A truth universally acknowledged

Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, 1995

Currently I am doing a free online course on Jane Austen: Myth, reality and global celebrity taught by the University of Southampton with some of it filmed at Chawton House and the Jane Austen house museum.   It is only a two week course and I enrolled in it rather late so most people have probably already finished it – there were well over 2500 people doing it and I have not bothered to try to read all the comments as there are usually hundreds on each topic!

Nevertheless I am a bit of a Jane Austen (1775-1817) fan as these books and DVDs/videos I own show. I don’t regard myself as a ‘true Janeite’ though, as I have owned other books about her over the years but have got rid of them – I used to own a copy of her Letters, and her juvenilia (what she wrote when young), for example. I never studied her books at school or university, although several years ago I did a paid continuing education course on her and was introduced to the NZ Jane Austen Society and have been subsequently to one or two of their events. I have never visited her house museum in the English village of Chawton. Continue reading


Treasure Palaces

Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums is the title of a book I bought at a discount Book Grocer shop in Melbourne recently (edited by Maggie Fergusson). I had seen it at the Te Papa store and thought it looked interesting. The book came about from a series of commissioned short essays for the English magazine Intelligent Life (a “sister magazine” of The Economist.) A distinguished writer – not an art critic – was asked to write about a museum that had played some part in their life and what they liked or didn’t like about it, “weaving in a thread of memoir”. From the eventual 38 essays, 24 have been chosen for this book. One of the ones I particularly enjoyed was Allison Pearson on the Rodin Museum in Paris. I had never heard of her, but one of the things I enjoy with a book of good essays is ‘discovering’ some new author.

Of the 24, I have visited the following six. The photos are mine, when I can find some! I will follow this with my own comments on two museum visits I made on a 2006 art history tour.  Continue reading

Landmarks and word-hoards

20170717_090621“This book is about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place. … Landmarks has been years in the making. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the work of writers who use words exactly and exactingly when describing landscape and natural life.” (Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, Penguin Books, 2016, p. 1).

MacFarlane’s book is in the genre of ‘nature writing’ that seems to be enjoying a renaissance now – or perhaps it has been there but has recently become more mainstream. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is an early exponent of the genre (originally published 1788, my Folio Society edition is from 1994 – it was an unbound copy which I bound myself. However I haven’t read it!). Continue reading

Women’s destiny in the year 2000 (as seen from 1889)

Sir Julius Vogel (1835 – 1899) was a politician, journalist and newspaper editor who also wrote a novel, called Anno Domini 2000, or Woman’s Destiny (published in 1889), to expound some of his ideas. As a novel it is bad – I can do no better than to quote from some of the reviews of the time:

DSC00818 “In ‘Anno Domini 2000’ it is easy to detect the hand of a beginner. The plot, if plot it can be called, is not very ingenious, the dialogue is not very brilliant and the characterisation is decidedly poor. The whole story is moreover ridiculously improbable, not to say that it wears an air of caricature…. The whole thing is rather vapid…. There is a great want of anything like imagination and it must be confessed that Sir Julius Vogel’s world of 2000 is not a particularly interesting one.”[1]

“Sir Julius Vogel’s novel ‘Anno Domini 2000’ has met with much unfavourable criticism. It is cumbrous from the number of characters introduced, and sketchy from the number of occurrences only half described…”[2]

“There can, however, I imagine, be little doubt in the mind of anyone who has read the book through – and happily this is not a difficult task, the volume being one of very moderate proportions – that the general dullness of the dialogues and homilies will hardly be atoned for by the novelty of the guesses the author makes regarding the future…” [3] Not surprisingly, the book was a financial failure.[4]

Its only interest now is in the “prophecies” or how he thought society in 2000 might look.

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Banishing boredom in Ferrara

I have just finished reading Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be Both (Penguin). It is in two parts – one is narrated by a Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa (although Smith spells it Francescho) and one part by a contemporary teenage girl living in Cambridge, England. I read in a review that half the books were published with the artist’s part first and half with the teenager’s first (George, for Georgia, is her name). The version I read began with the artist’s story, which is the most challenging stylistically (and, at times, I found it a bit boring). I found the teenager’s story much easier to read and more interesting – I think I’d have preferred to have read a version with her story first! Of course, I’ll never know now. The artist is in our times, but it’s unclear (to me, at least) if he’s meant to be a ghost/spirit or is actually imagined by the teenager and her friend for a school project. That’s about all I want to say about the book – there are plenty of online reviews for those who want to know more. Continue reading

English country houses and gardens

DSC00700The online course I’m currently doing is called ‘Literature of the English Country House’ run by the University of Sheffield. I decided to read a few other books loosely on the theme, some of which have been on my shelves for some time.  Most of these relate more to English country house owners, houses or gardens rather than literature set in country houses; but I thought they would provide some useful background – and make me read some of my unread books!

The first, chronologically, is Earls of Paradise: England and the Dream of Perfection, by Adam Nicholson (2008). It was also published as Arcadia: the Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, which was the title I read some years ago. Having sold my copy, I had to borrow the library’s copy, under the ‘Earls…’ title.

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