Monthly Archives: May 2012

With the sudden sunny weather that has broken out here recently, it’s been a perfect time to visit some interesting places in Oxfordshire. At the weekend, I went for a walk to the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle, with a walking group I belong to. After a few miles of walking through fields and woodland, with the sun blazing overhead, we eventually spotted the Whispering Knights, a small cluster of stones that mark a burial chamber, before climbing a little higher up the hill and arriving at the main stone circle. I liked the way that the circle is shaded by trees on one side and seems slightly hidden away from the world, as if you just come across them by accident. The darkness of the small grove of trees behind really adds to the atmosphere. Although there were a few other visitors there at the same time as us, including a motorcycle gang, it still felt very quiet and peaceful.

The stones themselves are very odd-looking, twisted and gnarled into strange shapes. Before the walk, I read a little about the various legends that have developed around them over the centuries. The largest stone, the King’s Stone, is a king that was turned to stone by a witch, and a little way behind him on the hillside are the Whispering Knights who were conspiring against him (also transformed by the witch!). The main circle is called the King’s Men, and there is a legend that if you try to count them, you never get the same number twice (I didn’t try this because I am too superstitious, even though I try not to be…).

Recently I have become quite interested in ancient sites like the Rollright Stones. I have visited Avebury which was beautiful, but rather too crowded for me, as it was the spring equinox. I hope to go another time when it’s quieter, maybe in autumn, when perhaps I can feel the atmosphere and imagine the past a little better. I am curious about the theory that stone circles or burial mounds were built at these particular locations because their original creators could sense they were special places. Or the reverse: that the places have become meaningful, and developed a certain ‘feeling’ that can be sensed by visitors, because of their history and the ways they have been thought of as sacred over the centuries. I would like to know more about all the writers and artists who have been inspired by the ancient pagan history of Britain.

The next day I paid a visit to a very different kind of place. My mum had come to stay so we decided to go to Blenheim Palace, an amazingly grand and ornate stately home and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. First we explored the very pretty village of Woodstock, right next door to the palace, and went inside the church there, which has a beautiful carved Norman door made of orangeish stone and some odd little carved faces peering out of foliage on the pillars inside. Then we had a lovely afternoon visiting the formal gardens and park at Blenheim.

In the gardens of the palace, we managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. The maze is quite large and takes around half an hour to complete, so that you really do feel slightly lost and disorientated along the way! What really surprised me was the end of the maze; when we reached the ‘centre’, I thought we would have to spend another half an hour trying to find our way out, but actually we just stepped through a gap in the hedge and were suddenly outside the maze. It gave me quite a strange feeling! After all this wandering, which had taken place in typical English fashion with the sun beating down overhead, we decided we needed a reward of Earl Grey and marmalade flapjack in the cafe before we headed to the butterfly house. The temperatures outside were already almost tropical, but it was even more sweltering inside the glass house where the butterfly collection is kept. There were some beautiful butterflies inside, all swooping around at high speed, brushing against people and busily feeding on all the colourful flowers: huge black-and-white butterflies, a little orangey one that we decided was a ‘ginger’, and delicate pale yellow swallowtails.

After leaving the butterflies behind, we walked through the park and saw the small Grecian temple where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife, which had a lovely view over the lake. We wandered through the arboretum, past warm red beech trees, beautiful dark cedars and silver birches, and then arrived at the main destination of our walk: the Grand Cascade, a man-made waterfall which we watched crashing down on the rocks below. I think it’s interesting the way the garden designers created the landscape, trying to improve on nature and aiming to create a certain feeling in the viewer. These gardens are beautifully designed and are well worth a visit. While wandering through the park, I was dreaming of being able to come and sit with a book looking down at the lake whenever I wanted! At least I don’t live too far away and so I will try to make sure I come back and see the park in all the seasons of the year.


Last night I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Marilynne Robinson in Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford. First Marilynne read two extracts, one from her latest book, the collection of essays When I Was A Child, I Read Books, and the other from her beautiful novel Gilead. The essay extract was an interesting piece about her childhood and the culture of the American West, where she grew up. It seemed to be a response to people who find it difficult to believe that she became a writer after growing up in Idaho, and are curious about how she could possibly have ended up being educated and writing books. The extract from Gilead described how the narrator, John Ames, fell in love with his wife after seeing her in the congregation of the church where he preached. I liked the way Marilynne read – it was very expressive but gentle and relaxed. She also brought out the humour of the passage, so that I was surprised by how funny it was (I remember Gilead as being a more serious and poetic novel).

The reading was followed by a discussion based on audience questions, which were mainly about her essays and her thoughts on religion, science, politics and history. I have read all (three) of Marilynne Robinson’s novels and like them very much (my favourite is Home which I liked even more than Gilead) but I have never read her non-fiction collections. Maybe because of this, I would have liked to hear more about her fiction (although I am a hypocrite and never dare to ask questions at these kinds of events!). I was interested to find out that she wrote Housekeeping partly in order to inform people about, or explore, the experience of living in such a remote place. I also liked a question that was asked about where the character of Ames came from. Marilynne’s answer was that Ames presented himself to her when she was staying alone in a hotel room – that she suddenly felt this man’s voice taking over her mind. She said she wasn’t surprised that she’d imagined a minister but she was surprised that he was a man who liked baseball! That must be an example of real inspiration. 

I have also read several books recently, all of which I quite enjoyed but none of which I feel compelled to write whole posts about, so I will be very quick! Wanting to read more by Muriel Spark, I chose The Driver’s Seat, a novella about a young woman who goes on holiday by herself to an unnamed foreign city. It proved to be a dark and twisted story with the atmosphere of a bad dream, if the dream also had some comic moments. The concept behind the novel was interesting and unusual enough in itself to keep me reading. I’m not sure whether this concept, a surreal crime story, is based on psychological insight into the character of Lise or is just meant to be bizarre and playful. I’m leaning towards the psychological interpretation because that’s what I find more interesting but there is a kind of distance and lack of emotion in the narration that makes me unsure. I also read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, another dark but not entirely serious tale, after Litlove’s review made me curious, and found the central mystery and the atmosphere of the novel quite compelling. And at the other end of the spectrum, I read The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, which wasn’t dark in the slightest but was charming and whimsical.

Philip Larkin sent me a photograph of his new Library extension. Was ever a stranger photo sent by a man to a woman (in a novel she might be disappointed).

I very much enjoyed the sections of A Very Private Eye containing Barbara Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin, who supported her throughout the years when her books fell out of favour and helped spark the revival of her work in the 1970s. I think the friendships between authors can be fascinating, especially when it’s two writers I like independently of one another. A Very Private Eye only contains Pym’s side of the correspondence but it intrigued me enough to make me want to read Larkin’s side – I am sure it must be published in collections of his own letters and I would also like to re-read and discover more of his poetry.

It struck me initially that both Pym and Larkin seemed fairly reserved characters and there was a slightly formal politeness and distance in their letters (for the first couple of years she was writing to ‘Mr Larkin’); it wasn’t as if they were pouring out all their emotions to each other. Apart from Pym’s characteristic restraint and privacy, this might have been because their correspondence began on a professional footing – Larkin wrote to Pym to suggest that he might write a review article about her next novel – and because they didn’t actually meet until fourteen years after the first letter! (Incidentally I am curious in general about the relationships between letter writers who have never met. 84 Charing Cross Road is the one literary example I can think of but I’m sure there must be more).

Because Pym wrote to Larkin about the progress she was making with her novels and responded to suggestions he made after reading the manuscripts, the letters are a wonderful insight into her writing. They also show something of her reaction to his poetry (some of her favourites are The Building, Faith Healing and Ambulances, and she chose a recording of An Arundel Tomb as one of her Desert Island Discs) and her keen interest in his career as a librarian and editor. I liked this imagined novel that arose from an impending stay in Oxford he’d told her about:

Your going to All Souls suggests a plot for a novel though I doubt if I could write it. Middle-aged unmarried female don waits eagerly for the autumn when a friend of her Oxford days (the well-known poet, librarian and whatever else you like) is coming to spend a year at All Souls (doing some kind of research, perhaps). At first it is all delightful and they go for beautiful autumnal walks on Shotover (? can one still do this) but unbeknown to her he has been visiting a jazz club in the most squalid part of the town (where is that now?) and has fallen in love with a nineteen year old girl…the ending could be violent if necessary – or he could just go off with the girl, leaving the female don reading Hardy’s poems.

Another thing that interested me was how both Pym and Larkin had regular jobs as well as their writing (she worked at the International African Institute and was assistant editor on its journal, Africa). These jobs bound them both to some degree to a mundane routine (as in Larkin’s poem about ‘the toad work’ that squats upon his life). Their correspondence is very much about the small and everyday, even in the midst of more significant events, and shows a shared relish of the ridiculous in their work and everyday life. This preoccupation with the small but revealing details of life can also be seen in Barbara Pym’s novels. At the time of their correspondence, when she was writing Quartet in Autumn, she took something that isn’t normally considered important or exciting enough to be written about (four elderly people working in an office, on the verge of retirement) and made it moving because of the way she described the details of their loneliness.

The position of the unmarried woman – unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction.

In general, I like the way Pym notices the absurdity that lies behind grandeur and ceremony, and how quickly supposedly serious events and gatherings of people can degenerate into the ridiculous. She writes about the practical necessities of life, which in her world are always attended to by women. But then she has another side to her, revealed in the diaries as well as her novels, which is romantic and attuned to the beauty of nature. She often writes about visiting churches and graveyards and has an eye for scenes that are picturesque and melancholy.

Back at my own church, on a cool greeny-grey English Sunday. We start with a George Herbert hymn – King of Glory, King of Peace – very English, like a damp overgrown churchyard. What different conceptions one could have of God according to the country one was in – those sun-baked cemeteries in Marseilles.

A Very Private Eye is a very entertaining collection and I found it so interesting to get to know someone as complex and talented as Barbara Pym through her most personal writing.

From her university days at Oxford in the 1930s to the end of her life, Barbara Pym wrote personal diaries and long letters to friends, as well as notebooks of ideas for her novels and stories. These are collected in A Very Private Eye, subtitled An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, and together create a fascinating picture of her experiences and thoughts.

Her diaries from Oxford are full of excitement and exhilaration. She had a very full social life, with many friends, admirers and boyfriends. She writes about her studies mainly in the context of going to the Bodleian Library in the hope of seeing her various crushes of the moment, and she seems to have done well in her degree without too much effort. These Oxford diaries are very entertaining and amusing because of the way she describes people, the telling details she picks to conjure up a scene, and her sense of absurdity.

I desperately want to write an Oxford novel – but I must see first that my emotions are simmered down fairly well.

At Oxford she met Henry Harvey (christened ‘Lorenzo’ in the diaries) and fell in love with him. Although they had an affair, he did not feel as seriously about her as she did about him, and he went on to marry someone else. Many of Pym’s early diaries are about her unrequited love for Henry. Henry was the first of several men she fell for who did not reciprocate her feelings, and this begins a trend of her writing very honestly about her love affairs in her diaries, often with a sense of irony and self-mockery. Although Pym had several relationships and affairs and was clearly a very passionate person, they sometimes ended in an unhappy way and she took a long time to recover from the most important relationships in her life. There is a lot of sadness in the diaries but it is all part of the way that she lived a very full emotional life and expressed her feelings openly in writing. I suppose it’s a contrast with the comic writing she is most famous for, but the diaries are also very witty so the tone is fairly familiar from her novels.

Her diaries also give lots of interesting details of her life during the war (she worked in Censorship, joined the WRNS and was later posted to Naples) and afterwards, when she began working at the International African Institute in London and gained an insider’s view of a world of academics and anthropologists that would provide inspiration for her novels. All the time she was writing, although it took a long time for her fiction to be published. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was written in 1935 when she was only twenty-two but was not published until 1950. Even after she had become a successful novelist and was admired by many readers, she still went through a period of struggle during the 1960s when she could not find a publisher for her work. Her diaries convey the disappointment and frustration she felt, as well as showing the determined way she continued writing and attempting to get published. It is interesting to discover the reasons she was not published; her work was quite unfashionable at the time and did not fit with the culture of the ‘60s. She seems to have been viewed as too reserved and old-fashioned, as well as ‘obsessed with trivia’ as she puts it herself. I felt that these diaries often had a sense of sadness, even depression at certain times. Sometimes she expresses disappointment about her unrequited love, that she did not ever marry and that her work was unappreciated.

I also felt from reading her diaries that she was a vivacious person who was able to find meaning and interest in many aspects of life: the observations of people and snippets of conversation she recorded in her notebooks, her writing, her friendships, literature, especially English poetry, music (she often mentions listening to classical composers such as Brahms and Berlioz and the effect they have on her) and the church (which of course also inspired her novels). She also writes about her work and the problems she needed to resolve while revising her novels. I am sure that readers of her novels will find this interesting, but I think the most enjoyable part is seeing how the little everyday incidents she noted down made their way into her books and also reading the characteristically humorous or dark plot outlines that were perhaps never expanded into a novel or story.

The vicar in the dark vicarage with a broken window, near to the yew-shaded churchyard. Lives with his mother – house said to be very dirty. Vicar has to be roused from his bed (? – by an excellent woman) to take Communion Service.


Her eyes seemed to beg for a future meeting, but somehow he couldn’t suggest one. Instead he asked, “Are you any good at typing?”


I began talking about my novels, whether I should go on writing about the clergy etc. Then it occurred to me what a bore I was being and I had the idea of a young man walking with the elderly female novelist, worrying about the gathering darkness and the park closing and should he take her to tea at Stewart’s or the Marble Arch Corner House or would it be sherry time or what?

In the 1970s she was rediscovered after two writers, Philip Larkin and Sir David Cecil, praised her in an article on underrated novelists and her work came back into print again. In fact she received a great deal of critical acclaim and was nominated for the Booker prize for Quartet in Autumn. I felt it was so lucky that, all because of the publication of this article in the Times Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym lived long enough to see her novels come back into favour and that she was able to enjoy several years of recognition and fame before she died.

(This post is getting quite long so I will stop now but there will be a little more in the next post on her correspondence and friendship with Larkin, which was a section of the book I particularly liked).

I began my Elizabeth Bowen venture with her fifth novel, The House in Paris (1935), which has made a great beginning to my reading of her work. It is set over the course of one February day, when two children, Leopold and Harriet, cross paths at the home of the steely, strong-willed invalid Mme Fisher and her passive, oppressed daughter. Leopold lives with relatives in Italy and has been sent to Paris to meet his mother, whom he has not seen since he was a baby. Harriet’s mother has died and her father does not know what to do with her, so she is on her way to visit her grandmother in Nice and is spending the day at the Fishers’ house before she catches her train. The children’s time in Paris is described (‘The Present’) in a way that explores the complex relationships of the adults around them and, in a narrative claiming to be what Leopold’s mother would have told him if she could somehow have spoken the truth to him, ‘in heaven or in art’, the events leading up to Leopold’s birth are explained (‘The Past’).

The children spend most of the day waiting and the atmosphere in the house is extremely tense, weighed down with a history that is gradually revealed. Although the whole book was beautifully written, I felt most interested in the middle section, the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and her secret love affair. Still, the way Elizabeth Bowen writes about children is quite interesting. She does not sentimentalise them and suggests through her writing that they are as complex and perceptive as adults, equally able to attack each other and resist. They mainly differ in their honesty and lack of social awareness, which can sometimes be refreshing, at other times cruel: ‘There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone’. The friendship between Leopold and Harriet becomes very strong during the time they spend together. 

Mme Fisher, the woman who owns the house, has a huge amount of power and control over other characters. The full extent to which Mme Fisher has orchestrated people’s lives, destroying them in the process, is only gradually revealed. The portrait of her daughter, Miss Fisher, is rather disturbing, as it appears that she has been a passive victim all her life, both of her mother and of the friends who betray her. She has never complained and has even encouraged others to hurt her. It was difficult to believe that she didn’t show more anger at certain points, talking only of how much she loved her friends. I found there was something chilling about it, as well as in the domineering nature of Mme Fisher.

Karen, Leopold’s mother and an old friend of the Fishers, comes from a loving but uncommunicative family. Although engaged to be married, she falls in love with another man and has an affair. One episode that struck me was Karen’s mother deliberately throwing away a piece of paper with a telephone message she’d taken for Karen. The scribbled message would have shown Karen that her mother knew she’d been lying about her whereabouts and had been secretly meeting her lover, but Karen’s mother would rather pretend not to know, so that she doesn’t have to confront the unpleasant truth out loud. When Karen tries to confess, her mother only says, ‘You know I never ask you to tell me everything, Karen’. The novel combines moments of violent emotion with a picture of a repressed family life and society in which many things must remain unspoken. Karen seems to feel stifled by her predictable and calm life, even though she has agreed to continue it by marrying Ray, who is exactly who her family would expect her to marry. In her affair, she breaks through certain constraints but it leaves her somehow homeless and belonging nowhere.

Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is full of flashes of wit and interesting ideas, small illuminations that make me stop and think, to wonder whether they relate to my own life or not. I also like the way she describes what people think about one another when they meet. For example, there is a moment when Karen encounters a very brash and talkative woman on board a ship on her journey home from Ireland and they have a conversation that’s amusing because they are so very different – then say goodbye and we are told they never see each other again. There is also a beautiful scene of Karen meeting her lover in France, that perfectly conveys her anticipation and happiness. It is a stark contrast to the dreariness of the long Parisian afternoon in Mme Fisher’s house which will eventually result in Henrietta’s belief that ‘nothing real ever happens’.

Here is a passage I liked about Karen’s Aunt Violet, who although she is kind and much-loved, has many regrets when looking back on her life (and contrasts herself with Karen, who she feels is destined to have an interesting life):

All these years she had stood by, uncritically smiling, had she been wanting really, like other women, to be the heart of things, to be what was going on? No wonder she gave such tender attention to small everyday things, living as people wish they could live over again, slighting nothing. The writing-table overlooking the sea, where she rested her elbows among the brass ornaments, her bedroom curtains drawn across the daylight must be heavy with her regretful wonder, not about death, about life. Every afternoon when they had finished tea, she blew out the wavering blue flame under the kettle, then glanced round the drawing-room where she still was. Closing her piano, she heard the silence. Wherever she had lived, her life had been full of people dropping in for a moment from somewhere else, or making her their somewhere else.