Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Marriage of True Minds

Remember this book?   "A Marriage of True Minds," published in 1977,  is about the relationship and marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.  It was one of the first books of its kind on Bloomsbury, and specifically the Woolfs.  The other one that comes to mind is "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson about the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  This first edition of one of my favorite books was a birthday present from a very dear friend.

The back of the dust jacket

This book was part of  an explosion of books on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group in the 1970's.  I have always thought that the intense interest in Virginia Woolf at that time was a result of Women's Studies departments that originated at colleges and universities in the early 1970's. 

During the 1970's Quentin Bell wrote his excellent biography of Virginia Woolf, and Nigel Nicholson  edited all six volumes of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf." Critical studies were coming out as well as additional biographical materials.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

What made "A Marriage of True Minds" stand apart was that it was about Leonard, Virginia, and their relationship. Recently I reread some of the book.  There were three topics that fascinated me about the story of the courtship and marriage of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

The role of the "Apostles" --
This was the famous undergraduate society at Cambridge that Leonard Woolf belonged to.  It generated the friendships and relationships that led to Virginia meeting Leonard.  Other members of this intellectual group included Saxon Sydney-Turner, John Maynard Keynes,  Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry and Desmond MacCarthy.   Virginia's brother Thoby Stephen was at Cambridge at the same time, though he was not a member.  But he was friends with many of the "Apostles" and  introduced them to Virginia and her sister Vanessa. The Bloomsbury Group was born out of these friendships.  Virginia married Leonard and Vanessa married Clive Bell, who was also part of this circle of friends.

Lytton Strachey as matchmaker --
He was very instrumental in bringing together Virginia and Leonard.  He planted the seed in Leonard's mind and wrote Leonard, who was in India at the time, many letters encouraging him to marry Virginia.  Lytton proposed to Virginia also, but changed his mind almost immediately.

Leonard as caretaker --
He really held Virginia together in terms of her mental stability.  After their marriage in 1912, Virginia had a mental breakdown that lasted for two years.  After this she experienced fairly good mental health for the next 25 years.  This was due to Leonard's care and protection.   He  insisted on rest, a good diet,  a limited amount of socializing and healthy activities, such as learning how to print books on the printing press he bought her, to provide distraction from the intensity of the writing of her novels.  This printing press was the beginning of the Hogarth Press, the publishing company that Virginia and Leonard Woolf founded.  


These two as a couple and individually had an enormous impact on early twentieth-century British literature.  Virginia wrote her famous novels, including "Mrs. Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," and "Orlando."  Leonard wrote fiction (short stories and novels) and non-fiction, including his autobiography and frequent articles on politics for many different newspapers and magazines.   His reports for the Fabian Society in 1916 on international government became part of the basis for the League of Nations.  And together they published many important and groundbreaking works at the Hogarth Press, including T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."

It makes you wonder if the two of them would have been as productive were they not married.  They provided support, inspiration, and caring for each other and also shared an impressive work ethic.  Perhaps that was the secret to their relationship.  They had mutual respect and regard for each other as people and for the enormously important work they both were doing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Days

I have often admired the bloggers who run around all day with their cameras and are prepared to be inspired and take the great photo for their blog.  For some reason, I often forget to take my camera.  So on Saturday I went out to run errands and this time I was armed with my camera and ready to snap whatever took my fancy.

The Brentwood Country Mart is really the heart of my neighborhood.  It's been around for 65 years.  When my daughters were little I would bring them here for sweet little dresses and outfits at the Hansel and Gretel shop for children, which sadly is no longer in existence.  They would take a ride on the mechanical pony on the pavilion and have lunch at Reddi-Chick which serves the best rotisserie chicken and fries in Los Angeles.  And there was a great toy store.

I still love this place and often find myself there. One of my favorite haunts is Diesel books, the only independent book store in the area and I try to support it whenever I can.  Yesterday I was looking for a gift for my husband for Father's Day and I was excited to find "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" by David McCulloucgh.

Diesel Books

New book by David McCullough

I also love to go to Sugar Paper, a great stationery store for personalized cards and invitations

The inside of Sugar Paper.  How pretty is this stationery store!

Botany, an exquisite little flower shop, is also one of my favorites 

They made this for me in December

And this one as well, I just took in my vases

Sweet Rose Creamery

And finally, I always have to peek into Sweet Rose Creamery, the latest and most delicious addition to the Brentwood Country Mart.  This is Zoe Nathan's old-fashioned ice cream shop.  Everything here is made with the freshest and most delicious ingredients. She also owns Huckleberry and Rustic Canyon restaurants in Santa Monica.

Taking photos and putting them on my blog has given me such a wonderful new perspective on my environment. Seeing the photos and telling the story is one of the fringe benefits of being a blogger.  I think it adds an extra layer of richness to my life, and helps me appreciate the beauty that is really all around me.


An exciting postscript --  I wrote an essay  for "Women's Voices for Change."  You can click here to read it.  I hope you enjoy my musings on having a big birthday and a daughter getting married, both in the same month!

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Reader's Journal

In Los Angeles we have a weather phenomenon known as "June Gloom."  Just when everyone craves  summer activities like going to the beach, outdoor dining, and getting out in our gardens, we have a month of drizzly, foggy weather.  It sometimes breaks at midday and becomes sunny, but not always.  And so the other day I found myself feeling more like I was in England than Los Angeles.  As I looked outside at my garden in the front of the house, I realized that the gray weather was actually quite beautiful and snapped the above photo.

As I reoriented myself to a more indoor kind of day, I found this book or journal in my study and began to flip through it. I was launched on a journey of literary nostalgia.

Several years ago I was in a book group that spun off of a class I had taken at UCLA on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.  We met at the home of the professor who lived in a charming duplex in Beverly Hills and she ran a kind of a salon in her living room with about 30 of her current and former students in attendance.  We always had  lively discussions and at the end she would serve home made desserts and coffee.  It was really special, and I have wonderful memories of those cozy evenings spent talking about books.  We read some amazing and quite challenging books.  I always took notes during the meetings.  Yesterday I pulled out this Reader's Journal that contained the notes from our discussions of these books, and it was really amazing to see what we read and also the content of what we discussed.

Here are some of the books we read.  Some were very much "of the time," the "it" books of that year, such as "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier;  most are still standouts that would be great choices for book groups.

"The Song of the Lark" by Willa Cather

This book is about a young girl of Swedish descent who lives in Colorado and is a talented pianist and singer.  Cather writes about the patrons and the mentors who help great artists succeed.  The book is a coming of age story as well as a novel of the education of an artist.  It deals with the immigrant experience and has a great character in the heroine, Tillie.  I loved this book.

"The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michael Faber

This book is a real page-turner  about a "fallen woman" in Victorian London.  The heroine, Sugar, yearns to escape to a better life and the book depicts her ascent through society.  This is a colorful book filled with unforgettable characters. Victorian England is evoked through incredible details and fascinating stories.  We had a great discussion.  And I just read that it is being made into a television series in England.

"The Captive & The Fugitive,"  Volume V of "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust

I do not think I ever would have read this without a book group and a facilitator.  It was not easy but I am so happy I read it.   I had always wanted to read Proust, and thought that I should.  After all,  the modernists were all influenced by him.  The books are so quotable, and Proust really was a writer's writer.  He is writing about the interior lives of these characters as they are functioning in society.  I would highly recommend reading this, you will be so proud of yourself!  

"The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag

One of the more challenging books we read, "The Volcano Lover" is about Admiral Nelson and Lord and Lady Hamilton. It is a thought-provoking book, a historical novel that reads more like history than literature.  The main characters are never named; they are the Cavalier, the Beauty and the Hero.  This allows the author to take off on many topics related to their stories:  art collecting, women versus men, the French revolution, heroism, and many others.  It is an intellectual book and there were many topics for discussion.

Some other highlights, good books that inspired great discussions:

"Snow" by Orhan Pamuk

"South of the Border, West of the Sun" by Haruki Murakami

"No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan

"Trieste" by Jan Morris

"Homo Faber" by Max Frisch

"Half a Life" by V.S. Naipaul"

"Andorra" by Peter Cameron

"The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt


Did any of these books resonate with you?  I would love to know what your book group is reading or any books that you think would be good for a discussion.  "June Gloom" in Los Angeles can lead to all kinds of memories of good books!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gorgeousness at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Some times you really have to pinch yourself.  Yesterday was one of those days.  I was invited to go on a special tour of the new exhibition at the Getty Center in Brentwood:  "Paris: Life & Luxury."  The enticing banners for this exhibition are all over town and I had been curious about it. My friend had invited me to join her and a group of women to tour the exhibition and then have lunch afterwards at the delightful restaurant at the Getty.  And so I drove up to the Getty on an overcast, misty morning in anticipation of a day of fine art and delicious food.   

"La Toilette" by Francois Boucher

As always I was struck by the beauty of the Getty and the breathtaking views of its gardens and the city that you get from the upper levels of the museum.  


As we entered the foyer to the exhibition I saw this quote painted on the  blue wall leading into the first room.  We encountered many other quotes like this one along our route. 

As we entered the first room it was obvious that this was no ordinary decorative arts exhibition.  Not only were we seeing a wide variety of exquisite objects from 18th-century Paris that would have been in the homes of the elite society, but these objects were exhibited in beautiful settings.  Each room was painted a complementary and gorgeous color, such as red or blue;  the lights were dimmed, and in some cases there was music playing.  The panels or signs that described what we were seeing were designed in a decorative manner, written in calligraphy and outlined in a scalloped design.  (We were not allowed to take photos!  My words will have to do all the work here.)

This exhibition evokes the rich ambiance of Paris during the mid-18th century.  It is structured in a chronological way in terms of how an 18th-century Parisienne would go through their day.  And so the first room is all about the "Toilette." We saw paintings of women performing the ritual of their toilette by French artists such as Boucher and Chardin. These are known as toilette portraits.  And in this room devoted to the toilette were many objects that would have been used in this ritual, including toilette tables and toilette services which included silver mirrors, ewers and basins, silver brushes, and enamel boxes.

Walking through the different rooms  -- for dining, playing musical instruments, socializing after dinner -- we encountered one exquisite object after another -- dresses, furniture, silver serving pieces, clocks, musical instruments, and paintings.  My favorite was the red harpsichord.  Each object was an example of fine craftsmanship and artistry. There were objects and paintings that represented the different stages of a person's day, including reading and self-improvement, dining, and evening activities such as cards and sociability.  Here are a few images from this gorgeous exhibition.   

Woman's Dress and Petticoat, 1760-1765

Hanging for a Bed, 1690-1715

One of a Pair of Three-Panel Screens, 1714-40

Wall Clock, ca. 1740

Folding Fan, about 1760's

After viewing all of this beauty, I think I may have to rent and watch again the film "Dangerous Liaisons." When you visit this show at the Getty, be sure to purchase the wonderful book that accompanies this exhibition.  It is a scholarly treatment of the subject and is filled with many luscious photographs.

The book's beautiful endpapers

After our tour of the exhibition, we had lunch at the Getty's restaurant.  This restaurant is one of the best kept secrets in Los Angeles.  The food is delicious and quite beautiful.   

Scallops on a bed of risotto

The women that I joined on this wonderful cultural afternoon are a group that get together regularly to experience the rich arts and culture that  Los Angeles has to offer.  I was delighted to be included and we had a wonderful lunch and conversation, one topic leading to another, and when I left I felt incredibly optimistic and excited about exploring our city and taking advantage of all the artistic treasures that we have.


When I got home, feeling very French, I was inspired to put together an outfit that felt a bit Parisian.  I wore it out to dinner and felt I was prolonging the mood of the day.


The purse and the trench gave it a bit of a French flair, non?

Please go see this show at the Getty, you will be transported to another era --  Paris in the 18th- century.  It is just exquisite!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein

Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Photo from New York Times

I have always been fascinated by the story of how the beautiful and brilliant Mary Shelley at the age of 19, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, came to write the gothic tale of Frankenstein.  I knew the bare details: in the summer of 1816  Mary, Percy, Mary's stepsister Claire Claremont, the poet Lord Byron and friends travelled to Lake Geneva, Switzerland to stay for the summer. One night during a ghost story competition  Mary Shelley came up with the concept of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley

In fact, I had gone to an interesting lecture at UCLA several years ago called "Mothering Monsters -- Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.'"  The speaker had compared the creation of the monster by Victor Frankenstein to Mary Shelley's own feelings about childbirth.  After eloping with Shelley, Mary had given birth to a baby in 1815 that had died two weeks later.  The speaker argued that Victor Frankenstein's horrified rejection of his creation expressed the general depression Mary experienced with this tragedy as well as her later pregnancy anxieties and postnatal depression.  She went on to have several more children.

But there is so much more to it than that.  Mary's own mother Mary Wollstencraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" had died giving birth to her.  As she grew up, Mary felt neglected and ignored by her famous father William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist.  Unable to get along with her stepmother, she was sent away to Scotland for two years.  Just like the monster in "Frankenstein," who is abandoned, rejected and isolated, Mary's perception is that an unloved child can become a monster and can be driven beyond the pale of humanity.  In the novel, Mary Shelley leaves open the question, what would have happened to the creature if he had been mothered?


This lecture on the meaning of the book was thought provoking and I remember leaving the lecture feeling that I wanted to know more about the night in 1816 when Mary and the group of poets congregated in Lake Geneva and this gothic horror tale was born.

The Grand Rue in Montreux, on the eastern side of Lake Geneva
Photo from New York Times

And so on Sunday I was thrilled to read an article by Tony Perrottet in the Travel section of the New York Times called "Shores of Romance and Scandal" about the summer of 1816 when Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed at Lake Geneva and she came up with the tale of "Frankenstein."  I wanted to know about this story and of course see the gorgeous places in Switzerland that attracted this group of writers.  After all, this is the travel section of the NewYork Times and it feeds the wanderlust in many of us.  I loved the subtitle of the piece:

"When Lord Byron and Percy Shelley arrived at Lake Geneva in 1816, the plan was poetry and pleasure.  The result?  Frankenstein, vampires and a love child."

Here is a brief synopsis of the story that Perrottet tells.  Please take the time to read the whole article for yourself.  It is so well-written and fascinating.

In May 1816 this notorious group that arrived in Lake Geneva included the celebrity poet Lord Byron, who was known as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."  A married man, he was fleeing England in the wake of a scandals involving well publicized romances with many women, including his half-sister.  He was traveling with his personal physician, a troubled young doctor with  literary aspirations named John Polidori and a group of footmen.  He was met in Geneva by the struggling poet Shelley, who was also tinged by scandal because of his advocacy of atheism and free love.  He was accompanied by his brilliant and beautiful 18-year-old mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she married Shelley later that year), and her attracitive stepsister Claire Claremont who was also 18.

Byron and Shelley rented adjacent houses near Lake Geneva.  That summer produced literary masterpieces from several members of their group:  Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Lord Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon" and other poems, and John Polidori's sinister short story called "The Vampyres" which would years later influence Bram Stoker's "Dracula."  Percy Shelley was working on his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty."  But as Perrottet tells us, that summer was not just historic for those literary masterpieces.  In 1815 a huge volcano had erupted in Indonesia and sent a pall of volcanic ash across Europe and brought much cold weather and torrential rains.  That summer in Switzerland saw almost constant rain, with thunderstorms on the lake as a constant backdrop to the writers' nights.

During these stormy nights the group drank large amounts of wine and used laudanum, a form of liquid opium.  One night when Byron read aloud a haunting poem, Shelley ran screaming from the room having had frightening hallucinations about Mary.  It was in this heated, wild atmosphere that she had the famous nightmare that became the macabre plot of Frankenstein, about a scientist who creates a creature out of stolen body parts and infuses it with life. The next night she told the frightening tale to a spellbound audience.

The group broke up at the end of the summer  when Claire revealed that she was pregnant.  Byron was most likely the father.  The Shelleys departed for England on August 29 with Byron promising to support the child.  Instead he went to Italy to throw himself deeper into debauchery.  Though the summer was one of excess and abandon, much creativity came out of it.

Perrottet writes,
"In retrospect, the 'Frankenstein' summer' seems a fantastical interlude of happiness in lives marked by tragedy.  In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in Italy, at age 29; Dr. Polidori had committed suicide the year before, at age 25. Claire's daughter with Byron died at age 5, and only one of Mary Shelley's four children with Percy survived.  Byron died in Greece in 1824, at the ripe old age of 36."


For his article in the New York Times, Perrottet explored Lake Geneva in the hopes of discovering what inspired all the creativity.  As I read about Lake Geneva, "the largest, deepest, and bluest of Swiss lakes, and its beauty only heightened by its surroundings -- thriving vineyards, historic architecture, and in the distance, peaks dipped in snow all year round," I wanted to go there and retrace the footsteps of Mary and Percy Shelley and Byron.  After all, Mary Shelley used many scenes from Lake Geneva in Frankenstein.  And Byron's poem  "The Prisoner of Chillon" was inspired by the Chateau de Chillon, a haunting medieval fortress right on the lake.  The castle became notorious in the 16th century as a political prison and Byron and Shelley were moved when they visited it and saw the dungeon, where an outspoken cleric had been chained to a pillar for six years.

Chateau de Chillon

The poets did not stay in Geneva, but instead in the nearby village of Cologny  -- Byron in the spectacular Villa Diodati and the Shelleys  in the more modest Maison Chapuis.   The Villa Diodati was where the group congregated at night and where Mary Shelley told the story of Frankenstein.  Hearing about this notorious group staying at the villa, tourists would go by in boats on the Lake to try to get a glimpse of the infamous Byron and his friends.   The Villa Diodati can be visited today.

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit the haunts of my favorite writers.  I have done that in England with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Jane Austen,  the Brontes, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare.  I have visited the homes of Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville in New England.  I did this in Rome when I visited the house where Keats died.  Now I may have to go to Switzerland and do the same for Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets who flocked to beautiful Lake Geneva and try to imagine what it must have been like during that summer of 1816 when one of the most famous horror stories, "Frankenstein" was born.


By the way, Tom Perrottet's latest book, "The Sinner's Grand Tour: The Historical Underbelly of Europe," was published this month.  After reading Perrottet's fabulous article I will definitely be buying this book!