Strange Oasis

‘Looking together united them.’

Recently I went to The Moon and Sixpence and back again. I’m glad I did it—even though it was a book I hadn’t cared for the first time. A second reading confirmed my opinion that this book does not represent W. Somerset Maugham’s finest hour, finest writing, finest sentiments. And certainly that man needed to jettison some prejudices. (ugh…he writes from a time capsule and a select universe) There are moments of insightful quotability–this is W. Somerset Maugham, after all–and there are moments when the narrator’s distance from his protagonist, spliced haphazardly with the overtly gushing affectations of a string of colorful characters who tell us their impressions in after images about the protagonist…becomes tiresome. Still, Maugham poses some intriguing scenarios regarding art, the artistic process, and who it is that creates ‘art’. It was this particular focus I wanted to revisit. Continue reading

Scent, Senses, and the Sciential Rose

‘All seasons, and their change; all please alike.’ Milton

The roses of June are now gone.

We’re moving rapidly through July, with all its over-blown, heat saturated splendor. Soon this blog will be checking in with the seasonable Mr. White of Selborne to see what he’s doing with his whortle-berries in late July of 1781.

But that’s for later. Now it is still roses, a book by Diane Ackerman, and a Curious Word courtesy of Charles Lamb (‘sciential’).

The garden, where I took these pictures, is Heirloom Roses, of St. Paul, Oregon.

IMG_4405 IMG_4367

Heirloom Gardens is no ordinary rose garden. It’s a wonderful resource for the rose connoisseur. For one thing, space isn’t really an issue. There are acres of roses to be seen in their display gardens. For anyone with a garden of normal proportions, who has ever wanted to see an old rambling species rose take over a pergola, or allow the mighty Kiftsgate to swathe an entire evergreen in its thorny embrace, you know that space is an issue. Few gardens have the room to indulge the passionate rose enthusiast with all the abundance of shape, size and drapery the world of roses can boast.

Rosa moschata, species rose

Rosa moschata, species rose

Thus, it is exciting to see species roses allowed to be all they can be.


This giant climber is almost identical to the Kiftsgate climber, but its name tag was too obscured to see.

I say that in all sincerity. It really is exciting. ‘Here be fountains’, cascades, waterfalls and mountains of roses. The air is perfumed with a fragrance that the likes of Cleopatra might have worn.

The digital memory of my rose garden tour is now stored on, and perilously afloat, what I call the If and Ineffability of iCloud data storage. Download-able at any moment, and lose-able more often than that.

Just as precariously, the memories of my June rose adventures are now packaged in little quivery bundles of ephemera I house in my neurons. The wafting esters of scent, the tactility of petals, the rustle of sound as I moved my dreamlike tread over freshly mowed lawn; these impressions have been shelved in my mind alongside the enormous database of other neurons of memory.

IMG_4405 IMG_4380

Fragrance, though, is the great fixative of memory. Scent fixes memory to an emotion and pins us to that place in time. It is the download button for instant retrieval of data, and an instant rush of accompanying sensations.

What is fixative? It is a term used in the perfume and fragrance industry. Every famous, lingering scent has a fixative. These began as natural substances—often animal derived, such as musky civet oil— that will preserve and stabilize that which is volatile. Fragrance on the skin can be volatile, as the accompanying look in the eye may well be. But the fragrance can be released into the air where it will dissipate quickly unless it is given staying power with a fixative.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote:

‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell… [they] detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’

Ackerman is called ‘the finest literary interpreter of science and nature’, and for good reason. Her work, A Natural History of the Senses is my go-to book whenever I want scientific answers to questions I never thought of asking, and poetic descriptions I never thought of writing.

Another great thinker, Virginia Woolf, wrote, in her ground-breaking work A Room of One’s Own:

‘We think back through our mothers, if we are women.’

This, in the light of current science and the unfolding mysteries of mitochondrial DNA, is a potential powerhouse of possibility. ‘A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth…’

For surely there is a dimensional quality to scent and fragrance that goes far beyond the physical aspects of touch or sight. There is so much in the physics and neuroscience of smell that scientists still don’t understand. It is likely that our mothers, and all the mothers of distant mothers who stretch back through the centuries, loved roses.

Is it possible that our own deep inhalations takes us back through those centuries of memory? Some roses are centuries old. We may not realize the process that is at work every time we take a breath, swill it through our own essence, and exhale it ‘gently altered for having known us‘; but our inner selves remember moments most vividly through the medium of scent.


Diane Ackerman, not surprisingly, would reference Marcel Proust, ‘that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory’, as an example of a writer who captured ‘flights of comprehensive remembrance’ based on the power of a chance encounter with a smell.

Ackerman writes evocatively of the Song of Songs–The Song of Solomon–‘the most scent-drenched poem of all time’.

She relates her adventures tagging Monarch butterflies, studying Indonesian flying foxes in Texas, and interviewing that brilliant prodigy of noses, Sophia Grojsman— “For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert”.

She takes us on an imaginary tour to the boudoir of an ancient Egyptian beauty, mixing and applying her fragrant unguents in preparation for a dinner party.


And of course she writes about roses. In all of this she gives forth her observations and understanding in the most lyrical prose. It’s a beautiful book to read, whether you are strolling a rose garden with a parasol or striding about the Giza plateau in a pith helmet.

Since the time worn cliché has become more of dictum that resembles ‘call your Mother’.… We shall, instead, linger in our perambulations and breathe deeply of Milton’s roseate dews.

But go ahead and call your mother.

‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’….said Virginia.

(began here, and to be continued)


The Day Dream: 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Victoria and Albert Museum - London, UK) - Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Dark

Daily post writing challenge:

What do you fear? Write of it in a style not your own…..

While I cannot borrow from the genius of John Milton, his epic poem Paradise Lost contains many succulent vocabulary gems that just beg to be plucked like forbidden fruit. Thus, I borrow style from Reformation poets; or, put another way, if Virginia Woolf–in her essay A Room of One’s Own— can hypothesize that Shakespeare had a gifted sister, then perhaps John Milton had a slightly less gifted one.

The Day Dream: 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Victoria and Albert Museum - London, UK) - Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Day Dream: 1880 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Victoria and Albert Museum – London, UK) via pinterest

If John Milton Had A Sister (Who Was Afraid of the Dark)

‘I dread thee, dark ambrosial night
in all your swollen purple hues
I dread thy stealthy, padded tread,
your fetid blackness, unpursued

‘Oh seek I sweet repair of sleep–!
and deepest plunge in weightless dreams
‘Til glistening morn’ in flowing gold
Casts breathéd spell on all that seemed.’



Love and Toast

Jane Austen's Sanditon

One cannot sensibly discuss toast without mentioning Arthur Parker.

You may recall his brief but memorable appearance in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon. We’ll get back to Arthur in a moment, but today’s post from Persephone Press (here)  is the vehicle that moved me to think along these lines of toast and its literary connections.

Persephone featured a toasting fork that is from the Monk’s House collection; a homely little item that would likely have been used by Virginia or Leonard Woolf on a cold night toasting crumpets by the fire.

toasting crumpets

As an American, there is nothing that divulges my British roots as much as my love for toast. If for no other reason I would know that my ancestors were English.

Why? The British have long had a love affair with toast. They take it as seriously as the French take their escargot. They ponder it with poignancy, and even wax rhapsodic when they reminisce about it in their literature. Even the beloved crumpet is nothing else but Toast given a new persona of round, cute and plump.

Elizabeth David, in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery  devotes an entire chapter to ‘Toast’, in an attempt to explain this curious English addiction.

‘Buttered toast’, she writes, ‘is…so peculiarly English a delicacy–and I use the term delicacy because that is what in our collective national memory it still is.’

In case you are looking for the best type of toast to absorb the maximum amount of butter, the enterprising English have had that base covered since at least as far back as the early seventeenth century. Look no further than Receipts in Modern Cookery; with a Medical Commentary, (1805), and a recipe for Potato Bread, given with this encouragement:

‘Lovers of toast will be much pleased with this kind of bread. The potato is not added here with a view to economy, but to increase the lightness of the bread, in which state it will imbibe the butter with more freedom’.

Oh my, yes.

Consider this excerpt from the beautiful novel How Green Was My Valley (by Richard Llewellyn), in which the author reminisces of his childhood in a Welsh mining town:

‘I had toasted four rounds of bread which my mother put on the end of the fork as piece after piece was browned….There is good dripping toast by the fire in the evening….good jelly dripping and crusty, home-baked bread, with the mealy savour of ripe wheat roundly in your mouth and under your teeth, roasted sweet and crisp and deep brown, and covered with little pockets where the dripping will hide and melt and shine in the light, deep down inside, ready to run when your teeth bit in.’


Roddy McDowall, How Green Was My Valley

Flora Thompson, in her memoir Lark Rise to Candleford, writes about the homely comforts of toast as well:

‘In winter, salt butter would be sent for and toast would be made and eaten with celery. Toast was a favorite dish for family consumption. “I’ve made ‘em a stack o’ toast as high as up to their knees”, a mother would say on a winter Sunday afternoon before her hungry brood came in.’

On this side of the pond, we have Ambrose Bierce. In the chapter from his Collected Works entitled ‘La Boulangere’, (1911) he suggests, in satire, that the mothers of the new American Republic had no need of cannon balls or bayonets to wage their war against the British. They just made ‘treasonably bad bread’, and thus played a key role in driving off the redcoats. But this was now 1911, and Bierce’s plaintive cry against what he perceived as ‘American dyspepsia’ was that the granddaughters of the Revolutionary Dames might at long last put down their weapons.

Lewis Carroll, in order to make the curious bottle labeled ‘Drink Me’ more tempting to Alice, wrote that it tasted, among other things, of ‘hot buttered toast’. Naturally, the cautious Alice did wonder if the bottle contained poison, but after her first sip, Alice ‘very soon finished it off’.

A well toasted slice of bread does take a An Inordinately Long Time to achieve, which could be one reason Lewis Carroll had the March Hare slathering butter all over his pocket watch and dunking it in tea at that peculiar tea party we all love to analyze and deconstruct.

So look closely, and you’ll see our favorite English classics are full of toast racks, toasting forks, a miscellany of other toasting contraptions, as well as political upheaval with toast, domestic moments with toast, romantic moments with toast, and not a few lascivious toast references.

This is where Arthur Parker comes in.

As I can’t think of a tea party without conjuring up the familiar image of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, I cannot write of toast without thinking of Arthur Parker. That amazingly robust yet invalidish young man…

“My sisters think me Bilious but I doubt it”,

…is one of Jane Austen’s finest comic creations. And the scene where he is crooning over his toast and cocoa is one of the funniest she has written.

Arthur Parker was surely as passionate about his toast as Marianne and Willoughby were for each other, and he hoped to impress the charming young heroine Charlotte with his expertise in handling a toasting fork:

… “and turning completely to the Fire, sat coddling and cooking it to his own satisfaction and toasting some Slices of Bread, brought up ready prepared in the Toast rack–and till it was all done, she heard nothing of his voice but the murmuring of a few broken sentences of self-approbation and success.— When his toils were over however, he moved back his Chair into as gallant a line as ever.’

Alas, that love-and-toast making session in front of the fire is all the time we get to spend with Arthur, as Jane Austen died before she could finish this amusing novel.

The Austen heroine of Sanditon, Charlotte (who showed great promise to be as likeable as Lizzie of Pride and Prejudice) is certainly intrigued by Arthur’s ‘self-approbation and success’ with the toast endeavors, yet by no means as delighted with Arthur as Arthur is with himself:

“I hope you will eat some of this toast,” said he. “I reckon myself a very good toaster. I never burn my toasts, I never put them too near the fire at first. And yet, you see, there is not a corner but what is well browned. I hope you like dry toast.”

“With a reasonable quantity of butter spread over it, very much,” said Charlotte, “but not otherwise.

“No more do I,” said he, exceedingly pleased. “We think quite alike there.”

As does Jane, apparently. And perhaps Virginia Woolf, as well.



Notes: for more on Jane Austen and the 200 year celebration of her work featuring her novel Mansfield Park, join the discussion ‘An Invitation to Mansfield Park’ here at Sarah Emsley’s blog.
Also, for more on Sanditon, there are some delightful articles here and here and here. Enjoy!



‘Gossamer Abundant’

gossamer and iron

“Slow thro’ the air                                         

The gossamer-floats; 

or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”   Gilbert White

On this day of March 22 in 1773, Gilbert White noted the following in his diary: –

 ‘Gossamer floats about.’

It will have been noted by now that the esteemed diarist did not often give way to flights of fancy, although he occasionally waxed rhapsodical in poetry to his greatest love—the natural world. To him the ‘new-mown hay’, the moment when ‘love-sick turtles breathe their amorous pain’, and the movements of the ‘swift in rapid giddy ring’, were the stuff of poetry most sublime.

Selborne, Gilbert White's home

Selborne, Gilbert White’s home

Two years later, on this day of March 22 in 1775, Gilbert White, in one of his more prosaic moments, would merely jot down:

‘Snake appears: toad comes forth.  Frogs spawn.  Horse-ants come forth.’

To him, this plain-stated, unvarnished truth, was the essence of beauty.

spring crocus

Still, there was, for White, the ethereality of gossamer, ’the wavy net-work’, the dreamy delicate spider webs, the white cottony wisps floating from the willows. It was often noted in his diary, year after year:

’gossamer streams’
gossamer abundant’
gossamer floats’
‘vast quantities of gossamer’
‘much gossamer flying’
‘the air is full of gossamer’

and finally,

‘Much gossamer. Bat.’

On Oct. 15, 1788, overcome, he wrote a poem about gossamer:

“slow thro’ the air

The gossamer-floats; or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”

Dear Gilbert. We love him so.

Earlier than Gilbert White, Shakespeare also wrote of ‘gossamer’. It is a word that has intrigued lexicographers ever since.

‘the gossamer that idles
in the wanton summer air.’

Footnotes to the text read:

[Dyce.”\ In Hannibal and Scipio, 1637, by Nabbes:
‘Fine as Arachne’s web, or gossamer [‘gosshemert.’ Nares], 
 Whose curls, when garnished by their dressing, shew 
 Like that spun vapour when ’tis pearl’d with dew?*

English Expositor, 1616: gossomor: ‘Things that flye like cobwebs in the ayre’…

Even in a footnote it is entrancing… ‘like that spun vapor when ’tis pearl’d with dew…’

Too evocative to just leave there.

The writing of Virginia Woolf has been likened to gossamer strands of delicate imagery. Delicate, yes—shaded, subtle; yet the overall effect is a weave of surprisingly sinew-tough prose.

She wrote in The Common Reader: (1925)
‘nothing [proves] a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.’ 

In this further segment from The Common Reader ‘Notes on An Elizabethan Play’ (which could be subtitled ‘On Being Bored by the Elizabethans’):

‘Is it not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five acts or thirty-two chapters, must somehow be based on Smith, have one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it pleases from reality? We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore “real”.

‘We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it…’

Well; except for the reference to the chameleon the reality she describes is a world away from Gilbert White’s reality, and his delight in a spring day March 19, 1787:

‘Women sow wheat.  Gossamer abounds.  Sowed a bed of Celeri under a hand-glass.’


Back to Virginia, philosophically sowing wheat:

‘Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective. The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.

Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.’

[note: this reminds me of the amusing scene in Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, which I summarize at my Margery Sharp blog here: “We call them the inferno and Paradiso, and change the prospect to match our humour. One feels a little like God surveying the universe. Your room, I am afraid, commands the seamy side, but you will like the taxi-men and their many children.’”]

It would seem that in this word picture Woolf creates for us of soaring into the empyrean, and likening it to ‘a cloud landscape’, not ‘ultimately satisfactory to human eyes’, she was loosely merging the godlike empyrean realm of classical Greek literature, the ambient aether of Aristotle, (what I like to think of as a sort of collective lint trap of creative ideas floating out in subconscious space), and even Aristophanes’ mockery of the ‘perfect city in the clouds’ i.e. ‘cloud cuckoo land’.


If this suddenly brings to your mind Angela Thirkell, then you are—oddly enough—on the same train of thought as I. It was precisely in such a ‘cloud cuckoo land’, (according to her own reckoning) a land of unreality, and airy nothings—where Thirkell placed her Barsetshire stories. As airy as they are, they have endured and been beloved to many for decades.

It is a ‘trick of strong imagination’, just as Shakespeare said:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination…A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Beebe, the famous naturalist and marine biologist, took deep dives in his famous bathysphere in quite the opposite direction of empyrean space. Perhaps he had never read the Elizabethan playwrights and worried so intelligently over the ‘unintelligible convolutions’ as had Woolf, still he wrote:

‘Boredom is immoral. All a man has to do is see. All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up.’

I feel quite sure that he and Gilbert White would have been in perfect accord; on bats, termites, lovesick turtles, the internet, and ‘the timorous hare.’ Oh, and gossamer.

Looking up. Looking down.  (I saw it because…)

Today is March 22, 2014:

‘Much gossamer floats about.’


Notes: There are lovely websites dedicated to the life and works of Gilbert White of Selborne here and here.

‘Millions of Strange Shadows On You Tend’

“…and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Walter Pater

The fascinating woman you see became the mother of two fascinating women.

Julia Prinsep Duckworth Stephens had several children, but two were Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

It was the Persephone Post from yesterday, and the picture of the dust jacket from a book by Virginia Woolf, with the cover art by Vanessa Bell, that made me think of Nan Fairbrother.

Nan Fairbrother

Nan Fairbrother

Nan Fairbrother (McKenzie) was, herself, a woman of uncommon beauty and intellectual vigor. Described as tall, beautiful, brilliant, imposing, strong—she wrote books described as ‘reflections of daily life’.

Which is like saying Virginia Woolf ‘wrote fiction’.

Every year I re-read some of Fairbrother’s extraordinary prose. Part of what motivates me, it must be admitted, is this vague hope that I have somehow, in the ensuing years, become more adept at grasping the core substance of what I’m reading, and come away with a sort of Fairbrother Manifesto of ‘this is what I’m saying, this is what I feel’.

Yet at times Fairbrother pulls back her gauze-like web of ‘poetic transmutation of our lives’ and writes a passage that is refreshingly clear. When that happens it comes almost as jolt of surprise.

In this passage about Virginia Woolf, one that is spun from a simple afternoon Nan Fairbrother spent ‘blackberrying’ with her children, she gives us an insight into her vulnerability as an artist and a woman:

‘One can imagine a sensibility so subtle and overwrought that to go blackberrying might satisfy the whole range of human feeling. We think of Virginia Woolf and of Mrs. Dalloway walking out to buy flowers for her party. And indeed Virginia Woolf is the perfect bedside book for visitors who come to stay with us here, for we live in the right receptive quiet. Yet I am never quite happy reading her; there is always a vague underlying sadness. Perhaps it is the feeling that a mind as sensitive as hers can never long survive our world of crude and violent shocks. So that as she watches each ripple of her consciousness, catches and pins it as surely and delicately as a butterfly, we are afraid always that she will lose her balance, that she will so refine and make sensitive the instrument of her mind that it must inevitably be destroyed. But then, too, there was once a young man who told me that his heart missed a beat only to see her name on the dust-jacket of a book. Virginia Woolf. It is the only time I have ever been jealous. But I suffered then–long it seems now–such an agonizing wave of misery, such an inmost stab of pain, that I have never read her since without a faint echo of uneasiness.’

It does not appear that Nan Fairbrother and Virginia Woolf ever met. And I am not entirely sure that the reference to Woolf as ‘the perfect bedside book’ is to be taken as a compliment. Based on the references Fairbrother makes to her own choice of books she takes to bed to read, this might have been a veiled slight.

“It is the only time I have ever been jealous.”

It was to Hogarth Press where she wrote to submit her first work. This was immediately accepted by Leonard Woolf and published. Later titles such as ‘Men and Gardens’, A House in the Country’, also published by Hogarth Press were to follow.

There is an audio interview here, one of a series, with Nan [Fairbrother] McKenzie’s son, Dan McKenzie, the famous Professor of physics at Cambridge. As mentioned in the interview, Leonard Woolf was a frequent visitor to the McKenzie home. As a young lad meeting Leonard Woolf on several occasions, McKenzie described him as ‘very nice’, and that he ‘always wore very hairy green suits’. (Wool tweed, apparently)

Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf: “He always wore very hairy green suits.”

It is a little known fact that there exists a correspondence of over 100 letters between Leonard Woolf and Nan Fairbrother in the Sussex collection of Leonard Woolf’s papers. (Dan McKenzie expressed no interest in reading their content.) In the interview, McKenzie says his mother ‘admired Virgina Woolf’ a great deal. When pressed further by the interviewer what she really thought of Virginia Woolf and her work, McKenzie was obviously very reluctant to continue that thread of conversation.

I think we know. Nan Fairbrother told us herself.

“I am never quite happy reading her; there is always a vague, underlying sadness.”

What I would like to know is who is the ‘young man’ whose heart ‘missed a beat’ when he saw Virginia Woolf’s name on the dustjacket?

Shakespeare, Sonnet LIII:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?