Monday, July 30, 2012

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

'Every summer, for seven summers now, Isa had heard the same words: about the hammer and the nails; the pageant and the weather.  Every year they said, would it be wet or fine; and every year it was - one or the other.'

It is June 1939, and Pointz Hall is a handsome house in the English countryside surrounded by trees and a lily-pond.  Family and friends of Bartholomew Oliver, retired from the Indian Civil Service, have gathered in anticipation of the annual pageant.  Soon the grounds will be swarming with eager villagers looking forward to the entertainment.  The patriarch's sister (and one of my favourite characters), Mrs Swithin, is forever meaning to move to Kensington or Kew but each morning during the summer finds her pulling back the old chintz curtains in her room at Pointz Hall.  A grand staircase winds its way throughout the house while the servants have a ladder.  The maid, Grace, wears a print frock with an apron and keeps the tea trays busily employed while Mrs Sands clatters about making sandwiches in the kitchen.

Well isn't this a lovely picture of English country house domesticity?  The arrival of even more characters ramps up the tension as Isa gazes dreamily at a gentleman farmer, Rupert Haines.  She refers to her husband quite often as 'the father of her children' rather than any term of endearment.  Giles is a stockbroker working in the City and has a roving eye of his own so we don't feel too sorry for him.  Just as the reader settles into the storyline the sense of plot begins to waver a bit, details become more abstract and I had to work quite hard to keep up.

'Empty, empty, empty, silent, silent, silent.  The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was, a vase stood in the heart of the home, alabaster, cold, holding the still, distilled essence of emptiness, silence.

Mrs Manresa and William Dodge appear as uninvited guests with a picnic in hand after seeing a sign advertising the play.  Miss La Trobe, with her dark tights and thick ankles, is the producer of the event.  She is a fascinating bohemian character who barks orders and direction from behind a tree and in the final act she stuns the audience but I won't tell you how.  The play, about Britain through the ages, was charmingly well-timed with Danny Boyle's presentation during the opening ceremony of the Olympics but I digress.

Goodness knows there is a significant amount of analysis to be mulled over in Woolf's work.  While writing Between the Acts England was in the very early stages of World War II, planes flying overhead Pointz Hall bring a sense of foreboding.  Even the darting swallows of summer lack their usual cheery representation.  Knowing that this novel was Woolf's last before she committed suicide I was intrigued by whether or not there would be any hints as to her state of mind in the months preceding.  An eerie passage about a scullery maid cooling her cheeks by the lily-pond and a ghostly tale attached to it gave me the shivers...

'It was that deep centre, in that black heart, that the lady had drowned herself.'

When I finished the book I walked over to the table an plunked it down saying to my husband "I think I am a little bit afraid of Virginia Woolf".  But over the past couple of days I keep going back to it, reading passages over again.  Where do I go from here?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

When Dorothy clicked her heels and said "There's no place like home" she naturally meant her home.  Not the neighbours house across the field because a house is something all together different from a home.  We all eat, sleep, bathe and entertain in our homes but the way those activities are performed vary from post code to post code, family to family and person to person.  And who isn't curious about what goes on in other people's homes?  I remember being intrigued by the compost bucket that resided on the counter of a friend's house when I was ten years-old.  My family wasn't nearly as resourceful and usually, until you get to a certain age you think every family does things the same way your family does.

Lucy Worsley dishes on all sorts of activities that went on in the home from medieval time to fairly recently and the thought processes behind them.  While we may consider medieval citizens to be a bit on the whiffy side without heavily scented deodorants and body wash they had their standards. 

'There is an important social distinction between being afflicted by lice as opposed to fleas.  Fleas were almost unavoidable, everyone had them.  But to "be lowsie" was an indicator of poor personal hygiene.'

Origins of certain phrases are another fascinating subject and 'getting the wrong end of the stick' possibly came from a time when Romans would use a sponge on the end of a twig to clean their bottoms.  Moving right along past the time of putting children to good use by getting them to rip newspaper into strips for toilet paper, I learned that apparently North Americans are 'scrunchers' while Europeans folded.  Who knew?  The natural progression from toilet paper was to feminine hygiene products.  As a woman born in the 1960s I can attest to the continual improvements in this department.  It was more than a bit difficult to hide the fact someone in your house was menstruating in the seventies when a box of fifty napkins was so large they took up half of your closet.  These days a package of ninety fits in your lunch bag.  Actually, with Kotex now marketing their product in neon, young ladies no longer to 'have a little secret', instead they are supposed to shout about it from the shop aisles!

Moving right along into the area of food and spices, the saying "above the salt" comes from being seated according to status.  Since salt was kept in the middle of the table should you find yourself between the lord and master and the salt you were considered to be higher on the social ladder.  Imagine the sly grins as people glanced at the salt and their guests further down the table.  And if some Victorians were boiling their veggies for up to two hours to aid digestion as suggested by Dr Worsley then guests and family would be reaching for the salt just to give their food a bit of flavour.

Not only is it fascinating to learn how people lived throughout the ages but also how we see others through our own set of social mores.  While I would be hard pressed to recognize every single piece of formal cutlery on the market I couldn't help glancing at how my daughter's friends would hold their fork and knife when they stayed for dinner.  A clear sign as to how important table manners were in their own home.  I could be as sniffy as I liked but the truth is that if a barbequed chicken appeared on the table we are as capable as anyone of behaving like we're at a medieval long as no one is looking.

I soaked up every word, no dipping in and out for me, and highly recommend this delightful book as one of the most entertaining history lessons you will ever have.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A New Book or Five

A few books have been added to my shelves over the past couple of weeks...

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley - I've been on a bit of a non-fiction binge lately.  There is enough toilet talk in this historical read to keep a gaggle of eight year-old boys absolutely riveted...and me.  Straight talk about the hygiene habits and other behaviours of those who came before us has been keeping me up at night and making me awfully thankful for modern day plumbing, soap, deodorant and dentistry.  Who knew there was a difference in the way citizens regarded someone crawling with lice as opposed to someone full of fleas?  I will fill you in on all the details once I have finished the book.

Between the Acts & The Years by Virginia Woolf - Reading this post by Book Snob prompted a mental note to pick up a copy if I happened to stumble across one.  Good old Wordsworth Classics for publishing a lovely copy of not one but two stories together for an excellent price.  I have stood outside of Virginia's townhouse in Gordon Square, seen her bust in Tavistock Square, read Mrs Woolf & the Servants by Alison Light and skimmed some biographies but I have yet to read anything by Virginia herself.  Bit silly isn't it?

Beautiful for Ever by Helen Rappaport - Apparently 'Madame Rachel' (who was actually Sarah Levison from Whitechapel) lived in Victorian London having emerged from a state of poverty and all that that entails to become a highly sought after beautician in Mayfair.  She is also labelled on the front cover as a con-artist and blackmailer, two court trials provided enough evidence I suppose.  Madame Rachel and her exploits are referred to in Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and disguised as Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins's Armadale so a bit of reference homework will pay off during future reads I am sure.  Thanks to Elaine from Random Jottings for tempting me with this post.

The Penguin Book of British Comic Stories edited by Patricia Craig - Some of these compilations are good and some are excellent, this one is tops.  The contents page of works by authors such as Richmal Crompton, P. G. Wodehouse, E. M. Delafield, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield had my smile growing by leaps and bounds.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time as it was being discarded from the library stacks and has found a new home at my house.

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor - It makes me laugh to think of how many times I used to turn my nose up at short stories.  Now I love them!  Some time last year I emailed Virago to ask about Taylor's short stories as they were publishing everything else in celebration of her centenary.  A lovely reply came letting me know that yes, a collection was definitely in the works and would be worth waiting for.  My preorder receipt had been hanging around in my email's 'In Box' for months and months so it was a bit like welcoming a baby when a massive parcel finally appeared in my mailbox.  And oh what a pretty cover.

During a trip to Toronto last Sunday I discovered a new second-hand shop with shelves chock full of books reaching at least 12 feet high and a sliding ladder.  The prices were a bit steep so I just had fun looking and left empty-handed, it's not like I'll be short of things to read and there is always a next time.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mistress Mary Quite Contrary...

I'm back!  For the benefit of those who had faith in my return I would be happy to share a glimpse of just what my husband and I have been up to in the garden.  You also have to factor in a major heatwave for the duration with temperatures reaching the high 30s, and one day a blistering 44C with the Humidex, to complete the picture.  Far from an ideal situation but as sweaty, mucky, ugly and painstaking as it was, now that it is all said and done we are pretty pleased with ourselves.  Here is how things went...

At this point (above), we had reconfigured the edge of the bed to bring it out a bit and removed a large serviceberry, cedar, two boxwoods and a good amount of annuals were transferred to the back.  The hydrangeas were dug up and moved over and then a serendipitous friendship struck up with a gardener resulted in the transfer of our Korean Lilac as well.  That was a huge leap of faith as we were assured that with the proper prep work and constant watering we could pull it off without killing the poor thing.  It's also not recommended to move plants and shrubs during a heatwave but we crossed our fingers and just went for it.
Voila!  The hydrangeas are really not at all impressed with being moved but next spring they will be as right as rain.  As for the lilac, it's getting more sun in its new home and thanks to all the watering has been sprouting new growth like mad...phew.  R and I divided a few of the hosta plants from one side of the house and replanted them so hopefully the roots take hold for next spring as well.  The yews will eventually form a little hedge under the front window and fairy lights will dress them up during the winter months.
This 'island' held two massive Blue Spruce trees along with a weeping Cherry.  An odd combination but they were here when we bought the house fourteen years ago.  Due to a fungus affecting the evergreens we decided to have everything removed.  It took my husband the better part of two weeks to clear the roots with a shovel, hatchet and at times a steel pole for leverage.  Watching him hack his way to China became a favourite pastime for the youth on our street and a couple of robins raised their chicks on the worms he would cast their way.  Can you spot Deacon being nosy?
The Armour stone was delivered a couple of weeks ago, all 875 lbs of it.  R and I both arrived home from work on a Saturday, changed into our grubby clothes and rolled each rock into position.  There are two more in the other bed.  More dirt, more sweat....move this one a little this way and then that...have a shower and then make out way to an annual appetizer contest hosted by friends.  Too exhausted to manage any such culinary delight we picked up a cake instead.

Oh, and the tree in the centre is a Sun Valley maple.  R had spent yet another evening digging a hole (they say dig a $50 hole for a $5 tree).  This tree definitely cost more than $5 so the hole was very wide and quite deep.  The tree was delivered on a Friday morning so what is a girl to do?  Unwinding the hose I partially filled the hole with water, cut the plastic bucket from the root ball and lowered it down...very carefully.  The hole was too deep!  Jumping into the now muck-filled hole I struggled to raise it while scooping more dirt down inside to raise it.  I will never live down the fact that my almost 90 year-old neighbour had to come to my rescue.  Seeing me look like Lucille Ball in a vat full of grapes only I was covered in mud made his week, perhaps even his summer!  There was also a moment of bickering with my husband in which I lost all credibility when a swipe at my sweaty upper lip with my muddy garden glove left the unmistakable appearance of a Hitler-esque moustache.   

Oh sure, we can laugh at the stories now but at the time it was tough going.  There were moments when I wanted to throw down my shovel, shed some tears and reach for the number to a landscaping company with a crew of burly men.  But now that the tools are all put away and the last scoop of mulch has been placed I am so proud of what has been accomplised through sheer determination, a batch of sunscreen and three cases of water and a ton of ice.  It's just too bad that now we're all finished and I can get back to reading, the patio set is in the back!