Thursday, February 28, 2008

Heroine - Booking Through Thursday

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Thursday has come round very quickly - it's Booking Through Thursday again.

My immediate response to this question was Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for her quick wittedness, good sense and spirit, then Jo in Little Women because of her independence and intelligence and Cousin Helen in What Katy Did as she was such a good person. But these are all characters from books I read a long time ago; there must be some more modern female characters that I like.

Again, one that came to my mind quickly is Lyra in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, for her courage and determination. Then there is Grace in Margaret Atwood's Amazing Grace, aptly named as I think she is amazing and enigmatic and like the other female characters I like she is full of courage in her desperate situation. Susan Ward in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is another strong female character; and Astrid in Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson - she is reclusive and an introvert and also a strong, determined woman.

It seems I like strong, determined women with a mind of their own and able to cope with difficult situations. So why is Elizabeth Bennet such a favourite, after all she didn't have to cope with serious illness, or live in poverty, or deal with manipulative, domineering, homicidal men, or make a home in the American west? I think maybe it's because I see her through rose-coloured glasses and because she is the first female character that caught my imagination when I first read Pride and Prejudice, possibly the first adult book I read.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dante’s Florence - Week 3

During week 3 we looked at the expansion of Florence as more people came into the city. In Dante’s day there were about 45 towers, or 90 or more, depending upon the source you check and today there are about 20 still standing, showing the progression from the early plain and simple tower into the grander palaces, with more and bigger windows, columns, loggias and decorated with the families’ coats of arms.

We looked at slides of a number of towers showing the development from defensive, military type towers to house towers and palaces.

La Castagna - The Chestnut Tower (also known as Dante’s tower), across from Dante’s House is an example of a plain, simple military tower, used in Dante’s time by an order of priors who voted on decisions by placing a chestnut in a box - hence the name. The holes are where there were planks joining the tower to neighbouring houses and the windows decrease in size higher up the tower.

An example of a tower that existed during Dante’s day is the medieval Mannelli Tower, located at one end of Ponte Vecchio. This was built to defend the bridge and shows the development of the design from the simple cube, having more windows (in pairs) and decorated with lions’ heads. It’s interesting because when the Vasari Corridor was added to the bridge at the end of the 16th century to enable the Grand Duke to move freely from one side of the bridge to the other, the Mannelli family refused to demolish it to make way for the Corridor. So the Corridor had to be built around the Tower, thus bypassing it.

We also looked at the cylindrical Pagliazza Byzantine Tower that was a prison in Dante’s day and is now part of the Hotel Brunelleschi, the Buondelmonte Tower, and the Alberti Tower.

As the city prospered new city walls were built bringing the churches outside the original walls within the city boundaries. By the end of the 13th century the population had grown to approximately 90,000 and was second only in size to Paris. Its wealth came from textiles and banking, with an emerging merchant class coming into the city for employment. This also brought social problems and the mendicant orders – travelling preachers from Umbria and Emilia who wanted to enrich the people’s spiritual life. These were different from the monastic orders, reaching out to people. Dante’s writing forms a parallel as he wrote in the vernacular making his work accessible to all.

The Church of San Miniato on the opposite side of the Arno was in a wild and woody setting when Dante knew it. In the Divine Comedy he likens the entrance to Purgatory to the ascent to the church. It is an ancient church from the 11th century with a 13th century Tuscan Romanesque style façade similar to that of the Baptistery – green and white marble. Inside there is a beautiful 13th century gold and black mosaic in the apse in the Byzantine style, with the palm symbolising the Resurrection accompanied by the symbols for the four Evangelists.

Illustrations (except for the Chestnut Tower) are from Wikipedia.

To follow: Banking, Guilds and Art of the Period.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

I really like books that grab my attention from the start, have believable characters, a good story and are thought provoking. Hearts and Minds meets all these criteria. From the first page I became involved in the world of St Radegund’s College, Cambridge as Dr Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor working against deadlines, wrestles with writing an article, has difficulty refocusing her eyes from the computer screen to look at her watch and is not relishing the prospect of confronting a delegation of students angry at the proposed rent increases. As I read further it was obvious that this is a book to be read slowly and relished.

For one thing it is full of details about how the university college functions, how the staff and students inter-relate, and the idiosyncrasies and bureaucracy of academia. For another I didn’t want it to end, so I didn’t read through at breakneck speed in my usual way, but rationed myself and took it slowly. It may look from the book jacket that it is a light and fluffy love story (well there is a love story in there), but it is much more than that, posing moral dilemmas that are not limited to the academic world. I’m not sure I would have picked up this book just from its cover, so I’m really pleased that Rosy Thornton, who is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, sent me a copy to read.

St Radegund's College, an all-female college has just broken with 160 years of tradition by appointing former BBC executive James Rycarte as its new Head of House as successor to the former Mistress, the much-loved Dame Emily. The problems facing James seem to mount as, in addition to the rent strike by the students, he has to contend with opposition from some of the Fellows to his headship. There is the thorny question of his title – should he be called ‘Master’ which has “unfortunate resonances” in a women’s’ college or some other title such as ‘President’ or ‘Provost’ or ‘Warden’; for a while he goes by the title ‘Mistress’ before settling for ‘Master’. The library is sinking into the Cambridge fen mud and there isn’t enough money in the building contingency fund to pay for the remedial work; and Martha’s post of Senior Tutor is coming to the end of its period of office, the only suitable candidate being Dr Ros Clarke, who is leading the opposition to James as Head of House.

The perfect solution appears when Luigi Alvau, an old friend offers James a large donation. This would cover the costs of repairing the library and enable the college to set up scholarships for students who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The sting in the tail is that Alvau’s daughter is applying for a place at the college. James with Martha’s support gradually wins over some of the Fellows. Martha meanwhile has her own problems. Not only is she faced with the problem of continuing her career, she has a depressed teenage daughter who refuses to go to school and spends her days in bed and a husband who seemingly exists on writing one or two poems in Italian every now and then, spending much of his time “thinking”. The only comfort she gets at home is from her ginger tomcat Maynard. Through Martha’s situation we are presented with the classic situation of how to balance work and home, with the added complications of difficult mother/daughter relationships between Martha and her daughter and Martha and her own mother.

Relationships are a key theme in the book, as James works to establish his relationships with the staff, the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship with his son and his increasing reliance on Martha. Then there are the students and their relationships with each other and the Dean. How James survives in a “woman’s world” provides much scope for gently poking fun - for example I loved the tale of the SCR curtains, agreed upon by the Pictures, Plate and Furniture Sub-Committee and James's amazement that this is discussed by the entire academic staff at the annual meeting of the Governing Body. Opinion is divided between a traditional William Morris print and a more geometric Mondrian-style pattern.

More seriously the book raises questions, such as should the college compromise its integrity and take a donation when it cannot be sure of its origins? When its origins could be ill-gotton gains from bribery and corruption? Should the library be left to sink? And what about the question of donations from parents – are they evidence of bribery for a place or a genuine means of raising funds? Should students be penalised if they can’t afford their education? Or indeed should students be denied a place if their parents make donations? I was intrigued to read on and see how or if these questions were resolved?

There are echoes of C P Snow's novels, that I read and enjoyed many years ago, particularly The Masters in the Strangers and Brothers series and I noticed in the acknowledgements that the book developed from a joke about Snow. This is an intelligent and witty novel which kept me greatly entertained and gave me food for thought. I do hope there will be more books from Dr Thornton.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton, published by Headline Review, 2007, hardback, 341 pages.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Glimpses of Edward Gibbon at Sheffield Place (Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex)

Each day during this last week I’ve been reading one of Virginia Woolf’s essays from the collection in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Each one has provided some fascinating glimpses into the lives of a number of writers including Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794), about whom I know very little. In fact before I read her two essays "The Historian and ‘The Gibbon’" and "Reflections at Sheffield Place" all I knew was that Gibbon had written The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I didn’t know about his connection to Sheffield Place and was interested when I realised that this is now Sheffield Park in Sussex. Although the house is privately owned, the National Trust owns Sheffield Park Garden. I visited it several years ago when I had no inkling that Gibbon had also visited it some 300 years earlier. The garden was originally designed by 'Capability' Brown for John Holroyd (who later became Lord Sheffield) in about 1775. So, Gibbon who was a great friend of Lord Sheffield would have seen the garden when he stayed with Lord Sheffield, but I doubt that he would have walked round very much of it as, according Maria, Sheffield’s daughter, Gibbon was "a mortal enemy to any person taking a walk." To her he was a figure of fun "waddling across the room", but she admitted that he was “the most delightful of talkers” and she was genuinely fond of him.

Woolf in her essay Reflections at Sheffield Park ponders whether Gibbon had paused in front of the “great ponds … bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other.” I wish I had known that when I visited. I remember how beautiful Sheffield Park Garden was with its colourful displays of flowers and trees surrounding the lakes; I could have stood there imagining that maybe Gibbon had stood on the same spot and seen a similar display! The lakes, cascades and waterfalls make this one of the most picturesque gardens I've visited. I can't find the photos we took when we were there, so this photo is from Wikipedia, showing one of the lakes. The National Trust website has a few photos showing the Garden at different times of the year.

Woolf’s description of Gibbon’s appearance as well as his character caught my imagination and brought him to life. He was fat and ugly, talked incessantly, was sickly and had none of the advantages of birth. She describes his appearance as “ridiculous – prodigiously fat, enormously top-heavy, precariously balanced upon little feet upon which he spun round with astonishing alacrity.”

Gibbon apparently abandoned his purple language and wrote racy colloquial prose to Sheffield and was the only person who could restrain Sheffield’s extravagance. The contrasting characters of his eccentric Aunt Hester and his Aunt Kitty who brought him up after his mother died show the complexity of his nature. Woolf wrote that Aunt Hester’s view was that he was “a worldling, wallowing in the vanities of the flesh, scoffing at the holiness of faith.” Aunty Kitty on the other hand, thought he was a prodigy and was intensely proud of him.

Virginia Woolf’s essays are brief but give enough facts and a general impression of how Gibbon grew up and became a historian to make me keen to find out more. Gibbon did of course write in a very ornate, ironic and elaborate style, but Woolf considers reading it is like being “mounted on a celestial rocking-horse”, which then becomes a “winged steed; we are sweeping in wide circles through the air and below us Europe unfolds; the ages pass; a miracle has taken place.”

I still have essays on Coleridge, Shelley, Henry James, George Moore and E M Forster to read in this little book – such a wide sweep of literature yet to explore.

Sunday Scenes

OutsideI looked out of the window first thing this morning and saw these four pheasants. One was motionless in the middle of the field watching the other three as they walked in procession along the boundary fence. I grabbed my camera, and this is the best shot I could get before they disappeared beyond my view. I'm sorry that they don't show up very well.

Later in the morning D said he wondered what people were looking at opposite our window (we get quite a few hikers walking by at the weekend) and then realised it was this cat sitting staring at the field. The pheasants were long gone, but the hedge is a haven for mice and voles, as well as birds and the cats are always on patrol, but we've never seen one sitting on top of the hedge before.

I decided it was about time I sorted out the pile of bedside books, which were in piles on the floor. Some of these I've read, some I've started and others are ones I want to read. Sometimes I can't decide what to read which is why there are so many in these piles - 19 books! I am only actually reading Hearts and Minds at the moment, and Virginia Woolf's book of Essays, and Half of a Yellow Sun, but they are downstairs.

From left to right they are:

Dead Language, by Peter Rushforth
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Author, Author by David Lodge
Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
W. Somerset Maugham Collection
Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
The Genealogist’s Internet by Peter Christian
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton
Florence and Tuscany a Dorling Kindersley travel guide
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
Back from the Brink, autobiography of Paul McGrath
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

The Illusionist is the third book I’ve read recently on the theme of illusions. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett was the first followed by Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Of these three I found The Illusionist the most satisfying. Jennifer Johnston is a new writer to me, but from the biographical details in the book I see that she has won many awards – the Whitbread Prize in 1979, the Evening Standard Best first Novel Award in 1972 and was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1977. I’m sorry I haven’t come across her books before, but I’ll be looking out for them from now on.

Once I started this I stopped reading the other books I have on the go and read this through in about two sittings. I wanted to find out what happened and why. Set in Ireland and England, it starts with Stella, looking back on her life after the death of her estranged husband, Martyn. Thirty years earlier they had met on a train when he had taken the book she was reading out of her hands and asked if she would like to play cards. Now if a stranger had done that to me I wouldn’t have been too pleased but Stella is charmed by him, and after a very short time they are married, against her parents’ advice. Martyn has a full time job but practices magic tricks, although he corrects her description of him as a conjuror – he is an Illusionist. However, it’s not long before she begins to have misgivings, particularly when he won’t tell her anything about his background or his job or what is in the locked the room where he is devising an extraordinary new trick, with the help of two mysterious men.

The situation gets worse as Stella is manipulated and controlled by Martyn, so much that she gives up her own job and they move with their daughter, Robin to a large house in the countryside. Eventually, as things become so bad and Robin is alienated from her mother, Stella has to take action.

There are various themes running through the book; the nature of love and trust, how much you can trust or know another person, what is real or illusory, and above all about preserving one’s integrity in relationships between husband/wife and mother /daughter. It’s so easy to read this book as the words just flow across the pages, bringing to my mind vivid pictures of the countryside:

“Out beyond Clifden the world seems to end: hills, islands, clouds drift together in the hugh ocean of the sky. Sometimes the sun overwhelms both the sea and the sky with its glitter, sometimes pillars of rain move across the emptiness, then the colour, the texture of the land and sea change as the rain falls, from blue to grey, sometimes to black. Other times a shawl of mist hides mountains, sea and sky.”

The characters also came alive in my mind and I began to dislike Martyn more and more as the book progressed and I found myself wanting to support and encourage Stella in her struggle to survive. There is so much in this book that I liked and here is one example indicating the themes explored within the story:

“Some words lurk in the darkness of your mind, like young men lurk in the shadows, waiting to damage, maim, or merely frighten unsuspecting walkers once the light has gone.

Words can be like missiles or rose or travellers to another world. You can play delightful games with them, that will make you and others smile, feel light-hearted, or you can kill; you can hide the truth or manifest it.”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Format - Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday's question this week is - All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

In a perfect world I’d have both.

I like reading hardbacks (hardcovers) although their weight is often a problem if they are long books, both in carrying them home from the library and also when reading, particularly when reading in bed. These days some hardbacks are just as liable to fall apart as paperbacks, but on the whole I do think that last longer. Some paperbacks have those covers that curl open once you start reading and some are so tightly bound that you have to break the spine to keep the book open whilst you read it. But a paperback is much easier to carry around and I like to take a book with me just in case there’s an opportunity to read.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Eating, Sleeping and Living with Books

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix 2006 paperback 260 pages).

I read about this book on Ann’s Blog and was intrigued enough to read it for myself. It’s a remarkable memoir of the author’s refuge at the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. on the banks of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime reporter, packed his bags and headed for Paris after receiving a death threat. He arrived during the last days of 1999 and shortly afterwards found his way to Shakespeare & Co, where he was amazed to find not only is it a bookshop but also a place providing beds for a number of writers. The owner George Whitman, then 86 years old, had been inviting writers to stay in the shop since he opened it in 1951, provided they helped in the shop and read a book a day, hardly an onerous task.

Jeremy recounts how George made him welcome, how he found ways to exist on very little money, with meals from George, Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, morning ablutions at the Café Panis and baguettes (“with the occasional speck of blue-green mold on the bread”) from the Sandwich Queen. Jeremy finds friends amongst the other residents and tells of their story-telling sessions on the banks of the Seine, and other escapades, including a trip to Ireland with Simon, an English poet and long time resident at Shakespeare & Co. As the future of the shop was called into question Jeremy helps George produce a booklet on the history of Shakespeare & Co and succeeds in tracking down George’s daughter Sylvia, whom he hoped would carry on the shop in the future.

It’s full of fascinating characters - the many writers who have been connected with it including Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg; the individuals living in the shop; and not forgetting perhaps the most remarkable character of all, George himself. George’s generosity is in line with the original occupants of the building, built on the foundations of a 16th century monastery. He “compares himself to the monks who used to live on the same spot, a frere lampier who keeps a light on to welcome strangers and cares for old books and lost folk with semisacred devotion.” However, as the residents of the shop change Jeremy eventually finds that it felt “strange and dislocating” when he saw new people “amok among the books” and he decided that it was time to move on.

From the website I learned that George has retired but Shakespeare & Co is still “a wonderland of books” and has a full programme of forthcoming events. The website also has a tour of the shop, showing interior and exterior views and giving details of the book readings and other events held at the shop. I would love to visit it one day.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

My Celebrate the Author Challenge book for February was going to be one by Amy Tan or Alice Walker, who have birthdays in February. However, I was reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, whose birthday is also in February, so I changed my list. That’s a good thing about this challenge – I don’t have to stick with the books I originally thought I was going to read. Somehow there is an obstacle in my mind about challenges. I love the idea of them and deciding what to read but when it gets to the time I’m “supposed” to read a book for some strange reason I don’t want to read it. After all I’m reading for pleasure and I like to read as and when the fancy takes me – not to a fixed programme.

From the title The Book of Illusions I expected to be deceived, that people and events would not be as they seemed and I was not disappointed. This book is full of illusions. It tells the stories of two men, David Zimmer, a professor whose wife and two sons were killed in a plane crash and Hector Mann, a silent movie star who disappeared mysteriously in 1929. David is plunged into depression and “lived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity” until he watched a clip from one of Hector’s films. It made him laugh. He became obsessed with Hector, the man in the white tropical suit, with a thin black mustache, which Hector used as an “instrument of communication”, speaking a “language without words, its wiggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code. … the mustache monologues.” In typical silent movie style Hector with his slicked-back hair, thin and greasy little mustache and white suit is the target and focal point of every mishap.

David takes leave of absence from the university and studies Hector’s films, eventually writing a book about him, intrigued by his disappearance. Then he receives a letter from Hector’s wife, in which she reveals that Hector is alive and wants to meet David before he dies. He asks for proof that Hector is indeed alive. The rest of the novel reveals what happened to Hector and why he disappeared, in a series of melodramatic incidents. It’s a tense tale as David accompanied by Alma, directed by Hector to persuade David to visit him, rushes to the Blue Stone ranch in New Mexico, where he finds Hector on his deathbed, guarded by Frieda his wife who seems to resent David’s presence.

There are stories within stories; subterfuge, crime, shootings, issues of identity, love, death, disguises and deception abound in this book. A few quotes give the flavour:

“The world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.”

“I was writing about things I couldn’t see any more, and I had to present them in purely visual terms. The whole experience was like a hallucination.”

“The world was full of holes … once on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.”

“Life was a fever dream … reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined became true.”

“If I never saw the moon, then the moon was never there.”

Truly a book of illusions – about films that are in themselves illusions, the illusion that we can know another person, that there is a future, illusions about love, and identity – it moves in and out of reality. There are many layers to this novel; it’s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach, that century which “no one in his right mind will be sorry to see end.” It’s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it “will start all over again.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Booking Through Thursday - After the Honeymoon

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

This question has made me think, once more, about just who are my favourite authors and why they are favourites. They are favourites because most importantly I enjoy their books, then because I like the way they write and I like what they write about; they are authors whose books live in my memory (for a while at least) and make me think. To qualify as a favourite author I have to have read more than one of their books.

I can't say that I have "fallen out of love" with a favourite author. I may think one book is better than another or I may enjoy one more than the next but I can't think of a book that was so bad it would stop me from reading their work. This week I've read various comments about the lack of "authority" of book bloggers to express their opinions and not post negative reviews if they don't like a book. But reading is a very subjective matter. Other people may, and do, think differently and come to a book with different expectations. What one person likes is not necessarily the same for everyone and it's useless to think otherwise. I like to know what other people have read and what they thought about it.

Coming to a new (to me) author I have found that I the first book may appeal to me, but the next won't and then I may not pick up a third. I'm thinking here of Maeve Binchy. I've only read one - Nights of Rain and Stars. I enjoyed it, easy to read (I was in the mood for a fast read), interesting story, believable characters, etc etc. This is not a well-thought out review of this book just memories of a book I read at the beginning of 2007. It was good enough for me to want to read more of her books, so I bought Whitethorn Woods. I started it - put it down - started it again - put it down and haven't picked it up again. The reason being that it seems disjointed, trite and well - boring. Maybe I'll read it sometime but life is just too short to carry on reading a book that I'm not enjoying.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Courtly Love in Florence

Last week on my course on Dante’s Florence we looked at the development of the city, and the concept of ‘courtly love’ in relation to Dante’s La Vita Nuova (New Life).

Today we know Florence as a Renaissance city and there is little left of the medieval city that Dante knew. Originally a Roman city, by the end of the 13th century it was an expanding wealthy city bounded by its 12th century walls.

The earliest view of Florence is in the fresco of the Madonna of Mercy 1342, now in the Museo del Bigallo. It shows the city walls, towers, and the Cathedral, which was much smaller then and its dome had not been added. The Campanile was not yet built and the most prominent building was the Baptistery. The churches and religious establishments now within the city were outside the medieval walls, for example Santa Trinita, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce (containing the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo and a monument to Dante who died in exile in Ravenna in 1321),

The River Arno runs through Florence, crossed by four bridges, including the Ponte Vecchio, built in 1345 after Dante’s death. It replaced a 12th century bridge that had been destroyed by floods in 1333. Floods have been a perennial problem, the worst one being that in 1966, when many buildings and works of art were damaged. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in the city that survived the bombing during the Second World War.

Although Dante referred to the river in The Divine Comedy as the “cursed and unlucky ditch” as it was used as a rubbish tip, it has always been important to the city as the means of transporting goods and also for the textile industry. Wool was washed in the river and as it was used by tanners and purse makers in Dante’s day it must have been a very smelly place. Well known now for its shops there have always been shops on the bridge – butchers in the 15th century, then goldsmiths from the 16th century onwards.

Other prominent features of the city were the towers, as in other Italian towns (most notably San Gimignano). These were built from the 11th century onwards, with an average height of 225 feet. There were two types, defence and tower houses. I can’t imagine living in one, the only means of getting up to the rooms was by trap doors and ladders – I find it hard just getting into our loft! Representations of the towers can be seen in Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna, now in the Uffizi Gallery, showing the Madonna and Child seated on a hugh throne surrounded by saints and angels and towers.

Set against the backdrop of this medieval city Dante theologised the concept of ‘courtly love’. This concept had originated with the troubadours in France and had developed as poets paid homage to and idolised married women from afar. In Dante’s case he fell in love at first sight with Beatrice Portinari when he was nine. Later they were both married (to other people) but he continued to put Beatrice on a pedestal, regarding her as a miraculous being. His love was unrequited and she died when she was 24, leaving Dante in despair. He wrote La Vita Nuova (1294) after her death in which he expressed, in a series of sonnets, his love and passion for her and his despair and grief at her death.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mr Blossom's Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd

When I read about the Heart of a Child Challenge I immediately thought of several books that I still had, Mr Blossom’s Shop being one of them. I remembered reading it as a child and hadn’t given it away because it was a prize from Sunday School for attendance. When I was a child every Christmas we were encouraged by the Sunday School to give books and toys for the ‘poor children’ whose parents couldn’t afford to buy them Christmas presents. I always found it difficult to give away books, and would look for excuses to hold on to them! I've included photos of the illustations in the book, which I particularly like now. I'd coloured them in my book as I had a book that used to belong to my mother when she was a child in which she had coloured the pictures, so I knew she couldn't tell me off. I don't think I coloured in any other books after that.

I was eight when I was given this book and I remember thinking it was a bit young for me (how ungrateful) but it has stuck in my mind so it can’t have been too bad. Mr Blossom’s shop was of course not your everyday, ordinary village shop but was stocked full of the most surprising and magical things. There was the Sally Lunn bun that turned into Miss Sally Lunn, a plump little old lady with “black curranty eyes set deeply in to her shiny brown face, and she wore a stiff little bonnet, as prim and neatly goffered as though it were made out of pie-crust.” I can’t believe I knew what “goffered” means when I was eight or if I did I’ve forgotten because I had to look it up. “ To goffer” is to make wavy or to crimp, so it’s a good image for a frilled bonnet or a crimped piecrust.

There were snapdragon seeds that produced real live little dragons that eat plants and candytuft seeds that come up as tiny cherry pies with sugary crusts and “tufts and tufts of the most delicious mauve and white sugar-candy”.

One of my favourite stories is “Sand-Shoes”, which I used to call pumps when I was a child. They are canvas shoes with rubber soles (also known as plimsolls). The sand-shoes Jennifer’s god mother bought her were very special shoes, “as light as leaves” that carried her out of her garden and then she “found that she was running on air. Her shoes never touched the ground.” They carried her to the seaside. Unlike the shoes in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the sand-shoes returned Jennifer home unharmed, the only signs being her sandy feet and tiny shells that fell out of the shoes. I did like The Red Shoes as a child, even though Karen is forced to dance without stopping when she puts on shoes and the ending is just horrible.

Helping Mr Blossom in his shop was Mrs Macgillicuddy who was a nice witch, complete with cauldron and broomstick. She is the source of the magic pills and potions, “the magic headache powders, and the everlasting ball of string, and the pencil that added up sums by itself, and many other strange things that only witches know the ways of.”

I enjoyed my journey into the past reading this book. I’d read on Tara’s blog of an adult book by Barbara Euphan Todd and when I found this was in the library I was lucky enough to find it on the shelves recently. So now I’ll see if I enjoy Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Until I started to write this post I knew nothing about Barbara Euphan Todd. She was born in 1890, worked as a VAD (volunteers who ran military hospitals) during the First World War and began writing at first for magazines such as Punch and the Spectator. Her first book, Worzel Gummidge was published in 1936, followed by nine others. She died in 1976 as plans were being made to televise her Worzel Gummidge books. So, what a pity she never saw Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who) as Worzel.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Olivia Manning - The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

10 Signs a Book Has Been Written by Me – a Meme

Gautami has tagged me for this meme. As I haven’t written a book this is difficult. If I were to write one, thinking optimistically, it would: historical fiction romantic
3.have a mystery to be solved philosophical
6.and mystical
7.focusing on the power of memories
8.and the intricacies of the mind well researched
10.and be a bestseller.

The only publication to my name (well my maiden name) is a bibliography on the ‘Massacre’ of ‘Peterloo in 1819’ that I compiled and was published by the library where I used to work. So more realistically my book would be:

2.well researched
3.structured and methodical
4.based on facts, not on assumptions
5.detailed, but clear and concise
7.referenced with footnotes, not endnotes.
8.It would have an extensive bibliography
9.and an index.
10.It would be a bestseller – I wish!

Gautami, you have no idea how long this has taken me, or how much thought has gone into this post. It has been a pipe-dream of mine to write a book. I have bought and borrowed many books on writing and nothing has come from my pen, or more recently my computer, that in any way, shape or form resembles a book! I’m an expert at reading how to write fiction, but faced with doing any of those exercises they say will help to write a novel I dry up completely. It’s like putting me in a group of people and being asked to name five interesting things about yourself that nobody could guess from looking at you. Or dividing up into little groups to discuss something and then reporting back to the big group - my mind goes blank immediately.

So at the end of all this I know that the book I would like to write is buried deep within me but will probably stay there, well hidden, too shy to come out. But on the other hand if it starts out on this computer, it may just begin to relax and make itself known …

I’m supposed to tag another five people now. Stuckinabook, A Work In Progress, So Many Books, Of Books and Bicycles and In Spring It is the Dawn, I’d love to see what you would write, so I’m tagging you. Please let me know how you get on.

Friday, February 08, 2008

W. Somerset Maugham

After I’d finished writing the previous post I went to the library and found a Book Club Associates’ volume containing six stories by W. Somerset Maugham, which includes The Moon and Sixpence. This has an interesting Preface written by Maugham in 1933.

Maugham wrote that he had been living in London, working hard but not earning much money. He had written four or five novels, two of which had not been very successful and he was unknown to the general public. In 1904 he set out for Paris, where he was born, and it was there that he became aware of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. He met men who had known and worked with him and he read the only life of him that existed at that time. It occurred to him that here was the subject of a novel and he kept that in mind for over ten years.

When he went to Tahiti it was with the idea of finding out what he could about Gauguin’s life and again he came across people who had been more or less connected with him. The Moon and Sixpence was written in 1918 in Surrey whilst he was recovering from the tuberculosis he had contracted earlier in the war.

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles he had used a travel book, A Vagabond Journey round the World by Harry Franck and as he had not acknowledged the source in the novel he was condemned by an angry gentleman in an article in a magazine. This did not bother Maugham, who gladly acknowledged his debt to Franck, but pointed out that he thought it is an absurd notion that a writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. He considered

“The novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. … The writers of the past took from one another want they wanted. Many went further and without a sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one author uses an incident that he has found in another’s is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it his own. Books of facts are legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer.”

He then referred to an article a young man had written in which he had copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. He continued:

“It contained not only all the passages I myself had used from Mr Harry Franck’s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity.”

Thinking of copyright law (which I confess I don’t really understand) I wonder if there are there many authors who would have the same attitude today?

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

I'd read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an “outmoded” author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs - and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:

“I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? … The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”

Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, “just a good, dull, honest, plain man”. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.

I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel's main character is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.

After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, “ a queer fish”. In Tahiti they took him for granted: “In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.”

After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:

“Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.”

This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.

The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a “great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.” Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.

I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:

“Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, "The Moon and Sixpence" fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.”

I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’s work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Booking Through Thursday ... But, enough about books…

Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

Although I do love reading and always like to have one book or more on the go, I do like doing other things too. I'm later than usual writing Booking Through Thursday as Thursday morning I go to the course (it's only for 6 weeks) on Dante's Florence, so you can guess from that that I like art history, Florence, Italy and history. I like to visit anywhere with historical connections, castles, stately homes, churches, museums, etc etc and take photos. I'd like to learn more about photography and improve my photos.

I've written before that I do cross-stitching, but recently I haven't done much - too much reading and writing. I suppose writing does take up more of my time now than it used to, so perhaps I should say writing. Then there is family history - that has been very time consuming recently. I like going to the theatre and cinema too.

I have several Keep Fit type DVDs but the last one I bought has proved to be really hard. It's Strictly Come Dancersize. I love the show and was so impressed with the fitness of all the dancers and celebrities that I bought the DVD. It is so hard. First of all you have to be able to dance a bit before you can start to follow the routines. Karen and Erin go through the moves and I think I've got it until the music starts and some of it is fast! They go through the Salsa, Jive, Quick Step Samba and the Cha Cha. I thought I knew how to jive at least, but no I couldn't do it - the quick step and the salsa aren't too bad. I shall persevere.

Also to keep fit we do a bit of walking, although we're really only fair weather walkers. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, although a little cold, so we did get out and walked to the lake shown in the blog header. There were swans, ducks and Canada Geese on the lake and as we walked up a heron flew up onto its nest at the top of one of the tall trees at the side of the lake.

Being with the family is one of the best ways to spend leisure time. We have three grandchildren and we love doing things with them, or just being with them. So for example, we've been on farm visits, parties, ten-pin bowling, which I love but am terrible at, watching the ballet. Of course one of the most enjoyable things to do is going out for a meal, although after watching Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares progammes I'm not so sure I should!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Manchester United Tribute Day

I couldn't let today go by without mentioning that today is the 50th anniversary of the 1958 Munich air disaster that cost the lives of 23 people including Manchester United players, backroom staff and journalists.

Book Meme - Page 123

Sam at The Life and Times of Me! has tagged me for this meme. The rules are:
  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
  2. Open the book to page 123
  3. Find the fifth sentence
  4. Post the next three sentences
  5. Tag five people

The nearest book was The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, which I’d just finished reading.

This passage on page 123 tells of Stroeve’s reaction to his wife's death:

“He was absolutely exhausted. His volubility had left him at last, and he sank down wearily on my sofa. I felt that no words of condolence availed, and I let him lie there quietly.”

The Moon and Sixpence was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin. This quote from the back cover sums it up:

The Moon and Sixpence is at once a satiric caricature of Edwardian mores and a vivid portrayal of the mentality of genius.”

More about this book will follow in another post.

I do find it difficult to tag other people and I know that a variation of this meme has done the rounds a few months ago. So if you're reading this and want to do the meme please consider yourself tagged. If you do please let me know.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

From The Stacks Challenge

The Overdue Books Challenge came to an end on 31 January 2008. The idea was to read 5 books from those you had already purchased, had been meaning to get to and haven't read before. There was to be no going out and buying new books and no getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The books I chose were:

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

On the first count I didn’t do too well because I only read two of these books, namely The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I wrote about on 13 December 2007 and Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom, which I wrote about on 30 January 2008.

Although I started off quite well it wasn’t long before I began to buy more books so I failed dismally on the second count. Still, I’m pleased that I did read at least two books from my To Be Read List, so I’m counting it as a mini success and I will read the other books this year.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

This was one of the best books I read in 2007. Philip Reeve is a new author to me and I first read about him on Ann’s blog. Here Lies Arthur is an adventure story, set in Britain in AD 500. I have always been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and this book tells his story, casting a new and original slant on the “facts”. Very little historical evidence has survived to give concrete information about life in Britain from the fifth to the sixth centuries. The picture Reeve paints is of a turbulent and harsh world, with Arthur as a war-leader in a land where opposing war-bands fight for supremacy. Arthur is not the romantic hero of legend but a dangerous, quick-tempered man, “solid, big-boned with a thick neck and a fleshy face. … A bear of a man.”

Merlin is in this story too, not the magician of legend but Myrddin, a singer of songs and a story-teller par excellence, whose tales convince people of Arthur’s supremacy and power – the King That Was and Will Be. With the help of Gwyna, a young girl whose home has been ransacked and burnt Myrddin works his own kind of magic on people, eager to believe in miracles, the old gods and spirits, the Lady of the Lake and the significance of the sword, Excalibur– called Caliburn in this book.

Gwyna, disguised as a boy acts as Myrddin’s servant as they travel with the war-band. Then as it becomes difficult to continue with disguise Myrddin sends her to Gwenhwhfar’s household to act as a spy. As in the legend Gwenhwhfar is not faithful to Arthur. Other characters in the legends are interwoven into the story, most memorably is Peredur, Sir Perceval of Round Table fame and the hero of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

As Gwyna matures she takes on the role played by Myrddin, spinning tales of her own, giving meaning to his life and death. It’s the stories that matter, with their magical enchantment. We can still hope that Myrddin’s Arthur will one day return, “the wisest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.”

Gwyna ends the story with the tale of the ship carrying Arthur to “an island in the west” where “he lies sleeping, healed of all his wounds. And he’ll wake one day, when our need of him is bad enough, and he’ll come back to us. … And the name of that ship, the name of that ship is called, Hope.”

The stories of course are made up of words and what a spell Reeve has woven with his words. The names and place names conjure up such memories and visions of the time when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and there is a list at the back of the book with a guide to how they might have been pronounced. I kept referring to the guide as I read along, saying the names out loud and letting the sounds resonate within my head.

It may be sentimental, but this is what I found irresistible in this book, the mixture of fact and fantasy, realism and enchantment, and the importance of story to encourage and inspire people. It brings the legends to life.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Old Filth by Jane Gardam and The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Old Filth tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, variously known as Eddie, The Judge, Fevvers, Master of the Inner Temple and Teddy. Not a dirty old man, he is “spectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean.” Filth is his nickname standing for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He was born in what was then Malaya and sent home to England as a small child of five. The story goes backwards and forwards in time telling of his childhood at boarding school, then after Oxford he became a barrister and eventually a Judge on the circuit in Hong Kong. The book starts with Old Filth aged 80 living on his own in Dorset after the death of his wife, Betty. His near neighbour is Terry Veering, also a retired lawyer he had known and detested in Hong Kong. He and Terry end up unexpectedly spending Christmas together. I was hooked straight away and read on eagerly.

As Filth begins to look back on his life, he becomes anxious to contact old friends and relations and as he contacts these people the story of his life emerges. He relives their times together, tries to make amends and sees events in a new light. There are many surprises before Filth comes to terms with his life and widowhood. It’s a gentle book, full of humour and heartbreak.

The Photograph was the first book I read this year and I raced through it eager to find out why Kath was holding hands with a man who wasn’t her husband, Glyn. After her death, Glyn comes across a photograph taken many years before of Kath and an unknown man. The photograph was inside an envelope on which Kath had written DON’T OPEN – DESTROY.

Glyn, a TV history researcher, infuriated by the photograph and the discovery of her involvement with this unknown man sets out to discover who he is. He becomes obsessed with his search as it becomes obvious how little he knew about Kath and her life.

I have always found Penelope Lively’s books full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and this one is one of her best. It’s about relationships, love and fidelity, grief and loss and the power of memory, all topics that for me made this book compelling reading.

Two excellent books.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Heart of a Child Challenge

I really shouldn't be entering another challenge, but I just can't resist this one. It's being run by Becky at Becky's Book Reviews - see her post on this challenge here.

The challenge is to read 3 to 6 books between February 1, 2008 and July 14, 2008, choosing from books and authors that you discovered, loved, or adored as a child. Anything and everything that you read through the age of 18 would qualify.

The books I will be choosing from are:

  • Mr Blossom's Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd.
  • Heidi by Joanna Spyri
  • The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
  • The Gloriet Tower by Eileen Meyler

These were all favourites. I may have to add Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children and also What Katy Did Next.

3rd Annual Brigid in Cyberspace Poetry Reading

I found this on Table Talk's blog.

WHAT: A Bloggers (Silent) Poetry Reading
WHEN: Anytime February 2, 2008
WHERE: Your blog
WHY: To celebrate the Feast of Brigid, aka Groundhog Day
HOW: Select a poem you like - by a favorite poet or one of your own - to post February 2nd.

See here for more details.

Not knowing what Groundhog Day is I looked it up on Wikipedia. If a groundhog (also known as a ground squirrel, woodchuck or marmot) emerges from its burrow on February 2 and doesn't see its shadow it's a sign that winter is ending, but if it does see its shadow that's a sign that winter is still here and the groundhog goes back to its burrow.Winter then comntinues for 6 more weeks.

No sign of a groundhog here today (or any other day) but there are signs that winter is ending in this part of Britain, if not further north where there have been severe snow storms. I thought this poem is a reminder to slow down and enjoy life.


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies (1871 - 1940) was a Welsh poet, known as 'The People's Poet' and a 'Super-Tramp'. See Welsh Heroes for more information.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Dante's Florence

I’ve never ever had any inclination to read Dante’s Divine Comedy before, but I’ve now ordered a copy from Amazon. This is because I have enrolled on a course called Dante’s Florence. My initial interest was Florence not Dante. We have had some beautiful holidays in Italy; the last one (in 2000) was near Florence and then we only had one day in Florence itself. I loved Francesco da Mosto’s TV series on Italy and have wanted to go back to see more of the country – in particular Florence and Venice. So when a friend said she was taking a course on Dante’s Florence I jumped at the chance to find out more.

It was the first session yesterday and I really enjoyed it. This is the description of the course: “Studying Dante could not be more divine! Experience the Florence of Dante’s day, including the art and architecture and the poet’s relationship with his native city as conveyed in his writings.” My impression of Dante’s Inferno was that it is long and difficult and this was reinforced when the tutor said that most people who read The Divine Comedy manage to read through Purgatory and Hell, but few reach Paradise. It’s not necessary to read it for this course, but now I want to know more.

It’s only a six week course and covers a lot of topics including Florentine art and architecture of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Dante’s relationship with Florence with reference to The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, and his legacy in art and literature.

Dante’s Florence was a much smaller city than today, but there are still some buildings from that period. I was pleased that I had visited some on our visit in 2000, in particular the Baptistry. This was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and Dante was baptised there in 1265. I remember sitting in the Baptistry, gazing with wonder and admiration at the magnificent ceiling decorations in its dome, and walking on the ancient mosaic floor. I have always been fascinated by mosaics, the intricate patterns and marvelled at their composition.

Dante loved learning, hunting and sport, was involved in the struggle for power between the Church and the State, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. The great love of Dante’s life was Beatrice Portinari, who he met when he was nine and she was eight. They never married. Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday shows him gazing at her as she passes by ignoring him.

I hope we will be looking at the Pre-Raphaelite paintings when the tutor discusses Dante’s legacy to art, as one of my favourite paintings is Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante wrote La Vita Nuova in despair at Beatrice’s death and we’ll be studying that next week.