Daily Scotland: Excursions to Haddington, East Lothian and Dean Village, Edinburgh

 

Haddington, East Lothian

 

Life’s been challenging for Chris and me this past week. Outside forces have been exerting a lot of negative energy, leaving us two anxiety-ridden insomniacs walking around like yawning zombies. The onset of autumn hasn’t helped. Shortening days coupled with cold winds and driving rain don’t improve the mood.

But then it’s Scotland, not Fiji. Get. Real.

I’ve been struggling with the excruciating SCOTUS hearings and subsequent confirmation of the Dishonourable Brett Kavanaugh – revealing so much misogyny and perversion entrenched in our justice system it staggers. I’ve insisted “this is not my country” whenever there’s been a racist or misogynistic event. Two years on, I may have to rethink that.

The mid-term elections on 6 November will be pivotal. If the country comes out against the Trump administration, hope lives. If not, the fight continues. It will swing back. The problem is rectifying the damage done will take a very long time, healing the rift between left and right the biggest hurdle.

We are a nation divided, indignation fueled by fury.

We took full advantage when the weather cooperated with brilliant sunshine last Tuesday. Yes! Sunshine in Scotland! Chris suggested a side-trip to the village of Haddington, East Lothian. Just twenty minutes-ish outside Edinburgh, it’s a pretty little place to spend an afternoon – longer if you search out all the historical sites.

For Chris, who’s powered by music, it has a used record shop. For both of us, used books and other fun things from a myriad of charity shops then a quick bite at a quaint little café called Diggory’s. If you happen by make sure you mention my name. They’ll have no idea why, but my ears will burn and I’ll know you care.

Try the paninis!

 

Clock tower, Haddington

 

Jane Bailie Welsh Carlyle

I didn’t read about the history of Haddington until I got home that evening. Turns out it has a lot. Walking in the main shopping area, I saw a plaque commemorating native daughter Jane Welsh Carlyle, woman of letters and wife of writer Thomas Carlyle, but didn’t follow through tracking down her birthplace. We both had plans later in Edinburgh so didn’t have the whole day, but her house was right there on the high street.

ARGH.

 

I’ve not read Jane Carlyle’s famous  letters, but was force-marched through an excerpt of Thomas’s excrutiating famous Sartor Resartus as an English literature undergrad. Virginia Woolf was a big fan of hers, and I’m a big fan of Woolf. She admired Carlyle because the woman pulled no punches:

I do think there is much truth in the Young German idea that marriage is a shockingly immoral institution, as well as what we have long known it for – an extremely disagreeable one.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, not particularly fond of Thomas

Haddington’s also where John Knox – minister and leader of Scotland’s reformation – and misogynist extraordinaire – was from. A ruined castle and churches, medieval bridge and connection to Mary, Queen of Scots are a few other things we missed. But then it was a let’s get the hell out of here and forget our worries for a while outing.

Chris’s cappuccino – much prettier than my Diet Coke

It was off to Edinburgh after lunch, for me pretty Dean Village. It took some doing finding an access point, since a lot of it’s pedestrian only. Poor Chris found a good spot to dump me through a lot of trial and error. Walking there is a lot different than driving, and he’d never driven. He’s a good egg.

Until the 19th century a separate village within Edinburgh, for 800 years a mill town, it’s now a staggeringly expensive, trendy place to live. Easy to see why:

 

Dean Village on the Leith

 

Still a few roses in bloom.

 

 

Have I made you sick with jealous loathing yet? If not, here you go!:

Dean Village is filled with wanderers, locals and bloody tourists. Chris dropped me  around 4 or so when it was largely deserted, so I had a relaxing meander until it got too dark for decent photography. My one regret is I didn’t make it to the cemetery before it closed. I won’t talk about the why until I’ve been there. It has to do with artsy, literature-related stuff and this post isn’t about that.

Pretty much a perfect day, overall. Stress? What stress. For a few hours it was possible to forget all about it.

 

New books about Austen, Woolf and the Brontës

 

2017: A Year of Literary Nonfiction Celebrating British Women Writers

Hat tip to nonfiction scribblers assiduously churning out new literary biographies and criticism about these iconic female authors each and every year. Convinced surely there could be no new angle, I’m always pleasantly surprised when out pops a new one. Wherever this New Idea Generator is located, long may it churn.

Possible candidate: New Idea Generator

Common sense dictates at some future point original topics will be exhausted, until and unless something radically new is found in someone’s trunk or attic. Surely there’s a saturation point? But who am I to say. Keep ’em coming as long as possible. With the 200 year anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth last year, and 200th of not just Austen’s death but also the publication of her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey this year, it’s a veritable bumper crop of delicious nonfiction titles. All the better.

I’ve long dreamed of the existence of an undiscovered Austen manuscript. Ditto the Brontës. Pry up those floorboards in the Haworth parsonage! There just may be something squirreled away.

New titles stretch out as far as early 2018, I’ve found via a few searches on Amazon. No doubt more are lurking past that. Certainly enough new stuff to keep devotees busy for quite some time.

I bought this one a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently reading and enjoying it very much:

Austen, Brontë and Woolf, oh my!

A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
Aurum Press
1 June 2017

And here are some of the others I’ve found whilst rooting around:

General works on female writers of the period

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
Virago
19 Oct 2017

 

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees
Harper Perennial
12 Jan 2017

Virginia Woolf

Walking Virginia Woolf’s London by Lisbeth Larrson
Palgrave Macmillan
10 Aug. 2017

 

 

Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Woodring, Forrester and Gladding
Columbia University Press
January 2018 – paperback release

An explosion of Austen!

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Icon Books Ltd
1 Jun. 2017

 

 

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton
18 May 2017

 

The Genius of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
William Collins
18 May 2017

Four Austen tiles I’ll be reviewing

Biteback Publishing
25 May 2017
(Currently Reading)

 

Jane Austen: Writer in the World by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
16 June 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: Illustrated Quotations
Bodleian Library
3 July 2017

 

 

Jane Austen: The Chawton Letters by Kathryn Sutherland
Bodleian Library
29 September 2017

 

And the Brontës

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
Chatto & Windus
12 Jan 2017

 

 

The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
WW Norton
5 Aug 2017

 

This is the point at which I make you particularly envious: at the end of this month my favorite Scottish host and I will be taking a journey south of the border to England, where we’ll visit various sites related to these three beloved writers. Five, actually, if you count the other two Brontë sisters Anne and Emily. Mea culpa.

When I have the full list of places we plan to visit (the Scot has that, but he’s in the other room and I cannot be bothered) I’ll post that here. Once I’ve returned, of course I’ll have photos along with excessive, likely rather purple verbiage to share.

Between now and then, I plan to finish as many of the review titles as possible. At the very least, I need to brush up on basic biographical facts about each of the ladies. I posted a few times about the Brontës last year: here, here, here and here. For Woolf, I posted most recently about her shorter fiction. Here’s a post about Woolf and the Brontës, a double-header. As for Austen, aside from some very insubstantial posts, I read Rachel Brownstein’s Why Read Jane Austen? back in 2012, enjoying it immensely.

I’m looking forward to hanging out with these literary ladies this summer, back to Victorian and early 20th century writing. It’s been too long.

 

#Woolfalong: Complete Shorter Fiction, briefly begun

woolfyoung

I’m joining in HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong read for May/June, the shorter fiction leg:

Phase 3 – May/June – shorter fiction – any collection of short stories. This list of possibles from Wikipedia:
Kew Gardens (1919)
Monday or Tuesday (1921)
A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
• The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)
Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches (2003)
Oxford World Classics now produce a collection called The Mark on the Wall and other short Fiction – though I don’t know which stories it contains.

 

I’ve read the first two pieces in the Complete Shorter Fiction, and have begun the third, which promises to be delightful. It’s about a woman who’s chosen scholarship over home and family, having left her own behind in pursuit of learning – a distinctly Woolfian theme.

The first piece, “Phyllis and Rosamund,” was Woolf’s first short story. It reads like an old-fashioned Victorian piece, has little plot to speak of, makes only the slightest movement, yet manages to be quite telling. The title characters, two single women in their 20s, contemplate a future which depends solely on whether they manage to marry a decent man.

It’s a common refrain in Woolf’s fiction, an all-too-true circumstance for women who had not yet earned the “right” to move in society of their own accord.

“It is a common case, because after all there are many young women, born of well-to-do, respectable, official parents; and they must all meet much the same problems, and there can be, unfortunately, but little variety in the answers they make.” – “Phyllis and Rosamund”

 

Virginia and her sister Vanessa, born in the same era, choose the radical path of leaving home to live Bohemian lives, entertaining poets and artists and other dreamers in their home in Bloomsbury. It’s true they came from money, enough to allow them the luxury of choice, something women of other social classes did not enjoy.

By the time the group formed, it was the 20s, a period more tolerant of such behavior. Still, opinion then and now varies on this free-thinking group, whether they were as much intellectual as self-indulgent, snobbish and insular.

Especially Virginia Woolf.

I don’t find everything equally attractive about her. I’m no prude, but from my admittedly not fully informed knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group, they behaved outside my comfort zone. I am equal parts literary elitist and not completely proud of it, at the same time.

I’m nothing if not conflicted.

Dora Carrington, Ralph Partridge and Lytton Strachey doing what they did best - lounging

Dora Carrington, Ralph Partridge and Lytton Strachey doing what they did best – lounging

The second story, “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.,” is a work of short-short fiction about a woman who, resolving to pay an impromptu visit to a another woman she’d known but cares little about, arrives to find the ultimate irony.

It speaks bald truths about the forgotten, through a cocky and unsympathetic main character the reader knows only through her caustic, cruel observations:

“Oh how mad and odd and amusing it seemed, now that I thought of it! – to track down the shadow, to see where she lived and if she lived, and talk to her as though she were a person like the rest of us!”

And then on to story number three, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” which I’m enjoying very much, indeed.

Intially, I was drawn to Woolf by her reputation, knowing of her only vaguely and peripherally. In my  study toward my B.A. in English literature, I read not a word of her writing; the small, Catholic-affiliated college I attended offered precious little outside the mainstream writing of white males. There were survey courses covering the history of literature in very broad strokes, courses on Medieval literature and Chaucer, and of course Shakespeare, but nothing much beyond that. I read Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but almost nothing else outside the Norton Anthology.

I was a young mother when I first picked up To the Lighthouse and it blew apart my world. I borrowed it from the library because I missed literature and knew there were huge gaps in my reading. Having been home caring for my daughter for a year or more, I felt as if my brain would atrophy. Then entered Woolf.

 

tothelighthouse

 

It would be a while before I realized in how many ways our lives ran parallel, that she’d killed herself on my birthday and we’d shared the scourge of bipolar disorder unleashed by childhood trauma. By then I’d fallen under the spell of the graceful, fragile-but-fierce Virginia, and a group of intellectuals I can’t say for sure I completely understand.

After a pause of years, I entered another Woolf phase, accumulating incomplete sets of her diaries and letters and other works by and about her, reading much more of not just her work but that of Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West and others in their set. But then that faded, as well, as urges inevitably do.

Coming across HeavenAli’s blog, I realized I was overdue for another visit to Virginia Woolf. So, alongside my newly re-awoken Bronte and also Lewis Carroll fixations, I am reading her shorter fictions for the first time.

From my present seat on the sofa, next to one of the fourteen bookcases filling my apartment to bursting with books, I can reach out and lay hands on at least one volume each of her letters and diaries. It’s inevitable I’ll open one or both.

And then become obsessed, all over again.

Because it’s what I do.

Not afraid of Virginia Woolf. Or the Brontes.

I don’t know if there’s a better assertion of my rediscovered reading freedom than returning to the Victorians.

I’ve had this book in my collection at least a decade,  a volume I picked up at the now-defunct annual book sale sponsored by Brandeis University.  Tens of thousands of books, such an unfathomable number you owed it to yourself to go several times within the course of the week to see even a small percentage. Each day they cracked open countless boxes, stocking all new delights, priced (mostly) within the budget of the mother of  a young family. I could barely contain myself knowing, while I was away, all new books were shifting onto the tables.

It was heaven, and now it is no more.

 

darkquartetbronte

 

When I bought this book I guess I didn’t read the jacket flap, or not closely. It was a smash-and-grab: see it, grab it before someone else does, throw it into the shopping cart, RUN. I thought I’d purchased a biography, however It’s actually a novelization of the lives of the Brontës, based on all available biographical information published prior.

Starting it Sunday evening, I was immediately bothered the book’s written in a style approximating what we now call Young Adult. Researching Lynne Reid Banks, I was reminded she’s famous largely for her book for children: The Indian in the Cupboard. But I still wasn’t expecting a book about the Brontës to read like this.

I’ve since adjusted my expectations. Instead of reading it as pure biography, I’m approaching it to brush up on the famous literary family in a conveniently condensed manner, in preparation for reading Claire Harman’s recently published biography of Charlotte:

 

claireharmanbronte

 

2016 is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, which you’ll have seen all sorts of press about if you’ve been paying attention to what’s hot in the world of Victorian literature.

And yeah, Victorian literature’s still pretty hot.

 

Charlotte Bronte, hot Victorian writer.

Charlotte Bronte, hot Victorian writer.

 

Charlotte may be my favorite Brontë, though Emily’s a very close second. Her masterpiece Wuthering Heights is dark and brooding and presents a twisted picture of romantic love that’s about as depressing as it gets – precisely why I love it.

It delves into the dark side of the psyche, the part that guards obsession. The love/hate duality fascinates me, and I don’t think enough literature can really dig into that in a way that does it justice. Enter Wuthering Heights, the novel that smashes it out of the park.

As for Charlotte, her writing’s barely less dark than her sister’s; Jane Eyre gives Wuthering Heights a run for its money: huge stone house, torrid passion that’s tamped down and resisted as long as possible, the angst of a horrific childhood, a raving lunatic wife hidden in an attic.

Delightful.

But how did the children of a priest, raised in relative insulated solitude in a Christian household, learn about such deeply held passion? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.

What is with that family, anyway?

I’d like to re-read Jane Eyre once I’ve finished the Harman biography. It would complete my celebration of Charlotte’s 200th appropriately, bringing my Brontë reading full-circle.

 

completeshorterfictionwoolf

 

In May and June, I’ll also be reading along with HeavenAli’s delightful blog, for the short fiction segment of her #Woolfalong project. I own The Complete Shorter Fiction and, miraculously, was able to locate it amidst the thousands of books crowding my shelves.

I take this as a sign.

I haven’t read Woolf in  far too long, especially  considering how much an impact she’s had on my literary life. Reading as many of these short pieces as will fit within the next two months is a step in the right direction. As a bonus, once again I’m participating in reading projects with other bloggers. Another short-term goal begun.

The Brontës and Woolf. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate reading and the return of spring.

Adeline by Norah Vincent

adeline

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00

 

The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:

 

” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly

 

woolfnicholson

 

Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.

 

[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]