No. 69: I Hate and I Love, Catullus

WARNING:

The following post contains erotic content!

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(Photo credit: My friend Poppy. Cheek in the ruins of Carmo Convent, Lisbon. See last week’s post for more of our Lisbon-based literary antics). 

Catullus is a naughty man. You have been warned.

BACK TO THE NORMAL SCHEDULE

This week’s post is awash with provocative sex scenes, a tremendous coincidence and tales form foreign shores. So please stick with me for this one – you won’t regret it. Let your hair down, nestle back in your chair, take a sip of your cup of tea (some might prefer something a little stronger), and let me and Catullus entertain you.

March was a revelrous month, what with a trip to Lisbon and the extended Easter weekend. It was restorative to have a quiet weekend in my flat at the beginning of April, the perfect environment to familiarise myself with Catullus.

I had not heard of Catullus prior to reading this Little Black Classic. A quick flick through revealed this is a collection of poetry, the perfect reading to dip in to.

The main focus of this poetry collection is Catullus’s infatuation with a woman called Lesbia, who he addresses directly in a number of his poems. Take his preoccupation with kissing her in the second poem:

“Kiss me now a / thousand times & / now a hundred / more & then a / hundred & a / thousand more again / til with so many / hundred thousand / kisses you & I / shall both lose count”

Sweet love!

Two poems later, and Catullus is back in the same frame of mind:

“as many as / the sky has stars / at night shining / in quiet upon / the furtive loves / of mortal men, / as many kiss- / es of you lips / as they might slake / your own obsessed / Catullus”

True romance!

But relations turn sour; it’s clear that Lesbia and Catullus quarrel. His tone changes – his writing is abrupt and disjointed. He tries to convince Lesbia that he doesn’t miss her:

“Not again, Lesbia. / No more. / Catullus is clear. / He won’t miss you.”

Methinks he doth protest too much. Surely this heartache and denial is familiar to all of us.

His misery evolves into anger. In a particularly violent poem, Catullus says that, while he casts off his grief and travels the world, he hopes the “tart” Lesbia is enjoying new relationships. He’s sarcastic and cutting, imagining her in brutal and rape-like sex orgies, “dragging the guts out.”

It’s seriously graphic. I won’t include it here (my Grandma reads this) but this is, essentially, 2,000 year old revenge porn.

Ancient art and literature show that civilisations were openly experimental sexually, but I’ve not yet come across any ancient text that’s quite so violent or venomous. I felt completely awful for Lesbia. A past lover publicising sexual scenarios is a terrifying, haunting prospect.

Later, Catullus implies Lesbia is a prostitute, as she “loiters at the cross roads / and in the backstreets”. He’s clearly obssesed with her but moves on, distracting himself with Ipsíthilla. He requests she “Call me to you / at siesta / we’ll make love” and “stay at home / & in your room / … I’ll come at once.”

Ahem.

Despite Ipsíthilla’s appeal, Catullus can’t shake off Lesbia. He’s conflicted – his hatred transcends into love and vice versa.

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Half of his references to Lesbia are degrading, as described above; the other half are ardent. Toward the end of the poetry collection, for example, he says “Lesbia is loveliness indeed” and compares her to the goddess Venus.

The final poem concludes with Catullus finding love with another, although insecurities bubble beneath, as he hopes

“God let her mean what she says, /  from a candid heart, / that our two lives may be linked in their length / day to day, / each to each, / in a bond of sacred fidelity.”

This is a wonderful collection of poems. It might be 2,000 years old, but it perfectly displays the contradictions of love – how it can be both profound and beautiful, painful and ugly. It makes both poets and monsters of us all.

One of my greatest loves is Italy. It’s my favourite country – the cities, the countryside, the art, the food, the drinks, the gelato. *Sigh.

Two weeks ago, my friend Thom and I returned from a short break in Italy, where we first spent a couple of days in Sirmione on Lake Garda, before we moved on to Milan. It was idyllic – we scaled cathedrals and castles, swooned at godly statues and consumed numerous Aperol spritz. We also decided that a boat trip was essential – a few hours on the lake, basking in sunshine, with a picnic and poetry. Perfect.

At university, where we met, Thom and I read from two breeze-block books – the Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Through our three years at uni we studied a huge number of erotically charged texts (there’s no escaping them) and joked that, one day, we could collate all those erotic writings and publish an anthology of our own for future students. We dubbed it the Naughty Norton.

As I read Catullus, a week prior to our trip, I decided I had to take him with me with Italy. He was an excellent candidate for the Naughty Norton.

I researched him a bit more to garner more about this Italian heritage. In a weird twist of fate that I’m crediting to the Roman Gods, Catullus is rumoured to have come from Sirmione, where Thom and I had booked to stay.

No, I am serious.

Spooky.

I was thrilled to find a bust of the poet standing not fifteen paces from the door of our B&B.

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There is a villa, called the Grotto of Catullus, jutting out onto Lake Garda at the very tip of Sirmione, where Catullus is rumoured to have lived. This has since been disproved, but it is understood that his parents did own a villa in Sirmione and so Catullus inevitably visited. Unsurprisingly, the local scenery inspired much of his poetry…

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We rented a boat in the morning (an experience that was completely brilliant but not the calm idyll I had evisaged. No poetry was read, rather camp 80s music videos re-created) and visited the ruins of the villa in the afternoon.

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We could hear the waters of the lake lapping as we strolled around the ruins. The sun spilled out overhead. Italian conversation lingered. It was compeltely idyllic.

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A big thank you to Gemma the Gem for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and thank you to Thom for letting me march him around Sirmione in search of Catullus!

Next time I will be reading Samuel Pepys’ The Great Fire of London.

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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. 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. 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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