Poor neglected Blue Chair Blog. I’ve spent the summer months revising my historical novel-in-progress. That work has it’s own website and blog. If you happen to be interested food that might be served at fictional meals in the late Eighteenth Century, hop on over here and read up. Your visit and your comments will be very welcome!
You will be able to read an excerpt on the new site, hear some music of the period (or music that inspired the author) on Spotify, and see some period images on Pinterest.
You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram, or see what I’m reading on Goodreads.
All the best,
I dawdled at Orca Books for a while on Friday before meeting a friend for lunch and, on a whim, I bought a slightly battered little book, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. A stamp and handwritten note on the flyleaf revealed it had been purchased at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1970. At the time, it cost 45 p. I am enchanted by it, and inspired. The first few pages of Helen Darbishire‘s engaging introduction, written in 1958, have me in tears. What better source for learning how to describe; describe nature, the natural world, and landscape but also people. She could sketch a character or a first impression indelibly in only a few lines. I bought the book without much investigation because it was cheap and because these early journals are close in date to the period I’m writing about — 1798 and 1800 to 1802. Isn’t it lovely to indulge in an inexpensive little whim and have that whim so well-rewarded? Dorothy did not want to be an author. She did not see herself as a poet. As Miss Darbishire wrote, she was a poet in prose:
There is something . . . that imagination does, the simplest thing, the central thing. It pierces through the familiar surface to something nearer to life itself than what we ordinarily see.
There is only one known portrait of Dorothy, a sad one made when she was quite old, and yet she lives. Not only through her own vibrant words, but in her brother William’s poetry — some of which is clearly sourced from her journals — and in Coleridge’s, too. And from the tender regard both men had for her. “[H]is exquisite sister,” Coleridge wrote, and you have to credit his perspicaciousness: “[H]her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!”
William Wordsworth was speaking more generally in the following quotation, but these journals are so beautiful, so captivating, that he could easily have been writing of Dorothy:
Of genius in the fine Arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature.
She was a great walker, along with her brother and Coleridge. In 1818, when she would have been about 46, she climbed Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England at just over 3,200 feet) with another lady, a maid, and a pair of local guides. She never married. She fell ill from about 1829 and eventually her mind grew frail as well.
As ever, all we have is now.
Yes, there are more literary adventures available than you might think down here in the state capital, which is after all a college town times three. Here’s what I’ve been able to take advantage of lately and I’m feeling SO fortunate.
At the end of September, I took up a week-long writing residency at Holly House, which is a retreat center for women “of all creative talents” on Arcadia Point in Mason County. Holly House is maintained by a small jewel of an organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. The cottage is a 40-minute drive from my house, but a whole world away. This is a solo operation and nature, nurture, beauty, and peace abound. I wrote, slept, read, walked and came home renewed and full of gratitude for the opportunity.
A few days later, Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins and some kick-ass short stories, spoke at Saint Martins University in Lacey. An SRO crowd filled the hall and Jess’s long-time friend Jim Lynch introduced him with love and laughter. I continue to be delighted that writers like Jess are showing up — right in my neighborhood! — to charm and inspire readers and writers. One of his messages to writers, echoed by Liz Gilbert (more on her shortly) is that you don’t necessarily need an MFA to be “A Writer” and that starting a writing career with $30,000 in debt is probably not a great idea. This is the second annual talk in SMU’s Les Bailey Writers Series and last year’s speaker Brian Doyle was also terrific.
It’s not a literary event per se, but whether it’s Spring or Fall, Olympia Arts Walk is an unmissable Olympia cultural phenomenon, so I didn’t miss it. There is always plenty of energy, lots to look at, and you are bound to run into someone (or many someones) you know.
Although Seattle is a little beyond local, I did head on up to the big city to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person last week. Her new book Big Magic has so many terrific things to say about creativity and living a big life. I’ve been listening to her practical and encouraging Magic Lessons podcasts for several weeks and got my hands on the book as soon as I got back from Holly House. God love her, she is OUT THERE on a few things but that’s kind of the point. She puts herself out there in a way that convinces you she’s fully alive and that she wants you to take every opportunity to be the same. My goodness, can that woman communicate — novels, podcasts, talks, photos, and her one-of-a-kind, worth-joining-for Facebook page.
The very next night, there was another cool local event, a book signing for my friend Russ Cahill’s novel of ancient Hawaii, Kolea. I never did get to talk to Russ because friends, friends-of-friends, and new fans were all lined up to get books signed. Now he’s off on a research trip to Yosemite for his next book, living the writing life.
Then the following evening (this is three nights in a row, folks), Timberland Regional Library (one of the best regional library systems imaginable) launched its new anthology, Timberland Writes Together, which builds on the success of its program Timberland Reads Together. No, I’m not one of the 15 writers included, but my friend Meagan’s story “Going Without” is in there. You can download or borrow the anthology from the library (of course), or buy it online, and discussions and panels centered on this project are scheduled in Thurston, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor, and Lewis Counties. I’m so impressed that TRL has taken this project on and fascinated to learn how much writing has been going on around here. Even more than I had suspected!
According to my calendar, more bookish adventures are waiting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I got this post written and now it’s back to the WIP.
I am quite sure that the impulse to make a day trip to Oxford came not only from an interest in history and tradition but also from any number of books, movies, and television shows, including Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which is near and dear to my heart, and the venerable Inspector Morse TV series, but perhaps especially its follow-on series Lewis (known as Inspector Lewis here in the States). I’m so glad there is to be a ninth series — it will be broadcast in the UK in October and I hope soon after in the US — and can’t wait to find out whether it includes any places I’ve now seen with my own eyes.
We traveled there on a breezy morning via the Oxford Tube, which is really a bus and which I can recommend if you have plenty of time and/or someone interesting with whom to pass the time of day, as I did. Our comfy bus was a double decker and we sat right in front for great views. The bus drops you in the High Street and you can easily walk to just about anything you would want to see in a day. It’s also a lot cheaper than taking the train.
In the time we had, we were able to wander through the streets, peer into colleges, take a short but excellent tour of the Bodleian Library, and have a bite to eat and a browse at Blackwell’s Bookshop. It was a short, sweet visit — enough to whet my appetite for more and I dearly hope to return sometime next year.
Oxford really does beggar my vocabulary of descriptive words, so here are a few photos. By the way, all my photos from this trip were take with an iPhone 5s. I still love an SLR camera, but you can’t beat this for traveling light, though you might need some sort of supplemental battery pack.
NB: In some cases I’ve used location data to caption these pictures and I’m not certain that all of the descriptions are accurate. Please let me know of any errors.
Just as I returned home toward the end of July, BBC2 began broadcasting Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury Set — Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and all that — of whom it was said they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Very amusing, I’m sure. That particular set is gone but Bloomsbury is still known for its garden squares, literary associations, and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions. Over the years I’ve stayed in quite a few different areas of London — Swiss Cottage, Ebury Street, Bayswater, Earls Court, Sloane Square and several hotels in Bloomsbury, to which I keep returning. By way of contrast, last fall I stayed in a lovely hotel in Sloane Square but didn’t really enjoy the area — too upscale for me, I suppose. Bloomsbury (click for a walking tour) is comfortable, vibrant, multicultural, and wears its academic connections like a pair of old slippers. It’s slightly scruffy in places, but who cares? If I am within a stone’s throw of Russell Square and the British Museum, with the British Library not too far away, I feel perfectly at home.
If you travel in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, you alight at Russell Square Tube station. Follow the Way Out signs, climb a short flight of stairs with your suitcase, wait impatiently for the cattle-car style lift, pop your Oyster card on the reader, walk across Bernard Street to Marchmont Street and there you are. For starters, have you seen the movie Pride? It follows events that actually occurred during the 1984 miners strike, when a group of gay and lesbian activists provided dedicated, direct support to some Welsh miners and their families. The two groups ended up making a deep and long lasting connection that is recounted in the film with humor, sensitivity, outrage, and yes, pride. The first time I saw it, I immediately recognized Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, a Bloomsbury bookstore that was a sort of headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. It’s still there, a little bit of modern history where you can wander in and browse, or buy a T shirt. Anyway, the film deserves to be better known and more seen and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Also on Marchmont, there is a terrific place for breakfast at No. 49, helpfully named the 49 Cafe (lovely food, lovely staff), and Judd Books, which specializes in second-hand academic books and carries much else besides. North Sea Fish Restaurant and Takeaway (deservedly highly rated for fish and chips) is around the corner on Leigh Street. And Brunswick Centre, a shopping complex adjacent to the Tube station, will have everything you could possibly need and quite a few things you don’t.
There is a nice cafe, with outdoor seating, in the north corner of Russell Square, and one of only 13 remaining cabman’s shelters is on the west corner. When the weather is mild, I love to sit on bench or at the cafe with a book or notebook, people watch, and read or write, and day dream.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of what Bloomsbury has to offer. If you have a favorite London neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!