Crying Over Bleak House: My Sentimental Journey

RichardIIITomb.jpgThe George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was the main reason for my recent trip to England, but of course I took advantage of having crossed the pond to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent a couple of days in London on either side of the conference, and I also traveled to Leicester a day ahead of time so I could visit the Richard III Visitor Center and Richard’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

My 2012 essay “All the World to Nothing” in Open Letters Monthly explains my longstanding fascination with Richard III and includes a delightfully (or mortifyingly) geeky photograph of a much younger me beside his statue in 1986. I could not quite recreate that picture on this trip, but I did take a selfie next to the model of his head made by experts in facial reconstruction after his skeleton was discovered under a parking lot and then confirmed as his. (It’s a remarkable story; the documentary about it is available here if you’re interested.) The excavation site was protected when the parking lot was repaved and you can see where he was actually found, under the floor of the long-gone Grey Friars Church. Even the intrusively chatty volunteer stationed by it could not completely dispel the haunting feeling of actually standing where his ruined body had lain for 500 years. (Bless her heart, she was just enthusiastic, but she would keep telling me things I already knew!)Burial-Site

I expected to be moved by seeing Richard’s grave, and I was. It has been a long time since I felt the warm partisanship on his behalf that Tey’s The Daughter of Time once sparked: it wasn’t fervent Ricardianism in real time that made this visit emotional so much as being reminded of how ardently I was once involved in it all and feeling connected, through these remarkably concrete (no pun intended!) links between past and present, to my own history. Walking through the exhibit, viewing the burial site, visiting the Cathedral–I was paying my respects to Richard’s memory but also to the person I used to be. It renewed a kind of personal continuity that can seem, living as I do far from my family, away from the sites and landmarks of my own past, disconcertingly fractured. “Where did she go, that girl?” I sometimes wonder; perhaps oddly, there among the stones and relics of a place even further from my old home, I felt sure she was still there.

WindsorThat sense of reconnecting with my former self is part of what always makes time in London feel so special to me. After my trip there in 2009, I also remarked that I felt “renewed” by the experience. This time too I was, as I wrote then,

most moved by those [sights] 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.”

On this visit I returned to some of the same places I went to in 2009 and also in 2011, when I was in England for a conference in Birmingham–including (of course!) most of the same bookstores. I especially enjoy wandering the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, which in their shabby elegance feel strangely homey to me: it’s easy to imagine not just Woolf and her cohort but Brittain and Holtby striding along or settling on a shady bench deep in conversation. I visited Windsor Castle for the first time on this trip, and it is grandiose and impressive; it was thrilling to walk between the towering walls that housed so many historical icons and breathtaking to look down in St. George’s Chapel and see that Henry VIII was buried below my feet. But it felt more personally meaningful just to sit in Gordon Square and be myself for a while, temporarily unencumbered by external obligations or expectations about who I am or what I should be doing, now or next. That freedom is one of the great luxuries of any holiday, of course, and it’s as risky as it is easy to fall into the fantasy that if you could only stay somewhere else, you could magically be someone else, someone you might like a little better, someone who lives (and writes) better than the person you are when you’re at home.

Gordon Square

One of the repeat visits I made on this trip was to the Dickens Museum, which I had visited with my mother in 2009 but not since. I wanted to go back because in the intervening decade I have spent so much more time reading and thinking about Dickens’s novels. In the meantime, too, the museum has acquired the writing desk Dickens used in his house at Gad’s Hill Place:


To many of us, this desk and chair are familiar from Luke Fildes’ “The Empty Chair,” painted in 1870 after Dickens’s death:


Seeing this desk was the first of what turned out to be several occasions when I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. Another was when I stumbled across some original monthly issues of Bleak House at the V&A:


Another was as I strolled the lovely grounds of Arbury Hall, the manor house on the estate George Eliot’s father Robert Evans managed:


We visited other places on our George Eliot tour–a highlight of my trip overall–but for some reason this was the one I responded to most emotionally.

GE-PlaqueBut why? Not just why did seeing Arbury Hall move me so much but why was I so emotionally susceptible to seeing those bits of Bleak House or standing next to Dickens’s desk? I am used to feeling excited when I see things or visit places that are real parts of the historical stories I have known for so long, but I have not previously been startled into poignancy in quite the same way. Is it just age? I do seem, now that I’m into my fifties, to be more readily tearful, which is no doubt partly hormones but which I think is also because of the keen awareness of time passing that has come with other changes in my life, such as my children both graduating from high school and moving out of the house–an ongoing process at this point but still a significant transition for all of us. Also, as I approach twenty-five years of working at Dalhousie, and as so many of my senior colleagues retire and disappear from my day-to-day life, I have had to acknowledge that I am now “senior” here, and that my own next big professional milestone will also be retirement–it’s not imminent, but it’s certainly visible on the horizon.

Silas-First-EdPerhaps it’s these contexts that gave greater resonance to seeing these tangible pieces of other people’s lives, especially people who have made such a mark on mine. Though I have usually considered writers’ biographies of secondary interest to their work, there was something powerful for me this time in being reminded that Dickens and Eliot were both very real people who had, and whose books had, a real physical presence in the world. People sometimes talk dismissively about fiction as if it is insubstantial, inessential, peripheral to to the “real world” (a term often deployed to mean utilitarian business of some kind). But words and ideas and books are very real things, and they make a very real difference in the world: they make us think and feel differently about it and thus act differently in it. Another of my London stops this time was at The Second Shelf , where I held first editions of Silas Marner and North and South in my hands (very carefully!). I described this on Twitter only slightly hyperbolically as the closest thing I could have to a religious experience. In the presentation I gave at the conference, I quoted from George Eliot’s poem “O, may I join the choir invisible”:

O, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence …

There’s no question that she lived up to this wish. It’s hard for me not to feel a bit as Dorothea does, though with a more deserving object: “what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”

Even so, I’m still not entirely sure why it kept making me cry to be in proximity to what one person I spoke with about it aptly called the “materiality” of these writers’ lives. But it seems right to give Dickens the last word on this: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

South Farm, Arbury Estate.
George Eliot was born in the upstairs room
November 22 1819


“A Better Way of Travelling”: Sarah Moss, Names for the Sea

I recognise my own distrust of Icelandic tourism, of the collector’s desire to tick off geysers and volcanoes and midnight sun on some kind of Lonely Planet checklist, totting up experiences like any other commodity. There must be a better reason to travel, a better way of travelling, than the hoarding of sights your friends haven’t seen … I want to sense the long-dead outlaw’s dread of the dark, not to be told about it in an interpretation centre. I want, I suppose, an unmediated Iceland, even though I know there’s no such thing.

Sarah Moss writes wonderfully about her family’s stint in Reykjavik, the result of a longstanding fascination with “northerly islands” which, in combination with another longstanding desire, for her family to experience life “abroad,” led her to seize an opportunity to teach at Iceland’s National University.

Moss is wry and self-aware and sometimes funny about her difficulties adapting, both to Iceland’s culture and customs and to the more general condition of being an “outsider.” She frankly admits her own peevishness–with the food especially, but also with the traffic, the weather, the housing. Names for the Sea is not, this is to say, a romanticized travelogue or a promotional brochure, even tacitly. Indeed, far from making me dream of someday seeing Iceland for myself, Names for the Sea killed quite dead my faint previous interest in ever going there–even though as an ordinary tourist I could presumably avoid some of the particular challenges Moss and her family encounter with shopping, furnishing, driving, and just generally living.

had sometimes wondered about Iceland as a place to visit, mostly because I know a few people who are from there or have been there and have made it sound pretty cool, and also because Iceland has a reputation for bookishness (for instance, there’s its tradition of a “Christmas book flood” or Jolabokaflod–imagine having a whole word for that!). Unlike Moss, however, I am not instinctively drawn to northerly places. Halifax is quite far enough north for me! (And despite its climate Halifax is not even very far north — it is approximately as far south as Portland Oregon, which I actually find quite disorienting. That just goes to show you that where weather is concerned, latitude isn’t everything!) Moss does nothing to reassure me about how harsh and unforgiving Iceland’s climate is: how long, dark, and relentless its winter, and how fleeting its spring and summer. “By November,” she reports,

it’s been winter for a while. We recognise winter not just because the colours of land and sky and sea have changed, although the greens and blues have turned to shades of grey, but because there is less light, even in the middle of the day. The sun rises at a shallower angle every day, every day the zenith is a little lower, every day sunset is a little further south, as if the sun is running out of power. . . . There is snow, and then rain again, and then more snow. . . . I try to remember the midsummer light, and to know that as the days are shortening now they will lengthen after the solstice. Life will come as surely as death. It’s hard to believe, my Arctic theology.

Moss is also eloquent about the hazards of the road:

Icelandic driving is terrifying. Nobody indicates. Even bus drivers accelerate towards junctions and then jump on the brakes at the last minute, sending passengers and shopping crashing to the floor. People swerve across lanes to leave the freeway from the inside. Icelanders have one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership and usage in the world, and they don’t stop when they’r driving. . . . In one month we have seen four major accidents, the kind that write off cars, trigger airbags and leave glass and blood, and in one case a baby’s car-seat, on the road.

Since driving is right up there with winter on my list of things I hate, and driving in winter is one of my biggest sources of anxiety here where most (!) people at least try to follow the rules of the road–well, let’s just say that wherever Reykjavik once was on my bucket list, it’s a lot further down now.

And yet. Though it sounds as if Iceland is not for me, Moss’s life in Iceland, while full of difficulties, is not, for her, altogether without its charms. She and her family are intrepid enough (or stubborn enough, or both) to explore the country’s alien landscape, including its active volcanoes–they are there during the disruptive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Moss herself is also determined to learn as much as she can about this strange place she has come to, so she goes out of her way to meet people with expertise in everything from Icelandic politics to local cuisine to elves–“I find the idea of talking to someone about elves embarrassing,” she admits, but nonetheless she braves the trip out of the city to do it, and the conversation is as odd and interesting and faintly disconcerting as you’d expect.

I particularly enjoyed her chapter on knitting, which apparently nearly everybody in Iceland does:

On buses, in restaurants, during meetings, in class. In the first week of term, several students came into the classroom, put down their cups of coffee, took off their coats, hats and scarves and pulled out laptops, power cables, poetry anthologies, knitting needles, and wool. I didn’t, I decided, mind. . . . I can crochet while watching a film. . . . Icelandic undergraduates, it turned out, can knit while drinking coffee, taking notes on their Apple Macs and making enlightening contributions to discussions of Lyrical Ballads. I watched the pieces grow from week to week, comforted, somehow, by the progress of socks and matinee jackets as we worked our way through from Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ towards The Prelude, as if the knitting were a manifestation of accumulating knowledge. Colleagues knit in meetings, which seems a far more constructive use of time than the doodles produced in the English equivalent. I wonder if anyone would say anything if I tried in committees at home, instead of drawing borders of trees and wonky geometrical patterns around the minutes.

(She should try it, if she hasn’t already! So far nobody has made any objection when I take my crochet out in our department meetings. My theory is that they realize it’s better for everyone there that I manage my stress.)

I also enjoyed her account of her attempts to improve her Icelandic by watching Icelandic films and reading Icelandic fiction, both of which turn out to be good lessons, for a literature teacher, about how much tacit knowledge it really takes–how much cultural capital and “insider” experience–to make sense of what you’re reading and seeing. “Rain drips from everyone’s hair,” she says of the movies, those set in the Middle Ages blurring into the documentaries of early 20th-century life;

Children run in and out of turf houses through low doorways, like rabbits emerging from and disappearing into burrows, and every so often one of the men says something apparently proverbial, like ‘the dark horse runs longest’ or ‘the fog hides many secrets’ and hits another man on the head with an axe … It’s like listening to a tale told by a drunk; I am fascinated, mostly by the landscape, but have no idea what the narrative logic might be. The subtitles are little help because there seems to be no relationship between what people say (not much, mostly about farming) and what they do (mostly farming but sometimes murder).

She does not fare much better with novels. Detective fiction, she observes, is “obviously written with translation in mind,” so it is full of explanations that make comprehension easier for her. Literary fiction, on the other hand, “cause[s] me the same puzzlement as the films”:

I simply don’t understand why the characters do what they do, can’t see the connection between speech and action. In apparently gentle novels of bourgeois life, characters rape and kill with no warning, no reflection and little reaction from anyone else. I find the violent episodes entirely unpredictable, never know at the beginning of a paragraph if the person coming through the door is bringing coffee or a crowbar to the person sitting at the table.

Iceland is “distinctive for its low crime rate,” so she wonders why its fiction and film feature so much “bloodletting”–“Are Icelanders simmering with rage under their jumpers?”

I admired Moss’s perseverance: there is something endearing, even, about her determination to understand, to make sense, not just of these opaque texts but of every aspect of Icelandic life. I’m not sure this is “a better way of travelling” (or of travel writing–the result was sometimes a bit more detail than I actually wanted about the country’s history, politics, or finances) but it is clearly her way: Moss is driven by intellect, or perhaps her need to ask and get answers about everything was a way of compensating for the difficulty she had simply being and feeling in a place where everything is so unfamiliar. I appreciated that she never glossed over those difficulties, and also that for all her inquisitive effort Iceland remained, in some ways, just out of reach for her: the book offers no magic moment of recognition, no epiphany.

Perhaps Iceland’s resistance to Moss’s quest for understanding explains why her fascination with the place endured in spite of everything, even bringing her family back to visit soon after they moved back to the UK, to move once more among “landscapes that simply don’t make sense, mountains that the mind can’t read.” The way Moss writes about that landscape is the only thing about Names from the Sea that nearly changes my mind about travelling to Iceland:

It’s like watching God in the act of creation, passing through fells of bare naked lava and rock, like seeing the world before it was finished. We’re on day four of Creation, moving back towards day three, a world made of sky, fire, earth and water with none of the complications that came later. The mountains are red, as if the cinders haven’t yet cooled, or the black of embers, carved by valleys where it seems that if you watched long enough, you’d see that the rock is still flowing. The elements are translated here: what is solid looks like liquid, rock like water, earth like fire.

I lack Moss’s hardiness and spirit of adventure, though, so what Names for the Sea ultimately convinced me to do was to order another of her novels. I have yet to read anything by her that I haven’t both enjoyed and admired.

London Books

In the grand tradition of May’s post on Boston by the Books and last summer’s post on my equally bookish expedition to New York, here’s a recap of my book buying adventures in London. First of all, as I have mentioned here a few times, the London Review Bookshop was my top destination for the trip. It was everything I’d imagined. It proves that, when it comes to bookstores anyway, size really doesn’t matter: it’s far from the largest bookstore I’ve ever been in, but every shelf is packed with interesting titles, with no space wasted on the mass-market blockbusters of the mostly disposable kind that fill huge display racks at so many other stores. I could have spent hours more exploring and learning. I didn’t even really go downstairs, except to grab the one Mr. Gum title missing from our collection from their children’s section–this series, much beloved of both my children, is very hard to get on this side of the pond. I was especially looking for a couple of books I hadn’t found locally, John Williams’s Stoner and Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and sure enough, they were both in stock. I couldn’t resist Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder, which has not been released here yet in paperback, and having just helped edit Michael Adams’s lovely piece on Barbara Pym for this month’s Open Letters Monthly, I leapt on Jane and Prudence when I spotted it. I could easily have bought another dozen titles, but I had to respect not only my budget but also the impracticality of adding too much more weight to my suitcase when I knew I still had to lug it to Birmingham and back. So I made it out of there with only five additions to my library–restrained indeed!

I enjoyed browsing in a number of other bookstores, including Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road and two Waterstone’s locations, the one on Gower Street (just up from my little hotel) and the giant one at Piccadilly Circus. There, after much dithering deliberation I picked out another couple of books that have proved elusive locally, Susan Hill’s thriller The Woman in Black and Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel. Again, there were many other tempting choices (including Elizabeth von Armin’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which I am still rather regretting having put back on the shelf, and Sebastian Faulks’s One Day in December–though deciding against that one, I think, was probably the right call). But I had already added Avrom Fleishman’s George Eliot’s Intellectual Life to my stash from the Cambridge University Press table at BAVS, and while roaming Waterstone’s Piccadilly I was actually carrying with me, in my trusty Lug shoulder bag, the beautiful book on the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries that I treated myself to at the Victoria and Albert Museum Bookshop, so I was keenly aware of the increasing weight of my luggage! My final book purchase in London was a tiny one, the British Museum’s Little Book of Mummies. Then, having arrived virtuously early at Heathrow for my flight home and checked my heavy bag, I felt at liberty to explore WHSmith, where seeing Mary Stewart’s Stormy Petrel  brought to mind a recent chat with a former student and fellow avid reader about her novels and how much I had once enjoyed them. And now here they all are, just waiting for me!

Both the tapestry book and the mummies book are part reading material, part souvenir: they will remind me of and teach me more about some of the museum exhibits that moved and interested me the most on this visit. In the same spirit, here are two related pictures from those exhibits for you to enjoy!



Some Boston Highlights

Why did I not know what a beautiful city Boston is? As I prepared for my trip, I realized that I had no particular mental picture of Boston. Not only had I never been there in person, but I know hardly any books set there, or movies or TV shows set (much less filmed) there : there’s Cheers, of course, but we almost never get any shots of the city, and there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and The Bostonians, and Death in a Tenured Position for Harvard…and as far as my own reference points go, that’s about it. Of course, now that I’ve said that you’ll probably all be able to point out other obvious examples, including ones I do know but have forgotten! But compared to New York, Boston was unfamiliar territory for me, so I approached it with a real sense of discovery and enjoyed it thoroughly. This is not the place for a detailed travelogue (and I have no Eat, Pray, Love-style revelations to make!), but here are a few of the highlights.

My favorite place was definitely the Public Garden. We have a Public Gardens here in Halifax, which is smaller but also more formal and ornate than Boston’s. Both are lovely oases in the middle of the city bustle. My B&B was just down Commonwealth Avenue from the gates, so I was able to visit the Garden often; if only the weather had been a bit less drizzly, I would have spent even more time roaming around enjoying green thoughts in the green shade. Of course, I had to pay my respects to my oldest Boston literary friends:

Another thoroughly delightful place, one that I might not have thought to visit if it weren’t for my host, is the Boston Public Library. Completed in 1895, it is a monument (as all public libraries should be) to the value of reading, with an elegant marble vestibule opening into this spectacular entrance hall:

The main staircase is “ivory gray Echaillon marble,” my flyer tells me, and the walls are “richly variegated yellow Siena”:

Here’s the beautiful reading room, Bates Hall:

Shouldn’t being in a library always be this much like being in a temple? The library also has a pretty courtyard with a fountain, a peaceful spot to enjoy your coffee and your book.

Of course, I had to visit Harvard. I kind of wished I had worn my Cornell sweatshirt, as a small gesture of resistance to the overwhelming, well, Harvardness of it. But Harvard Yard was very leafy and pretty in the sun:

Even prettier, though, was the Esplanade along the Charles River, the perfect place to spend the one really bright sunny afternoon I had on the trip:

Other places I enjoyed (besides the bookstores mentioned in my previous post) included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, two very different museum experiences, the first a glut of beautiful things, the second more orderly and managed but just as full of provocation and beauty. At the Gardner, the building itself is nearly as remarkable as what it houses. At the MFA, I was particularly compelled (and, in part, repelled) by Turner’s Slave Ship, which is grimly spectacular–and also smaller than I somehow imagined it would be. I enjoyed the Mary Cassatt paintings at the MFA but sadly Mrs Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading (see blog banner, above), though in the collection, did not seem to be on display. I am always especially interested in any needlework on display; there was a spectacular example of needlepoint, as big as a tapestry, inthe Dutch room at the Gardner, which I would in fact have mistaken for a tapestry if I hadn’t mentioned my fondness for embroidery to one of the attendants, who then pointed it out to me. At the MFA, one of my favorite items was also pointed out to me by a helpful guide, who understandably identified this serene couple as two of his most cherished friends in the collection:

As many people told me before my trip, Boston is a very walkable city, and I had fun puttering around Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as well as taking a soul-soothing stroll through parts of Forest Hill Cemetery. Of course, I stopped at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley where Spenser has his office, and I took a classic tacky photo of the entrance to Cheers. Finally, on my last day, after a deliciously over-indulgent brunch at Amrheins and a quick tour of the North End, I played tourist at Quincy Market.  With all this and the important Open Letters Monthly summit meetings that were the occasion for the trip in the first place, it was a full five days, and though I certainly didn’t see or do everything, now I feel I know at least something about this lovely historic city.

One final trip-advisorish note for anyone who might be headed to Boston themselves any time soon. I stayed at the College Club of Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue. It’s a charming old building and the rooms are decorated to suit (if a little shabbier than they look in the photos–in my little quarters, I felt a bit like a Victorian gentlewoman fallen on hard times but keeping up appearances, like one of the older Madden sisters in The Odd Women). The location is amazing, and the prices are reasonable, especially if you’re willing to share a (nicely renovated) bathroom. However, I have never experienced such creaky floors in all my life, and every door stuck and therefore had to be tugged open and slammed shut. It’s not a good place to come back to if you’ve been out a bit late (say, drinking wine and talking books in Jamaica Plain, just hypothetically)–not, at least, if you’re the type to feel awkward about waking everyone else up. And it’s a terrible place to stay if it’s really important to you to sleep well–for the same reason. That said, I might well stay there next time. After all, sleep is hardly a top priority when travelling, right? And being a stone’s throw from the Public Garden and walking distance to the Brattle Book Shop is awfully nice.

The bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men…

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.