Fade In Train Noises: Part Two

‘Safe–in a world of trains and buttered toast
Where things inanimate could feel and think.’  —John Betjeman

Welcome to part 2 of ‘Fade in Train Noises’. (Part One can be found here)

Just to briefly recap: The title is taken from a radio play by Elizabeth Bowen, broadcast in 1945, when England was hungry for nostalgic images of their heritage, and everything that could now be called ‘the days before the war’. In the radio play, the train takes sleepy William on a dream trip to the fictional county of Barsetshire, a shire of Anthony Trollope’s creation. Significantly, much of Trollope’s writing was done while traveling by train, which is why Bowen chose a train in motion as her setting. Plus—she was a lover of trains.

‘Pause: Fade in train noises — rather accentuated, as of train taking up gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises, and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’…the words should gain, slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’

In my Part One post we made a brief stop at the station in Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, and explored some other literary references, ending with a slight hint: not all train lore was charming.

‘For time has softened what was harsh when new
And now the stones are all of sober hue’  — George Crabbe

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The arrival of the coal-powered steam trains into the British countryside was vigorously resisted—mostly by women. This is not surprising, given that, in those crude gashes through green pastures, in the hard iron sides, the constant belching of sooty smoke, those loud gushes of alarming steam— women sensed a masculine world encroaching with frightening violence.

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Regarding the ladies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Cranford, they had ‘vehemently petitioned’ against the ‘obnoxious railroad’. And sadly, as though validating all their fears, it was the means by which their dear Captain Brown met his end.

Still in the world of fiction, we find similar prejudices echoed in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch:

‘In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landholders. Women both old and young regarded traveling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous, and argued against it by saying that nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.’

The sentiments expressed reflected actual circumstances.

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John Betjeman (Sir John) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, but more pertinent to the subject of trains, he loved trains, old architecture, and was nostalgic for anything that harkened back to English life before the war. He was known as a ‘passionate defender of Victorian architecture’. Railway stations were a prime example of the kind of unique-to-a-period-and-function architecture he worked hard to save.

He was chosen to author English Cities and Small Towns, part of a Britain in Pictures series that was produced during the war years, in an effort to bolster British morale. I’ve been enjoying Betjeman’s poetry of late, and his tender, nostalgic view. (I’m in love with this little movie clip of Betjeman here in which he recites some of his poem Summoned By Bells)

In English Cities and Small Towns, Betjeman wrote fondly of the surpassing beauty of even the humblest English village, and then, with supreme understatement:

‘The great change came with the railways.’

Before the railways, people might live their entire lives within the confines of a small valley, never knowing who or what was just beyond the next ridge a few miles distant. While some changes were beneficial, the railway also quenched some of the social apparatus in place that kept small communities thriving and self-sufficient. Business enterprise on a large scale—or the possibilities of such—now entered the picture.

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In other words: Next stop, Suburbia.

‘Thereafter the center of business shifted to the neighbourhood of the railway station. The market square became less important than the goods yard. The old inn decayed and the smart new railway hotel with its gas light and billiards saloon drew the commercials and the Victorian business men. Clumps of houses gathered round the railway…Some towns, especially old country towns whose mayor and council preferred the horse to the steam engine, refused to co-operate with the railways. When they learned the line was coming, they refused to let it near the town.’

Betjeman goes on to elaborate that such a resistance to the railroad more often than not ended up in the death of the village. An opposite effect from that which was intended. Such was the power of the new iron horse.

Would you like to take a train ride in 1910 and see the beginnings of these suburbs? A fascinating trip back in time can be found here

‘When exploring, for the first time, one of these pockets of English history, local pride, and marked character, the approach I like to make is by railway, for from the railway line you get an impression of the surrounding country, undisturbed by the adjuncts of a main road. The space before the station is lined first by a row of once successful shops, now less successful as the station has come to be less used….Few railway stations were built after 1910.’

Betjeman the poet has given me confidence to add ‘puff and shunt’ to my vocabulary. What better way to describe the sound of a steam engine?

“Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.”

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Another favorite reference book is The Echoing Green, Memories of Victorian Youth, by Gillian Avery. It’s a collection of excerpts from diaries and memoirs, that showcase a variety of young person’s lives in the Victorian era.

We return to the sweet and simple memoirs of Henrietta Cresswell. The book is titled Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village. (It is a regional curiosity, produced in small quantity.) By 1912, when Henrietta picked up her pen to record the vanished world of her childhood, Winchmore Hill had already become absorbed as a mere suburb to London, its identity forever lost as a snug, self-supporting little hamlet. She writes of the railway’s devastation on their landscape. The labor force were ‘invaders’ to be resisted, sometimes by clandestine means of removing a boundary line out and away from a kitchen garden.

‘The pretty row of cottages where the Grandmother lived were pulled down, the great ash arbour ruthlessly destroyed, and the garden devastated; the holly hedge, dense as a wall, was grubbed up, scarcely anything remained but the tall yew and a golden-knob apple tree, which for years after blossomed and fruited, on the top of the cutting Vicarsmoor Bridge. The lane was closed for traffic, and a notice board proclaimed, ‘This Road is stopped time the Bridge is being built.’

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And then there was the village Doctor and his house and garden:

‘It was not till 1 January, 1870, that the Doctor’s house was given over to the invaders and he moved to Grove Lodge. It was then all deep snow, and the cutting was so close to the side of the house that the garden shrubs were constantly slipping over the edge and having to be brought back and replanted.’

Repeated rescue missions of shrubs that had plunged to their doom might have taken more courage than sense, when you look at the depth of some of the sharp gullies that were cut for laying the tracks.

More feared than the effects on the landscape were the ‘navvies’, as they were called. These toughened workers, representing various countries and skill levels, were particularly dreaded by the villagers. The stories of the violence and moral depravity the navvies brought with them to a village were frightening. They plundered, murdered, and rioted, drank heavily and constantly, their drunken exhaustion often leading to horrific accidents. In the earliest days of railroad construction, such workers were little more than lawless armies living in the numerous shanty towns that had sprung up along the route of the torn earth and ribbons of steel.

Gillian Avery concludes:

‘By 1836 the navvies’ way of life had become such a scandal that it was generally agreed something must be done….It was the action of the contractors that at last civilized the armies who worked for them….Working hours were regulated, pay was given in money, not beer and provisions; men no longer worked fuddled with drink and fatigue. Twenty years more and the navvy was transformed in the minds of the British public. He was no longer a bloodthirsty brute who terrorized the district unlucky enough to have railway workings; he was the salt of the earth, the honest English labourer….’

The memoirs of a young navvy, known as Dandy Dick, are quite colorful in recollection. He ran away from home in 1835 to work on the railways. He recalls working in tunnels at times hundreds of feet below ground.

‘There was no day there, and no peace; the shrill roar of escaping steam; the groans of mighty engines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface; the click-clack of lesser engines pumping dry the numerous springs by which the drift was intersected; the reverberating thunder of the small blasts of powder fired upon the mining works; the rumble of trains of trucks; the clatter of horses’ feet, the clank of chains…air murky with the smoke and flame of burning tar-barrels, cressets, and torches.’

Getting back to the early twentieth century, train travel was about to pick up nefarious speed and spawn a new era in literature.

Writers such as Agatha Christie were quick to see the potential in a steam engine’s cry that could mask the scream of a woman, or the opportunity for mayhem as the train approached a dark tunnel. Not to mention the convenience of body disposal while the train—and murderer— went hurtling away. The clickety clack of the rails, paired with the click, clack of Miss Marple’s knitting needles, her steely gray gaze missing nothing, is forever paired in my mind.

Graham Greene published his thriller Istamboul Train, which took place on a train that might sound familiar—The Orient Express. (the American version of his book was actually called Orient Express.) About a year later, to the great confusion of reading audiences everywhere, Agatha Christie published her classic of all classic train stories, Murder on the Orient Express. Orient-ExpressHowever, relatively few know of Graham Greene’s book, whereas few today can hear ‘Orient Express’ and not immediately call to mind a certain Belgian detective, a train stuck in a snow drift, and the brilliant twist on ‘whodunnit’.

What I didn’t know until researching this subject, was that Agatha Christie actually was marooned for twenty four hours on the Orient Express. She wrote from her own experience, and even used some of the people on board as inspiration for the characters in the novel. (she was returning from her husband’s archeological dig in Nineveh…I could only dream of such adventures…)

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

Strangers on a Train, a psychologically terrifying novel written by the equally terrifying Patricia Highsmith, caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. He turned the book into a masterpiece of film noir. (years later it would spawn Throw Momma From the Train!) Hitchcock later made a screenplay from the novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White.

The movie from this ‘espionage meets murder on a moving train’ story was called The Lady Vanishes. IMG_8791Apropos of nothing, I will forever link this movie to being marooned in a virtually empty airport while waiting for a late flight, hanging out in the airport bar watching this weird old black and white Hitchcock movie. Later I watched it again with my film student husband—with a bit more appreciation for Hitchcock’s mastery of directing.

But we are emerging from the dark tunnel, all bodies present and accounted for, the scenery flashing past our windows; we’re wondering, idly, how many socks have been knitted on trains…which sounds like the kind of question I would have asked my dad when I was young: (“Dad, how many socks have been knitted on trains since the beginning of time?”…I was always interested in subjects as measured from those hazy beginnings…) My dad, in turn, hero rock star that he was, would have fielded with an even more interesting question that would have distracted me from my original unanswerable one.

What now greets our gaze are ribbons of green meadows, dotted with white sheep, and hills rolling away in gentle undulation as far as the eye can see. The railway station around the next bend is reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet, swathed in a blanket of pink roses, quite out of a Claude Strachan painting.

What idyllic spot is this? Stay tuned for Part 3! Next stop: the fictional Wellscombe Halt.


 

Additional:

Here is another link to a film clip of John Betjeman on a train–it is wonderfully nostalgic, even if (gasp) the train is being pulled by a diesel engine, not steam!

On wiki it notes:

‘John Betjeman Goes By Train is a 1962 short documentary film made by British Transport Films and BBC East Anglia. The 10-minute-long film features future poet laureate John Betjeman as he takes a memorable journey by train from King’s Lynn railway station to Hunstanton railway station in Norfolk, pointing out various sights and stopping off at Wolferton station on the Sandringham Estate and Snettisham station, where he extolls the virtues of rural branchline stations.[1] An early example of a Betjeman travelogue film, a similar idea was later used for his 1973 documentary Metro-land.[1]’

Troy Chimneys

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‘I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling—the same sun, the same river—only the current gives an illusion of change.’ (Miles Lufton — Troy Chimneys)

How to describe Margaret Kennedy’s strange and lovely novel? Troy Chimneys, written in 1952, is a book that keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve reluctantly finished the last page.

Have you ever had an ancestor who was shrouded in mystery? Or a black sheep of the family, with stories told in whispers, and you wondered what the real story might have been? If only there were letters; if only there were memoirs, found in the back of an old cupboard…if only we could really know why they did what they did…

If you find such things appealing, then you will enjoy Troy Chimneys.

“What you say about family skeletons is very true. I know nothing about the great uncle Miles Lufton who seems to have written these papers. I once asked my mother about him and she protested that she didn’t either, but with a little blush which she always sports when she tells a fib. I believe she does know something and that he was not quite the thing…I don’t see why he should have vanished into complete obscurity like this. I only took a very hasty look at the papers, but by his own account, he seems to have been very much the thing, and M.P. and all that, went everywhere, knew everybody, and cut quite a dash. And he owned property, too, a house in Wiltshire called Troy Chimneys….”

The story opens: A gentleman in the England of the Victorian age receives some letters and the hastily composed memoirs of a distant family connection named Miles Lufton. Lufton had lived several decades previous—in what is known to us today as the Regency era, the Jane Austen era—and he had risen from somewhat humble roots to be become a successful Minister of Parliament. IMG_0787In concert with his rising fortunes, he secured what he thought was his future of gentlemanly retirement, in the form of a house in Wiltshire known as Troy Chimneys.

‘How curious that your great uncle once owned Troy Chimneys! I think I have seen it. At least, I have seen a house in Wiltshire answering to that odd name, and I can’t believe there are two. A local antiquary told me that it is probably a corruption of Trois Chemins, and three roads do certainly meet at its front gate. I saw it when I was staying at Laycock, and we all agreed that it is a pity such a striking old house should not be properly kept up. It is a mere farmhouse now. There is a manure heap by the front door and half the windows are boarded up. I rememember it chiefly for a very pretty stone dovecote and a great old mulberry tree in the rough grass in front.’

Yet this is not a ‘great house’ novel. Troy Chimneys is about the illusion of such a place, and the sometimes tragic results that come from self-deception.

The appeal of what Troy Chimneys has to offer is immense, but like a wisp of a dream, it is ever held just outside the bounds of the story. This is hinted at by the beautiful patterns of shadows that flit across the parlour ceilings, reflected from the river that flows below. The dream begins to glow in the reader’s own imagination as a sweet oasis, the potential fitting end to a what is, essentially, a coming of age story.

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Miles Lufton, in spite of my best intentions to stay aloof, soon begins to matter. Perhaps it is, in part, because he tells his own story to us in the first person narrative, through the device of the memoirs. In fiction I can easily keep a sort of detachment; my interest is sparked by fascinating interactions, the historical settings, realistic, dynamic dialogue that is expressive of inner conflicts; I often read from a writer’s viewpoint, with an analytical assessment of details. MargaretKennedyphotoMargaret Kennedy, though, with an unseen sleight of hand, a mastery of subtle technique, made me care about Miles Lufton as a character. His voice, his at times amusing self-deception, his desire to help the oppressed, sometimes acted on, sometimes not, and his dreams of the life he wanted to live in spite of the life he had been born to–all of this resonates back to our own heart, and the reader feels his disappointments keenly.IMG_0781

At first appraisal, one might think the house, Troy Chimneys, is an insubstantial part of the novel—the house doesn’t appear until well into the novel, by the time Lufton can afford it, and Miles Lufton, sadly, never even gets to live there. But it is the house that tells us so much about Miles. For one thing, he loves it exceedingly.

‘I sat in the window seat of the larger parlour and watched the slow, liquid play of the sunlight upon the ceiling, with its reminder of the constant current passing below. This particular has always delighted me in Troy Chimneys. I try to go there upon a sunny morning, so that I may see it. The passing of time never presents itself in a more agreeable fashion; I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling—the same sun, the same river—only the current gives an illusion of change. I already saw myself live there and beholding it daily…and the stream of time, rolling ever past us, might carry away all that I wished to forget.’

Is there a woman he dreams of sharing this with, you ask? Oh, yes. Caroline Audley…and she is all the more romantic as a heroine because of how their relationship develops. This is so skillfully done, and the recounting of their belated courtship is a delight.

Of all the vain, self-concerned, ambitious, faithless women that move about in artful dance on the perimeters of Miles’ rise to success, Caroline suddenly emerges into the narrative in ripe, glowing, believable life. Although he has known her for eleven years, he begins to ‘see’ her for the valuable human being she is. Miles falls deeply in love.

He takes her to see Troy Chimneys, before he has declared his feelings. This is not done as a sort of litmus test, to evaluate her reactions to it, and therefore add to her worth in his eyes or reduce it. He simply, trustingly, knows that she will love it as he does. He is already convinced that she is the only woman worthy enough to live in his beloved house, and the most fitting recipient for the life his heart is set on living.

‘I insisted that we should set off very early. I wished the morning sun still to be upon the river, so that they might see the reflection in the house though I had not mentioned this beforehand. It was a surprise which I was saving for Caroline. The ladies were driven and I rode beside them, ecstatic in the prospect of seeing my beloved girl walk into my beloved house. For some reason I pictured her walking all alone up the path to the door, and vanishing into the shadows of the long room…’

Oh, he is such a romantic soul. So vulnerable. We love how he calls her ‘my beloved girl’. It is through the eyes of Caroline that we begin to really understand Miles. For she, a deeply intelligent, observant woman, has seen through him all along.

I haven’t mentioned the oddest part of the novel because, in retrospect, it really wasn’t that odd to me. But some might find it off-putting. Miles Lufton—quiet, retiring, idealistic young man—knew that none of those qualities would gain him the world he sought; the ambitions he dreamed of. So he adopted a protective ‘persona’; one that came to be known as Pronto. Having Pronto at hand kept the ‘real’ Miles in a sort of incubation, to be called for when needed. Although an exaggerated effect, it is not that far from what many of us do when we need to put on a public face, or set ourselves to achieve something that feels beyond our scope. When the private person must become a public person, a sort of ‘Pronto’ mechanism is engaged.

Pronto was not only ambitious, he could be ruthless and selfish, as well. Pronto knew how to work the system, and he makes sure he knows the right people. He could ride over others in his way—they applaud his brilliance—or he could charm a crowd with stories and skillfully entertain party guests with song. It was said he had a ‘voice like an angel’. Pronto gets Miles where Miles wants to be, and once the dream is realized, Pronto will be discarded like the sham he is, and Miles will settle in comfortably to enjoy the rewards.

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And Caroline? Well, she was just the sort of woman he was keeping Miles safe for. Just the sort of woman who would appreciate the true character of Miles Lufton.

In the end, it didn’t go quite like that. Pronto had begun to grow into his role. He was a rebel with a cause—he knew how to get things done, and was a brilliant leader. As such, in spite of his obvious flaws, he could be devastatingly attractive. Caroline—a strong-minded woman, herself, saw in Pronto the kind of man who, with guidance, could accomplish a great deal of good for those in the world who needed an advocate. Miles? He was a babe, a dreamer. He wanted to hide away from the world because he found it distressing. And he had inadvertently given Pronto the power to destroy Miles.

Could it be that Caroline actually loved Pronto?

Lady:
‘Fool, do not boast. Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind’ — Comus, John Milton

I don’t want to tell more of the story, or give away the ending. And I left out many things about the novel that are fascinating—choosing to focus on Caroline, Pronto, and the house. I really hope you will want to discover it for yourself. Apparently the novel is out of print—although Virago issued a newer edition in 1985, there has been nothing else since. So used copies, it is. But I had very little trouble getting a decent copy for a fair price.

It is, in some respects, a difficult novel to follow. It takes concentration, you could say. As the Kirkus reviewer wrote of it, back in 1952, when Troy Chimneys was first published:

‘A novel that may baffle some who count on a straightforward job of story telling- but that others will find refreshingly new and different.’

I do hope that someday there will be more appreciation for this enigmatic novel. It is unusual, to be sure, and not quite like anything I have read before. At first description I thought I would be reading something of a fantasy, and set my mind accordingly. I thought I knew a little bit about where the book would take me—perhaps a Virginia Woolf Orlando of shifting sands of time and gender, or a Georgette Heyer-esque romp where masks and balls and cross-dressing deceptions abound. Perhaps a little like Dorian Grey, where the hero lives the life he wants without immediate consequences?…but it was none of those things.

Troy Chimneys is really in a class by itself.


 

Additional notes:

First published in 1952. In 1953 it was the winner of the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Margaret Kennedy first came to my attention as an undervalued novelist from the lovely book blog BeyondEdenRock, hosted by Jane. Her ‘Margaret Kennedy Reading Week‘ was a great success, and brought many new readers to the work of this fine author.

My other Margaret Kennedy review thus far is of Fool of the Family, published as ‘Strange Dissonances: Reading Margaret Kennedy.

A terrific review of Troy Chimneys by Hilary is here at vulpes libres, and her skillful appraisal of the novel is the reason I chose Troy Chimneys as the next Kennedy book to explore. (actually, truthfully….I was ready to drop everything and read it right then…and that was over a year ago! So many books, so little time…)

One element I was fascinated by was the reference to Comus by John Milton. Margaret Kennedy was a historian, in addition to being a novelist and playwright. Her own granddaughter called her ‘a blue-stocking’. Erudite, to be sure. Therefore, Margaret Kennedy’s introduction of the poem Comus, when Miles offers to do a reading of it, is of note.

“If you please, you will read what you prefer yourself, for you will read that best.”

‘I accordingly found a volume of Milton and read Comus to them. This poem has always been a favourite with me, but Milton is quite out, just now, and Pronto is seldom invited to read him…’

Kennedy’s assertion that, during the Regency era—with a known debauch like the Prince Regent at the helm—a poem by reformationist John Milton that extolled virtue would not have been considered ‘the thing’ was certainly correct. Nor was it likely to be clamored for to be read at some of the parties that ‘Pronto’ frequented in his quest for political advancement.

Kennedy’s historical grasp of this period she writes in is impeccable, but she doesn’t hit you over the head with details at every turn so you know exactly what era you are in and what everyone is wearing. It is just embedded naturally in the narrative, as a fine tapestry might be encrusted with a subtle texture of pearls stitched carefully in.

As I thought about it further, more details about Milton’s poem began to appear to suggest that some of Troy Chimneys owed a debt to Comus and the history behind its creation and performance. Perhaps it was subconsciously done, but the names of the real life families of Audley and Egerton—both used in the novel—are linked to the story of Comus, and the tragic, appalling circumstances surrounding it.

Perhaps, someday, a scholar might take a closer look and solve many of the enigmas that are part of this novel.

The Quality of Light

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“My studio! I have never had a studio, and can’t understand how one can shut oneself up in a room. To draw, yes; to paint, no…” And with a sweeping gesture toward the Seine, the hills and Vetheuil…. “This is my studio!”‘  –– written of Claude Monet

This milky blue light of winter is strangely alluring. It makes me wish I were a painter, or at least a more capable photographer. At times the mist hugs the window—as if something that ethereal could have smothering arms— we barely glimpse the world beyond its embrace. All we see are ghostly spires of tall evergreens in the distance, shape shifting as though handpainted with tinted mist and not quite dry.

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Winter has its challenges, but I do love this view. As a Pacific Northwest native, I enjoy the rain, (when not wind-driven and torrential—those moments are best spent on the rocky Oregon coast!) and I particularly enjoy the lucent wash of light that acts as a scene change between dramatic rainstorms. Winter in Portland means, among other things: umbrellas, symphony, coffee shop visits, museums, old house tours, and, when the rain stops for a bit, long walks along the river.

Books, of course, can enhance our winter view. One always needs to lay up, like wood for the fireplace, plenty of books for the long, dark days.

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Reading is not as sedentary as it sounds. There is an addictive quality to TV—think binge watching—or that greatest consumer of living brain tissue, video games. Perhaps we find ourselves Pinterest surfing endless recipes that highlight mesmerizing ways to use refrigerator dough resulting in a flaccid product that we would never actually eat; all of which keeps us rooted to our chairs and stills our minds to a slow motion acquiescence, as water droplets might slowly freeze. Our will has been taken over and we begin to resemble life size soft sculpture with beady glass eyes and unnatural hair.

Reading a book, however, can spur us on to try something interesting, or to at least attempt to experience some small part of what it is we are reading.

My reading reflects my domestic interests, and the writing of British authors that I love. They are now long dead but their wisdom and wit, their sometimes high-toned voice of authority, has been bequeathed through their books. They continue to speak, in essence. This is the great comfort in articulate, well chosen words, and the fluid continuity of ideas. But while that is the allure, the magic, it is also the caveat—a book is the product of a mind. Do I want to visit that mind? Do I want to invite that mind into my own, to arrange the furniture, so to speak? Do I want to flood my rooms with their view of light? Choose wisely, for what we read, we become. In winter I find this is even more important, for anything in these short dark days can be brushed, so to speak, with an altering, chiarascuro effect.

Any number of authors inspire us to get out and walk—I have mentioned more than a few on this blog. Smell the pine air, discover a fascinating tree bark, deliver some scones to a sick friend.

Before you deliver the goodies they must be baked, of course—that inspiration came from reading Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Her stentorian voice of authority on crumpets alone is a rousing call to action; her recipes, treatise and anecdotes will have you leaping from your chair to go on a mission for ten pounds of fresh flour just to start experimenting with seventeenth century Scottish bannocks. And then you have something to give away to your Scottish friends, who will love you. Elizabeth David is a positive, invigorating, dynamic woman.


I love to visit her cultured world of absolutes. Don’t even think about making an omelette with eggs that aren’t ‘spanking fresh and buttercup yellow‘. Her recipe for homemade mayonnaise–and she would tolerate nothing less–involves two insanely pristine ingredients, over five pages and fourteen steps of detailed instructions. Reading David gets me into the kitchen, excited to cook, even if I do lack the biceps needed to make the best mayonnaise the world has ever tasted.

Reading Bertha Damon’s Grandma Called It Carnal makes me want to build a time machine from old crockpot parts and ancient kitchen whirly gizmos, travel back with all due haste to Puritan New England, slap some common sense into her fanatical grandmother and save little Bertha’s pet dog. So…decidedly an activity less likely than making refrigerator dough pumpkin strudel product, but somehow still linked to fringe science. (note: although a fine book, I highly recommend you do not read this ‘humorous memoir’ in winter.)

Reading stirs the reader.

Today, via books, we enter the winter worlds of Nan Fairbrother and Elizabeth von Armin. Two writers, two struggling, ‘domesticated’ intellectuals, two ancient country homes, two winters separated by a generation and two world wars, two women with completely different perspectives on how to cope with the feelings of winter isolation.

Nan Fairbrother’s energy is all cerebral and intense, moody and indoors.

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Elizabeth von Armin—in Elizabeth and Her German Garden— invigorates us with her cold weather exuberance, bursting joyously out of doors at any given moment to enjoy sledding, skating, or sleighing in sub zero temperatures.

Both women amaze me, both women are prodigious readers.

Just now I’m re-reading, as I often do, Fairbrother’s book of philosophical musings “An English Year”. FairbrotherEnglishYearThis book is a gem; described, justly so, as ‘a work of provocative insight, and quiet charm.’ I have enjoyed this book for so long, I was just recently amazed to realize I had missed the fact that Fairbrother really hates Winter. Really, really hates it. The darkness she exudes through her prose is powerful. (note to self: read the chapter on ‘Winter’ in the Summer…)

She is also encased in concerns of domesticity—the one area where our thoughts might overlap—but her domesticity is infused by musings on such things as Matisse, the light of Arles, architecture, the proper way to tour the Louvre—‘start at Pre-Columbian art’—Walter Pater, who enables the ‘poetic transmutation of ordinary life’; she ponders the seasons, and ‘the shifting play of their moods on her own sensibilities’…and so on.

Still, Nan Fairbrother hates Winter. She—who capitalizes all the seasons— even mentions this hatred of Winter in the Summer, the Spring, and again in the Autumn. The long arm of Winter, it seems, darkens the door of every season.

In Autumn, ‘Winter’ intrudes, all hope dies, and she cannot believe in a Spring:

‘The weather has changed to a cold and sullen stillness, and this has been the day which comes every Autumn, when all hope dies. The hills are lost in a cold half-mist, the fields flat and dead in the grey light, and the Winter streteches ahead endlessly to a Spring we cannot even try to believe in. After the long days of sunshine we realize again suddenly that the Winter is dark. Cold, too, and shut in and melancholy, but, above all, dark with the short hours grudging daylight only an interruption of the settled night….’

I feel obliged to point out, in all fairness, and feeling like my mother right now, who could find a kindly excuse for everyone’s deficiencies, that Fairbrother’s gloomy view of Winter and feeling trapped indoors surely had a lot to do with the time and circumstance of her writing these words. She lived out WWII in the country to care for her two small boys and keep them safe from bombs and a possible enemy invasion, while her husband served in the British Royal Air Force. The entire world at this time was shrouded in a grim winter. The future itself was uncertain. She had a right to complain about drafts.

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Fairbrother had such a keen, active mind, that these days of being trapped inside a frigid sixteenth century farmhouse, were at times too stifling to bear.

It turns out, even Summer is not safe from Winter:

“We become a different person in the Summer: become an extrovert after Winter’s introspection—these awful words. In the fine weather we are free, not hampered by clothes, not confined in the house, so that even our movements are different, simpler and more gracious, not huddled against the cold. And living out of doors, we become more generous, more tolerant, less shut in and moody in the long daylight.’

Before this she mentioned the dark, strained outlines of Quattrocentro trees. She broods over the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Strindberg, ‘and the rest, who come from lands where the Winter is too long.’ And she reads too much Baudelaire, who wrote:

‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’

‘Melancholy’—capitalized. First rule of capitalized ‘Winter’, Nan: don’t look at suffocatingly dark art, or a tortured artist’s conceptions of nightmarish hell. Don’t read plays that promote humanity as little else than rotting corpses with a sensitive conscience. Why would you do that to your lovely, quicksilver mind?

Nan Fairbrother

Nan Fairbrother

Then she decides, in her boredom, to read the case histories of Havelock Ellis. No…! I want to shout. Change the view! There are ways to get through Winter successfully, and there are ways to make Winter much darker than it actually is. (I want to bake her some Scottish bannocks and rush them over in my time machine)

Fortunately it was a short reading experience for her, perhaps slightly harrowing, but one with interesting results.

‘How very quickly we are bored, how soon they seem only stale and squalid, and above all, dull. We end by feeling, not that neurosis is a fascinating country, but that to explore at such length these small, self-centered and essentially un-original minds must be the most boring branch of all medicine…Not for a doctor perhaps, for he is studying the disease and not the people, but certainly for us.’

As her thinking is never far from art, the conclusions she draws are fascinating.

‘Which I think is one of the reasons why the arts so fail to satisfy when the artists––painters, writers, composers––are looking only inward at themselves. Not at the world reflected in their own unique mind (that is what the great artists do, and quite a different matter), but at themselves. For a great deal of modern art is really elaborated case-histories, and though it has a first quick interest, it does not last. For however brilliant a man’s mind may be, however fascinating an exploration for himself, it can never compare with the outside world in complexity and range and meaning. There is simply not enough in any single mind to be satisfying, we must see the world through it as well.’

Sufficiently intrigued, we waft readily along with her winter prose into the kitchen where there is, interestingly, a print of Renoir. Fairbrother loves this artist as she does many of the French artists, for their depiction of warm, sensual light.

‘I brought it home to pin on the kitchen wall, and now, whenever I feel too shut in this gloomy introspective Winter, I look at it and take myself to France. So there it lives, my Parapluies. A rainy day of black frocks and umbrellas, yet it glows with delight on the kitchen wall.

And this gift of Renoir’s, for making ordinary life delicious, is for me––quite un-English.’

Renoir's Parapluies:

Renoir’s Parapluies: via wiki

There it is, indeed. Lovely, luminous–Renoir engages his viewer with the slightly questioning look of the little girl with the hoop. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ she seems to be asking.

Later, Fairbrother, still musing upon the magic of the French painters, ponders: ‘people, like peaches, need sun to ripen them’…and then wonders if youth could ever truly appreciate the sensual beauty of a Renoir.

“For what does youth, living through the mind and the emotions, know of this direct and untroubled delight in warmth and color, the taste of peaches and the touch of silk and velvet?”

Hmmm…what would she have thought of this digital age? Digital images, sounds, words, digital friends we only know by their computer generated avatars. (interesting word origin: ‘avatar’)

Gradually, we are removing ourselves more and more from the regenerative power of tactile experience. While critical to the developing infant brain, is it any less potent for our elastic, questing, adult minds?

“For all kinds of doors open of themselves as one grows older and more various.” Nan Fairbrother

In Elizabeth von Arnim’s winter world, the weather is just fine. Delightful, in fact. Tactile experience in the crunchy snow abounds. She shares a few similarities of situation with Fairbrother: she is also ‘buried’ in an old country house; she is surrounded by the clatter and clamor of small children (possibly with more help staff, however). The difference is von Arnim thrives in her frozen landscape.

So—it is the winter of 1896, we have just sledded over to the Schloss of a fine lady, and we join Elizabeth as a guest at tea.

“You cannot possibly be happy in the winter entirely alone,” asserted another lady, the wife of a high military authority and not accustomed to be contradicted.
“But I am.”
“But how can you possibly be at your age? No, it is not possible.”
“But I am.”
“Your husband ought to bring you to town in the winter.”
“But I don’t want to be brought to town.”
“And not let you waste your best years buried.”
“But I like being buried.”
“Such solitude is not right.”
“But I’m not solitary.”
“And can come to no good.” She was getting quite angry.
There was a chorus of No Indeeds at her last remark, and renewed shaking of heads.

“I enjoyed the winter immensely,” I persisted when they were a little quieter; “I sleighed and skated, and then there were the children, and shelves and shelves full of —” I was going to say books, but stopped. Reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.

‘And how could I talk to them of the happiness I felt when the sun shone on the snow, or of the deep delight of hoar-frost days?’

How unlike Fairbrother’s preoccupations in mood! Yet they both love books, and are in pursuit of the all-important Idea; streams of thought that carry one along, transporting yet grounding us.

‘I laughed on the way home, and I laughed again for sheer satisfaction when we reached the garden and drove between the quiet trees to the pretty old house; and when I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen — a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.’

On a brilliant winter’s day Elizabeth and two of her friends set off in the sleigh for a three hour ride in the open air to admire the frozen Baltic Sea. Oh, and yes, to have a picnic. In sub zero temperatures.

“I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter…yesterday morning we started off in the gayest of spirits, even Minora being disposed to laugh immoderately on the least provocation. Only our eyes were allowed to peep out from the fur and woollen wrappings necessary to our heads if we would come back with our ears and noses in the same places they were in when we started, and for the first two miles the mirth created by each other’s strange appearance was uproarious — a fact I mention merely to show what an effect dry, bright, intense cold produces on healthy bodies, and how much better it is to go out in it and enjoy it than to stay indoors and sulk. As we passed through the neighbouring village with cracking of whip and jingling of bells, heads popped up at the windows to stare, and the only living thing in the silent, sunny street was a melancholy fowl with ruffled feathers, which looked at us reproachfully, as we dashed with so much energy over the crackling snow.’

So much happy energy skimming over ice!

The lucent window of light has now passed, and here, in the present, we have moved on to the torrential rain sequence. In spite of this, Elizabeth von Arnim has inspired me to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of having a picnic in winter. Unlike Nan Fairbrother, who bemoaned the lack of picnics in the winter—(it is not a picnic if there is no fizzy lemonade and warm, sleepy grass)—I am going to see the potential in a tartan wool rug and a thermos of hot soup. There are wetlands and wild geese aplenty, and this weekend a pudgy old steam engine will be chuffing through the valley, carrying its load of holiday adventurers in search of an Orient Express type experience. The creamy white curls of steam in the cold winter air is a delight to watch.

Nan Fairbrother, with her talk of glowing art, the French painters, and fine light on Renoir umbrellas, has reminded me that there is some very inspiring art just five minutes away at our Portland art museum. Not just any art, but the works of painters who looked out of themselves, and reflected the world through their own unique quality of light.

The exhibition is called, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family CollectionThe exhibit will be there through January.

The beginning quote by Claude Monet, is in connection with his En Paysage dans I’ile Saint-Martin, and is part of the collection. In all there are five landscapes by Monet. And, also part of the collection—the famous Birch Trees, by Gustav Klimt!

Seeing Nature offers an extraordinary opportunity to perceive the world through the gaze of some of the most important artists in history,” said Brian Ferriso, curator of the exhibit here in Portland.

I hope your reading this winter take you to new exciting worlds of discovery, floods light into your interior rooms, or makes even your ‘ordinary life more delicious.’


Additional notes:

Here, produced by Portland Art Museum, is a video on art and the brain:

For further reading on Nan Fairbrother, see here: (or type ‘Nan Fairbrother’ in the search box of this blog for more)

My post on Elizabeth von Arnim

More on Bertha Damon, coming soon