Greetings from London! When I left Keswick in early March, I expected to be home by now, but COVID-19 caused some unexpected changes and as I write this, I am sitting in a flat in Westminster on lockdown. What’s the best thing about lockdown?? Why reading, of course! For someone like me, telling me I have to stay in and not go out… it isn’t really a hardship… I just look on my kindle, my iPod and my bookshelves and start reading or listening to a book on tape. Use this opportunity to catch up on all those lovely books that you have been wanting to read! The first thing I do when I come to London is to head to my local bookstore. This time was no different and luckily, I managed to get in before all the stores were ordered to close.
I always choose books that will enrich my time here and so I wanted to share my choices with you…
84 Charring Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury are two offerings in one lovely book written by Helene Hanff, and the first selection is a classic, written years ago. If you have never read 84 Charring Cross, it is really a series of letters that were mailed from the author, Helene, to a small bookshop called Marks and Company in London beginning in 1949. Her correspondence with Frank Doel is just wonderful. Over the years you see their relationship grow and warm as they discuss books and Helene’s generosity extends to mailing packages to all of the staff of the bookstore to ease the strain of rationing in London at the time. It is such a beautiful example of how the love of books can bring people together and create unexpected relationships. I really love this book so much, not just because of Helene’s wonderful taste in used books and interesting subject matter but her thirst for knowledge for knowledge sake. Her love of beauty in the form of leather-bound, gold gilded pages makes her a woman after my own heart! Add to that her imaginings about London and her love affair with a city she had never visited, and I am hooked. The second half of the book is The Duchess of Bloomsbury and this follows her as she finally realizes her dream of visiting London and what she finds there. I will not give anything away because you really must read this and find out what happens, but I will tell you that I return to this book again and again as it always makes me smile. I keep a copy of it at the flat in London and always try and read it when I am in the city. If you love books, literature and anything BBC, this book is for you!
A book that will get you out of your home and traveling in your mind is another of my favorite authors and again, a classic Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. This wonderful travel book is considered by the British people to be the book that best represents Britain… and get this… it is written by an American! Bryson is considered to be an adopted national treasure because he has managed to fondly capture the sometimes-hilarious characteristics of this island nation. While it was written in 1995, it is still able to capture the weird, wonderful and strange bits that makes England so quirky. Bryson was leaving his home in Northern Yorkshire to move back to the USA for a few years and he decided he needed to take one more trip around England before he set off for America and this book is the result of his travels. He is so funny and droll that you will laugh out loud, especially if you have been to England or have British friends. When I try to explain to my English husband why I enjoy London and England so much, and why he was so keen to escape it… I have only to open up with this book and it captures it all perfectly. Bill Bryson manages to express all those feelings so well, when my words just can’t do it justice.
I decided to add in a thriller for those interested in something to make the heart race a bit. I picked up The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal while I was here, as it takes place in London in the 1850’s. Iris and Rose Whittle are sisters working in Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium. Iris is deformed with a twisted collarbone and believes she is too ugly to love, but she knows she is a skilled painter and is passionate about her art. She is frustrated that all she is painting these days are dolls’ faces. Her sister, Rose, was at one time a beauty destined to marry a handsome suitor, but smallpox ruined her beauty and with it her chances of love. The sisters’ relationship is strained and sad, and Iris cannot understand why Rose is always resentful and cruel to her. Anger and jealousy create an unbearable situation made even worse by Mrs. Salter’s drug abuse and hateful attitude. When painter Louis Frost stumbles upon Iris, he feels inspired by her and asks her to model for him. She agrees on the condition he gives her painting lessons. The choice to model means that Iris must turn her back on her sister and family, as modeling is considered an inappropriate occupation, but the choice suddenly gives Iris more freedom than she could ever have imagined and also puts her in more danger. A second story line threaded through all of this is the character of Silas, who is a taxidermist and collector with a morbid preoccupation with Iris. There is a sordid and seediness of the underground London that MacNeal deftly captures. The Pre-Raphaelite painters are wrapped into the narrative, though their characters are not fleshed out as much as I would have liked. It is worth taking a look at Louis Frost’s paintings as you read this book, so you have a better idea of what paintings are being discussed. The rivalry and friendships between the painters are glanced at but not fully developed, yet I believe reading this book will be a good springboard to other books touching on this subject. The exploration of the art scene as well as the visit to the Great Exhibition give the reader a fascinating look into the bustling city in the 1800’s.
I hope these three books give you a little bit of joy and fun as you hunker down and self-isolate and next month, I will give you another group of lovely distractions!