Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ITV's "Jane Austen Season"

Anthony Head as Sir Walter Elliott, with Sally Hawkins (left) as Anne Elliott, in the new ITV production of Jane Austen's Persuasion.

ITV has commissioned new productions of Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, which air here later this month. I'm especially looking forward to seeing Anthony Head (Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Sir Walter Elliott in Persuasion. If our ITV reception doesn't improve in the next couple of weeks, we'll have another chance to watch the same three productions in the United States in November, when they air on Masterpiece Theater.
Honiley Revisited

February is the midpoint of our year in England. Today, in a fierce west wind, I revisited one of our walks from late August, when our year was just starting. I walked over to Honiley to visit the little early eighteenth-century church of St. John the Baptist (1723).

It rained last night, and Inchford Brook was as high as I've ever seen it. In the Middle Ages, Inchford Brook was dammed up to create the Great Mere—the large lake that surrounded Kenilworth Castle. These days, the brook frequently floods and spills onto the road in front of the castle. Here you can see cars slowing down to negotiate the ford. Not to make any invidious comparisons, but Americans probably would have built an actual bridge.

Beyond the Great Mere (which is now a flood meadow) lie the "humps and bumps" of the Pleasance, the pleasure gounds built for Henry V in the early fifteenth century. In this photo (click to enlarge for more detail), you should be able to see the concentric squares outlining the moat and the outer walls. A large wooden banquetting hall probably stood in the central square.

The church in Honiley lay at the end of my walk. It's a relatively rare example of an English baroque church left untouched by Victorian renovations and enlargements. If you recall my earlier post, its design is attributed (at least by local lore) to Sir Christopher Wren (d. 1723), who spent his last years in nearby Wroxall. The church was probably built by Francis Smith, who rebuilt much of Warwick after a devasting fire in the 1690s. The woods to the south of the churchyard, on private property belonging to Honiley Hall, were full of daffodils. In this photograph, you can see some of the daffodils in the churchyard itself.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Crocuses in the churchyard of St. Nicholas Church.

I recently found an article in Child Development that offers some interesting insight into homesickness. The article, co-written by Christopher Thurber and Marian Sigman, is based on studies of boys at summer camp, and looks at the underlying factors which predispose a child to homesickness. Thurber and Sigman focus on "negative interpersonal attitudes and low perceived control" as important contributors to a feeling of homesickness. Dr. Thurber has an interesting website, with tips on prevention of homesickness (in the context of summer camp). Unfortunately, none of this has done much good for Peter, who continues to be miserable.

I have to admit that I made myself a little homesick last night, lying in bed listening to music on my iPod. For some reason, every song I chose featured a banjo, the sound of which conjures up America. One of the songs I listened to, Son Volt's "Tear-Stained Eye," was recorded in Northfield, at a studio owned by the father of Will's friend Ellen. It's remarkable how a sound, like the sound of a banjo, can transport you to another time and place.

The first novel I read after I arrived in England was Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca. Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator (the novel’s first absence, her name) begins to tell the story from her home-in-exile somewhere in the Mediterranean. She tells of how her reading brings her back with painful vividness to the English countryside. Her memory is sensual, full of the scent and feel of an English spring:

Sometimes old copies of the Field come my way, and I am transported from this indifferent island to the realities of an English spring. I read of chalk streams, of the mayfly, of sorrel growing in green meadows, of rooks circling above the woods as they used to do at Manderley. The smell of wet earth comes to me from those thumbed and tattered pages, the sour tang of moorland peat, the feel of soggy moss spattered white in places by a heron’s droppings.

Kenilworth Castle from Inchford Brook.

An article on wood pigeons, such a prominent feature of English country life, makes her falter as she reads aloud, so strongly does it evoke her absent home. Du Maurier’s novel is about the presence of absent things, and the influence of those absences on the mind. One of the most important characters—the title character, Rebecca—is absent throughout the novel, dead even before the action begins. The absent Rebecca dominates the novel, as does the magnetic presence of Manderley, the place on the Cornish coast where most of the novel is set. The place is itself a central character, such a compelling presence that it perhaps comes as a surprise when we learn that much of the novel was written while the author was living in Alexandria. Manderley is the creation of absence and of homesickness.

The Elizabethan Knot Garden at Kenilworth Castle.

This afternoon, I took my iPod and went for a walk around the castle to enjoy the early English spring. I don't usually listen to music while I walk, since I prefer the sounds of the birds and the wind, but this time I listened through William Byrd's late sixteenth-century setting of the Great Service. This put me back into an English mood.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Last night, Clara and I saw Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I found it a rather unsatisfying production. The three main actors (William Houston as Coriolanus, Janet Suzman as Volumnia, and Timothy West as Menenius) were terrific, despite one or two memory lapses by West, but some of the actors were not up to the usual standard. Many of the scenes were just people standing around shouting, without putting much thought or expression into their words. William Houston was terrific at conveying Coriolanus's haughtiness and anger, and he has a fine, commanding voice that doesn't need to shout to be heard. But I wasn't completely drawn into the drama as I was with Henry VI. It's hard to warm to a play that pits a fickle, ill-informed populace against an arrogant, inflexible wartime leader. It's too much like reading the American newspapers. Last night's was only the second performance after previews, and the director (Gregory Doran) was seen in the audience taking notes throughout the performance, so perhaps things will improve.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents' Day at Sulgrave Manor

Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of the Washington family, in Northamptonshire, between Banbury and Northampton.

In 1529, twenty-nine year old Lawrence Washington left the employ of Sir William Parr to set himself up in the wool trade in Northamptonshire. By 1532, he had done well enough as a wool merchant to become Mayor of Northampton. Six years later, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including the Cluniac Priory of St. Andrew in Northampton. The priory's lands were sold off, including Sulgrave Manor, which Lawrence Washington purchased from the King. Soon after, Washington built himself a sturdy manor house on his new property, using Cotswold stone.

The Washington Coat of Arms above the porch of Sulgrave Manor.

Above the porch, Washington displayed his family's coat of arms: three sharp, star-shaped spurs and two horizontal red stripes, representing rivers of blood. These arms were conferred upon a Washington ancestor who fought in the Battle of Crécy with King Edward III in 1346. One popular theory is that the American Stars and Stripes are derived from the Washington coat of arms (it's interesting to think of the stripes on the American flag as rivers of blood). Also above the porch are the arms of the wool merchants guild and the royal coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth, with the initials "ER," for Elizabeth Regina.

The Church of St. James the Less, Sulgrave, Northamptonshire. The date above the door of the porch is 1564.

The Washingtons continued to prosper at Sulgrave Manor for the next century. As a wealthy wool merchant, Lawrence Washington was a member of the minor gentry. His house was ample, but certainly not grand. He undoubtedly had a hand in building the local Church of St. James the Less (1564), which contains brasses of Lawrence, his wife, and eleven children (unfortunately, the church was closed for asbestos removal when we visited). Unfortunately, the family suffered a reversal of fortune in the 1640s, when England fell into Civil War. The Washingtons were Royalists, and fought with the forces of King Charles I at the Battle of Copredy Bridge in 1644. As part of that campaign, a small skirmish took place at Sulgrave Manor, and shot and cannon balls have been found on the site. As a Royalist and clergyman of the Church of England, Lawrence Washington's great-grandson, Rev. Lawrence Washington, lost his position and much of his wealth.

The "Bicentennial Washington," by Avard Fairbanks, commissioned by George Washington University in 1976. Click on photo to enlarge and read the plaque.

In 1656, Rev. Lawrence Washington's son, John Washington, emigrated to America and settled in Virginia. John was the great-grandfather of George Washington (link: family tree of the Washingtons in Virginia from John to George). Meanwhile, the Washingtons' ancestral home in Sulgrave slowly decayed until just before World War I, when a joint British and American commission was formed to commemorate a century of peace between the two nations. It happened that at the same time, Sulgrave Manor was up for sale for £8,000. A subscription raised money to purchase and restore the house, which opened to the public in 1921. Sulgrave Manor is, in fact, the only property in the world jointly owned by Great Britain and the United States. Among the Washington artifacts on display at Sulgrave Manor are Washington's saddle bags, his liquor chest, a lock of his hair, his velvet coat, a handle from his coffin, and a piece of the elm tree under which he resigned his commission!

Sulgrave Manor, like most historical properties in England, is usually open only from April through October, but on Presidents' Day each February the house is opened and American citizens are admitted free. The website said to bring identification, and although we did bring along our passports, we were admitted on the strength of our accents alone. We went on the tour of the house with a group of young servicemen from a U.S. military post near Gloucester. In the parking lot, there were several cars with steering wheels on the left (i.e., the American side).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Birthday Walk in Leamington

Today is Clara's birthday. After a breakfast of French toast, fresh strawberries, and sausage, Clara and I drove to Leamington for a walk through Jephson Gardens and along the River Leam to Newbold Comyn Park. Here are some of the views:
Queen Victoria in front of the Leamington City Hall, at the bottom of The Parade. The pedestal on which the Queen is standing has been shifted about an inch on its base by a German bomb that fell nearby in World War II.
The Royal Pump Rooms. This was the center of the Victorian spa that put Leamington on the map. The Pump Rooms now house a Tourist Information Centre, a café, a library, and a small art gallery.
Clara in the Glasshouse, a new feature of Jephson Gardens since our last visit in 2000. Clara is wearing her birthday present from me: silver and abalone shell earrings.
Me standing on a bridge over the River Leam, with the Church of All Saints in the background across the river. For All Saints church, see "A Concert in Leamington" (January 28).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Simultaneous Hermaphrodites

Here is a mating pair of hamlets (Hypoplectrus spp.), the Caribbean fish who take turns being male and female, alternately producing and fertilizing their eggs. Hamlets are known as simultaneous (or synchronous) hermaphrodites. During a single mating session, a pair of hamlets will alternate male and female roles up to a dozen times! This behavior is known as "egg trading." In other breaking news from the world of fish, scientists in Australia have recently discovered that immature female green swordtails can accelerate their sexual maturation if they see a male with a particularly long tail.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Day Out in Birmingham

This morning, we took the train to Birmingham for a visit to the National Sea Life Centre. First, however, we stopped at the lovely 18th-century Cathedral of St. Philip, near the Snow Hill rail station, which is known for its four magnificent Edward Burne-Jones stained glass windows (1885-1898). The windows depict the Nativity, the Ascension, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment. The cathedral suffered serious damage during bombing raids in World War II, but fortunately the windows had been removed and stored deep in a Welsh mine shaft for the duration of the war. Burne-Jones was a native of Birmingham, and the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has a large collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings.

Edward Burne-Jones
The Ascension (detail, ca. 1885)

The National Sea Life Centre was wonderful. My favorite things were the cownose rays, the otters, and the two magnificent sea turtles. Fish are amazing creatures. There was one species of fish in which each individual fish is born a male, but as they mature, the larger ones become females. There was another species in which each individual fish is both male and female; when mating, one partner becomes male and the other becomes female. The ocean is a swinging place.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Between 7:30 pm on Friday and 6:00 pm on Saturday, Clara and I spent nine hours sitting spellbound in the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching the absolutely brilliant and breathtaking Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry VI, Parts I, II and III. The Henry VI plays, the first three plays of the "first tetralogy" (the fourth is Richard III), cover the bloody events of the Wars of the Roses, beginning with the burial of King Henry V and ending with the return to the throne of King Edward IV after years of civil war between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. A complete understanding of the plays requires an understanding of the complex dynastic politics of fifteenth-century England. It helps to have the family tree of the descendents of King Edward III in front of you—although it is brilliantly laid out in one of the central scenes in Part II. One of the remarkable things about this production was its clarity. The pacing was also remarkable: nine hours of Shakespeare, and never once did the action lag, never once did I find myself stealing glances at my watch. The cycle of Henry VI plays is early Shakespeare—his first attempt at writing history plays. It was interesting to hear his language becoming more sophisticated and assured, and to observe his increasing skill as a dramatist. This was one of only two opportunities this year to see the three plays sequentially over a single weekend (it was also possible to see the four-hour Richard III yesterday evening). Next year, the RSC will be adding the second tetralogy to their repertory: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V. The plays are directed by the RSC artistic director, Michael Boyd, and the ensemble cast is absolutely brilliant.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

100th Post
Snow Day

Early this morning we huddled around the radio, listening carefully as the woman with the wonderful local accent on BBC Coventry announced the school closings. Kenilworth School and Sports College was among the many schools closed today because of the snow—4.5cm (about two inches) of it! Later this morning, the sledders and snowboarders were out in force in Abbey Fields, which is the perfect venue for sledding. The main streets have been salted, and are black and slushy but mainly clear.

In Julian Barnes' novel England, England, a wealthy developer decides to create, on the Isle of Wight, a replica of England containing all of the things most associated with England. The idea is that tourists won't have to travel all over the real England, since everything they most want to see will all be in one place. To get started, a Concept Developer is charged with the task of taking an international opinion poll to identify "the top fifty characteristics associated with the word England." Here are the top ten:

1. The Royal Family
2. Big Ben/Houses of Parliament
3. Manchester United Football Club
4. Class System
5. Pubs
6. A Robin in the Snow
7. Robin Hood and His Merrie Men
8. Cricket
9. White Cliffs of Dover
10. Imperialism

This morning's snow provided me with an opportunity to photograph #6 on the list, a robin in the snow (click photograph to enlarge to full size). The English robin (Erithacus rubecula) is unrelated to the thrush-like American robin. Barnes' list of icons of Englishness finds a real-life parallel in the website Icons of England, which allows people to nominate and vote for favorite English icons, including the robin.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Link: Will's Live Performance at Kenilworth School (on YouTube).
Book Review

F.M. Mayor, The Third Miss Symons (Virago Modern Classics). Originally published in 1913.

Henrietta, “the third Miss Symons,” is the third daughter of a large Victorian family. She enters life burdened with two attractive older sisters and parents who don’t understand her and don’t particularly care for her. They prefer her more straightforward sisters. They certainly don’t bother to unlock the secret of her personality: what she wants, more than anything, is to be loved and to be important to someone else. Unfortunately, being loved doesn’t come easily to her. She tries too hard, and she herself doesn’t understand the motives and behaviors of other people. As she grows older, she falls back on querelousness and bad temper as a way of asserting herself. She needs to feel important, but comes across as irritating. Her desperate need to be needed makes her almost entirely unwanted. She’s an interesting and brilliantly drawn character: the reader initially sympathizes with her, but gradually—like everyone else—begins to dislike her and to want to give her a good shake. The Third Miss Symons is not a joyous novel, but it’s a brilliant one—a little masterpiece of characterization.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Abolition of the Slave Trade

One of the important anniversaries being marked in England this year is the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. The slave trade was abolished with the enactment of the Abolition Act on March 25, 1807. One of the great names associated with the abolition of slavery in Britain is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an evangelical Christian and member of Parliament for Yorkshire, who devoted his parliamentary career to the abolitionist cause. He gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament in May 1789, and introduced the first abolition bill in 1791. That first bill was defeated 163 to 88. Through the tireless efforts of Wilberforce and others, the tide slowly turned, and the Abolition Act finally passed on February 23, 1807, on a vote of 283 to 16. Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abbey. His portrait (above) by Thomas Lawrence (1828) is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Recommended reading: Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (Ecco 2006). An excellent book about British abolitionism, focusing on the plight of the American ex-slaves (including some of George Washington's slaves from Mount Vernon) who escaped to the British side during the Revolutionary War. It follows the efforts of British abolitionist Granville Sharp (later taken up in Parliament by Wilberforce), and the fate of the former American slaves, who after the war were precariously settled first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

February 2: Candlemas

The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

(ca. 1500)

In the Christian calendar, Candlemas is the festival of the Purification of Mary and commemorates the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. It was also traditionally the day on which the church candles for the year were blessed. The day also coincides with the beginning of the lambing season, marked by a pagan festival known as Imbolc, and Groundhog's Day. The original European superstition was that fair weather on Candlemas meant another forty days of winter. This morning, after a spectacular sunrise the color of the salmon fillet I cooked last night, the sky is dark gray and overcast. Update at noon: the day has, in fact, turned very fair and bright.

Candlemas is also the season of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), which are sometimes known as Candlemas bells. The snowdrops pictured here have been blooming near the Inchford Brook ford, southwest of Kenilworth, for about two weeks now. Snowdrops appear to be garden escapees in England; they were often planted in monastery gardens, and evidently are still found on the sites of ruined monasteries. Their early appearance this year may have something to do with global warming—this January was the second warmest January on record in Britain. Daffodils are also blooming, and in some gardens last year's roses have never stopped blooming. Snowdrops, incidentally, are believed by some medical historians to be the herb moly mentioned in Homer's Odyssey as the antidote to Circe's magic. The bulb of the snowdrop contains a compound known as galanthamine, which is now marketed as a drug to treat Alzheimer's disease.
Abbot Gilbert Crispin (ca. 1055-1117)

The south walk of the Westminster Abbey cloisters. Abbot Gilbert is buried under the base of the wall on the left.

Entering Westminster Abbey from the north entrance, the first royal tomb you are likely to notice is the large brown chest containing the mortal remains of Edward I (1239-1307). If you are clever, you may have purchased a guide book, or brought along a field guide to the kings and queens of England. You might remember seeing Edward I portrayed by Patrick McGoohan in the movie Braveheart—it was King Edward I, "the Hammer of the Scots," who defeated and ordered the execution of William Wallace. You might know that it was Edward I who, in 1290, became the first European monarch to expel the Jews from his kingdom. Or perhaps, like me, you make a note to find out more about Edward I at some later date. History washes over you in Westminster Abbey, and the few historical facts that you possess are barely enough to keep you afloat. For everything that you know, there are a million things that you don't know, things that you pass by in almost total ignorance.

For example, in the south walk of the cloisters, I noticed—built into the base of the cloister wall—the rather inconspicuous tombs of three early Abbots of Westminster: Vitalis, Gilbert Crispin, and Lawrence. I knew nothing about them. I didn't realize, until I came home and did a little research, that they were the third, fourth, and fifth Norman abbots of Westminster. I didn't know that Gilbert Crispin had studied with St. Anselm at the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, where he distinguished himself as "a perfect scholar in all the liberal arts." I didn't know that he wrote a dialogue, dedicated to St. Anselm, titled Disputation of a Jew with a Christian About the Christian Faith (before 1096). The work is remarkable because it suggests that the eleventh-century Abbot of Westminster was on friendly terms with the Jews of London. In his dedication to St. Anselm, Abbot Gilbert writes: "He [the Jew] often used to come to me as a friend both for business and to see me, since in certain things I was very necessary to him, and as often as we came together we would soon get talking in a friendly spirit about the Scriptures and our faith." In what ways was the abbot "very necessary" to his Jewish friend? Did he offer him protection? Who was this learned Jew? What was life like for the Jewish community in late eleventh-century London? Abbot Gilbert mentions that his friend was from Mayence (Mainz), which was a center of Talmudic study in the eleventh century. In 1096, the Jewish population of Mainz fell victim to a band of rogue Crusaders, who massacred over a thousand Jews who had taken refuge with the Archbishop of Mainz. So many unexpected questions rise from a short visit to Westminster Abbey. There are so many stories that might be told. Every stone makes you want to reach for a book.