Monday, January 29, 2007

Mark Twain on the British Museum

What a place it is!

Mention some very rare curiosity of a peculiar nature—a something which you have read about somewhere but never seen—they show you a dozen! They show you all the possible varieties of that thing! They show you curiously wrought jeweled necklaces of beaten gold, worn by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Etruscans, Greeks, Britons—every people of the forgotten ages, indeed. They show you the ornaments of all the tribes and peoples that live or ever did live. Then they show you a cast taken from Cromwell's face in death; then the venerable vase that once contained the ashes of Xerxes.

I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me—nobody elbows me—all the room and all the light I want, under this huge dome—no disturbing noises—and people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun—and if I choose to go wandering about the long corridors and galleries of the great building the secrets of all the earth and all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum—it seems as if I do not know any but little words and weak ones.

Quoted in Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, chapter 87. Twain wrote hundreds of pages of sketches for a book about England ,which he never completed. Paine explains: "There was too much sociability in London for one thing, and then he found that he could not write entertainingly of England without introducing too many personalities, and running the risk of offending those who had taken him into their hearts and homes. In a word, he would have to write too seriously or not at all."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Concert in Leamington

Interior of All Saints Church, Leamington Spa.

This afternoon, after a traditional English Sunday dinner, Clara and I attended a concert by the Beauchamp Sinfonietta at All Saints Church in Leamington Spa. The program was Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture, Vaughn Williams' "The Lark Ascending," Smetana's "Ma Vlast," and Dvorak's Seventh Symphony. The soloist for the Vaughn Williams was Philip Gallaway, our niece Margaret's violin teacher. During the interval (intermission), tea and cakes were served at the back of the church. All Saints is a large parish church, reflecting the prosperity of mid-nineteenth century Royal Leamington Spa. Although in the Gothic style, it was largely built in the second half of the nineteenth century, on the site of the much older and smaller parish church.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

In Memoriam Harris Bigg-Wither
born May 18, 1781
marriage proposal rejected by Jane Austen December 3, 1802
died March 23, 1833
deleted from Wikipedia January 16, 2007

Thursday, January 25, 2007

London Highlights II: Museums

After our tour of Westminster Abbey (see below), we walked through St. James Park, looked at Buckingham Palace, then walked back through the Admiralty Arch to Trafalgar Square. Our first stop was the National Portrait Gallery, where we saw portraits of everyone from King Henry VII to Daniel Radcliffe. I was particularly thrilled to see Cassandra Austen's 1810 watercolor of her sister, Jane. After a dinner of Indian food on Charing Cross Road, not far from Leicester Square, we returned to the National Gallery for a whirlwind tour of some of our favorite works of art. I spent a long time gazing at Leonardo DaVinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks" and Renoir's "Les Parapluies." The following morning, we wandered around the British Museum before coming back to Kenilworth on the 13.50 from Marylebone.

Top to bottom: Pelicans in St. James Park; Rob and Will posing with one of the lions on Trafalgar Square; The National Gallery; Ramses II in the British Museum; the boys posing with a Roman copy of the Discobolos from Hadrian's Villa.

London Highlights I: Westminster Abbey

Top to bottom: Will, Peter and Clara at the south end of Whitehall, with Big Ben in the background; Peter, Rob, Will and Clara Louise in the Westminster Abbey garden, with Victoria Tower (Houses of Parliament) in the background; the west side of Westminster Abbey; modern sculptures above the west door, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center).
Photography is not permitted inside Westminster Abbey, but you can take a virtual tour of the interior here.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Plan B

Will, Clara, Mary, and Clara Louise along the Grand Union Canal, near Hatton.

Instead of risking a journey to the Peak District, we were joined by Clara Louise and Aunt Mary for a walk along the Grand Union Canal, from Hatton Locks west to the Hatton railway station, then back to the canalside café for tea. The walk was lovely—cold and sunny for most of the distance, with some patches of squelching mud. As we were drinking our tea at the end of the walk, the sky opened up. The drive home to Kenilworth was in heavy hail. I like to think, therefore, that our decision to stay closer to home today was justified.
Winter Weather

English weather: anything is possible.

It's a lovely Sunday morning here in Kenilworth. Our plan for the day was to drive (2 hours) up to Hathersage, in the Peak District, and walk along Stanage Edge. Stanage Edge is where Keira Knightley, as Elizabeth Bennet, stands on the gritstone ledge with the wind blowing through her dress in Pride and Prejudice. Hathersage is where Charlotte Brontë was inspired to write Jane Eyre, and it's also where Robin Hood's lieutenant, Little John, is buried (if you can believe the story and the inscription on the tombstone). Unfortunately, the symbol above appears on today's BBC weather forecast for the Hope Valley. Sleet. Not wishing to drive all that way only to be caught in sleet on Stanage Edge, we're opting for a walk closer to home, along the Grand Union Canal into Warwick. Simon, if you're reading, we're just keeping in mind your story of a fatal fall from Striding Edge on an icy winter day. Incidentally, the symbol above is pretty illustrative of English weather: a single symbol that combines sun, cloud, rain, and snow. In a single day, you're liable to get a little of everything.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Yesterday, a huge storm hit northern Europe with winds up to 80 m.p.h. Traffic on the M-25 around London came to a standstill after a gust of wind toppled semis on the highway. Flights were cancelled at Heathrow, and the Eurostar train connecting Britain and France was halted by the weather. 27 people died in the storm, including 10 in England. The picture at left, taken in the Netherlands, shows the manner in which several of these people died. Here in Kenilworth, the wind blew steadily at about 40 m.p.h. all day, and there was occasional driving rain. Today, the rain has blown off and the winds have calmed, and it's the loveliest day we've had all week.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bath, Part Three: The Roman Baths and Pump Room

The Great Bath
with Bath Abbey rising above it

When the Romans arrived in Britain in the early first century CE, they found in what is now Bath a Celtic settlement of the Dobunni tribe near a thermal spring sacred to the goddess Sulis. Over the next four centuries, the Romans built up an elaborate complex of buildings on the site, including a temple to Minerva Sulis (incorporating the sacred spring) and public baths. The Roman settlement itself was called Aquae Sulis. Oppidum Aquae Sulis parvum erat, thermae maximae, says the Cambridge Latin Course, which sets the the action of Unit 3 in Roman Britain. Above, you can see me holding Unit 3 of the CLC next to the warm green waters of the great bath.

The baths are fed by the bubbling waters of the sacred spring, the only thermal springs in England. The water, steaming in the cool January air, is heated deep under the earth to a temperature of 115°F. Bubbles of gas frequently rise and break on the surface, creating an effect which impressed the ancient Celts and Romans with the presence of the divine.

After the collapse of the Roman occupationof Britain in the fourth century, the bath complex began to fall into decay. Eventually the roof caved in, and the great bath was filled in with rubble. The sacred spring became part of the monastic complex of Bath Abbey, and the reputation of the waters and their curative properties endured. Finally, in 1706, a spa opened on the site, and people flocked to Bath to "take the waters." The warm, iron-flavored water contains 43 dissolved minerals, and was believed to cure gout and other common upper-class eighteenth-century afflictions. Calcium and sulphate are the most abundant dissolved ions in the water. In 1790, the current Pump Room building opened; it was to this building that Mr. Allen in Northanger Abbey would have come to drink his three glasses a day. The Greek words above the Corinthian columns are ARISTON MEN HYDOR, or "water is best."

In the Victorian age, workers working in the basement of a building on Stall Street uncovered a large sculpture of a bearded face, seen here in a reconstruction of the pediment of the Temple of Minerva Sulis. Subsequent late-19th and 20th-century excavations uncovered the full extent of the ancient Roman Baths, the largest Roman bath complex in northern Europe.

Even on a cool weekend in January, Bath was heaving with visitors, both tourists and shoppers. Milsom and Union Streets—main 18th-century thoroughfares that are prominent in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey—seemed like rivers of people. Outside the Pump Rooms, we stopped for a few minutes to watch this street performer juggle fire while balancing on a tall unicycle.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bath, Part Two: A Walk with Jane Austen

Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805, although she had visited relatives in the city on earlier occasions. Her parents had been married in Bath, at St. Swithin's church, and her father decided to retire there in 1801. Jane Austen was not particularly happy living in Bath. She missed her familiar Hampshire countryside, and was too distracted by the noise and social whirl of Bath to do any writing: her first three novels were written at Steventon, and her last three at Chawton. But Bath is important as a setting for two of the novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Bath was, in 1801, a modern city. The Royal Crescent, remember, was completed in 1774, only a year before Jane Austen's birth. Austen herself complained of the "white glare" of the new buildings. In chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take a walk up to Beechen Cliff, a large hill overlooking the city. Clara Louise read the chapter to us in the car on the drive down from Kenilworth, and on Sunday morning we set out to recreate the walk itself:
Beechen Cliff as seen from just above Queen Square. In 1799, Jane Austen lived on Queen Square, about where the blue door is in the corner of the building. At the beginning of chapter 14, Austen writes: "They determined on walking around Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath." She may have had such an "opening" as this in mind.
Our walk took us across the Pulteney Bridge, designed by Robert Adam and built in 1773. Shops line the bridge on both sides. The river is the Avon.
The view from Beechen Cliff. Bath Abbey is behind Will's head. Unfortunately, the picturesque effect is slightly spoiled by a modern parking garage in the foreground. It was here that Henry Tilney instructed Catherine Morland on the picturesque: "He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape." We learn from Henry also that the rare blue sky doesn't contribute to a picturesque effect. One wants dramatic clouds.
After the walk, we were ready for tea, which we enjoyed in the Jane Austen Room of Sally Lunn's House, home of the world-famous Sally Lunn bun. The house itself is the oldest house in Bath (c. 1482), with foundations dating to Roman times. Its kitchen was once part of the monastery complex connected to Bath Abbey. Sally Lunn was supposedly a French immigrant in the 17th century who invented a new kind of large tea bun, a distant relative of the brioche. The authentic Bath recipe is a closely guarded secret, but Sally Lunns became popular in American Southern cooking, and the recipe here is adapted from Bill Neal's Southern Cooking (1985):

1 cup milk

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon

1/4 cup sugar

1 package active dry yeast

3 eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

Combine the milk, 1/2 cup butter, and sugar in a saucepan. Gently heat until the butter and sugar are dissolved in the milk. Let cool to lukewarm, then stir in the yeast and let it sit until little bubbles appear. Stir in the eggs.

Put the mixture in a large bowl and blend in the flour and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough becomes elastic and shiny, beating 400 strokes. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume. Beat the dough down, counting 50 strokes, and set aside for 15 minutes.

Generously butter a tube pan with the remaining butter. Beat the dough another 50 strokes and put it evenly in the tube pan. Cover again and let rise until doubled.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bake in the middle of the oven until the bread is risen and golden in color, about 40 minutes.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bath (Part One): John Wood and the Georgian City

John Wood the Elder was born in Bath in 1704. It's impossible to appreciate Bath fully without knowing a little about John Wood, who transformed the architecture of the Georgian city between 1727 and 1754. The look of Bath, with its magnificent neoclassical terraced houses, is largely due to John Wood the Elder, who designed the buildings of Queen Square (1727) and the Circus (1754), and his son, John Wood the Younger, who designed the Royal Crescent (1767-1774) and the Assembly Rooms (1769). Here is a brief gallery of those important Bath buildings:
Queen Square (north side)
John Wood the Elder (1727)

The Circus (north side)
John Wood the Elder (1754)
completed by John Wood the Younger

The Royal Crescent
John Wood the Younger (1767-1774)

The Assembly Rooms
John Wood the Younger (1769)

The Circus, Bath, and Stonehenge.

In designing the Circus, John Wood the Elder was, as is evident, greatly inspired by classical architecture—especially by the Coliseum in Rome. On the Coliseum, you may notice three ascending levels of classical columns: the Doric order for the lowest level, Ionic for the middle, and Corinthian for the top. Wood follows this pattern in the façade of the Circus. Wood was conscious of the fact that Bath had been a Roman city (Aquae Sulis), and his own architectural designs linked the Georgian city to that Roman past. He was also aware that Bath had been an ancient British city; indeed, the Roman temple on the site was dedicated to Minerva Sulis, a syncretism of the Roman Minerva and the Celtic goddess Sulis. By the late Middle Ages, a legend had grown up about the founding of Bath by a Celtic king named Bladud (a 17th-century statue of him presides over the Sacred Spring in the Roman Baths). To connect Bath with its Celtic past, Wood drew inspiration for the Circus from, believe it or not, Stonehenge, which he associated with the Druidical rites of the ancient Celts.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New Blog. At left, you will find a link to Sabbatical: The Poems, featuring poems written between July 2006 and August 2007.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Gilbert White House, Selborne

The back of Gilbert White's house, Selborne, as seen from the ha-ha at the edge of the park.

From Chawton, we travelled a few miles east, to Selborne, the home of Rev. Gilbert White (1720-1793), author of The Natural History of Selborne (1788). In a series of letters to his friends, the scientists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, Gilbert White meticulously described the natural world that surrounded him in quiet little Selborne. Most of his observations were wonderfully accurate, although he did support the discredited theory that swallows, instead of migrating, hibernated under water in the winter. But Gilbert White is surely one of the world's greatest observers, and stands at the beginning of the long and distinguished tradition of natural history writing in English. Selborne itself is a lovely place. The wooded hills around Selborne, owned by the National Trust, are popular with walkers.

Bibliographical note: I've published a scholarly article on Gilbert White's investigations into echoes, and how his description of echoes in a landscape might help us understand a small crux in Vergil's Ninth Eclogue. The full citation is: “Gilbert White and the Natural History of Vergilian Echoes,” Classical World 95.2 (2002), 163-169.
Jane Austen Weekend
Chawton: Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Jane Austen House, Chawton, Hampshire

From Winchester, we drove on Sunday morning to the small village of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived with her mother and beloved older sister, Cassandra, from 1809 to just before her death in 1817. Jane was born and grew up in Steventon, just west of Basingstoke, where her father, Rev. George Austen, was the vicar. In 1801, Rev. Austen retired from his living in Steventon, and moved the family to Bath. Jane was twenty-six, and it was difficult for her to leave the only home she had known. For the next seven or eight years, she had no real settled home. The family took various lodgings in Bath, and after Rev. Austen died in 1805, his widow and unmarried daughters moved to Southampton. 1806 found them staying with their Leigh cousin at Adlestrop and Stoneleigh Abbey.

Chawton church, and a glimpse of Chawton House, one of the homes belonging to Jane's brother, Edward Knight. The house is now a center devoted to research on 17th-19th century women's writing.

Meanwhile, Jane's brother Edward had been adopted by the wealthy Thomas Knight, of Godmersham Park, Kent (near Canterbury), and Chawton House, Hampshire. Knight and his wife were childless, and needed an heir. Edward, who changed his last name to Knight, became that heir, and in due time inherited Chawton House and Godmersham Park. In 1809, he offered his mother and sisters a home either in Kent or in Chawton. Mrs. Austen chose Chawton, and there Jane settled down to revise Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, and to write her other three novels.

She sat at this small table and wrote after breakfast each day. The door to the room creaked, and was left unoiled so that the sound would alert her if anyone was entering the room. She would then quickly hide her manuscript. In the afternoons, she walked for an hour or two with her sister, Cassandra. In the evening, she worked on her needlework; on display in the house is a large quilt that she made with her sister and mother.

The house is full of other little treasures that call to mind the novels. Cassandra's fortepiano (a Clementi) reminded me both of Marianne Dashwood and of poor Mary Bennet, who is so embarrassing on the piano. An amber cross with a gold chain, given to Jane by her beloved sailor brother, Charles, reminded me of a similar cross given to Fanny Price by her beloved sailor brother, William. The house is filled with so many reminders of how Jane Austen turned her quiet life in a small Hampshire village into great literature. Displayed in her bedroom are the words of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in his diary:

Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!

She died on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral before morning prayers on July 24. Her mother lived another ten years, and died at the age of eighty-seven. Cassandra lived to be seventy-two. They are buried side by side in the churchyard of the Chawton church.
Jane Austen Weekend (Saturday, January 6-Sunday, January 7)
Saturday: Winchester

Winchester was the ancient capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. The first Anglo-Saxon overlord of Britain, or Bretwalda, was King Egbert, who reigned from 803 until his death in 839. His grandson, Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899), was the first ruler to style himself King of England. In Winchester, there is a large statue of Alfred near the bus station, but his burial place in the city is unknown (he was buried at Hyde Abbey, in ruins since the Dissolution in 1538). Winchester Cathedral, however, is the final resting place of King Egbert, as well as several other early British Kings (including Canute and William II). This cathedral was begun soon after the Conquest, replacing a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon cathedral founded by St. Swithin. In the picture above, you can see the Norman Romanesque north transept (11th-12th c.) and the long Perpendicular Gothic nave (14th c.)—the longest nave in England.

In the Reformation, the agents of Henry VIII came to Winchester and destroyed the shrine of St. Swithin, the cathedral's founder. In the Civil War, Parliamentary troops destroyed the carvings on the great screen behind the altar. They also dumped out the royal bones of the Saxon Kings, which were in mortuary chests, and used them to smash the stained glass windows. The bones were then jumbled together in their boxes—the mortuary chest inscribed with the name of King Egbert now contains four skulls.

Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral. Click to enlarge and read inscription.

Winchester Cathedral is full of treasures, including the remarkable illuminated Winchester Bible, the work of a single twelfth-century scribe. But what drew us to Winchester in the first place was the grave of Jane Austen, who died in Winchester on July 18, 1817. Her burial is the last burial recorded in the cathedral's record book. She had been ill for months before her death, and had recently moved to Winchester from Chawton, where she had lived with her mother and sister Cassandra since 1809. Winchester was closer to the doctor who was treating her illness. The house where she spent her last days stands next to Winchester College and a short walk from the cathedral.

Update (Monday, January 8): At Clara's request, here is a transcription of the epitaph on Jane Austen's gravestone in the floor of Winchester Cathedral:

In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County She departed this Life on the 18th of July1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Oldest Inn in England

Here's a rare photograph of me, standing in front of the Royalist Hotel in Stow. Some of the timbers of the Royalist have been shown by carbon dating to be over a thousand years old. The Guinness Book of World Records has, in fact, certified the Royalist as "the oldest inn in England." It was built as an inn in 987 by Aethelmar, the Anglo-Saxon Duke of Cornwall. In the battle of Stow, at the end of the English Civil War (see below), it was the headquarters of the Royalist forces, hence the name.

When we were in Salzburg in October, we ate dinner in the oldest Gasthaus in Europe, the Stiftskeller St. Peter (right), which was first mentioned as a restaurant in a document dated 803—making it at least 184 years older than the Royalist.
Adlestrop, the Oddingtons, and Stow-on-the-Wold (7.5 miles)

Mark, the Claras, and Peter, in Adlestrop, Gloucestershire

This morning, Clara and Peter and I were joined by our niece Clara and our nephew Mark for a lovely walk in the Cotswolds, from Adlestrop to Stow-on-the-Wold and back by way of Lower and Upper Oddington. Adlestrop once had its own train station, where on a hot June day many years ago a train stopped carrying the poet Edward Thomas (one of the great English poets who died in World War I). He was inspired by stopping in Adlestrop to write this lovely poem:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop--
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The train station is now long gone, but the station sign has been moved to the bus shelter, and the poem is inscribed on a plaque on the back of the bench. Adlestrop is a small, unspoiled town that is perhaps little changed since Edward Thomas stopped at the station a century ago; ironically, had the station remained, the town might have been further developed, and may have lost some of its timeless charm.

Adlestrop was one of the estates held by the elder branch of the Leigh family, the younger branch of which held Stoneleigh Abbey. This little church contains monuments to James Leigh (to the left of the chancel arch in the photograph at right) and his wife, Lady Caroline Leigh. Their son, James Henry, inherited Stoneleigh Abbey when the elder branch of the Leigh family died out. James Leigh's brother, Rev. Thomas Leigh, was the father of Cassandra Leigh, who was in turn the mother of Jane Austen. Cassandra and Jane were visiting their cousin James Henry in Adlestrop in the summer of 1806, when he learned that he had inherited Stoneleigh (for Stoneleigh, see the posting for September 3, 2006).

From Adlestrop, we walked through both Lower and Upper Oddington to Maugersbury, and thence to Stow. Stow is the highest village in the Cotswolds, at 700 ft. In March 1646, it was the site of the Battle of Stow, a major defeat for the Royalist forces loyal to King Charles I. A year earlier, before the battle of Naseby, the King himself had stayed in Stow—at the King's Arms Hotel, where today we stopped for a warming lunch of soup and bread before returning to Adlestrop.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year 2007!