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One of the excavation sites at Vindolanda where digging was going on

Friends and readers,

We are tonight come to the end of our tour to northern England. You’ve heard enough of moors, great lakes and mountains; poet lairs, towns and libraries, museums;  towers and, castles.  So just the central three places left: Wallington House, the “seat” of the Trevelyan family, otherwise known for their activities in Cornwall and the English court; Vindolanda, surely one of the richest sites for excavation still on-going, the name translates into white or wintry field, with Hadrian’s Wall nearby; and Durham Cathedral, our last stop before driving back to Manchester, the airport hotel, and taking that long trip home.

The reader may notice I indulge my penchant for pictures by women artists in this last blog and end on a poem in a volume put together by a poet whose work I have elsewhere much recommended, Carol Ann Duffy.


Wallington House

Thursday our penultimate day. I will remember Wallington house for its picturesque gardens, the tasteful art objects in the house, the rooms themselves got up for us as living spaces (where people played this game, or read that), paintings by family members of themselves doing things (like painting a sketch of a chapel by a mid-century female Trevelyan),


Molly Trevelyan — a self-portrait I felt touched by

the doll house room (large ones there), a vast hall downstairs with tapestries, and another with murals:


The hall itself


Three plangent scenes


The one on the far right reminds us of the human enslaved labor which made Hadrian’s Wall.

I only understood the significance of these pictures as by three Pre-Raphaelites under the direction of Pauline Lady Trevelyan and who she was when I received a reply to this blog by Jacqueline Bannerjee: see Jacqueline Bannerjee’s review of John Batchelor’s Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Most of all the stories told about the last Trevelyan to own the place and live here affirm that he was a committed labor socialist and left this house and its treasures to the National Trust. Little sayings attributed to him were everywhere: generous, egalitarian, humane thoughts.


A dollhouse so large I’m sure a three year old would try to step in

The guides were unusually friendly, and one gardener made me feel I was back in Secret Garden when he took me into his confidence over how he needs more staff with him, and tales of upkeep, a little about the family. I felt closer here because of the Cornwall connection (foolish me): I knew more about the Trevelyans than our Road Scholar guides.


Wallington Greenhouse with flowers all around

The old stables at Wallington were now a cafe, the old servants’ headquarters now an extension to look at artefacts; there is another another walk by a rivulet, and a large grassy square for tents for people to visit and children to play upon

That day we were in a town where we were in an indoor farmers’, butchers’ and all sorts of objects sold marketplace; in the square a street performer. But I did not take down the names.

Vindolanda on Friday might be referred to as chef d’oeuvre of the whole tour. It’s an excavation site, living museum, once the enormous center piece or showcase of Roman Britain from the 2nd to the 7th century AD.

The standing building, once the home of Robin Birley’s family, is now a cultural and science center, restaurant and meditation (if you can find a good spot)..

While I enjoyed the film with Robin Birley as narrator telling of his life of excavation on this site, and the thrill of finding the many plaques buried deep, which turned out to (with the help of super-technologically expert machines of all sorts) to be letters from various people who lived on this site (invitations to dine, instructions, personal commentaries, lists of all sorts),


Online photo of a famous birthday invitation

and liked looking at all the artefacts (one statue looked like a cat, until I saw it was a dog) for me the most enjoyable rooms were about the earliest excavations by the family who developed the site: this was at the end of the 18th century, a clerical scholar named Eric Birley, began it: here was this man’s desk, that woman’s find. One could follow the Birleys into WW1; there was a period of neglect but in the 1960s, new interest was kindled and now the place is crawling with archeaologists, geologists, students seeking degrees, to say nothing of tourists and sometimes local people.


Online photo of the imagined fort at Vindolanda, from a western angle

I listened to two different tour guides about the life of the people and disposition of structures out on the open plain; also just watching a large crew of people.

We didn’t have that good a lecture, but I stopped and listened to a lecturer for another group. He talked of how the Romans coopted the local people: the men were offered Roman citizenship if they worked for so many years as soldiers and as soldiers they did many tasks beyond sheer military control. We were shown where people probably slept; the refectory; where when the Roman emperor came, he stayed. The Romans remained in Britain for several hundred years, mining mostly.

So it was like learning of several layers of civilization, a palimpsest you stripped piece after piece off.


Watching a group of people dig: I did this too, on another part of the middle level of the sites.

I just loved the bookstore, which was unusually rich in types of books relating to Roman Britain, the area of Northumberland, Latin itself. I bought as a present for Izzy the second volume of the Harry Potter books translated into Latin. She had the first translated into Latin! For myself a slender book with many pictures on Vindolanda. I can’t share these as my scanner no longer permits me to put anything on the glass but a single sheet, and I don’t want to cut up my books. I have succumbed to only one from Wallington (Molly Trevelyan because it touched my heart)

We drove from there to Hadrian’s Wall in two different places. At one we could look up to the top of the wall about the height of a fifth floor apartment building along one side was a stairway with no banister, nothing to hold onto and I decided I might not be up to that without a panic attack and I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. So I went with the careful people to a second site where we came upon the wall from the back, gently up slope to its top. So I stood there with another woman and we looked down and into the distance where we could see a body of water.

These were the days that on the way back to Otterburn we took a chance, left the itinerary of Road Scholar and stopped at churches nearby. One an ancient 12th century building, still in use — it seemed to me it would be very cold in winter.

Another was built-up, looking quite comfortable within (plushy seats, heaters, handsome decors for chapels


Late Romanesque

The last two evenings at Otterburn Castle were also especially enjoyable, pleasant for me. I knew everyone by that time, was comfortable with most, could sit by the roaring fire in the stone reception room and read my email from my cell phone. One night we gathered in a front room. People had been asked to write a poem, or tell what was the most remarkable experience of the trip. Most people did one or the other, and there were some comic and revealing verses. I fell back on quotations from travel books by poetic authors I had found in one of the bookstores we visited. There was more drinking together as there had been the first night at Lindeth Howe Hotel.


Otterburn castle in the morning

When we said goodbye to the hotel and the very friendly staff (a family) on Saturday morning, there was one more place left for us to see: Durham Cathedral. It’s not on the way to Manchester, but we had all day so we took the detour to Durham. We did walk through a major mall in the city where we saw a good opera house, playhouse with modern plays, theater for movies, shopping, cafes and the like. Then a walk to some older buildings and onto the cathedral square.

Durham cathedral combines the function of commemorative local community place (the center of economic life in the 19th century was mining), with history museum, not only of the religious history of the church (beginning with St Cuthbert as usual), but fast forward to the World Wars of the 20th century as they affected the cathedral close and Durham,. It’s a religious site, with relics, tombs; it’s a tourist attraction and restaurant with garden, and art objects: the building encloses in it different centuries of styles, of figurines. There are tours twice a day and people hired to stop vistors photo-taking as well as answer questions about what visitors are seeing.

I was not surprised to see modern sculptures of Mary, a replica of the four monks carrying the corpse of St Cuthbert round about Northumberland until his body rested in this very cathedral, but I was surprised to see a couple of modern women artists. Even here the attempt to bring women out of obscurity continues. So there was a Paula Rego (whose work I like) imagining (from her Portuguese Catholic background) an old woman, aristocrat, with a young boy at her feet.

This time I was startled — though the images fit the grave and desperate ones of people all dressed up in other pictures by Rego. Here the faces are of skeletons, ghostly.

We stopped for tea somewhere, and then we sped down the vast highway at 70 miles an hour, reached the comfortable, but anonymous soulless hotel where we to dine one last time and then sleep. I had to get up by 6:00 am to make a plane at 9:00 am. I had made a friend of a man slightly younger than me to the point we agreed to try to travel together inside a larger Road Scholar tour group next May to Cornwall. So I’ll see more of it than I did two summers ago with a friend and her partner. After that I may stay to do research in the Royal Cornwall Museum on Winston Graham, and to London for the British library and (if I can get in) BBC archives for the scripts of the 1970s Poldark. Perhaps a dream, but my friend met me at that early hour, we had breakfast, coffee, bid one another adieu and off I went.


Adieu to Cumbria

Gentle reader, I cannot get myself to take pictures as I move through these trips, and don’t have many original informed thoughts to share, only the lectures to tell and my stenography is not what it was.  I wish I had more patience to describe, but such as I am and what I have been able to do is sincerely represented here.

I did unexpectedly have many Trollope sightings: he sets numerous scenes in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna in Cumbria where his sister, Cecilia lived for a time with a husband and he and his mother visited. Langdale Pikes is mentioned more than once as a place to (he must’ve) wander[ed]:

And so another set of travel blogs comes to an end. I close with a poem by Patrick Henry (found in Carol Ann Duffy, Answering Back):

The Waiting Room

An empty coatstand in a public building, in August.
Even this is draped with your absence.
The rags of a seagull’s cry hang from it now.

Nothing is devoid of love.
How many years did I waste, listening out
for your voice?

…………… The park through a window,
swollen with leaves, smothers its coatstands well.

Thin veils of clouds, a city’s prayers,
fall away to the west. For a split second
I can see your eyes.

………………… But if I break my gaze
the gull has slipped its hook, the sea
is a long way away.


Lady Mary Lowther, A Waterfall (one of the watercolor artists whose work I saw in a library and then read about in a book I brought home with me: In the Line of Beauty: Early Views of the Lake District by Amateur Artists texts and choices by Stephen Hebron)

Ellen

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Vindolanda


John Millais’s loving portrait of a young John Ruskin

Friends and readers,

Though I had heard of Hadrian’s Wall, I had never thought there must have been a world of people inside this wall the Romans were seeking to protect and control. During the two weeks, our group visited a number of sites revealing Roman settlements all around the north west and western parts of today’s Great Britain. They came to extract the minerals in the ground and take it back to Italy to be hammered into thousands of objects. On different days over the two weeks we rode and walked over included the mountain top Hardknott Roman Fort, smaller forts, and finally near and by Scotland the vast excavation site of Vindolanda, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The areas we covered in the two weeks further north have also known incessant violence from continual internecine warfare by groups of maraunders (gangs of tribes and family groups) who came to be called the Borders Reivers: they are recorded from medieval history as living by stealing and killing and we visited and went pass their forts, Peel towers (places of refuge), heavily built castle-like dungeons. Carlisle, the city is found amid what once were these scenes and it has a marvelous museum remembering its history from the Vikings, through the Romans onto feudal and Victorian-Edwardian times: Tullie House and Museum, and there we were treated to the best lecture we heard: on the Reivers and this area in the 15th through early 18th century. Here too we came into contact with earlier Celtic and early Christian worlds at Lindisfarne island.

Throughout we often took the equivalent of or actual old Roman roads newly fixed, once important arteries for transportation.  (We stayed off main highways.)  One of the guides maintained the first language written down in the British Isles which we can find is Latin. Art works, and celebrity souvenirs, guide books support this remembering of history which gives meaning and a long-term identity to Northumberland and Cumbria and their specific localities.

This basic outline of local particular history that we traveled through was varied with visits to family estates thrown open to the public and (if they had one) castles or manor houses. One day we visited another poet’s house, from which he drew and wrote, supported artists and working people’s causes: education for all, better housing, civil rights: John Ruskin’s Brantwood. There were Roman and early gothic churches and vast cathedrals, more museums, more mines still being worked or open to the public for display and sales. Art objects at all these places and guidebooks could help you remember what you saw — as well as use of your cell phone or ipad or fancier camera.

I have summed up what is to come so we can have perspective and move through the  rest of the two weeks more quickly.


Hardnott Pass – the picture is not large enough to show the ribbons of road or their steepness

Friday morning dubbed “a day of high adventure” we drove up a terrifying Hardknott Pass: a zizgag of a narrow path going ever higher but at corners demanding that the bus turn narrowly on its wheels in a new diagonal one way and then that, often at the edge of a steep incline, where the bus was really at risk of toppling over — except for intrepid guide drivers, excellent brakes and super-sturdy mini-buses.


Remains of Roman Fort

Once we got to the top, everyone had to have thick shoes, and we walked around an vast open space to look at the remains of Baths, forts, and living quarters for Roman soldiers and all those living with them (household, women, horses).

Here’s a piece of this place:

You’re right: it’s a stone wall.

We then drove to Muncaster Castle where we were treated very well.


Muncaster Castle

The present owner, married into the Penningtons (a family who go back to Elizabethan Britain) gave a lecture as he took us around the bottom part of the castle now set up for tourists and also groups coming in for occasions (weddings, barmitzvahs, parties) and then showed us where we could walk in the garden. Meant to amuse us, show the whirligig of time has not favored the aristocrats of England, the owner told us the present family lives in the basement. I’ll bet that’s a word that covers a suite of beautiful rooms below, complete with glass windows and window doors.


A sixteenth century bedroom on the top floor

I liked how simply and obviously the rooms were got up to display different functions. Inside the house were many genuinely fine works of art from the 16th through 18th century. There was a rich library of sets of books and rare books, which he said was undergoing digital cataloguing.


The Muncaster library

Then it was time to go to lunch. We ate in the castle in a room from which we could see the gardens. After lunch we could walk about (the grounds reminded me of Bignor Park which I saw during the Charlotte Smith conference) and we did and then at 2 a falconry show (every Tuesday and Friday afternoon). Basically three young adults, and the owner too, with three birds attached to each of the three falconers flew and played around him or her. It felt like more than a show because the birds were made to fly low and fly quite far in the sky. This part reminded me of Longleate where the public was supplied with entertainment (a zoo, a ferry, picnic grounds), only again something more select, unusual was done. I have read one of the Pennington’s diaries, and thought about how hard it was to run this house now as a business.

It was now later Friday afternoon we drove back over Corney Fell, where we made frequent stops, and I began to be aware of how many sheep we were continually seeing:

The scenery was spectacular: I felt like I was in a picture postcard:

Saturday’s big event was our visit to Brantwood house, John Ruskin’s home and we were led to dwell for a few hours on this man’s life, his friends, his work. First we saw a half hour film which emphasized his social and political activities (his schemes adumbrated the national health, public housing, pensions) and then plenty of time to explore his wonderfully appointed large house (a museum as private dwelling) and extensive gardens overlooking a lake.


A detail from John Millais’s portrait of Ruskin with a backdrop of the natural world — it is not sufficiently appreciated how often the Pre-Raphaelites painted the natural world in great careful detail

We were told Ruskin bought Brantwood sight unseen for £1500 (or was it £15,000?)


Brantwood house — 1862; he lived there the rest of his life with a small band of family, friends, servants

In each of the rooms there were albums with writing and pictures commemorating eras in Ruskin’s life, drawings and paintings, many by him, many by friends, often of nature using primitive cameras to become more exact.


Brantwood room: note the Pre-Raphaelite like pictures

We saw the furniture he used, the musical instruments everyone played, his desk.

All round the house were smaller buildings with exhibits (on birds, an ice house, young artists today). It really took a couple of hours to explore. The effect was to reveal how much richer he was than anyone else around him. But he also was much beloved and befriended: I felt all the people living around him were not faking. He really was a deeply kind and decent man who made accurate pictures of nature.

The next phase was lunch on a garden terrace where room was found for a restaurant overlooking the lake:

From there we caught a Victorian looking steam boat and rode across the lake.


The lake we crossed seen from on high …

We looked at the Coniston Falls, said to be the inspiration for his famous poem of daffodils; click here to read Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal on Ullswater. This time the later afternoon stop was Langdale, where we stopped to take pictures and look out at the valley:

I learned what was meant by a pike (a word Trollope often uses in his descriptions of Cumberland in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna — his sister had a house there when she was married where his mother visited and presumably he too):


Langdale pikes

Sunday was dubbed a free day. The guides had a day off and got some needed rest.  The group was invited to take ourselves to the different ferries crossing different parts of Lake Windermere and going to different towns — we were given maps and tickets to a fery.  I had had enough of company, 6 and more hours a day on the mini-bus, staring at lakes, and it looked like it would rain (it often did) so chickened out. I sat by a warm and pretty (though faked) fire (it looked like wood burning but was a gas fire) in one of the common rooms and read Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. In the afternoon I took a walk by myself. I discovered I couldn’t get far and how much we did need those mini-buses and shuttles to reach any where near for a town.

The next day, Monday, we all rose early, packed, and with an extra bus for luggage, drove a number of hours to get to our second hotel, a converted 10th century castle, Otterburn in Cumbria, whose picture of which I supplied in my first blog, but here is a publicity shot, meant to allure people to come to the place as a hotel — inside it is much renovated and much of it rooms rebuilt during the later 19th and 20th centuries, though a central block is 13th century and has a large still working fireplace (renovated 18th century) where I would sit in the later afternoon:

It’s worth noting that most of the castle ruins we saw were in Cumbria, further north near the border, most of the ancient small churches, all of the dungeons


A castle ruin we passed by at some point during the following week

Otterburn church near the castle:


Another publicity shot

We had entered the area historically once of high violence and more primitive conditions, about which I’ll be writing next time. I bring out this perspective to distinguish the Lake District from the border country.  In the lake district we were shown trains and how today too a privately run one is kept up to unite small towns. We went to libraries and sites “sacred” to writers, poets, artists. The landscapes were the epitome of beauty.  In the border lands one finds many ugly bleak places, dungeons, towers, mostly ruined or uninhabited castles, castles whose function is utterly changed. Among the rare ones still a family, Alnwick Castle, now known for housing Harry Potter at school on films, one episode in Downton Abbey, and three in the older TV farce, Blackadder. For me the context is still the great 18th century painter, Canaletto whose painting makes it so idyllic, so appealingly picturesque:


Antonio Canaletto, Alnwick Castle, 1747

But it took the real form it did because its origins and its present place, however peaceful today, and just in Northumberland, are in these more northern border places:


Alnwick Castle photographed by a Road Scholar pilgrim from a bus stop

We didn’t go into Alnwick because you did have to make an appointment and to see each part of the castle was separate fee on top of the parking fee. Nota bene, gentle reader.

I will be attending a course on the poetry of Robert Frost in a couple of weeks. Now thinking about how I became an English major, and how my choice to become an English major was clinched when I read Wordsworth and yes the other Romantic poets (also Lamb, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley), and how I’ve ended up where I am, in solitude, going on a holiday to these sites with a group of pilgrim-strangers as friends, I’ll end on Frost’s great poem,

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But my choice was not so free. I chose the road less traveled by because out of my class origins, my gender, my character I was not able even to conceive of following the one most people chuse (18th century spelling).

Ellen

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Famous Photo of Beatrix Potter at Hill Top House


Me in the same porch at Hill Top House

Dear friends,

Another day of remarkable site-seeing and experiences to report, this time with many more photos sent me by one of our Canterbury pilgrims. This day was another partly devoted to places Wordsworth lived in, was schooled, visited, made a garden, and partly devoted to Beatrix Potter. We visited castles and ruins. Everything was nearby everything else, including her house where we were staying, the (much enlarged), Lindeth Howe Country Hotel near Bowness, Lake Windermere:


Lindeth Howe Hotel, seen from the side


Bowness, Windermere, 6 in the morning

We started out early in the morning (after breakfast) by driving to and going into the fantasy-built Wray Castle, never a fortress, but made by a man imagining one: sort of something drawn from his movie-going, and impressive in thickness of stones, size and nowadays cared for by the National Trust, gardens, and places for tourists to picnic and play summer games:

A short ride and we were at Potter’s house and her lovely garden, a real place: here she did much of her artistic children’s books, and her serious botany drawings, and landscapes. One could see it was a summer home, open, surrounded by nature.


As you are going in


Potter’s odd piano

I had read much of Linda Lane’s book, went to a lecture by her on Potter, wrote a foremother poet blog for her, and of course seen the excellent biopic, Miss Potter with Renee Zellweger. The guides in the rooms (as in Dove Cottage) told us as much as they could, quickly. I felt it was a comfortable house.


Potter’s front room

There was a landscape by her on one wall, her children’s books, and I instance these found on the Internet as like what I saw:

“The place is changed now, and many familiar faces are gone, but the greatest change is myself. I was a child then, I had no idea what the world would be like. I wished to trust myself on the waters and the sea. Everything was romantic in my imagination. The woods were peopled by the mysterious good folk. The Lords and Ladies of the last century walked with me along the overgrown paths, and picked the old fashioned flowers among the box and rose hedges of the garden — Beatrix Potter


New Sidmouth

“Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again — Beatrix Potter


Sidmouth beach, with memories of herself drawing

Not far from Hill Top is the town of Hawkshead where Wordsworth went to a famous once-respected boys’ school, where he lived with Ann Tyson, and which is today a place tourists come to hear a lecture about education in this building, and to the town for summer holidays, and shopping. Outside the school is a church (part of it converted):

There were two floors, one for the lower boys, and the other the boys about to go to college, two rooms for tutors. Here the huge one room downstairs from one angle:

A quick resume of an entertaining lecture: the school lasted from the later 16th to later 19th century; it went from 6 am to 5 pm, 6 days a week, with a 2 hour lunch in the center of the day. Compulsory church on Sunday; the 99-100 boys on 6 different levels recited in different parts of the room; during lunch they drank beer, participated in ritual terrorizing, torturing and murder of birds (cock-fighting). Birch was used, 10 and 12 strokes depending on the infraction; it was a noisy, busy, smokey place, with tallow candles it stunk (they went outside the building to relieve themselves). Originally funded by Edwin Sandys, there was a strong low church bias, and it was attached to St John’s Cambridge. We were shown the lists of headmasters (some remarkable scholars of their eras). It was finally closed for good in 1909. It was clear to me from what the lecturer was saying that there would have been no room for sensitivities; they were educating gentlemen trained in and by violence as well as social conformities and expectations of the upper class. As I left I spoke briefly to the lecturer and told him of my husband at a public school and how he was caned at his public school 5 times and in his forties still had welts on his hands. I was impressed positively by the lecturer suddenly dropping the comic wry stance and looking grave at the realities of such places

Following Peter, the group then walked about Hawkshead, saw Ann Tyson’s cottage, and then we all drove to Grassmere (in 2 mini-buses) for lunch and some brief walking about.


There were beautiful baskets of hanging flowers in both towns

I did not take many photos of walking about, Grasmere or Hawkshead, but today have some photos from my friend from yesterday afternoon at Keswick where we stopped for lunch the day before and wandered about town, and place them here:


Keswick restaurant


The Keswick church where I saw drawings and photos from the time mining was central to the village


The Slate museum we also saw yesterday which has replaced the mining trade once vital to the area

It was a very different world when mining and such schools and churches were central to the economic structure of the towns. Now it’s the town landscapes and lakes: tourism, agriculture and sheep (I’ll have photos of sheep next time):

Our next stop was the Armitt Museum, associated with Beatrix Potter because she donated much money and many of her books; it is now maintained as a research and reference library and museum for exhibits for local paintings (watercolors): that day there was much on (as in the other places women were emphasized) Anne Clough, Harriet Martineau, early suffragettes and an exhibit of watercolors by Kurt Schwitters (1847-1948) and William Heelis (1870-1940). They had a book (some well-chosen books to be bought) and tourist shop.

Graham Kilmer’s lecture was on the history of the library and cultures of the surrounding town in the 19th century and until today:

The history begins with the Armitt sisters who were learned women (Louisa a historian, polymath, musicologist). It was at first a circulating library. Wordsworth belonged; it attracted antiquarians, county families; Ruskin was a significant influence (he lived not far off), a superstar for his writing, art and art criticism and social and political activism on behalf of working people. Claudian glasses were not forgotten, and the picturesque part of the aesthetic. The library has sets of old volumes (e.g., Gentleman’s Magazine). Mr Kilmer took off the shelves a book on volcanic greenstone, what has been found from pre-history (weapons, pots, symbolic objects); another about a Roman fort’s excavation. He told the story of Ruskin’s conflict with Whistler as indicative of the culture. Photography became an important part of the collection starting in 1865 (a fundamental change), he said 17,000 unnamed plates. In 1997 it was re-organized into a reference library, with 2 part time librarians and a dozen volunteers. The library’s focus is the lakes, their geology, geography, history, local writers.


Rydal Mount house seen from the gardens

The piece de resistance of the day came nextL: we drove to Rydal Mount, which Wordsworth rented by 1809, and where he, Dorothy, Mary and their children and the friends lived and worked for the rest of their lives. The live-in caretaker, a curator, and now expert in Wordsworth took us round the beautiful gardens telling of the stages the garden went through. Wordsworth and his gardener (there was a photo of the man) aimed for a variety of perspectives, to have space to see the lake below, and that day the sun as streaming in. There is a mound, a greenhouse, a walk in the shrubberies.

In the house he told us of Wordsworth’s later life as reflected in the house, and that he felt the life lived in this house has been neglected in biographies. Rydal Mount was lived in for far far more time, where Wordsworth wrote original first drafts but also revised and revised.

We were permitted to go round the main rooms of the house where the Wordsworths lived: we saw beautifully kept dining room, library, drawing rooms, Wordsworth and Mary’s bedroom, Dora’s bedroom. Much of the furniture is suggestively left so you can imagine (if you think to) what the people were doing here and there; often reading, writing, meditating on memory. There was a very somber room at the top of the stairs where we saw a bed for a very sick person and all sorts of 19th century medical paraphernalia: this was to remember that in her last years Dorothy suffered from senile dementia and was taken care of (waited on hand and foot) by the Wordsworths and servants in that room. The top of the house or attic.


The meadows around Hawkshead close to where Wordsworth was located

We had dinner there as a group and one of us got up and read Wordsworth’s famous daffodil poem (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”). At the end of the two weeks some of the people said this evening was finest we had. For myself I don’t find this famous lyric what I value Wordsworth for, but rather his other early narratives about broken soldiers, people ejected from their houses, beggars; some of the sonnets; his meditative poetry, the visionary sequences in “Tintern Abbey,” the Prelude, and some of his later sterner verse.

I once wrote a paper on these ekphrastic stanzas, written after his brother John’s death in 1805, probably while Wordsworth lived in Rydal Mount brought to their present state:


George Beaumont (1753-1827), Peele Castle in a Storm

Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont

I was thy neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene’er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle things.

Ah! then , if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;—
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,—’tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O ’tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, the trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

One should perhaps remember that none of this needs to be there; all of it takes people rescuing it, maintaining and preserving it. Not just money but organizations of people who understand what they are doing and why and are funded and backed up by laws and customs. So just about every place we were taken to as our goal was either a National Trust site or partly supported by them and other like local foundations. We were seeing history, or the remnant of what once was plucked out of its context and made a tourist experience. We were in places on the margins, places “left behind” the modern cities most of us (the customers of Road Scholar) live in, places with cultural status. One should think about why these places have this status, how they relate to the vast “bottom” part of our deeply unequal society, and are part of a fantasy life, pieces of a “shared imaginary repertoire of the dominant culture” (Rob Shields, Places on the Margin).


Shop either in Grasmere or Hawkshead and not far from the parking lot — to catch tourists


Another on the bus route — the sign in glittering gold and blue says Peter Rabbit and Friends and the window is filled with glowing figurines of the small animals in the tales

Ellen

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Tarn Haws — a place we stopped at where three lakes intertwined nestled in hills (@Dorothy Glass, one of the people who had a remarkable camera, attached to a computer back in the hotel)

“Prologue to the Lakes District” with apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer
By Margaret Lapetina August 2018

In August, after daffodils ended season
Come Pilgrims from the colonies, for this reason–
To the lakes , to walk the fells , all most enthused
Road scholars, –funny spelling though
They mused.

A group of scholars, you know who you are
For Romanticism to Turbulence travelled far.
To share their knowledge they did yearn
And gladly would they teach and gladly learn.

Our psychologist bard named Bob
Reading Wordsworth did a daffydilly job
After dinner in the poet’s home.
For his pains, he was lauded and
Did admit to being chuffed when we applauded.

Poor Dora, sister-bound to William
In her time not praised for her words’ worth.
Today, the world would not dare ignore her
She might have had the chance to be our Nora.
Nora writes, and researches, publishes and edits;
Commands our great respect, to her great credit.

Sisters L. And G, all smiles and harmony
Long grown in years of mutuality
At dinner played a trivia game with Rick
Alas, they say he drove them quick–
To drink!

The doctor, Steve, in lean and quiet power
Eschews the scalpel now to photograph the flower
He wandered every bastle tower, strode on every trail
He seemed to take delight in fine detail

Suzanne ,the Carolina girl
Enjoys this second chance at traveling her world
To England is in thrall.

A late arrival, Cape Cod Sarah
Lifelong learner, seeks it all.
We hear she has a special yen for Hadrian’s wall.
From loss to strength; though short she stands quite tall
And thus is to be well admired by all.

Our Dave, who on his sweater sports a safety pin
Will help to bring the next election in.
With Sandy he has sailed Italy before
And now they stand in Windemere in awe.

On seeing Carlisle church’s window art
Dorothy, an expert in this part,
Taught some of us the elements to parse
The mysteries of the stunning stained glass

A Rick there was, and that a worthy man
To subjects erudite and small his fine mind ran
Over dinner he brings laughter and good talk
Outside he seeks to help all ladies as they walk.
In darkness he will offer light
He is the very perfect gentle knight

Host Peter J would rather make his way
By foot, we guess ,on fells than drive the bus each day.
He entertains with facts, tales nice or gory
Driving over Hardknott telling stories.
By far the best, the Wednesday highlight
Was dodging bullets in the twilight
Through the military camp …
No wonder he prefers the sweet green fell
He makes us love it and the sheep as well.
And so we thank you, from our 16 seater, Peter.

What irony prevails to name host Anne, Anne Strange?
Could not the world agree to rearrange a
name to celebrate her warmth and charm, her ease
To call her Anne the Friendly, pilgrims please?
For cycling through the sun and rain in Spain
next week
she’ll do 200 kilometers, no strain.
A riding holiday to end the year.
And so we wish her well, Anne-not- Strange, my dear

Road scholars we, though not of Chaucer’s place;
I hope, time comes, to see again each face …

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m back from my Road Scholar touring experience, and like last August’s at Aigas House, in Inverness, Scotland, I mean to share what I can. I’ve written a different sort of framework: A Canterbuy Tale, the human dimension because this time the people on the tour made the experience what it was a lot more than last, where (without meaning to regret this at all) the time was shaped far more by John Lister-Kaye, Lady Lucy, and the various interns. Romance and Turbulence, the title given the itinerary by Road Scholar, is a mix of cultural, landscape, social and physical activity (moderate) events. Accordingly, I’ll divide my story into artists (the Wordsworths, Beatrice Potter, Johns Ruskin); ruins and archeaological sites; landscapes and towns. There were three lectures and a film and I’ll bring them in as they occurred. Within this division, I’m more or less going chronologically.

The first evening we were together, Peter, one of our guides, walked with us from Lindeth Howe Hotel to Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes. We were near the busy town of Bowness from which many cruise boats (day long, a couple of hours) come and go. Lots of shops, quick food areas, tourist items on sale (for local English people too) and an amusement park. Eventually we discovered there are long lines for the ferries up and down the lake to various smaller towns.

The next day we spent the morning at Wordsworth sites. First Dove Cottage (not far from the hotel).


Dove cottage — before renovated for conservation and tourist gazing by the Wordsworth Trust site

What is most memorable is how small and plain the rooms are, low the ceilings, yet at the same time it was not a hovel, but a gentleman’s residence. The house had much of the original furniture, and you saw chairs and tables one could sit in and work at, provision for different kinds of tasks, all set out in an orderly way. Downstairs one or two of the rooms had been part of an inn; there was a separate place in one room for cooking, in another for quiet activity. Upstairs was room that was flooded with light and it has a day bed, a desk, chairs, a built-in bookcase: William Wordsworth’s study; there was a room for the children, which was lined with newsprint paper to keep out the cold. The people in the rooms talked of how Wordsworth deliberately lived more meagrely than he had to in order to participate in the community: well he was and was not one of them. So too undoubtedly his sister, their poetic and political visitors. At Rydal Mount, it was emphasized that he was a generous man to all the people he and Dorothy came into contact with — he had more money then. That he was liked by the local community and sociable enough. I imagine he was respected if thought a bit odd.


From the outside

We then went into the directly nearby Wordsworth Museum. What an astonishing array of Wordsworthiana this place has — and impressive rich archive of manuscripts and older printed books. There were several full exhibits (lots of plaques, writing, pictures, book printed and manuscript) about the various woman associated with Wordsworth — taking off from the book The Passionate Sisterhood. The men were not left out: relics of Shelley, Southey and the radical Thelwall, an exhibit about DeQuincey (for a while a good friend of the Wordsworths). I was very impressed by the numbers of letters, pictures, paraphernalia of all sorts, and the lists of manuscripts just in the open rooms. The portraits were remarkable; a number I had never seen before (DeQuincy, again early on a frequent visitor)


Robert Southey — this was one there (he supported several of these people eventually)

Every attempt was made to bring the women to the fore in all the museums we were in; one of the exhibits here was titled to emphasize the women who lived in the cottage and visited, and kept it up and wrote. I was surprised at the amount of material about Mary Shelley, for after all she never came here and was not directly part of this group until after Shelley’s death and she became a woman of letters herself. But there is so much more about her to show visually than some of the Wordsworth women.

Here is one by Sara Coleridge, Samuel’s daughter, which reveals that she needed opium to help her sleep: an eerie poem: life was not so easy in that cottage or the others these people inhabited:

The Poppies Blooming all around
My Herbert loves to see,
Some pearly white, some dark as night,
Some red as cramasie;
He loves their colours fresh and fine
As fair as fair may be,
But little does my darling know
How good they are to me.
He views their clustering petals gay
¬And shakes their nut-brown seeds.
But they to him are nothing more
Than other brilliant weeds;

O how should’st thou with beaming brow
With eye and cheek so bright
Know aught of that blossom’s pow’r,
Or sorrows of the night!
When poor mama long restless lies
She drinks the poppy’s juice;
That liquor soon can close her eyes
And slumber soft produce.
0′ then my sweet my happy boy
Will thank the poppy flow’r
Which brings the sleep to dear mama
At midnight’s darksome hour.

From Peter Swaab’s edition of Sara Coleridge: Collected Poems, 2007:

She was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter; she was Robert Southey’s niece; she was an accomplished translator who was proficient in six languages and who published her first translation (a three-volume treatise, from the Latin, about equestrian tribes in Paraguay) when she was just eighteen; she was a nineteenth-century mother who suffered from bouts of anxiety, post-natal depression and, finally, breast cancer; she was a writer of children’s books, a theologian, an editor of her father’s works; she was an artist’s model, first for William Collins’ painting in oils of her as Wordsworth’s Highland Girl in 1818 and then for a watercolour by Edward Nash in 1820. Invariably, all these other facets of Coleridge’s life and work jostle with her poetry for scholarly attention. Faced with the difficult task of selecting a particular angle or approach, no one to date who has made the decision to write about Sara Coleridge has chosen to make her poetry a prime focus of study. And the reason for this, I think, is because Coleridge’s poetry is markedly different from the kind of poetry we’re more used to reading.

When it came to writing poetry, Sara Coleridge stuck closely to the advice Robert Southey later gave a young Charlotte Brontë. She was content to “write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity.” She was, in the best sense of the word, an amateur who pursued poetry-writing for the same reasons that anyone pursues any recreational hobby: “Just as I would have any one learn music who has an opportunity, though few can be composers, or even performers of great merit,” she explained, “I would have any one, who really and truly has leisure and ability, make verses. I think it a more refining and happy-making occupation than any other pastime-accomplishment

The piece de resistance was a talk by Melissa Mitchell, Assistant Curator about what we can learn from working in archives on manuscripts. Ms Mitchell quoted Philip Larkin on two values: the magical, a relic before the present person’s eyes and in hand of the literal circumstances of the writing; the intimate: we reach a level of closeness and shared experience to see private letters. She had a digital copy of a letter in the museum written at age 16 by Dorothy Wordsworth to a friend, Jane Pollard: the sheets are completely filled and only cross-hatched (to save money) on the outer part of the paper which served as an envelope. One feels one gets close to the creative process by what Dorothy describes of her behavior towards others and by what intelligent company reviewers could glean from visits. We see how sad Dorothy could be, how her aunt and uncle behaved meanly, coldly, harshly to her (their standards for dealing with wards is I hope not replicated today). Dorothy’s hope lies in joining her brothers, she dreams of sharing a cottage and making a garden.

Here is one by Dorothy after many years of living with William, and then with his wife and children and amid all the other romantic poets and writers: she still was a person who remained apart in herself:

Floating Island

Harmonious powers with nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake and sea;
Sunshine and cloud, whirlwind and breeze,
All in one duteous task agree.

Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold—how, no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind,

Might see it from the mossy shore
Dissevered, float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned,
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

Food, shelter, safety, there they find;
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives—and die:
A peopled world it is, in size a tiny room.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little island may survive,
But nature (though we mark her not)
Will take away, may cease to give.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn—the isle is passed away,

Buried beneath the glittering lake,
Its place no longer to be found.
Yet the lost fragments shall remain
To fertilize some other ground.
(1828-29; 1842)

See my “Foremother poet: Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855).

Mitchell didn’t finish her talk as there were so many good questions and the answers took her in other directions from this letter and manuscripts as such. We don’t have all Dorothy left as her grandson crossed out lines to make her writing illegible. Dorothy was a deeply passionate young woman, she seemed so different from many people, slightly (or a lot) wild. Mitchell took down from the shelves of the room (like Chawton a room set aside for first editions of the writers of the era) a first edition of Milton which had been Wordsworth’s own copy; it was rebound either by Wordsworth or shortly after his death and Ms Mitchell read aloud a description on the inside by Mary Wordsworth about the rebinding of the book. It was an emotional experience to hear this kind of talk. Mitchell told of the story of Dorothy’s anguish the night before William married Mary (and how Dorothy wore the wedding ring that night on her hand) and the finding of the love letters of Mary and Wm which show they were tenderly in love. At the top of the museum is an exhibit intended to remind the visitor of Dorothy’s last years suffering senile dementia: the state of medicine at the era is seen in a replica of her last bed and the treatments attempted to alleviate her helplessness.

The politics of era and fine line these writers had to walk not only socially but politically, was eschewed and the presence of Pitt’s gov’t. We were not quite told how William was just finally (through patronage) offered a paying job, nor of the kind of surveillance, pressure and destruction that could be wreaked on any of the individuals in the circle who became too overtly radical in his public lifetime. Think of the imprisonment of Leigh Hunt, with whom, and about which experience Daisy Hay opens her book (see below). I cover this in my review of Kenneth Johstone’s Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s:

The bookshop is worth going to because upstairs they have older used books and the volumes up and downstairs have been carefully chosen and culled to include the best scholarship on the writing and visual art of the region. I bought two paperbacks I could carry by authors whose essays I’ve enjoyed:

We had lunch as a group in an old pub in Keswick and then were left to our own devices for a couple of hours. I found a good bookstore with little trouble. It was place for local people to sit in the square and talk, there were all sorts of ordinary shops and tourist places intermingled. I went to an art exhibit of lovely watercolors and then in the church found an historical exhibit about mining in the area and some remarkable chalk drawings of the mines and quarries sometimes executed with the picturesque in mind. I wished I had had room in my case to bring back some of these pictures that I saw.


Keswick, central town square

On the road again, “in the minibuses,” we passed by and made a quick visit (half an hour) to a famous slate mine, now turned into a perpetual shop for items made of slate for passersby and tourists to buy. One must keep in mind how what these sites are today are places for visitors to come and look at as snatched out and preserved pieces of history. That is their function and so they direct themselves to those who are using the sites to have (they hope) numinous or pleasant experiences. Every attempt is made to declare the site special, somehow lifted from the ordinary, and (to my mind) these are only successful when not too many people come to them and they remain relatively unchanged or are (as in this case) openly redirected as a store


Slate Mine — we stopped by several later in the week — I bought a new pair of earrings and a barret (to replace the one I had to give up going through security at one point because forsooth it made too much noise and I had a plane to catch and no time to cope with explanations)

Then we drove to a high point of a hill and looked down on Buttermere, a spectacularly beautiful lake just as the sky is darkening, whereupon we drove in another direction way, higher and higher, in circles, and suddenly found ourselves stopped at the bottom of a hill. Climb it and you find yourself in a small circle of neolithic stones.

Castlerigg can be found in wikipedia and is said to be among the most visited of the neolothic stone sites of Cumbria.  The question is of course what were these open air temples or airy-buildings for? I wish we had had more lectures or that the guides could have furnished more information, but what they said was true: we don’t know for sure what these circles were used for. This small one had the merit that on that day it appeared to our eyes relatively unknown (the guide suggested this) so there was no crowded parking lot, and only a few people around. It was late in the afternoon, and I could see it’s quietly taken care of or it would not last. It’s a kind of time capsule today; seen a couple of centuries ago Keats was not that impressed: “Scarce images of life, one here, one there,/Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque/Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…“ Maybe the weather was bad that day: we had sun, if not as much as in the photo: its landspace is protected by the National Trust


Castlerigg

An extraordinarily good book I bought when visiting Stonehenge, Avebury (both crowded with tourists, restaurants, tours) and Stanton Drew (like Castlerigg left alone basically) with Jim, Laura, and Isobel, Christopher Chippindale in his Stonehenge Complete tells of how vulnerable these stones are to defacement and from the weather. Peter talked of control of the weather by neolithic farmers and told a couple of stories: I suspect cruel sacrifices may have gone on in one, but like many historical sites de mémoire, the shell of what was can now be made to harbour and represent quite different meanings. Such preserved places carve out a space which can image present-day human resistance to the destruction and chance and loss; they can stand for the opposing impulse: human resistance to taking into account what really was — though this was not true of the Road Scholar tour as we went to the grim prisons (I’ll talk of the Hermitage, a castle with dungeons on the Scottish side of the border and Etal Castle (near Flodden Field another day). They show us too since they have been left to survive what human beings potentially can reverence and make socially functioning places to come to and experience together. Somehow the places become something more in memory after we left them.

In the evening after dinner three of us, me, Barbara, and Sara, accompanied a seemingly tireless Peter on a sort of zig-zag hop until we reached the top of our local Windermere pond. He said he had had enough of being on a bus for many hours.  He is a 76 year old man, originally from London, now lives in a small house on a sort of island in Cumbria. He was ever pushing us higher and higher and we actually got to the top and gazed out across the landscape just near the hotel:


This is one of the hotel’s promotional shots: it does show the gardens which have been much developed since Beatrice Potter’s day: a short history:

it is not a big glamorous modern hotel; rather it is a converted and expanded country mansion (not that big originally, imagine 9 rooms on 2 floors, with a stable nearby, plus kitchen garden). It was owned by Beatrice Potter first as a summer home, then a place to put her aging mother. During WW1 a tiny hospital, then a bed and breakfast, now a hotel. It is just outside Bowness, a large town on one shore of Lake Windermere, not far from where Wordsworth once lived. I should add it now has 30 plus “guests, 4 common rooms (for different purposes), dining room with piano, bar, office, kitchens&c, three medium gardens (the largest of which supplies the photo perspective), parking lot …

Ellen

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John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen

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Culloden battlefield today

My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers — Jane Austen as Elizabeth, P&P, Chapter 17 or 2:4)

Dear friends and readers,

A second of probably three travel writing blogs on what I saw and experienced of the Scottish Highlands from the Aigas Field Center. The focus the first day we left the center was archaeology and history: the first in order to reach pre-written history of life in the Highlands dating back to the neolithic age when these rings of stones (the most famous Stonehenge and Avebury in England) were first built. The second day we explored the landscape of the area, some of it reflecting deep past, other parts showing conservative efforts after a couple of centuries of destruction. The third and over three afternoons we went local, towns there now, commercial enterprises (whiskey distilling); and three women showed us their “gardens:” Lady Lucy across the grounds of Aigas; a crofter named Anne Macdonald on land adjacent to Aigas, and J-P (I never got her last name) who has created and manages an organic farm, making a place for bees, kitchen gardens, beer refinery, sheep, cattle and deer. Each talked to us for a couple of hours about how she spends much time in her life this way.

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Probably one of the more crucial events/dates in Scottish history is 1745 when a continuing civil war not just between those groups of leaders and their (often conscripted, forced) armiese supporting the Hanoverian dynasty from Germany fought those groups of leaders and their (equally forced, but as tenants, as clan members threatened by fire and death) armies of Scots, but rival and enemy clans of Scots trying to take over one another, and stray groups of mixed bands of men all fought in England and Scotland in the context of a larger global imperial war at sea and across lands from Europe. This global war affected the attitudes of the local generals and trading and land owning classes: where say England won here, or the Dutch there, anxiety and/or triumph changed the mood of events. The people under Prince Charles (the young pretender) got as far as Derbyshire, but turned back (the explanations for this are various). This third campaign (the 1690s in Scotland under Claverhouse, 1715 for James III) came to a head in Inverness on April 16, 1745. The Scots were not just technologically at a severe disadvantage; the terrain was vulnerable and several of the leaders were against fighting that day. Prince Charles prevailed out of pride and (it’s thought) an inadequate understanding of battle. Within 45 minutes there was a slaughter of a couple of thousand Scottish leaders and key followers; this was followed by an aftermath of flight by the Scots and brutal annihilation (the aim) by the Hanoverian authorities of the Jacobites (all Scots said to be in any way involved in the fight), which changed Scottish history forever. The country was decimated, emptied of people, their houses and villages destroyed. The books to read are John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances. What was left was enclosed by chieftains turned landowners to put sheep in the place of people; and on top of that following myths of “Balmorality” by the upper class of England and lowlanders brought the ravages of deer to the landscape.


The heather along the line where these people stood and killed others or were killed themselves — as they dared not do otherwise even if they didn’t want to

Well we began our touring by spending much of Monday morning (8/14) at the Culloden battlefield where there is now an effective museum taking visitors through the phases of these battles. One room is set up so the visitors in the center see on all four walls the men killing one another while the sounds of battle echo very loud. In other a lit board shows the disposition of the bands of men. Halls take you through global and local events. I was struck by how small the Scottish shields or targets were, and how crude and (from the perspective of today’s huge guns) feeble, and (from the perspective of the professional Hanoverian armies with canon, real guns) ineffective, their axes and broadswords. It was the battlefield itself which is so moving. You can go out and walk along the line that was “no-man’s land” between the two armies before Prince Charles and Lord Murray’s Scottish armies so foolishly attacked from an indefensible vulnerable position. All along the way are rough rocks carved with names of clans or individuals who were killed.


A cottage on the Culloden plain at the time and left standing

We then (early afternoon) traveled back in time far (but not in geographical space) to Clava Cairns, a site of four rings of stones (each one bigger than the next as you walk from a fence), with free standing stones all around, from the Bronze age, about 5000 years old. These stones are not the huge standing stones of Stonehenge (or the type of time capsule for them seen in Craig na Dune in Outlander) but mounds made up of hundreds and hundreds of small stones. These are exceptional mesolith tombs from the Bronze Age. At the time the climate might have been subtropical so an agrarian culture had emerged. There are also the free-standing stones (more like Avebury) all around, and many outside a fence placed around the central circles: into picnic areas (where we had lunch), and the nearby surrounding hills. They were probably places where the people buried their dead. Coffins are thought to have been removed long ago. Very little is known about these people as they left no writing; it’s thought they (called Picts, a mixture of Scots and Irish) decorated their bodies (tattooed) and performed rituals around these stones. There is something uncanny, creepy about supposing (as the Ranger suggested) bodies were left in the open at first to be “de-fleshed,” and then the skeletons put in coffins or underground. It poured rain as we stood there and the ranger unflinchingly lectured on about what is supposed about these people’s customs and agricultural.


One angle on the largest mounds of stones, and the smallest circle seen from a distance (Clava Cairns)

The last stop on that day, middle to late afternoon we spent at Cawdor Castle. a vast castle-house only recently opened to the public. It is the place where Macbeth was said to have met with witches in Shakespeare’s famous play. John Lister-Kaye had said this place was owned by a friend of his and we should be sure and read all the plaques and inscriptions because they are witty. He and this friend had discussed together the cost of maintaining Cawdor and just about rebuilding Aigas, and (after much less renovation) he had opened his ancient home estate to the public. Instead of the usual solemn drone-like recitation of how serious and interesting (great, wonderful) all we were seeing is, they described in a wry truthful way, satirically reductive, the furniture, pictures, objects. His aunts had been indefatigable in making tapestries; he called figures in painting The Unknown This or that (according to function); there was a rare truthfulness, plainness, and when an object was nicer, it was done justice to against this context. The house was lived in until very recently and one felt this in some of the rooms (plugs, modern comfortable chairs). There are said to be beautiful gardens created and maintained by the Countess; there’s a cafe, a shop … Since the bulk of the standing house is from the later 19th century, one could say the group had covered Scottish history over the course of the day.


Cawdor Castle/House from the outside (part of a wall) and an art object in the gardens I was drawn to

Tuesday (8/15) we spent in “Caledonian” glens and forests, hiking walks along rivers and streams, waterfalls. The scenery was beautiful and much of it in a now restored state after half a century and more conservation’s efforts to bring back native trees, bush, shrub, to reconstitute the land after the ravages of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the rocks are like those found in the Bronx or Central Park: they are not brought there by ice but formed in the ground over the centuries. The Highlands of Scotland are said to be a break-away piece of plate from North America. The landscapes are immense when you climb high and look down over the hills and see lakes and here and there someone’s (expensive) summer home. Balmorality has morphed into 20th century holiday houses. The Royals were said to have a house “just out of sight” (Fussell in his book on the class system remarks the really high status house is ever out of sight). We had lunch on picnic tables again, and in the afternoon drove to another large piece of scenic glen, with spectacular water falls. This one included the ruins of house where (it’s said) “Winston Churchill learned to drive” (why he looms so large in the public imagination I don’t understand).


People clambering about, a stunning waterfall, slate rising out of the ground

So much for the big picture.

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Now locally temporally and nearby (place and space)


The town of Beauly, close to Aigas

Wednesday (8/16) we spent the morning first in the near-by town of Beauly, saw the shops where people living in the area come for tea, cake, cheese, to socialize, an antiques shop, a store where they sold excellent knitted and woolen garments of all sorts (sweaters, scarves, throws, hats, and leather boots too), the most obvious tourist place sold cards, pictures, souvenirs. There was a butcher’s shop — individual cuts of meat! bakery. All but the butcher’s shop were run by women.


Inside the Glenn Ord distillery — where there is much mechanization … (and few employees involved in the manufacturing of the whiskey itself)

Then a very educational (for me) couple of hours at a whiskey distillery which was first founded in the early 19th century. It made single malt whiskey, and we were taken from huge room to huge room to see how the slow process worked (five stages) until the mixture was in casks to wait for X number of years before being bottled. That evening after dinner there was a “whiskey tasting:” I had never been to such a ritual before. A young man in a kilt with the panache of a salesman brought forth four different bottles of whiskey, talked them up with much hype and then passed the bottle around the table where all 26 people were to have a dram or two. It seemed to me a very strange experience, this controlled ritual drinking where we were to decide which whiskey we liked best. A great deal was made over the subtle nuances of taste.


From one corner of Lady Lucy’s Flower garden

I suggested that the Scottish highlands are clearly a patriarchal society. Nowhere was this more apparent in the hard work three women showed us were either their lives or central to them. All three women’s working garden/farms were on or close to Aigas. I should not omit the Countess of Cawdor’s whose gardens and landscape I didn’t walk in; she is said to be a formidable woman. This too is a male-shaped concept, male language for a determined strong woman, which offputs them. In no case was a man held responsible for the beauty of the garden though I daresay many staff members are male.

Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Lucy Lady Lister-Kaye took us around the property to show the gardens, landscaping, bridges, small fowl and all sorts of contrivances for children and adults it has taken her forty years to bring to a kind of continuing flourishing and blooming. She has a full staff of course (like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), but she invented the schemes, manages, supervises — she also (doubtless with a cook and staff) prepares three meals a day for her household, visiting tour groups, children coming for school agendas; there is each day afternoon tea and cake, and most evenings some social event (lecture, whiskey tasting, folk song fest were among those I experienced). A domestic existence? With her domesticity is the foundational reality of all else. A pretty, soft-spoken woman who knows how to take and keep herself in charge, in control. I forget what clan she comes from, but she is said to be proud of her heritage. She showed us a wooden bridge, very picturesque, which she said was a present from Sir John. I shall probably remember her best though in front of her aga stove in a very modernized great square kitchen in the 20th century part of Aigas house, showing us her porridge pot.


One corner of Ann’s property — I could not take photos of her barns, the vast spread of machinery, the trees, what is seen visually is not much

Lucy’s gardening is mostly ornamental, not so Ann MacDonald’s, the generous-spirited crofter who met us off a road and took us round her property that Wednesday afternoon. (Lunch had been at Aigas house, some splendid soup and salad.) Ann is a remarkable woman who has made a success of what is now several crofts put together from non-arable land, where the profits are so meagre but can be lived upon because the land was given her very cheaply, she has complete security of tenure (laws can change of course but have not for a couple of centuries), she pays hardly any taxes. The work she showed us she did with her husband and now her son alone is very hard: the son has modern huge equipment (enormous machines) and now makes money making and selling fences. She seemed to me so in touch with the natural world, her body and face shows years of hard work, effort, weather-beaten and contentment too: she was clearly a smart woman, and had a constant flow of talk (she was glad to show her life’s effort to people and tell us all about it) and until her husband died a year ago a satisfied one. The last part of the tour was her garden in front of her house, which included areas for growing vegetables and a greenhouse. John Lister-Kaye presented crofters as privileged people; if so it’s a privilege she has spent her life working hard to sustain. He admitted the laws could be changed as there are groups of people (large landlords and those without land) who are resentful or want the land themselves. I was struck by the sheer energy and difficulty of some of the tasks that still take hand-labor (like sheering sheep); she talked animatedly of cows, of the timber on the hills, and showed a continual sense of humor.

I wish I had photographed Ann’s happy collie dog who stayed close to her the whole time … I spoke briefly with her, and unlike most of the people who were “official” (rangers, staff, the Lister-Kayes), she seemed to talk directly to me, to listen to what I said, something genuine in her ways


Allangrange — this is a promotional on-line picture; tour and lecture groups are invited and pay to come

The third woman we met on the Black Isle, a very fertile peninsula sticking out from the northeast of the Highlands (vis-a-vis Aigas). This was the last day of the tour, Friday afternoon (8/18), J-J (probably a “lady” but she did not use her title, perhaps her or her husband’s family name is Godwin): Allangrange, the name of the house and estate has at its center a house built in the 18th century (I’m sure all is renovated). She began by showing us a garden set up to attract and sustain bees (so she is a beekeeper); she uses and sells the honey. She then showed a vast garden of flowers and vegetables; near this was a brewery whose profits she said paid for her garden. I saw sheep from afar and cattle. Her garden and hay feed these animals; in the brewery was a room where she sold sweaters (from the sheep). Nothing wasted. She told us what she serves for lunch each day in a given season. Like Lucy, like Ann, her existence is wrapped up in immanence. She was in appearance, accent, clothes the most elegant of the three, I could see her in an evening dress showing not a iota of the work she did daily.

In my third and last we’ll turn back to geography and history.

Ellen

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Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen

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