I’m back. I had a wonderful time playing tourist in both Oxford and London, though of course both cities are so saturated with potential delights for a lover of literature and history that it was impossible to take in everything I would have liked to see. But I was very happy with the priorities I had set. All of the ‘big ticket’ sites I visited–the Bodleian, and Christ Church, and Westminster Abbey, and Hampton Court, and the Tower–were thoroughly satisfying, but equally delightful was wandering down Chancery Lane past Lincoln’s Inn, or roaming through Chelsea and Bloomsbury. I went relatively light on museums and galleries this time, spending the most time at the National Portrait Gallery, with just brief stops at the National Gallery, the British Museum (I kept meaning to go back and never made it), the V&A (almost literally just passing through), and the Natural History Museum. It was just more fun doing other kinds of things.
Of all the places I went and things I saw, I was most moved by those that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.” For instance, at the Hampton Court exhibit on Henry VIII’s wives, on display was a locket containing some of Katherine Parr’s hair and a manuscript letter from Catherine Howard to her alleged lover, Thomas Culpepper. To someone who grew up on Jean Plaidy’s Tudor series and worked on Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England for her thesis research, these are thrillingly personal remnants of an oft-told tale. In Oxford, I was enormously (and unexpectedly) stirred by seeing Newman’s pulpit in St. Mary’s:
Of course, I sought out this location in Chelsea:
But it was Carlyle’s house that was really exciting to be in:
You can really imagine the Carlyles’ life there: it is all set up as they had it (90% of the items and furnishings, the staff told us, were actually owned and used by the Carlyles), and on display are all kinds of touchingly intimate artefacts including Valentine’s Day cards from Thomas to Jane, a screen decoupaged by Jane herself (if she were alive today, she’d be a scrapbooker), and even a fragment of the manuscript of The French Revolution burned by J.S. Mill’s hapless maid. Below are a couple of the most familiar contemporary images of the Carlyles’ home:
I sat in the garden by the door, and stood right where TC is standing in the painting! The guide told us that Chopin once played on their little piano, and of course they received all our favourite Victorians in that sitting room. The “soundproof” attic was particularly interesting, and another special treat was the 80th birthday ‘testimonial’ signed by George Eliot, Thackeray, Lewes, David Masson, and almost every other literary figure you can think of who was around in 1875.
The Dickens House Museum was good too, of course. Here’s his sitting room, with the “Cruikshank” chair”:
He didn’t live in this particular house that long, and many of its furnishings are approximations of what the Dickenses would have had, rather than their own pieces. Still, it’s something to stand in the room where Mary Hogarth died and see Dickens’s own report of the event. Best of all the many interesting items on display there were Dickens’s reading copies of his novels, complete with highlighting, annotations, and insertions. I love to feel the people behind the books and ideas I spend so much time talking about.
Although it’s impossible not to feel there’s something obvious, even cliched, about the Tower (and Hampton Court and Westminster Abbey too), still, to me these are irresistible places. I was interested in how much slicker these sites have become, with their guide ropes and audio tours and gimmicks (Clarence’s face projected in a butt of malmsey? really?)–but the enormous solidity of the stones and walls and towers speaks for itself of the continuity of history. I’m not sure the new memorial on Tower Green is an improvement on the simpler plaque that was there before:
But you can still stand and look around and think about Anne Boleyn seeing virtually the same scene as she walked to the scaffold, and that’s what it’s all about: not abstractions, but men and women making their way along.
I did do some reading while I was away, including Murial Barbery’s very engaging The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago. And at Heathrow I calmed my pre-flight nerves by browsing W. H. Smith and came away with Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? and Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which was A. S. Byatt’s book of the year. So once I recover from the travelling (and from my daughter’s birthday and my son’s Grade 6 ‘graduation’, both of which happened the day I got back), I should be able to do some novel blogging again. And our Villette reading starts soon. Oh, and as if all this isn’t exciting enough, waiting for me at my office was a box of actual hard copies of my Broadview anthology, a bit later off the press than originally planned but looking very handsome, if I may say so myself.