No. 72: Miss Brill, Katherine Mansfield

I have been enormously excited to read Miss Brill. My friend Claire selected it after we visited the Ladybird by Design exhibition back in August. Her choice of classic came with a glowing review.

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The book consists of three short stories: Marriage à la Mode, Miss Brill and The Stranger. Importantly, a woman stands at the core of all three stories – the thread that binds the three together.

Marriage à la Mode and The Stranger appear remarkably similar. Both magnify an amorous husband, hankering for his wife having spent time apart from her. Both wives, in contrast, are distracted and apathetic.

The wife in Marriage à la Mode seems to prefer the company of her extensive group of glamorous friends. In a particularly cruel moment, she reads a charming love letter from her loving husband aloud to her (in my opinion) pretentious friends, before the party laugh hysterically.

“… laughing, sneering, jeering, stretching out their hands while she read them William’s letter.”

She immediately realises the error of her ways and decides to write her husband a love letter in return. She is soon distracted by her clamouring friends and promises herself she will write to him later, the implication being that she is preoccupied with her friends and doesn’t.

In The Stranger, a husband is reunited with his wife after she has returned from what seems to be a cruise, where she befriended everyone from the passengers to the captain himself.

The introductory quote summarises the wife perfectly – distracted and brief.

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The wife reveals to her husband that a man, who suffered from a heart condition, died in her arms when the two were alone together on board the ship. She makes it clear their relationship was perfectly innocent, she was simply there when it happened.

But alas, for her husband, she had

“Spoilt their evening! Spoilt their being alone together! They would never be alone together again!”

They were both great short stories – easy to whip through and I loved their fractured endings.

Miss Brill, however, was the star attraction. My friend Claire had first read Katherine Mansfield in school and fell in love with her short story The Doll’s House.

Having never encountered Mansfield before, I settled down on a train earlier this month to tuck in.

Miss Brill is an English Teacher living in France and we follow her on her usual Sunday routine.

The opening line immediately drew me in

“Although it was so brilliantly fine – the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques – Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.”

This fur is integral to the story. It takes on a life of its own, later mirroring Miss Brill herself

“Little rogue biting its tale just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it.”

And so swathed in her beloved fur, Miss Brill heads for her traditional constitutional around the public gardens, enjoying the live band who sounded “louder and gayer” that day.

She observes every minute detail of the band – the conductor’s new coat, a new musical phrase – along with all the parties that emanate out from the band, before perching on a bench where she can better people-watch.

“She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked around her.”

I could entirely relate to this. I relish people-watching, whether sitting at a pavement cafe with a cappuccino on holiday in Venice, or leaning by a fountain with a dodgy latte in Trafalgar Square, just down the road from my office.

Miss Brill watches children play, the band trumpet, lovers meet. She nostalgically recalls regularly reading a newspaper to an old man who would doze in the public gardens.

“How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.”

A pair of young lovers enter stage left. The hero and heroine, as Miss Brill names them, approach the bench.

Sitting alongside Miss Brill, the young girl is evidently hesitant to kiss her hero. The boy queries her hesitation.

“Because of that stupid old thing at the end there? … Why does she come here at all – who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”

The girl giggles, “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny … It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

Her usual routine includes calling in at a local bakery en route home to purchase a slice of honey cake, sometimes with a crowning almond, and putting the kettle on for an accompanying cup of tea.

Alas, on this occasion, Miss Brill passes the bakery by, heading straight home.

She arrives back at her “little dark room” where she sits for a long time. She removes her fur, not bearing to meet it’s eye, and places it back in its box.

The story’s closing words are

“But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”

Poor Miss Brill! My heart broke for her. I resented those young people and their vicious words wounding an innocent, isolating her even more in “her room like a cupboard.”

The closing image of the fur, her familiar, on some level grieving for her is just brilliant. You can picture the entire scene, Miss Brill here performing her own play for us.

Having finished the book, I decided to honour Miss Brill by donning my own fur coat and taking a stroll around a public park.

Please rest assured that my fur is very much a fake (£80 from Zara, Autumn 2014). Depending on what I wear it with, the coat can make me feel fabulously glamorous, like Elizabeth Taylor, as I clip-clop around London, or a bit like I’ve stepped out of an old dusty wardrobe, like Narnia’s Mr Tumnus.

I thought about Miss Brill and, having been written in the 1920s, assumed that she wouldn’t leave home without a hat and gloves. I therefore chose a suitable set and left my flat.

I was to meet my lovely friend Lois for a stroll but alas she had a rather heavy night on the town the night before and overslept. We were booked in for an exhibition at 11am, and she was running half an hour behind schedule.

Rather than taking in the sights of Hyde Park, where I could picture Miss Brill strolling of a weekend, I found a nearby public garden that I decided would do just as nicely. We’re very lucky to have so many public gardens in London.

And so, rather appropriately, I sat on a bench wrapped in my fur and people-watched on a lovely Autumnal morning. I saw young couples walking dogs, children whizz by on scooters, women in joggers carrying eggs and sliced bread for their breakfast and an elderly man with a walking stick stretch his legs.

Lois texted me “are you wearing your fur?” having spotted me from the opposite side of the park (I’m hard to miss in that fur). She collected me from my bench and we were on our way.

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It made for a delightful morning, particularly as, lucky for me, there were no cruel words. If only Miss Brill had experienced the same.

Thank you Miss Brill Claire for choosing this Little Black Classic. You’re right to love Mansfield and thank you for introducing her to me!

Next time I will be reading Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

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No. 39: The Old Nurse’s Story, Elizabeth Gaskell

This is my tenth Little Black Classic on the blog, hurrah!

Things we’ve learnt thus far:

  1. I don’t necessarily enjoy fiction. Take Mayhew and Hakluyt.
  2. Mrs Beaton might have provided inspiration to this years Great British Bake Off, but her chicken pie is truly heinous.
  3. I enjoy a drink in the blog. See Hafez, see Hebel, see Kenko.
  4. Hardy’s marriage was genuinely sad.
  5. Mozart swore. Which was surprising.

I regarded the tenth Classic as a landmark, so I asked my marvellous Mum to choose it. A huge fan of the BBC’s adaptation of North and South, she picked Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.

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I know North and South well, having studied it at school alongside Dickens’ Hard Times. They were hard times indeed. Believe it or not, North and South offered genuinely light relief.

At university, North and South formed part of my dissertation, which looked at the birth of the publishing industry in Victorian England.

‘What a hoot!’ I can hear you say ‘Do tell us more! We are fascinated by the serialisation of novels and the first commuter market that required affordable, decent fiction for railway travellers.’

Perhaps another time, dear friend, for now we should turn to the Classic itself.

This particular Little Black Classic comprises two short stories. I’ve chosen to focus on the first, which the Classic takes it’s name from. But the second, called Curious, if True, makes for very entertaining reading – it depicts a gathering of fairytale character at a dinner table. What’s not to like?!

The Old Nurse’s Story doesn’t star such nostalgic characters.

As the title implies, the story is told by an Old Nurse, who fits more of a governess role. For those of you who don’t know, a governess was very common in Victorian Britain. She was usually a young woman, employed by a relatively monied family, and her role was that of a nanny and educator – she was teacher, nurse and friend. Perhaps like a modern day au pair.

Hester, the old nurse, takes us back to her seventeenth year when she cared for a little girl called Rosamund. When Rosamund is sadly orphaned, she and Hester move into Furnivall Manor House, Northumberland, occupied by distant relatives of Rosamund’s.

Isolated on wild moorland, an entire wing closed off from residents, the Manor is pretty damn creepy from the get go.

Upon entry to the house the two newcomers find a hall “so large, and vast, and grand” with a chandelier and organ, and countless imposing portraits.

Hester and Rosamund encounter a motley crew of residents. James and Dorothy, a husband and wife, both fill housekeeper-type roles; Agnes is their maid; Miss Furnivall is the elderly lady of the house; and Mrs Stark her companion.

The whole feel is unsettling. Dorothy and James are welcoming, but Miss Furnivall and Miss Stark are chillingly aloof, particularly the lady of the house who “looked so cold, and grey, and stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone.”

As winter sets in, Hester becomes aware of the old organ playing, usually soon after tucking Rosamund in for the night. “I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance.” Assuming it’s Miss Furnivall practicing her playing, she asks Dorothy and James about its provenance. Both refuse to speak about it, seeming shaken that she should ask.

Agnes then reveals

“she had heard it many a time but most of all on winter nights, and before storms; and folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to when he was alive; but who the old lord was, or why he played on stormy winter evenings in particular, she either could not or would not tell me.”

To add to the mystery, Hester goes to investigate the eerie organ and finds it smashed up inside. Understandably, “my flesh began to creep a little.”

On one snowy day, when Hester returns from church, she cannot find her dear Rosamund anywhere in the great house. Everyone searches for the child, even Mrs Furnivall “trembling all over,” but to no avail.

Hester runs out into the snowy moors desperately, bumping into a lowly shepherd who holds the near dead child in his arms.

When she is revived, the child reveals she watched the snow falling out the window when she saw a pretty little girl who beckoned to Rosamund. The little girl led Rosamund to a set of holly trees where a lady sat, weeping. Upon seeing the two little girls, she “smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull her to sleep.”

As Hester points out, however, there was just one set of a child’s footprints in the snow.

Cue morbid organ music.

Hester relays Rosamund’s tale to Mrs Furnivall, and the old woman shrieks “keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.”

The plot thickens when, one day, Hester and Rosamund are playing and the little mysterious girl appears outside

“dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night – crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail … when, all of a sudden, and close upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering.”

Hester does all she can to protect Rosamund, physically pinning her to the floor to avoid her running out to the ghostly child.

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***SPOILER ALERT*** Ignore this section if you want to read for yourself!

After this event, Hester forces Dorothy to speak.

Dorothy reveals that Miss Furnivall had a sister, called Maude. Both sisters fell in love with their father’s musician, and he courted each in turn while their father practiced his beloved organ.

The musician married Maude in secret, and the two had a baby girl, whose identity was kept from the old lord. When Miss Furnivall learned of her sister’s disgrace, however, she told her father, who banished both Maude and her child from the house, sending them out in to the thick snow.

One November evening, when snow is falling thickly, Hester and the other residents can hear ghostly voices and the cold wind screaming outside. The door to the locked east wing bursts open, and four ghostly apparitions appear – the old lord, a younger Miss Furnivall, Miss Maude and her little girl, aka Miss Rosamund’s freaky friend.

In a strange occurrence, the scene of banishment is played out for the living – the ghosts frozen in time before the disgraced mother and daughter go to meet their snowy doom. The old Miss Furnivall begs the ghost of her father to save them from their fates. The short story closes with Miss Furnivall warning us

“What is done in youth can never be undone in old age!”

***SAFE TO LOOK***

This story was an absolute corker. I couldn’t put it down.

This Gothic tale seemed a real digression from Gaskell’s usual social commentaries, which tend to explore themes of class, family and the impact of industrialisation.

The Old Nurse’s Story really made me think of Jane Eyre, my absolute favourite book. A young woman is charged with caring and educating a little girl in a large, eerie, isolated house. The young woman also senses another living force in the house. I won’t reveal what that force in Jane Eyre is, for anyone that haven’t read it (but seriously, where have you been? Go and read it!).

Gaskell and Brontë were in fact friends, and Gaskell wrote Brontë’s biography, so it’s entirely plausible that Jane Eyre was a source of inspiration.

Having put the book down, I set upon visiting a grand haunted house like Furnivall Manor House. In a dark, damp, cobwebbed corner of my brain I recalled Ham House in Richmond is haunted.

I checked online, and sure enough there are accounts of the supernatural – an old woman scratching at a bedroom wall, inexplicable footsteps, the strange smell of tobacco and the ghostly apparition of a cocker spaniel.

Delighted at this find, I grabbed my camera and Tim (I was too terrified to go it alone).

We set out on a truly beautiful Autumnal Sunday, disembarked at Richmond and walked along the Thames to reach Ham House. With sunshine overheard, we passed cows, geese, rowers and dog-walkers. It was truly idyllic, and not in the slightest bit creepy.

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When approaching the house itself, however, it did begin to feel a little ominous. It is certainly grand, but doesn’t exude any real warmth unlike other stately homes. It’s literally dark in colour, and eerie busts stare down at you as you approach the house.

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I thought that the description of Furnivall Manor House is actually very similar to Ham House.

“Only in front of the house was all clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long many-windowed front.”

Upon arrival in the house, you find yourself in a large, light entrance hall, with portraits glaring down from the walls at us intruders, again like in Furnivall Manor House. From here we were directed through to the chapel and grand staircase, both rumoured to be haunted.

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In the case of the chapel, there are accounts of the ghost of the Duchess Elizabeth of Lauderdale, who died in Ham House, crying as she looks over a dead body, understood to be that of her husband, while a man stands behind her with his hand on her shoulder.

*Shudder.

The chapel was indeed a bit creepy – the photo below doesn’t do it justice. But then what low-lit chapel is not creepy?

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The staircase, on the other hand, was most definitely eerie. Decked in dark wooden panelling and floorboards that creak and crack, grand paintings are fixed to the walls and a chandelier swings overhead.

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At one point, Tim fell deathly silent and turned very pale. I asked him what was wrong. He said he could hear a ticking, despite there not being a clock in presence. Then, we both heard a clock chime before a lowly gust passed the both of us, like something had walked between us.

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*Jokes.

We literally didn’t experience anything.

But I could entirely imagine the great organ from The Old Nurse’s Story being placed here, playing inexplicably in the depth of winter. I could even envisage the ghostly apparitions confronting the living in the space at the foot of the stairs, and the roguish musician courting both sisters in the beautiful grounds.

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It makes for a perfect Halloween’s story and, those of you interested in haunted houses, Ham House does offer a Halloween ghost tour in search of the supernatural.

Thank you, Mum, for picking The Old Nurse’s Story – it was excellent! Perhaps you might like to borrow it?

That makes ten Little Black Classics read, 70 to go. Hurrah!

Next week I will be blogging about Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill.

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No. 25: Circles of Hell, Dante

Good news – I’m alive and well! Feeling very conscious and rather guilty that I haven’t blogged in while, which will be explained in due course.

I said as much to one friend, who in turn said I shouldn’t feel guilty – writing should be fun after all. This was excellent advice (she’s wise beyond her years) but I’ve still been really keen to get this blog posted.

So here I am, at last. In actual fact, I read Dante’s Circles of Hell a few weekends ago, when summer was on the brink of falling. It was a hot, sticky day – a perfect reflection of the fiery flames of hell.

I’d not read any Dante before. Our paths crossed here and there at uni but never long enough to form a real bond.

My future brother-in-law (now, that is fun to say!) chose this Little Black Classic and I’ve been so excited to read it. I’m a bit of a Classical nerd, something I’m sure I will discuss when reading more specifically classical texts. Dante draws on so many ancient poems and myths, so I was enormously excited to read it.

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Circles of Hell is taken from Dante’s epic poem Inferno, which is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, altogether forming his Divine Comedy.

As the three books imply, this was not going to make for jolly reading, which, it must be said, I was rather looking forward to. I relish a misery read.

Dante was a thirteenth-centry Italian poet and was inspired by the Greek poet Homer, who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote The Virgil.

In the Circles of Hell, the poet transforms himself into a character, who in turn is led through the circles of hell with Virgil as his personal tour guide. Please keep all arms and legs inside the moving vehicle at all times etc.

In the first canto of this Classic, called Gates of Hell, Virgil explains to us that those who are sent to the circles of hell “were void alike of honour and ill fame.”

Each circle behind these gates are intended for a particular type of sinner, with each specific fate designed to reflect that sin. Specifically, Virgil leads Dante and readers to pass through the circles of the lustful, the gluttonous, the wrathful, thieves and traitors, to name but a few.

As they are incredibly detailed and at times a little ambiguous, I thought perhaps I would touch on some stand out moments in Circles of Hell.

In the second circle, intended for the lustful, Dante sees some favourite faces from Classical myth – Helen, Paris, Achilles, Dido, Cleopatra to name a few.

One of the damned tells Dante

“There is no sorrow greater / than, in times of misery, to hold at heart / the memory of happiness.”

I really lingered over this. I think this is wonderfully melancholic and very perceptive. There are instances when life seems truly blue and happy memories cannot comfort but rather do the reverse. We all enjoy a good miserable wallow on occasion.

In the third circle, for the gluttonous, we meet Cerberus, another popular mythical creature:

“Cerberus, weird and monstrously cruel, / barks from his triple throats in cur-like yowls / over the heads of those who lie their drowned. / His eyes vermilion, beard a greasy black, / his belly broad, his fingers all sharp-nailed, / he mauls and skins, then hacks in four, these souls.”

Three-headed Cerberus makes Fluffy from Harry Potter look like Lassie.

But Cerberus isn’t the only creature to reside in the underworld. There are harpies, which are

“human from neck to brow, / talons for feet, plumage around their paunches, / they sing from these uncanny trees their songs of woe.”

*Shudder*. These are not the woodland creatures that I know and love. Take this charming stag that, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting. He settled not two metres from our picnic for a lethargic break, like a loyal dog.

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‘So what’s the appeal of visiting Hell?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why would Dante be crazy enough to want to visit these monsters?’

Well, friends, he does encounter Cerberus and co., but Dante has the luxury of making a passing visit. Like us, the reader, and unlike the pour souls who now reside in fiery inferno for all eternity, he can leave.

Plus, he also has the opportunity of talking to the eternally damned, which is pretty cool.

For example, in the circle for thieves, one chap says:

“It pisses me right off … / far more than being ripped away from life, that you have got to see me in this misery.”

I could go on and on. Blood, tears, snakes, monsters, misery, shame, horror, slime, slobber, violence. The Circles of Hell has it all.

But Dante, in turn led by Virgil, leads us away and back in to the light.

The closing words of this Little Black Classic are my favourites, possibly of any of the Classics I have read thus far.

“Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.”

And thus, on the UK’s August Bank Holiday Monday, I set out for the iconic National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, one of my favourite places to London. It’s the beating heart of the city, with the Mall, Westminster, Soho, Piccadilly etc. branching off it like pulsing veins.

In contrast to the sunny day in which I read Circles of Hell, the bank holiday was dreary and wet. It poured and it poured. Constantly. A subtle indication that Autumn had arrived.

And so, like a true Brit, I headed out in to the rain with a sniffle and eternal optimism in tow… “It looks like it’s trying to brighten up.”

It did at least allow for this photo, in which I channelled my inner Gene Kelly. I had ‘Singing in the Rain’ stuck in my head for the rest of the day, much to the dismay of everyone around me.

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The Gallery is spectacular to explore. Like yours truly, you don’t need to know anything about art, you can just stroll leisurely before heading for a reviving cup of tea in the cafe.

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It seemed appropriate to head out in search of art. My sister, who you hopefully remember from The Beautifull Cassandra, studied Art History at uni.

Mum says that with my sister’s art knowledge and my love of books, new worlds have been opened up to her, which is a lovely thought. It certainly does mean that I’ve been lucky to see a lot of art in recent years with my sister, who can point out things I wouldn’t ordinarily notice in a painting and explain it so eloquently that even I, a total simpleton, can understand.

With her and my future brother-in-law (!) in mind, I wondered the halls of the Gallery, passing all of its treasures.

Here I found Bartolomé Bermejo’s Saint Michael Triumphs Over the Devil, and turned into one of those irritating people who look at life through a camera lens, rather than just enjoying the exhibit for what it is.

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It must be said, Saint Michael looks pretty calm for someone about to plunge a sword through a monster. Heavenly, ethereal, angelic – or a bit lifeless? I was instead drawn to the the Devil, a bat-like creature that leers and laughs at St Michael and visitors of the National Gallery.

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Prior to visiting the Gallery, I had earmarked two other paintings that I wanted to visit with Dante in mind. Which is where I come to the delay in this blog post…

Alas the National Gallery has been undergoing ongoing and indefinite room closures in retaliation to the threat of privatisation of public services. In a nutshell, an outside firm has been tasked with managing hundreds of Gallery employees, and there is a threat that employees who don’t transfer may lose their jobs.

Many staff have worked at the Gallery for decades, and so it’s a pretty huge deal to possibly have their jobs sold off.

Due to this, I checked the Gallery’s website every day for a week for more information, hoping the two rooms I needed would be opened to the public. I work on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square and the Gallery. (Yes, I am very very lucky. No that’s not sarcasm, I truly am lucky!)

I eventually emailed the Gallery, explaining that I wanted to publish my blog pronto and was waiting on these paintings being revealed to the public.

Within 24 hours I had a reply, and one of the wardens (who has worked at the Gallery for some 12 years) very kindly unlocked the two rooms that I needed so that I could take some photos.

I was taken behind the scenes of the gallery, through motionless, echoing hallways and giant locked doors, masterpieces looking down at me from their painted walls.

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Here I was finally able to see Luca Giordano’s Mythological Scene with the Rape of Proserpina, which features our three-headed friend Cerberus.

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Needless to say my pictures don’t do the artworks any justice. But, if I’m honest, Cerberus here seemed a little pathetic compared to Dante’s depiction. This guy with the staff looks like he’s throwing the monster a treat.

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It was an epic painting – huge. But I was rather underwhelmed by Cerberus.

We then headed for David Teniers the Younger’s The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, a much smaller painting in contrast to the previous but I found it far more compelling.

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It’s hard to take your eyes off the struggle between the fat, well-dressed rich man and the smirking devil. But if you look around them, there are strange wide-eyed toads and and lizards, who along with a band seem to be goading them along into hell’s fire.

I found it difficult to leave – it was like the devil was drawing me into his lair.

Eventually I did leave and, like Dante, was pleased to once more see the stars.

Thank you to my brother-in-law-to-be Matt for choosing this Classic! Matt, please speak to Katy for far more educated artistic thoughts.

Next time I will be reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.

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No. 51: My Dearest Father, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

My Dearest Father is a touching collection of letters between Mozart and his father, Leopold, penned while Mozart travelled around the continent with his mother.

The father and son touch upon music, with Mozart describing the sounds various pianos and organs produce in the Little Black Classics’s very first epistle. But the exchange is largely of a more personal nature.

The letters begin with what seems like a careless, self-absorbed young man and an over-protective, rather interfering father.

Wolfgang was 21–22 years old at the time of writing these letters. His personality is abundant in the first letter – he speaks gleefully about music, offers brutal opinions and isn’t afraid to swear.

Take, for example, a lyric he composed in relation to a new acquaintance in the first letter:

“O you prick, lick my arse.”

(Sorry, Grandma! It was Mozart, not me, remember!)

Along with sharing so much, their address to one another makes it clear that the two have a great respect and love for one another; Mozart begins his letters with “Mon très cher Père” and Leopold opening with “Mon très cher Fils.”

‘My dearest Father / Son’ for those of you that, like me, are not natural Francophiles.

(Apologies if that was enormously patronising. I genuinely am appalling at French. Ask anyone who knows me).

Tensions do simmer, however. It soon becomes apparent that Mozart’s handle on money is not a strength of his and causes his father much concern.

His father appears to micro-manage Mozart and his budgeting, querying precisely what his outgoings have consisted of.

Mozart clearly inherits his honesty (see earlier insult) from his Father, who in one letter remarks “your long and unnecessary stay has ruined everything.” Seems a bit harsh.

In all honesty, I found Mozart’s father rather irritating. He’s what my Mum would define as a ‘helicopter parent,’ hovering over his child constantly and imparting his unwanted opinion.

He obsesses over Mozart’s handling of money and interferes:

“In your 2nd letter from Mannheim you should at least have said that the journey cost us such and such an amount and we’re now left with – –, so that I could have made arrangements in good time.”

It’s like a stream of consciousness. Why can’t he simply let Mozart realise that if the money runs out, it’s his responsibility to earn more?

I was even more bemused to realise Mozart’s Mother is travelling with him. Leopold says:

“Your dear good Mama told me she’d keep a careful note of your expenses. Good!”

So why can’t Leopold trust his wife to keep a watchful eye on her son and his wallet?

He even passes comment over Mozart’s friends, warning that some might want to keep company with him for his money alone.

Mozart, in comparison, is remarkably patient, defending himself and taking full responsibility:

“We are not incurring any expenses that are not necessary; and what is necessary when travelling you know as well as we do, if not better. That we stayed so long in Munich was the fault of no one but myself.”

Mozart comes across very well in these letters. He’s patient, funny, excited and, as said previously, evidently respects his father hugely.

I grew tired of Leopold’s nagging, which occupies the majority of the letters.

But the subject and tone took a turn for the worse and I soon warmed to the synonymously worried parent.

In the third to last letter, Mozart writes:

“I have some very disagreeable and sad news for you, which is also the reason why I have been unable until now to reply… My dear mother is very ill… she’s very weak and is still feverish and delirious”

He talks at length about this, before he writes of music – symphonies he’s written, orchestras he’s conducted and song lyrics. It’s clear he’s trying to distract himself and his Father from an impending loss, signing off

“I kiss your hands 1000 times and embrace my sister with all my heart. I am your most obedient son”

Alas, six days after writing this, Mozart writes once more:

“my mother passed away peacefully; – when I wrote to you, she was already enjoying the delights of heaven.”

This is the first Little Black Classics I’ve read with real, human experience. Hafez and Kenko offered snapshots of their own, but these letters sew together two people’s shared experience.

Mozart was real and his Mother genuinely passed away soon before he started writing to his Father, warning her she was unwell.

The letters are genuinely heartbreaking – if you’re in need of a therapeutic cry, I recommend.

What is lovely, is the ever evolving relationship that floods and ebbs between them, almost like the season’s Kenko described in A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees.

Having begun with an eye-rolling attitude toward Leopold Mozart, I read his final letter, which concludes this collection, with my hand over my mouth in sympathy for him.

On this occasion he addresses his letter to “My Dear Wife and Son”.

“This morning, the 13th, shortly before 10 o’clock, I received your distressing letter of 3rd July. You can well imagine how we are both feeling. We wept so much that we could scarcely read your letter.”

He second guesses his wife’s behaviour during her illness, knowing her so well:

“I expect she ate some meat. She waited too long to be bled. Knowing her very well, I remember that she likes to put things off, especially in a foreign place, where shed’s first have to enquire after a surgeon.”

His Father heartbreakingly second-guesses, however, that his wife is no longer alive: “I now know that my dear wife is in heaven.”

Write and tell me all the details… Write to me soon – tell my everything – when she was buried – and where… Your honest and utterly distraught father”

I really struggled to know how to celebrate this Classic. I didn’t much feel like celebrating, more mourning for Mozart and his family.

The only appropriate course of action seemed to be writing to my own dear father and nearest and dearest.

On a selfish note, but with Mozart’s thrifty Father in mind, I am broke. And I mean cheese-and-pasta-for-dinner broke.

No spontaneous tickets purchased for the proms to listen to Mozart’s symphonies in all their glory for me, I’m afraid.

There is no need to feel sorry for me. My money has been spent on literary fun that I absolutely do not regret, so there was plenty to write home about.

Plus I need as much writing practice as I can get – blog, postcard, tweet, post-it note. I’m fortunate enough to work with books daily, but I work with others’ words rather than my own. Any writing is excellent practice.

My parents are currently slurping on mojitos in Havana, before heading to a favoured hotel on the Cuban coast. So it seemed that writing to my Dad, Our Man in Havana as he has affectionately been dubbed, along with a few other loved ones, was an excellent notion – he would have post to greet him on his return.

I made a much needed, restorative cup of tea, unpacked my drawers of delicious stationery (I’m a sucker for any stationery from Waterstone’s or Stanfords – take note) and set to.

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I’ve had a very jolly time of late and, as said previously, literature has featured a lot. Those of you who follow me on Instagram will be only too aware of this i.e. those of you who are sick to death of ‘book’ and ‘bookblog’ hashtags. Sincere apologies, chums.

A friend and I visited the House of Illustration in Granary Square, King’s Cross, for the Ladybird by Design exhibition.

A wealth of childhood memories flooded back, as they would have had for my parents and Grandma, I’m sure. There were so many beautiful artworks and fascinating exhibits showing the idyllic illustrations, like a peephole into utopia.

I particularly remember the Ladybird fairytale books from my childhood and specifically The Big Pancake, which is infamous in my family.

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My sister loved the story and asked for it repeatedly to be ready to her. Both Mum and Dad read to us a lot when we were little, and Dad was so fed up with The Big Pancake that he hid it from my sister. It provided a few weeks of respite.

I, on the other hand, had a ladybird pram when I was tiny. On one occasion, Mum said it was story time and I ran off to choose a book. I was gone a good few minutes, and Mum began to wonder what I was up to, before hearing the tinkling of the pram’s bell.

I appeared, my beloved ladybird pram tacked to the brim with books. A bibliophile from a very young age!

Another friend and I visited Alice’s Adventures Underground, last week. The immersive theatre experience, celebrating 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, sorts spectators into suits and takes them through Alice’s adventures in disjointed order.

I, for example, chose ‘drink me’ (naturally), talked to Alice through the looking glass, ate one of the Queen of Hearts jam tarts, visited the Caterpillar’s smoke filled den, joined the revolution against the tyrannical Queen, had a delicious cocktail at the Hatter’s tea party, danced with a walrus and played flamingo croquet. Curiouser and curiouser.

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It was enormous fun – if you’re London based I highly recommend – and gave me lots of inspiration for an Alice-themed tea party I’m holding next week. Watch my Instagram and Twitter to see how it goes!

So there really was lots to write home about. I chose some appropriate Ladybird postcards for the occasion and a Robin card for Dad.

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As a sidenote, I typed this blog up listening to Mozart, a digression from my usual playlist, and it wasn’t at all unpleasant. In fact, I often found myself typing furiously in time with the orchestra.

Perhaps I’ve found my new medicine for lifting writer’s block. Thank you Mozart!

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And also a big thank you to my housemate (who moved out a week ago today!) Alice who chose this Little Black Classic on Father’s Day. I hope you and Greg have a space in the new flat ready for a bookshelf!

Next I shall be blogging about Dante’s Circles of Hell.

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No. 11: A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, Kenko

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This is undoubtedly my favourite opening quote from the Little Black Classics series thus far.

During these sticky summer months, however, it’s arguably more wonderful to lie in a hammock in shorts and a T-shirt, with a book and a glass of fruity Pimm’s to hand, as was my situation when reading this Little Black Classic. It was genuinely idyllic.

Nestled in this situation, I soon become absorbed in Kenko’s social commentary, punctuated with anecdotes and observations.

Kenko takes readers through life’s experience – friendships, relationships, death, and more specific events and factors, like inheritance, the weather, annual festivals.

These are, at times, rather disjointed – rather like Hebel’s fables last week they vary in length and don’t have much continuity or flow.

Fortunately, I enjoyed this classic so much more than last week’s.

These musings are beautifully translated. Take the line: “there is something dreadfully lacking in a man who does not pursue the art of love.” Pure poetry.

This once more made me think of my friend Hafez. Like The nightingales are drunk, the writer’s life dances across the pages in A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees. He’s full of opinion and humour and honesty and is forever contradicting himself.

One of my favourite sections begins “The changing seasons are moving in every way.”

I relish the changing seasons and we are lucky to have such distinct seasons here in the UK.

As much as I love Christmas, the long months of winter we suffer throws a constant black cloud over me, which my friends and colleagues can confirm. It’s winter blues with an attitude problem.

Similarly, summer leaves me somewhat disenchanted. I like the BBQs, and lighter evenings and aforementioned Pimm’s, but we all seem to forget the hay fever, heat rash, bug bites and sweaty train journeys until the day of arrival.

Like Kenko, it’s Autumn and Spring that I really relish. Autumn for it warm hues and crisp decay and family traditions. And Spring for new it’s new life and bursting green. It’s a charming reward after the bleak British winter.

Kenko perfectly describes my emotion after enduring winter and seeing spring: “Until the leaves appear on the boughs, the heart is endlessly perturbed.”

In February 2016, when a colleague comments on my slumped shoulders and cranky attitude I will quote this. No doubt giving more reason to call me a grumpy and protentious git.

Kenko’s musings aren’t all so profound and evocative.

Take his advice to readers on choosing friends:

“There are seven types of people one should not have as a friend. The first is an exalted and high-ranking person, The second, somebody young. The third, anyone strong and in perfect health. The fourth, a man who loves drink. The fifth, a brave and daring warrior. The sixth, a liar. The seventh, an avaricious man. The three to choose as friends are – one who gives gifts, a doctor and a wise man.”

Alas I have many friends that fit into the first category of seven, excluding one or two that I leave you to identify. I am lucky enough to have many wise friends and a doctor friend is moving into my flat in just a couple of weeks. Kenko would approve.

This is not to say that everything Kenko writes strikes home or is, at the very least, amusing.

His description of death left me cold and lonely – surprising for a buddist monk. They’re too chilling to record here – if you’re intrigued, please read yourself.

Similarly, there are various sections which have a definite underlying misogyny.

Early on he says man:

“shouldn’t lose himself to love too thoroughly, or gain the reputation of being putty in women’s hands.”

Not a great start but I was willing to give Kenko the benefit of the doubt.

Sadly, Kenko continued:

“It is depressing to watch her bear children and fuss over them, and things don’t end with his death, for them you have the shameful sight of her growing old and decrepit as a nun.”

Where to start?! Aside from the heinous remark about her appearance as an old woman (how did Kenko look in his old age, I wonder?) and the fact that I’m sure if she didn’t run the house well it would be cause for complaint, why is it depressing to “watch her bear children” when Spring is so celebrated?

Despite this misogyny, I really enjoyed this Classic, particularly Kenko’s view on friendships.

He celebrates the surprise of a letter from a friend and recalls specific relationships with friends that he mourns for. He articulately writes:

“What happiness to sit intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone”

With this in mind, I texted my dear friend Naina, who chose this week’s Classic, and asked if she would join me in a cup of sake.

Naina grew up in Hong Kong, and first tried sake on a trip to China. We met on a library tour at uni (yes, we were those people) and it was instant love.

She recommended we head to Hare & Tortoise, a short walk from the British Library, for a bottle of sake and some sushi.

My friends told me a bit about what to expect beforehand, and kindly corrected my pronunciation (I showed my naivety here).

As previously discussed, it’s rather warm and muggy in the UK and so Naina and I decided upon a cold bottle of the Japanese rice wine as opposed to hot.

It was served with tiny glasses that you essentially shot and it was delicious – perfectly cooling and sweet, and without the acidity of a grape wine. I’m smacking my lips at the memory.

This was accompanied with some delicious sushi and a hearty catch up, which Kenko would probably have approved of to a point, before making a generalisation about women gossiping.

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We walked off our sushi, strolling toward Naina’s bedsit, which is the epitomy of how I imagined London life as an adolescent.

Hidden behind a Leaky Cauldron-esque door, a winding staircase lined with botanical prints, hanging crookedly, leads the way to Naina’s front door. Every time I mount those stairs I am reminded of the staircase landlady Mrs Crupp leads David Copperfield up to his first rented London accommodation.

Naina’s home overlooks a small public garden, which is conveniently lined with cherry trees. She sung of their blossom, which sadly fell a month or so ago.

Some cherries still cling to the branches, thus far undiscovered by peckish birds.

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After looking for the last clinging fruits, we settled under a horse chestnut tree, which had a low hanging canopy, making the perfect shelter for a light rain shower. Typically unpredictable British weather.

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Here I told Naina of Kenko and she read a few extracts, agreeing the opening quote it perfection.

In the words of Kenko, I so enjoyed sitting with this book spread before me, communing with someone from the past.

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Thank you so much, Naina, for choosing A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees, and for letting me mercilessly point my camera at you.

Next week I will be reading My Dearest Father by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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No. 22: How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, Johann Peter Hebel

You might have noticed I’ve been rather quiet of late which, if you know me, is out of character. Life has been busy. Having returned from Plymouth, as discussed in the last blog post, I nipped home for a couple of weekends and spent an idyllic few days in Paris, nibbling on crêpes and winding around the stocked shelves of Shakespeare and Company. Utter bliss.

A Little Bit Bookish took a bit of a backseat. But here I am, at last, in the fine company of a Penguin. My friend Emma chose this week’s Classic – How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, which I am shortening to A Ghastly Story from hereon.

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A collection of fables, translated from German, these short stories offer moral warnings and advisories for adults, highlighting the perils of stealing, arguing, arrogance, trickery and trusting vagrant salesmen.

They make for a very different and varied reading experience. They’re classic German Gothic – castles, ghostly apparitions, murders – all the staples of a spine-chilling read.

Some of my favourite classic writing is Gothic, but I didn’t relish these tales. They are entirely readable, and they vary in length (some are over five pages, some are just a paragraph) making them easy to dip in to. But I found them disjointed – just as a began to settle into a tale it would end.

And whilst they were Gothic, they lacked real art and drama, the qualities I love in Gothic writing (think of the Brontës, think of Heathcliff and the mad woman in the attic… and what a pair they’d make! No one has thought of this before?! *quickly jots down a novel idea).

Although not subtly Gothic, these are spooky nonetheless.

A Ghastly Story, which this classic takes its name from, is not to be read before bedtime, even by a twenty-something-year-old.

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A husband and wife kill a butcher for his purse of money, before killing and seemingly eating a child who witnessed the atrocity. The butcher’s dog saves the day, sniffing out his owner’s corpse and alerting the neighbours. The closing image is of the sentenced murderers:

“their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are still saying, ‘That’s tasty meat, that is!'”

This isn’t Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare.

Then, in ‘A Secret Beheading’ an executioner is forced to behead a young woman, without clarification of her identity or her crime. The tale concludes:

“No, nobody found out who she was, what sin she had committed, and nobody knows where she is buried.”

Incredibly morbid, and I couldn’t really make sense of the point here, other than I understand never to travel to Landau on my own.

Another tale, simply entitled ‘A Curious Ghost Story,’ begins in a similarly eerie vein. A gentleman, looking for refuge on a long journey, spends the night in a closed up mansion, rumoured to be occupied by ghosts. Sure enough, he is woken by an apparition, only to realise these ghosts are a group of forgers, taking advantage of the resources the mansion has to offer while the Lord of the Manor is away. The gentleman promises to keep their secret, and does so, receiving parcels of jewellery and new pistols in thanks.

I enjoyed this story more than A Secret Beheading and A Ghastly Story. I liked the fact it was a ghost story without ghosts, and the gathering of ‘baddies’ wuss out of murdering the gentleman, instead deciding that showering him with gifts is an appropriate course.

These really are a miss mash of stories and I’m not confident why they’re pitched as fables, with Hebel offering us idioms and warnings.

Take the closing line of The Cheap Meal: “Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.” And the close of Patience Rewarded: “Remember: Other people’s property can eat into your own just as fresh snow swallows up the old.”

And my favourite conclusion of any of these stories is that of The Lightest Death Sentence, which ends “This little story comes from our mother-in-law who doesn’t like to let anyone die if she can possibly help it.”

I was keen to swap notes with Emma, who read the stories in tandem. We were quaffing drinks at a garden party when the subject arose. She agreed she couldn’t quite settle into them, although she has since lent her copy to a friend who is really enjoying them.

Emma made several interesting points, including that they have been translated from German – some of the subtleties that I felt were missing could have been lost.

She interestingly pointed out that fairy tales by Hebels contemporaries also strikingly include character that just aren’t particularly pleasant to one another. Inn keepers trying to get one up on the other, murderous couples, dentist con artists. This was an excellent point. Think Rumplestiltskin, wanting first-born children for payment of magic, and Hansel and Gretel being threatened by a cannibalistic witch.

These are the realities of European fairy tales before Disney and Pixar adopted them and gave them a glossy finish.

Fairy tales, whether for adults or children, are dark and it seems I’ve been living in a rose-tinted, theme park with candy floss clouds and doe-eyed characters.

I left with Emma’s comments and, for some reason, Hafez and his eloquent, tragically optimistic poetry tickling my brain.

Like Hafez I needed a tipple to lighten the mood. A frighteningly alcohol-dependent statement, I am aware.

I visited The Fable, a bar not far from the Monument, London.

Upon entering this establishment is a table surrounded by a book wall, protecting it’s occupants from cheating villains and deceptive ghouls. I knew I’d just found my new local.

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Here I had a much needed drink, dubbed an Aperol 1919 (Aperol, gin, rhubarb syrup, apple and prosecco – all the best things).

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As I sipped on my fruity cocktail, in a Carrie Bradshaw way, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Hebel was just having a bit of a laugh, and possibly poking fun at those stories of a similar ilk.

If he was, I’m not confident he passed this off. I’ve felt pulled and tugged by these so-called fables. It would be interesting to read them along side Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, who are both on the list of Little Black Classics.

Whatever, musing over the fables with a glass in hand was an excellent way to conclude the journey. Thank you Emma G for choosing this one – I’m pleased we really were reading from the same page!

Next week I will be blogging about A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees.

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No. 65: The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe, Richard Hakluyt

I was enormously excited about reading this Little Black Classic.

Mum’s side of the family are from Devon (with a little bit of Cornwall), born and bred. My sister and I spent idyllic summers at our Grandparents home in Plymouth, flying kites on Dartmoor, paddling for shells at Bigbury and consuming countless picnics in orchards and moorland.

Every memory of these holidays glow in a hazy sunshine. Perhaps this is my memory romanticising these happy days, but either way they’re very precious memories.

Sir Francis Drake played a big role in these idyllic fortnights. Born in Tavistock, a charming market town that we would visit every summer, Drake moved into Buckland Abbey, 30 miles outside of Plymouth, after his circumnavigation of the globe.

There are countless, fascinating exhibits here, but one stayed with me.

It’s a large statue of Elizabeth I and King Philip II of Spain playing chess, the chess pieces taking the shape of ships rather than the usual pawns and knights etc. Elizabeth sits bolt upright, calm, confidently looking on at her opponent.

On every visit, I would stand and stare at the two of them for as long as I could. It’s an electrifying statue. It instilled in me a general fascination in the Spanish Armada and Drake’s role in this great naval battle, fighting for his Queen and country. This only delighted my Mum and Grandparents, Plymothians being fiercely proud of Drake and their city’s connections with the great navigator.

Last weekend, I visited my Grandma in Plymouth. Some ten years since our summer holidays in Devon, I still love visiting. It’s my home away from home, and I couldn’t resist taking ‘The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe’ with me.

At Paddington, I settled down in my seat, very excited to read of Drake’s adventures as I hurtled toward his old stomping ground.

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This Little Black Classic is divided into two parts, the first focusing on Drake, otherwise referred to as ‘the general.’ The second follows Thomas Caddish of Trimley, also departing from Plymouth, but I will be concentrating on my old friend Drake in this blog.

In November 1577 Drake and his fleet of five ships and 164 men left Plymouth, heading first for South America. Hakluyt walks us through every stop and discovery en route, including wildlife, vegetation and people of the land.

I particularly enjoyed his description of a fruit on the island of Maio, off the west coast of Africa, very early on in the voyage:

“having taken off the uppermost bark, which you shall find to be full of strings or sinews … you shall have a kind of hard substance and very white, no less good and sweet than almonds: within that again a certain clear liquor, which being drunk, you shall not find it very delicate and sweet, but most comfortable and cordial.”

Is this the first recording of a coconut, in the English language at least?

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From the west coast of Africa, Drake and his fleet sailed around South America, the voyage thus far being smooth, prosperous and relatively uneventful.

Enter Mr Thomas Doughty, a member of the crew threatening the voyage with mutiny.

It was decided that the only punishment for the troublemaker was execution, the same punishment he would receive on land in England. Doughty took communion alongside Drake before he “embraced our general” and said “prayer for the Queen’s Majesty and our realm” and “laid his head to the block, where he ended his life.” The leaders of the voyage concluded by making speeches, “persuading us to unity, obedience, love, and regard of our voyage.”

This seems rather contrived. A crew member threatens mutiny, he accepts his punishment seemingly peacefully and hugs the man whose power he usurped before his execution.

Where’s the blood, the shouting, the protestation, the tears, the gore, the pleading?

It’s obvious Hakluyt is writing spin. When the Queen read his account on their return back in England, she would be presented with a problem the voyage faced, Drake calmly taking charge of the situation and justice prevailing.

Ultimately, Hakluyt is writing a portrayal of Drake, not an account of the voyage and its crew.

In the same vein, there are a lot of references to the inferiority, unnecessary cruelty and foolishness of the Spanish, the great enemy of the English during the Golden Age of Elizabeth.

Not far from Chile, “we found people, whom the cruel and extreme dealings of the Spaniards have forced for their own safety and liberty to flee from the main.” For the English, however: “The people came down to us from the waterside with show of great courtesy, bringing us potatoes, roots, and two very fat sheep, which our general received and gave them other things…”

There are countless references of tribesmen and kings welcoming the men, giving them gifts of foods, cloths, tobacco and jewels. The English are being glorified, and yet we pillage and steal throughout.

On one island, the crew discovered flightless birds and in just one day slaughtered 3,000 birds for sustenance. In Tarapaca, the men stole 13 bars of silver and 4,000 ducats from a sleeping Spaniard. Hakluyt is separating the English from the Spanish, but they are evidently one and the same.

Somewhere in the Americas (the location is very vague in the text) the women of one tribe “are very obedient and serviceable to their husbands.”

Two paragraphs later, the women: “tormented themselves lamentably, tearing their flesh from their cheeks, whereby we perceived that they were about to sacrifice.”

Even here Hakluyt seems to draw attention to the morality of a social group, but their actions are arguably questionable.

When the fleet returned and Hakluyt’s account was printed, this voyage must have been utterly groundbreaking. A man and his men experience all sorts of wild and unexpected adventures to return to their beloved, glorified motherland.

It’s almost a Tudor version of The Odyssey.

As for Drake, I can see why Plymothian’s worship him. He’s depicted as fair, gracious, humble, although today I find this entirely questionable.

In A-level history, I was required to write a timed essay on a topic of my choosing. Most of my classmates wrote of recent history, like the World Wars or the Suffragette movement, or sensibly something that we had studied.

Picturing that statue of Elizabeth and Philip playing chess, I chose to write about the Spanish Armada, a topic I had never studied at school.

“Are you sure about his, Lucy?” My O’Brien asked. “It’s a fascinating topic, but you’re going to have to do a lot of reading.”

This was not a hardship. I consumed tomes about the warfare, the differing cannons used, the varieties of bullets, the weather along the English Channel, tactics, leaders, ships.

I essentially became a self-taught Armada nerd.

My essay’s conclusion praised Drake. What a guy! What a leader! He won it for us and for his Queen.

My manic fan girl writing definitely lost me points. It was ultimately the English weather that won it for us, unpredictable that it is. But we’re prepared for that, and the Spanish weren’t.

I didn’t write too much about the ships he set alight and pushed toward the Armada. That was the real Drake.

Today, with the Armada on our minds and the Little Black Classic in my hand, Grandma and I set off on our own voyage from Royal William Yard (below), once a depot for naval victuals.

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Our destination was the Barbican, but the really adventure lay in passing Drake’s Island (below), the eery, now abandoned spit of land where Drake allegedly set sail from on the voyage that Hakluyt describes. Drake was made Governor of the island in 1583.

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The following day, I marched my poor Grandma up on to Plymouth hoe to greet the statue of Drake.

The sun was dazzling, sending beams sparkling across the water. The grass on the hoe rivalled that of my childhood memories.

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There he stood, facing out to sea, his eyes searching for any approaching threat as his hand reaches down for the infamous globe.

Alas poor Drake, like many statues, is the victim of low-flying birds, his hair and shoulders streaked with an off-white.

It was a real thrill to see him nonetheless, standing tall over our beloved, beautiful Plymouth.

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Next time I’ll be blogging about Johann Peter Habel’s ‘How Ghastly a Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog’ (I thought The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe’ was a long title…’).

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No. 27: The nightingales are drunk, Hafez

I’d like to introduce you to Hafez. Hafez is a poet from fourteenth-century Persia. His interests include mythology, nature and women. He loves a social gathering, particularly if there is wine involved, though I’m sure he won’t mind my saying he’s no connoisseur. He thinks aloud, particularly in the battles of his heart, and is an argumentative drunk.

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Are you sold? You should be. Hafez’s poetry made for brilliant Bank Holiday reading.

The tone is pretty much set in the second poem, which begins:

“Ah, god forbid that I relinquish wine”

It was clear Hafez and I were going to have some fun together.

My first impression of the poet was that he is, essentially, a party boy. These poems are, for the most part, based around Hafez drinking, his creative juices pumping as he drinks.

Amid his musings about life, love and religion, he demands “Bring wine!” and, on one occasion admits “I’m drunk; it’s true!”

Hafez won’t let anyone ruin the party and tell him to sober up, demanding:

“Go mind your own business, preacher! what’s all This hullaballo?”

Despite there being some 700 years age difference between the two of us, I felt an affinity with Hafez. I was surprised that he could be so unashamedly drunk and proud and honest, despite there being great distance between the two of us. Chaucer, another fourteenth-century poet and a lot closer to home for me, being associated with London and Kent, wasn’t so forthright and personable in his writing.

Hafez’s poetry is littered with references to him enjoying a glass of wine and being drunk. I don’t exaggerate – every other poem mentions booze.

But there is another side to Hafez, a darkness…

“What does life give me in the end but sorrow?”

This is the first line of a four-line poem. It’s so short and final, giving a real bipolar edge to his writing. My stomach dropped when I read it and I flicked through to the following pages to learn whether Hafez found some shred of joy once more. I’m pleased to report he did.

He doesn’t seem to do anything by halves. He’s mouthy, ecstatic, drunk, romantic, sweet, sad, bad. He is very human and I could quote so much of his poetry here because it’s brilliant. You should go and read it – you’ll find a real friend in Hafez.

Love and wine seem to be his lifeblood, his religion almost. He worships the two in equal measure, and is equally infuriated by both, which I’m confident most of us can relate to.

Despite Hafez’s moments of melancholy, his poetry filled me with such joy. Life doesn’t seem quite so bad when Hafez leans in with a glass of wine in hand.

And so, to the celebration. And it did feel like a celebration, unlike when treading the pebbles for Hardy’s previously discussed poetry, which was mournful, poignant and reflective.

After a busy Bank Holiday sightseeing, my man and I followed Hafez’s style and indulged in a bottle of wine.

It was a rather special bottle, dating 1990, the year we were both born. Tim’s Grandpa, is Swiss and lives in a beautiful town called Montreux (also Freddie Mercury’s preferred place of residence). He purchased a hundred or so bottles in the year of Tim’s birth, as he did for all of his grandchildren’s birth years.

We visited Tim’s Grandpa at Christmas last year. Tim plucked a couple of these precious, dusty bottles from his Grandpa’s cellar, which is conveniently situated beneath his ‘caveau’. It’s like something from a book, this caveau. Down a flight of stairs you wouldn’t know existed, is an imposing wooden door. Behind this is a large room, the caveau, which can sit sixty or so on high days and holidays. A lot of the furniture was crafted by Tim’s Grandpa, and tools, jugs and cupboards are mounted across the walls – plenty to gaze at while you swirl your glass. A small kitchen sits at the other end of the room, where raclette is prepared and empty wine bottles are discarded.

Here, Tim and his Grandpa adjust an artefact’s position, and below is my favourite display of sewing machines…

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Tim and I tucked into the 1990 bottle, intended for special occasions, with some Continental nibbles on the balcony of my flat after a busy day sightseeing.

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It was idyllic. We sat, quaffed our wine, and I recited some of my preferred extracts from Hafez’s collection.

I am joking. We did sit and quaff wine. But most of our attention focused on a group of hoodied men who were being questioned by two policemen in the park opposite my flat.

Welcome to East London.

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Despite this, and the threat of light drizzle, we sat and sipped at our wine. And the drizzle did hold off. There’s no denying that it was very pleasant, and we felt rather smug.

Two drunk nightingales. I‘m sure Hafez would have approved.

Thank you Dad for picking this Little Black Classic.  I raise my glass to you, and to Tim’s Grandpa also. Next week I will be blogging about The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe.

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No. 33: The Beautifull Cassandra, Jane Austen

It was appropriate that my sister chose The Beautifull Cassandra as my third read, the short story having been written by Austen for her own sister, Cassandra.

I like Austen, and Sense and Sensibility is my favourite of her works. It’s not as happily tied up as her others – you’re left with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling as Marianne Dashwood marries a man almost twenty years her senior, her first love marrying another for her money.

But my chief reason for loving Sense and Sensibility is that the Dashwoods make me think of my Mum and sister. Mrs Dashwood, worried for her girls, the apples of her eye, wanting what’s best for them and, at the same time, whatever will make them happy – the two not necessarily marrying. Elinor Dashwood, the older sister, down-to-earth, sensible, thoughtful, wise, fiercely protective of her younger sisters, Marianne and Margaret. Marianne, next in age, is more innocent, idealistic, prone to dramatise, putting her heart on the line more readily.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Dashwood women and the Richards!

I was really excited about reading The Beautifull Cassandra, and getting a sense of the young Austen sisters.

This Little Black Classic consists of six short stories, written by a teenage Austen for the amusement of her family.

If I’m totally honest, I struggled with them. As a said before, I like Austen but I don’t love her like I do Hardy. And I didn’t find she was teaching me anything, as with Mayhew (click for previous blog links). I really had to make myself read these short stories, which was a shame. I was genuinely desperate to enjoy them but alas I found myself a bit bored and rather ashamed of this.

I guess I find Austen’s writing… well… a bit samey. (I can hear the gasps of Austen fans as I type this.) I know, this is a terribly narrow-minded, uneducated conclusion. But despite my love for Sense and Sensibility, her writings are remarkably similar and I can get them confused.

The collection in this Little Black Classic includes all those Austen traits that we’re now so familiar with – family, money, love, class, humour. It is striking that these were clearly the seedlings that would grow into her renowned repertoire.

For example, I could see Mrs Dashwood (Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law) in Lady Greville in ‘Letter the Third,’ and Lydia Bennet in Henrietta in ‘From a Young Lady.’

Austen’s wit and turn of phrase can be found throughout, emphasising that she was a clever wordsmith even as a teenager. Take the quote that Penguin used for the opening, which I have paused to drink in (pardon the pun) several times when seeing it plastered across the wall of the Underground.

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It did pass briefly through my mind that perhaps my celebration of this read would involve downing pints, but I am the world’s slowest drinker. And, more to the point, I didn’t think Jane would have approved.

It was, however, obvious that I needed to get my sister, Katy, involved in this week’s Little Black Classic activity, particularly because this story written for Austen’s own sister was undoubtedly my favourite in the collection.

As with all of these short stories, she opens with a dedication. Here is the dedication for her sister, Cassandra:

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This exaggerated (I hope) description sets the tone for the following story…

Cassandra is from a prosperous family of milliners, based in London. When Cassandra is 16, she puts on a beloved bonnet and ventures out in to the city. Here she finds a coffee shop and devours six ices (SIX!) and refuses to pay, knocking out the pastry cook when they demand she fronts the bill. She hails a taxi and orders him to drive her about town, refusing to pay when he finally drops her off at the same point they started at, instead placing her bonnet on his head. She then ignores one of her friends in the street, before returning home and concluding ‘This is a day well spent.’

The scandal! The horror! I couldn’t possibly ask my sister to mirror such behaviour.

Instead, I requested my sister don her best bonnet and meet me outside Jane Austen’s brother’s house, on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. (Alas a lorry was parked slap bang in front of the building and its plaque commemorating her stay here, hence the illegible image below).

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We proceeded to eat just one cake each, not six, before heading for a drink in the piazza, determined NOT to have sobriety classed as one of our weaker qualities.

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What I really liked about this story was Jane’s evident affection for her sister. The sycophantic dedication and sensationalist story are clearly world’s away from her relationship with her respectable and humble sister – Austen’s best friend and lifelong confidante.

Jane never married. Cassandra, the older of the two, was engaged but alas her fiancé passed away, leaving her some money. Otherwise they were at the mercy of their brothers.

This is undeniably poignant – neither finding love, living as spinsters.

But I confess I find it touching and heart-warming that they had each other. It clearly provided Jane with a lot of inspiration and material. Sisters are essential to her writing. Dashwoods, Musgroves, Elliots, Bennets, Bingleys – the list goes on.

Speaking for myself, I find having a sister by my side is a bit like having a magnificent shield on my arm. I can personally recommend a sister – they take all sorts of hits for you, and you feel rather invincible when you’re together.

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Perhaps I am feeling sentimental about the Austen sisters, and my own, because my Katy is, rather excitingly, engaged as of three weeks ago!

In actual fact, my family raised a glass to the happy couple at Dungeness, in the last blog post. We provided a fleck of joy on an otherwise soulless landscape.

I’m incredibly excited for my sister, who will be gaining another two sisters of her own and I, brilliantly, will be getting a brother! This calls for six celebration ices…

A huge thank you to The Beautiful Katy for choosing this Little Black Classic. Next week I will be blogging about The nightingales are drunk.

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Footnote: People have been asking me a lot of questions about the Mrs Beeton pie I made in week one. In hindsight, I think I was censoring my writing, not wanting to scare anyone away from the first blog post. For the record, it was vile. Looked great, smelt lovely, tasted awful. The issue undoubtedly lay with the liquid. Mrs B recommended filling with water before cooking, and pouring the gravy in post-bake. At the time of reading the recipe I thought it was odd, but as Mrs B says, I does. I learnt my lesson – sometimes it is best to go with your gut.

No. 14: Woman much missed, Thomas Hardy

I was pretty excited about reading Woman much missed, being a huge fan of Hardy’s novels.

Purely coincidentally, I picked up a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd last week, a book I read some ten years ago when I first discovered and fell in love with Victorian literature. A colleague spotted me clutching the book, published in tandem with the film set for release this year (with Carey Mulligan in the fiery role of Bathsheba). We soon found ourselves gushing over Hardy’s brilliance, quoting favourite lines from his works and analysing TV adaptations (we agreed Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne as Tess and Angel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was particularly brilliant casting).

Hardy was a man caught between Victorian industrialisation and early twentieth century war. He’s rather out on a limb, I would argue, and his literature echoes that. Perhaps he is most loved for taking us away from city life to the harsh, poignant realities of rural life.

What I really like about Hardy is that he writes real, flawed male and, importantly, female characters in a time where women weren’t really able to have a voice of there own. His confused, cruel, victimised, feisty women are a cut above the either virginal or haggish women that Dickens was alone preoccupied with.

Hardy’s female characters are, if you will pardon the pun, hardy.

As a result, I was keen to read the poetry collected together in this Little Black Classic, written in honour of his deceased wife. What did Hardy miss about her? Why did he fall in love with her? Who was the woman who would walk through the pages with me?

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A couple of things really struck me about Mrs Hardy.

In the poem ‘Without Ceremony’ Hardy describes how “my dear” would “vanish without a word,” suddenly leaving the room without explanation, and concludes that, now she has passed and he misses her, he will adopt her attitude that “‘Good-bye is not worthwhile!'”

I found this very touching, particularly because this quirk of hers would really irritate me. As someone who always justifies my reason for leaving a room, however menial (normally explaining that I’m just nipping to the loo to my poor colleagues), I don’t think I ever exit silently. How rude! Perhaps it did once drive Hardy to distraction, but his celebrating this quirk of hers in his poetry is rather lovely.

In ‘Lament’ Hardy essentially describes his wife as a keen party-goer – whether it was a lawn party or dinner party. She loved the change of seasons, and Christmas, and the celebrations both brought. She would have been “bright-hatted and loved” and “Her smiles would have shone With welcomings.” It sounds as though Mrs Hardy was very sociable, welcoming both the varying celebrations that each season brought and welcoming her guests with equal relish.

It was clear that Mr and Mrs Hardy shared a love for the countryside and the sea. The poems are littered with these images and there are so many references to rain. I’m not sure whether this is a creation of his mourning or whether the West Country was unfortunate to suffer a few years of awful weather but, heavens, there is an awful lot of rain in Hardy’s Wessex.

In Hardy’s poetry, Mrs Hardy almost seems to be attracted to the sea…

“I found her out there On a slope few see, That falls westwardly To the salt-edged air Where the ocean breaks…”

“O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free – The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.”

These quotes are taken from two separate poems. The image of Mrs Hardy, windswept by the sea stayed with me, although I still struggled to make sense of who she was. She just didn’t jump off the pages for me in these poems. Really, what was entirely spelt out, was Hardy’s grief.  Here is, very obviously, a man in mourning, desperate to be in her place instead.

It was clear to me that I needed to head to the seaside, in order to have my own hair flapping free and taste that salt-edged air. This was no hardship, as I do like to be beside the seaside*.

(*sung, with foot tapping)

I decided to read up more on Mrs Hardy beforehand so that I could take her with me to the scene that she seems to favour, certainly in Hardy’s poetry. I was very surprised and, truth be told, rather upset by what I found. The woman of Hardy’s poetry and the woman I read about didn’t seem to be one and the same.

Emma Glifford was from Plymouth (my Mum’s hometown) and married Thomas Hardy when she was 34, which seems rather late in life for a Victorian woman to marry. After twenty years, their marriage became strained, possibly because they were unable to have children, possibly because Jude the Obscure came between them, having many poignant parallels with their own life together.

They began to spend time apart and Hardy met another woman. Emma became a recluse while Hardy started a new life with his mistress. She died at the age of 72, and amongst her possessions Hardy found a diary, essentially a burn book, listing all of Hardy’s wrongs against Emma.

A seed of guilt grew and grew, and Hardy never forgave himself for the unhappy life he had created for his wife. Hence this collection of terribly sad poems.

Needless to say I have paraphrased this enormously; there are many more complexities to their lives that my words won’t do justice.

With this in mind I headed for Dungeness, a place so eerie it could be the perfect setting for tragic poetry and ghostly figures from literature. It also has a nuclear power station. Ooh er. A hotspot indeed!

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Dungeness is, admittedly, on the English Channel, whereas Hardy was linked to the West Country and the North Atlantic. But I am one woman with one salary, and the West Country was a long way to travel for a brisk seaside walk.

Appropriately, it was a miserable, overcast day with plenty of drizzle. Hardy would have approved. Consequently, I didn’t tread the pebbles or approach the water as much as I would have liked. I was also full of fish and chips and although a good helping of sea air did me good, my heavy, cold body and wet hair craved a good cup of tea at home.

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Dungeness is an important place to my family. We make an annual trip to the scene (the UK’s only desert, did you know) and revel in it’s weird, desolate atmosphere.

There is something very compelling about it. It seemed like a good place to take Hardy and his wife. Sure enough, I could picture her, holding on to her hat as she strode along the shingle, a dot on the bleak landscape.

I feel very sad for Mrs Hardy, and Thomas Hardy too. His poetry clearly includes a lot of poetic license, his guilt translating to grief throughout. Their story could almost be found between the pages of one of Hardy’s own novels.

Thank you so much Poppy for picking Woman much missed. No. 14 because we became friends when we were 14 years old! Next time I will be blogging about The Beautifull Cassandra.

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