeps playing in the mind, long after the book has been put down.

Fitz doesn't like it if I get too far ahead...then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Fitz doesn’t like it if I get too far ahead…then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Readers of the time—no doubt slightly beguiled by the vigorous moniker of Charles Egbert Craddock— thought this new author strode in the same paths as the sturdy mountaineers they thrilled to discover; or that the fearless author had scrambled down the steep ravines of Lost Creek Valley as did wispy-haired, heroic Clarsie Giles in her thin homespun gown, on a night when ‘Pine Mountain stood solemn, majestic, mysterious, masked by its impenetrable growth.’


It is rather amusing, that, based on a reading of Murfree’s first published work In The Tennessee Mountains, (published 1884) she is praised by one starstruck reviewer as:

‘an active, fearless man accustomed to every phase of a wild, out-of-door life.’

Obviously this reviewer had a sort of John Muir character pictured in his mind. Or perhaps a Bret Harte. This well illustrates how none of Murfree’s physical frailties were hinted at in the vigor of her writing. For many years no one even suspected she was a woman. The reading public was enthralled by the word pictures she drew of a rugged, mystical landscape, and the world she now brought into popular view of an enigmatic society—that of the Tennessee mountaineers.

We’ll return to Murfree’s story—and stories she created—in the winter. Then I’ll be less distracted by pure pine essence wafting up from ‘the clifty gorge‘, or left with no opportunities to explore the abandoned orchards by the water’s edge, where the air is perfumed with the fragrance of apples and mint.

‘Overhead she heard the faint, weird cry of wild geese winging southward.’ Craddock


Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir


Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – - the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[- John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

John Muir

He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.


Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.

‘Strange Dissonances’: Reading Margaret Kennedy


….’They crept slowly northward, while new songs like little birds flew out into the world….’ (Margaret Kennedy)

There are clear images etched in my mind that the prose of Margaret Kennedy has bequeathed to me. My thoughts still linger over some of the more dynamic moments from my recent read of her novel The Fool of the Family. IMG_7557 Described as ‘hauntingly beautiful’, described as ‘light and charming‘, it is an unusual story that continues the fortunes of the brilliant Sanger family, a saga that was begun with Kennedy’s wildly successful novel The Constant Nymph.

Who? What? It’s Margaret Kennedy week! Find out more about this enigmatic author here, where Jane of fleurfisher blog is hosting this reading event. I enjoy discovering new writers, and new ways of creating the fascinating world of fiction. (Kennedy  has written several works of non-fiction, as well, see below.)

The Fool of the Family takes place in 1920’s Europe, and delivers to the reader a rich tapestry of experience; everything from Venetian gondolas to luxury spas in the Italian alps to a Bohemian ghetto in London.

via pinterest

via pinterest

Some of my lingering images?…picture yourself in a gondola on a starlit canal in Venice…shouting, operatic gondoliers on boats laden with colorful vegetables go punting wildly past….no, now we are in the towering Dolomites…the bleating of sheep and the tinkling of shepherd’s bells in the valley below…threatening ‘blackshirts’ roam the narrow roads like thugs, rich people bask unawares in luxury mountain villas….an overburdened gypsy’s donkey dies on the long trek up the mountain carrying the gear for a theatrical puppet show…while careening around hairpin bends in a little sporty Lancia comes the lovely blond Fenella driving too fast because risking her life is all she has left to do….now we are in a London ghetto, where the fog and soot mingle thickly with the stench, where the haunting strains of an opera are hurriedly pencilled out on scraps of paper…in the same cold room a baby has just died….

There is handsome, conflicted, talented Caryl Sanger. ‘The Fool of the Family’, he feverishly writes second rate operas then tears them up in bitter despair.

There is the charismatic younger brother Sebastian Sanger making eyes at Fenella, whenever he has a chance—which is oftener than it should have been, because Fenella and Caryl are in love. Or–Caryl is in love; Fenella is young and suffused with the ambition to ‘live dangerously‘.

There is scrappy, world-weary Gemma, making eyes at both Sebastian and Caryl as they all sleep outside under the stars in the thickly wooded Italian alps.

There is a bag of hand painted marionettes tossed ruthlessly over a steep cliff….heartbreaking.

The richest imagery was a scene close to the beginning of the novel, when we meet Madame Giulietta Rovere….and when the true difference between the two Sanger brothers is artfully played out in the most dramatic of settings.

’She was old, and miserably poor, and half paralyzed. Many years had passed since she had left the stage. But a glory still lingered about her name. The legend of her beauty, her misfortunes, and her “golden voice” lived on.’

I was intrigued at once by this description, as the grande dames of the theater in the Edwardian era brings a few famous names to mind. These women were all opulent, lush, lovely, and could be counted on to leave a trail of scandalous amours in their wake. Madame Giuletta Rovere, in her heyday, might have looked like one of these lovelies, when, as she so boldly expressed it to the Sanger brothers; “Your father loved me.”

[A side note: writer Angela Thirkell (of the same era as Margaret Kennedy) also wrote with a near reverence of actresses of this period, as though, as a class, they had become their own sort of royalty. The name of Mrs. Patrick Campbell is particularly linked with the Thirkell family. ’Mrs. Pat’, as she was called, was romantically and scandalously linked with Thirkell’s grandfather Edward Burne-Jones, resulting in this famous painting.]

Margaret Kennedy gives us rich visuals as we enter the house of Madame Rovere.

‘Going into La Rovere’s house was rather like the first scene in a play. ‘


‘An intrinsic aroma of the theatre hung about the dark Canal and the high garden walls and the creepers that looked so like property creepers. A very small door led into a dim, ruined courtyard full of ilex, cyprus, and rose hedges run wild. They shut in the crumbling house, accosting an eternal shade most fitting for the vanished glories of its mistress.’

‘She lived always in one room, a vast chilly salon, looking out upon a terrace and a fountain that never played. Everything in it was old, and broken, and dusty, and everything had once been magnificent. The tarnished gilding, the moth-eaten tapestries, the stained brocade were all relics of the past, of the days when La Rovere had herself been magnificent.’

‘Now she sat, like an old spider in the midst of her dusty web,… a mummy swathed in ragged, priceless shawls, tags and ends of dirty lace, with here and there the gleam of incredible, sham jewelry. Only the eyes remained alive, enormous, flashing, stored with all the power of greatness. They looked out, undefeated, over her ruined domain, and when she spoke the faded room heard once more that voice at which kings had wept.’


‘Her parties were dim and magical, as though each guest, as he stepped through the little door in the wall, had stepped back into the past.’

In spite of this lush description of shabby grandeur, it was when Sebastian entered the room that things became really interesting for me. Sebastian is clearly a favorite character with the author. He is flawed, certainly–but brilliant, mercurial, and as charismatic in appeal as she could make him.

In the two Sanger brothers, she has created a kind of Mozart/Salieri conflict; the genius who is careless with the lives, hearts, and money of those around him, contrasted with the tormented impotent (musically speaking) whose destiny is to hunger after a muse who is indifferent to him. Caryl’s inability to fan the flames of his passion for music into a spark of genius is a personal agony. Worse, Sebastian is searingly critical, mocking, even, of his older brother’s efforts at composition. Yet Caryl knows that Sebastian is a genius, and for his admiration of that genius, his love for the music Sebastian creates, and the love, at times hostile, for his brother, he allows himself to be used again and again.

There is heartbreak in the character of Caryl—he is ‘the fool of the family‘.

Meanwhile, Sebastian has entered the room at Madame Rovere’s and has immediately secured the attention of everyone there, including, most importantly, that of ‘La Rovere’, herself. Caryl had arrived much earlier and, far from being noticed, was wishing he hadn’t come, and was hoping no one would ask him to perform on the dusty old relic of a piano.


‘Sebastian’s way of getting into a room was infinitely more successful. He did not slink in at the heels of an introducer. He simply made an entrance, with an air of such pleasant gravity, such, composure, that nobody could have guessed that he had not been invited. Without pausing to stare he took in the whole circle instantly, and advanced at once to make his bow to La Rovere. Everybody surveyed him with a quickened interest.

“But who are you, then?” she demanded.

“Sebastian Sanger, madame. Permit me to kiss your hand.”

“Aha…” The old eyes fairly blazed.’

Sebastian is eager to perform music for his rapt audience. When he is in a mood to captivate, he does it well.

‘And then, when he had made sure of his audience, he left off playing Sanger. He gave them instead something quite new, quite strange. It was smooth and gay and oddly formal, so that it wooed its hearers into accepting strange dissonances which, being old, they ought to have resented. It gave them all the shock of a new pleasure, that shock which becomes so rare and so treasured as we advance through life.’

It was that paragraph made me more forgiving of Sebastian, as the story continues and his insensitivities begin to mount. I would have loved to have been there to hear his ‘strange dissonances’. I’m sure I would have fallen under his spell, too, at least for that moment.

Fenella, on the other hand, never did charm me as a character. It was difficult to reconcile the ending for this reason. She, of course, is the ‘Inconstant nymph’.

There were unrealized hopes for me from this novel, in terms of character, and where the narrative took me. The various pendulum swings of emotion were exasperating, at times. It was interesting to me that all of Kennedy’s female characters were shallow, unstable, or driven by pure emotion. But there were some brilliant characterizations, as well. The intense bursts of lucid, fresh prose often kept me thinking about what I had just read. As a musician, there were many elements of the novel that resonated with my own perspective.

If I had written the ending? Since my sympathies were with Caryl, I hoped he would realize that Fenella’s vacillating heart was not worthy of him. The tragedy of lost love has ever enriched the cause of art! For Caryl, I had hoped it to be the catalyst, that spark he so longed for. I would have had him writing a masterpiece, finding his true voice.

But perhaps in the end, he was actually happier than my little future I had all laid out for him of noble loneliness, and soul-cleansing brilliance, sending ‘new songs like little birds out into the world’. You think?

Perhaps he was not a ‘fool’ at all.


Additional notes: As mentioned, Margaret Kennedy has written some non-fiction on a variety of topics. From Jane’s blog we find the following list:

Non Fiction

A Century of Revolution 1789-1920 (1922), history.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1941), wartime memoir.
The Mechanized Muse. P. E. N. series (1942), on the cinema.
Jane Austen. Novelists Series No. 1 (1950), biography/literary criticism.
The Outlaws on Parnassus. On the art of the novel (1958), literary criticism.

The book by Kennedy on Jane Austen’s life and work has been reviewed here. Her perceptions regarding Jane Austen’s ‘troubled child of a novel’ Mansfield Park are quite astute and differ from other writers of her time:

… ‘the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers’.

This alone makes me want to find a copy of her work on Jane Austen and read what she has to say about the rest of the novels. For a fascinating series from other authors who would agree with Margaret Kennedy’s assessment of Mansfield Park, visit Sarah Emsley’s blog where she is hosting Your Invitation to Mansfield Park. The discussions featured here have opened up entirely new vistas with which to view this complex novel.

Margaret Kennedy’s The Outlaws on Parnassus, described here as ‘lively, provocative, and original‘, is a critical approach to the art of writing a novel. Highly recommended.

Faber and Faber is in the process of re-issuing several of Margaret Kennedy’s novels.

Clearly, my Margaret Kennedy reading ‘week’ is going to extend through the long winter!