Wednesday 26 February 2014

Dear Tess...

Illustration from The Graphic in 1891 (Image source)

So, I recently read Tess of the D'Urbervilles for the first time ever and I may or may not be a little bit obsessed with it now... If you've not read it, I would highly, highly recommend it. It is one of Thomas Hardy's most famous works and was originally published in serial form in The Graphic magazine in 1891. I don't know if I could have handled reading it in serial form, having to wait between each edition of the magazine, as I absolutely devoured it.

1892 edition cover (Image source)

It's a perfect Victorian melodramatic tragedy. And although poor, sweet Tess suffers blow after blow and is let down by various men, and in some ways is hopelessly meek, I also found it unexpectedly empowering as she ploughed on despite the odds against her. It's all just beautifully written and terribly, terribly Romantic too. Call me sentimental, but I also just loved the romance at the core of it all, even as things go horribly wrong and the young, foolish lovers really make awful decisions and screw things up for each other and for themselves. That's more like life, isn't it? The ending too, is strangely happy, despite the fact it's actually hopelessly depressing...

Frontispiece from 1920s edition (Image source)

If you've not read it, and you don't know the story of it, I hope this has suitably intrigued you. Even though, as I said, it's perfectly Victorian and the central story revolves around the principles of a culture which has thoroughly changed in many respects in the Western world, it still feels remarkably relevant and fresh. Well, let's face it, although women are no longer explicitly judged on their purity or otherwise, and double standards aren't quite so severe as they were a century ago, we can certainly still feel affinity with a girl being tossed around and torn apart by men and her own self-judgement. 

Recent edition cover (Image source)

But, yes, ever so slightly obsessed. It's probably a bit much to read it again immediately, especially when I have so many other things on my reading list... although I have been sneaking back to certain bits and lingering over them again. A friend mentioned that he watched the 1970s version many years ago and I did try to look it up out of curiosity, to see how it was rendered. I wasn't able to find it online but I came across the BBC serialised version made in 2008 and, although I haven't watched the whole thing yet, I have browsed through. (Can you browse through a TV show? Well, you apparently can online.) It's quite good - very picturesque and Gemma Arterton is a fox. (I'm allowed to say that - Tess is supposed to be easy on the eyes...)

Gemma Arterton in the 2008 BBC version (Image source)

Still I can't get it out of my brain though, and so I've been conjuring up plans to go on a pilgrimage to Wessex. Hardy based his novels in a semi-fictional south-west of England, named after the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex and covering the counties around Dorset and Wiltshire and such. He made up names for the various places in his stories but they are apparently based around real towns and cities. So I'm now planning out a trip, to hopefully take place in Spring - I'm thinking about May Day, as the time of year the novel begins... Definitely on my list of locations is Bindon Abbey, apparently the inspiration for one of the most striking scenes of the novel... though apparently these days the ruins are in the grounds of a health spa, which won't be quite the same as the image in my head, conjured up by Hardy.

Bindon Abbey in Tess' time (Image source)

Have you read, or seen, Tess of the D'Urbervilles? What are your thoughts? Did you like Tess or find her insipid? Did it make you rage against men or just sigh at the world and human complexity and ill-judgement? And have you read any other Hardy? Is it worth me trying another or will it be another case of the time I was enthralled by Oliver Twist, assumed I would like all Dickens, but then wanted to bash my head against the desk as I forced my way through the trite and awful David Copperfield...? Do share!

Friday 21 February 2014

February? Is That You?

Last weekend I went on my latest adventure to Kew Gardens, as I continue to make the most of my membership. I've now had August, October and December in Kew and January at its sister site of Wakehurst in Sussex. Sunday's trip had an extra adventure in that I cycled all the way there - that's 13 miles, ladies and gentlemen! It was mostly along the river and was awfully pleasant, particularly once I got through the centre of London. Cycling along the Embankment and river path at Putney was especially lovely - people were strolling along, enjoying the sun and there was a fleet of sail boats out on the Thames. I would have stopped to take photos but it was already quite late in the day and I didn't want to delay my arrival at Kew any longer.

And when I got to Kew? Well, Spring has well and truly arrived. It really did not feel like mid-February, with the warm sunshine out in its full glory and all sorts of flowers already sprung to life. Last year, I struggled to find a few daffodils at the very end of March. This year, there's already snow drops and daffodils by the hundreds, not to mention crocuses.

So I enjoyed my wander around the gardens, spotting all the signs of life, not only in the bright flowers on the ground but also the hints of green budding from the trees. I ended up exploring a little corner of the garden which I've not been in before as well, which was a treat. Here are some of my snaps I took as I wandered about. You will notice a few bare branches here, giving away the true season, even if the blue, blue skies might have you thinking of a later one for a moment.

Unfortunately, I didn't get any snaps of my outfit in my usual tradition - a combination of having limited time as I arrived there quite late in the day, fading light, and a popular day in the gardens leaving me little opportunity away from people to set up the camera on timer to grab some shots... However, it was worth missing out on posing about in front of the camera in order to catch the orchids exhibition in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, and the fun displays encapsulating the exotic expeditions of Victorian plant-hunters.

I also admired some Amazonian fish in the Conservatory, adding to my list of means to entice The Cat to come to Kew with me on one of my future adventures. It can be hard, sometimes, convincing boys to frolic in gardens... It's just a good thing I'm happy floating about on my own!

Hope you all have a lovely weekend, and enjoy any early signs of Spring that you encounter.

Monday 17 February 2014

Love Letter from... Sutton Hoo

The lonely landscape of Sutton Hoo

As I mentioned back in January, my New Year's Resolution this year is to make a trip out of London once a month. My January excursion was to Sussex and February took me to Suffolk. This excursion actually took place several weeks ago on the 1st of February, I was that excited for the next installment of my resolution...

I've never explored Suffolk before, despite it being so close to London and despite my boss telling me repeatedly of the charms of the county (... a slight prejudice based on the fact he was born there). Well, I made my boss doubly pleased when I announced this excursion because I was bound for Sutton Hoo. My boss is an archaeologists by training and Sutton Hoo is the site of what is probably England's most momentous archaeological find ever - an Anglo Saxon ship burial full of exquisite treasures.

Burial mound and Tranmer House, the manor house on the property

I caught the train to Melton Station, meeting a friend who was coming from Cambridge. From Melton, it was a reasonably short walk to the property. When we got there, we first had a look around the exhibition, which told us all about the Anglo Saxons (well, as much as anyone knows...), the finds at Sutton Hoo and the excavation. The dig took place in the 1930s (right before the outbreak of war) so there were lots of excellent photographs of men in flat caps, smoking pipes as they dug about, unearthing priceless treasures...

Flat caps, smoking pipes and the remains of an Anglo Saxon boat,
as seen in 1939 (Image source)

We dressed up in Anglo Saxon garb (apparently we're roughly the same size as 10-year-old children, but 6-year-olds were too much of a squeeze), admired some reproductions of the original treasures, and were shocked by some lewd riddles, before moving on for a turn about the estate.

Cloud spotting... Smudges of white paint in the sky...

We were delighted to stumble across a carpet of snow drops - the first floral signs of spring, surely brought out by the fine sunshine of the day.

Snow drops!

I was amused by the farm animals, which were a slightly different offering to the usual cows and sheep. We got these wild looking ram things and some pigs off in the distance...

Wooly ram-type animals...


After we'd had enough walking and being buffeted by the high winds, we made our way into Tranmer House. This was the early nineteenth-century residence of Edith Pretty, who lived on the estate and commissioned Basil Brown to undertake the archaeological investigations of the burial mounds in 1939.

Tranmer House, across a chasm of sorts

The drawing room was all set up for lounging about in, with a woman playing classic jazz age tunes on the piano, games set out on a table and 1920s-30s reading in the form of Ideal Home magazine and books such as Don't for Dancers. We watched the wild winds out the window for a while and then took a seat by the fireplace to leaf through some of the literature. Our only disappointment was that we had to leave and walk back to a modern cafe to partake of tea and cake (a requisite of any National Trust outing). We would have preferred to take tea in the drawing room... or better yet, port, brandy or sherry.

A sneaky snap taken by my friend... I'm sure Mrs Pretty never lounged about in such a casual manner...

Once our day was done at Sutton Hoo, we wandered back along the River Deben to Woodbridge for a pint and a pub meal, enjoying a fine sunset along the way.

All in all, a successful February outing, particularly as it was coincidentally and perfectly timed for a beautiful sunny day. I can also highly recommend Sutton Hoo as one of those few National Trust properties that are dead easy to get to by public transport. I feel I may well return again. And shall I take a hip flask next time, so I can enjoy that drink in the drawing room?

Friday 14 February 2014

Ten Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster

Last year, the lovely Jessica over at Chronically Vintage wrote a post entitled 'Ten Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster', which was in turn based on a 1956 interview with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in Good Housekeeping magazine.

In celebration of St Valentine's Day, I've done my own version, which I present to you below. It was tough, I can tell you, and I had to leave a lot out and stop before I got carried away. If I did it again in a week's or even a day's time, different things would probably come to my head first and it would be an almost entirely different list. But I can say that, tough as it was, it made me very happy in the process of thinking of all the things that lift my spirits, quicken my heart, make my breath catch in my throat and bring a smile to my lips.

In my usual St Valentine's Day fashion, I've aimed to make it all inclusive, picking things that hopefully everyone, including those without an individual person to call their Valentine, can identify with and enjoy... unless they happen to be a dog person...

Happy Valentine's Day, one and all.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Random Reasons to Love London #12

Today I had to trot up to the British Library to buy a present from the shop there (which, incidentally, has a really great selection of books and gifts, if you're ever looking for something for a discerning book lover). Deciding to get a coffee after having accomplished my mission, I stopped into St Pancras Station, which is, in my opinion, one of London's great public spaces. There's something lovely and exciting about railway travel, and this just imbues the place...

Seeing people tinkering on the two pianos there also always makes me smile, especially when you get a total juxtaposition between the players on each one. Today, there was a professional busker on one piano, accompanied by a woman on a French horn... and they seemed largely unperturbed when a slightly strange bearded man came along and leaned on the piano, intermittently tinkling a few keys at his end. At the other piano there was a small child having a go, later replaced by the couple above. I've seen all sorts playing there and I love the variety of people it attracts.

When I eventually emerged from the station, I was faced with a passing shower, resulting in a rainbow over King's Cross Station (which, between you and me, I prefer to St Pancras, architecturally, but that's a subject for another post).

It was a crazy day for weather generally, with gusty winds and frequent changes from sun and blue skies to rain and dark clouds. It somewhat messed with my original plans for the day, which entailed a bicycle, but it didn't work out at all badly, ultimately.