Being and Travelling: Susan Allen Toth, My Love Affair with England

I’m currently on holiday in Vancouver, the beautiful city in which I had the great good fortune to grow up. I have more or less reconciled myself to being unable to live here myself, but coming home to visit is always a mixture of pleasure and poignancy for me. Walking the sea wall around Stanley Park, or even just coming around the crest of the hill near 16th and Alma and seeing the skyline come into view, with the mountains rising behind it and the lush trees in front, I feel the truth of George Eliot’s evocative passages about the landscapes of our childhood, from The Mill on the Floss, for example:

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet – what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.

Halifax has its charms (as shown, for instance, in my recent post about the Public Gardens) but they generally still seem to me slim compensation for the wintry grey drabness of the city for most of the year, and for the less tangible but more difficult effects of living apart from family and old friends, and from the landscape that is laden with the “subtle inextricable associations” of my past. It’s nourishing to my own “wearied soul” to be here again: sometimes I feel as if I’m literally drinking in the city through my senses, recharging some important internal source of energy.

At the same time, I can’t really imagine living here any more. It has been too long: my life has changed too much, and I have too. So being in Vancouver also has a disorienting effect, as I follow the footsteps of my former self and try to relocate myself in the world. Being in Vancouver now feels oddly like hanging around on the road not taken: it’s a beautiful place, but it isn’t my place.

I have been thinking about these issues because last year, instead of coming to Vancouver, I went to England. I hadn’t been there since 1986, and so the trip provided its own measures of how far I have travelled personally, internally, in the meantime. But mostly it was just exhilirating to step into a landscape that was not part of that cycle of  nostalgia and regret, and to regenerate or recharge different enthusiasms–some, admittedly, with their own roots in my past (like my childhood obsession with Tudor history) but also literary interests that were no part of my intellectual life in 1986 (when I had no intention of majoring in English) and a more open-ended pleasure in seeing different people and places, in seeing a much wider and faster current of life than usual.

I felt so renewed by last year’s expedition that I had initially hoped to return to England this year–so when scanning my parents’ vast and remarkably various book collection, my eye was drawn to Susan Allen Toth’s book My Love Affair with England. There aren’t a lot of personal memoirs in my library–or my parents’, for that matter. The memoir usually strikes me as a strange genre: unless you are someone who has a real claim on our attention, why would you presume to tell us quite so much about yourself? Why should I be interested in you? And yet (as blogging certainly demonstrates) often we are interested in other people’s lives, either because for some reason they resonate with our own or because their differences engage us, or sometimes just because they are good writers and storytellers.

Toth is a good storyteller. One thing she recounts in My Love Affair with England is in fact her own discovery of the value of that ability. Leading a group of students on a study trip to England, she finds herself answering their questions about herself:

those story-telling nights with my students were my real beginning as a writer. Until they gave me their eager attention, I had never realized that anyone might be interested in the anecdotes that seemed to form a narrative of my life. I was surprised that they could sympathize with stories that troubled or haunted me and that they could laugh at the odd or humiliating or ironic details I could now, at some distance, finally see as funny.

Just as the first paragraphs of this post don’t tell you anything, really, about Vancouver, considering the city instead in the context of my own life, Toth’s book is not really about England but about her feelings about England, her experiences of it and the personal significance of her travels there. She begins, in fact, with a series of disclaimers reminiscent of those often found in 19th-century travel books by women*: “I do not think of myself as an authority on contemporary English life,” she says, for instance:

My only gudes to society, politics, or economics are what I observe, read, or gather from casual conversations in gardens, on walking trails, in the greengrocers, or at bed-and-breakfast tables.

“Nor,” she adds a bit later, “am I a scholar of English history. How could I pose as one when I shamefacedly doze over almost any definitive volume of economic, social, military, or political commentary?” She has written the book not to elucidate the kinds of questions addressed in such “definitive” volumes, but to answer the question, “Why England?”:

What does it offer that I lack in my life? What in my background . . . has made England my country of choice for pilgrimage? What have I found there, what have I learned, what has nourished me?

In the book, Toth does not set out an explicit response or conclusion about these questions. Instead, she shares stories of her visits, from her earliest visit as a young college student in 1960 to a difficult stop-over on her honeymoon (her first husband’s lack of interest in her England foreshadows their eventual divorce) to many subsequent trips on her own and with her second husband, her daughter, and her mother. Interspersed with these more directly autobiographical chapters are themed ones: food, gardens, sheepdog trials. I particularly enjoyed “Up the primrose path,” about the English “national pastime” of walking and some of Toth’s own favorite rambles:

The joy of most English paths is how quickly anyone can feel alone on them. Just being able to disappear from a busy road between high hedgerows is wizardry. One moment, a straight cement line, whizzing cars and thundering lorries, acrid fumes and oily smoke. Another moment, a quick turn of the path, violets poking up through a hawthorn-and-hazel hedge, the gray flash of a disappearing rabit, and the tantalizing scent of unseen wild roses.

The best paths usually lead to the most remote places. After negotiating the hairpin curves of Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, James and I decided to unwind by taking a walk to Devoke Water, a small mountain tarn not far away. . . . Our path turned out to be a rocky track, an easy half-mile walk that took us gradually over a slight incline and then down to the shores of the lake. The track cut across the top of a moorland that seemed absolutely deserted, not even any sheep drifting over its barren slopes. It was late September, and under heavy gray skies, the grass looked almost brown, and the empty fells as if they had already fallen into a winter sleep.

Devoke Water lay in a shallow bowl formed by treeless gray-green fells. The surface of the lake was absolutely still, a steely gray that seemed a mirror image of the lowering sky. An old stone boat house, which seemed abandoned but was securely locked, looked as ancient as the landscape to which it now belonged. . . . Since dusk was just beginning to shadow thehills, we did not try to walk around the tarn. It looked forbidding, hidden away from the ordinary world among these treeless fells, bereft of any living presence. Slowly we followed the rutted lane back to our car. We did not talk much. Devoke Water had cast a spell, and neither of us wanted to break it.

It’s not showy writing but it’s good reading, clear, detailed, and evocative. Overall, though, the book is mostly about Toth; because she doesn’t offer much information or context about the sites she visits, my interest in her chapters ebbed and flowed depending on how interested I already was in their topics, or in how caught up I got in her personal life: England provided the occasion for building a relationship with her. Here I had a head start, as one reason her book is on the shelf here is that she was my mother’s college roommate (and remains a friend). Thus there are already points of connection between her life and mine, though none that make an explicit appareance here. Still, it’s easier to overcome the memoir skepticism when it’s someone you know, if only remotely. She’s also an English professor, so there’s some affinity there too, in the literary interests that underwrite some aspects of her ‘love affair’ with England. But I think I would have enjoyed this book anyway, for its companionable tone and lack of pretension, and for its interest in the ways places in the world are always, also, places in our lives.

*I know this because I am working with a PhD student doing very interesting analyses of travel writing by 19th-century English and German women travellers in Italy.

One thought on “Being and Travelling: Susan Allen Toth, My Love Affair with England

  1. smart brains July 6, 2010 / 8:20 am

    It is written clearly and with a understanding that far supasses any feeling of condescension or superiority or general quaintness among the natives, all of which I detect in books about other countries

    Travel World Network


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