Friday, June 29, 2012

Dreaming About Italy

Ravello, Italy
Photo via here

Happy Summer!  What are your vacation plans?  I will be staying close to home most of the time, but I have been dreaming of far flung destinations.  Especially Ravello, Capri, Positano...oh those names conjure up such beautiful images.  Gorgeous scenery, delicious food, great wines, the Mediterranean, magnificent views, glamour, getting away from it all...  I have never traveled to this region, but its beauty is legendary. Twice in one day two different friends mentioned Ravello to me. One was on her way there for a  vacation (lucky girl!) and another was reading a book set in Ravello.  I am half Italian and spent a lot of time with my Italian grandparents when I was young.  They were always cooking delicious food for me and "mangia bene" was a frequent refrain in their house. My grandfather had a vegetable garden in his backyard and I spent many happy hours there as a child wandering through the tomato plants and swinging on the hammock.  I have always wanted to go to Rome and Naples, their birthplaces, and trace the footsteps of my ancestors.

Venice, 2005

I have been to Italy once and oh, how I loved it!  We went to Venice, Florence, and Rome, the three cities that I imagine everyone starts out with.  However, I am hoping one day to travel to the Amalfi Coast and experience the true La Dolce Vita.  In the meantime, I am gravitating towards books about Italy.  Summer is here and Italy beckons. There are so many good ones to choose from:

Who can forget the scene in "The Enchanted April" when Lottie, one of the four Englishwomen who have traveled to Italy, throws open the windows of their Tuscan villa and sees their Italian paradise for the first time.  That setting has transformative powers for all of them.

E.M. Forster's first novel is about his signature themes:  the collision of cultures and the hypocrisy and snobbishness of Edwardian England.  The story concerns an English widow who goes to Italy and marries an Italian.  I haven't read this one for a while, but I remember enjoying it.  I love this new edition by Vintage Classics.

"A Room With a View" is a gem, romantic and optimistic, once again about young people escaping their restrictive lives and finding love and happiness in Italy.  And who can forget the beautiful movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and the scene where Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson walk in the meadow carpeted with bluebells!

This book must have been responsible for a surge of people buying and restoring villas in Tuscany. Frances Mayes made it sound so romantic and life in Tuscany so beautiful and simple.

"A Year int the World" is another book by Frances Mayes that I have been reading.  She writes about the allure of travel and the many places that she has visited all around the world and what they have meant to her.  I love her thoughtful reflections about travel.  She visits many spots in Italy outside of Tuscany.

A vintage book on Italian cooking given to me by my daughter, don't you love the cover?


And here are some that I have accumulated over the years, but haven't had a chance to read:

In these essays Henry James writes of the qualities he admires about Italy, as well as the political shifts and cultural revolutions he observed at the time (from 1872 -1909).

"Innocence" by Penelope Fitzgerald is described as a "delectable comedy of manners" that takes place in Italy in 1955.  The story concerns an old Florentine family struggling after the war to keep their villa and farm going.

Author Shirley Hazzard writes about her friendship with the writer Graham Greene on the island of Capri.  He came to Capri each summer for years and it was there that they formed their friendship. 

"A Book of Secrets" sounds intriguing, the subtitle is "Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers." It tells several different stories that took place in the beautiful and mysterious Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.  Can't wait to read this one.


Monique at her blog Bringing Travel Home just mentioned a new book "La Bella Lingua" about the beauty of the Italian language.  The author Dianne Hales writes about her "love affair with Italian, the world's most enchanting language."  It sounds excellent!

Many writers have celebrated the beauty and pleasures of Italy in their books, using Italy as a metaphor for love and liberation.  Elizabeth Von Armin, E.M. Forster, and Henry James all wrote about characters finding themselves in Italy. Tell me, are you dreaming about Italy and if so, what books are taking you there?  Have you been to Italy?  Please tell me about your favorite region or city. We can all be armchair travelers!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Lunch in the Garden

Last year I donated "Lunch in the Garden" to benefit Robinson Gardens, an organization that supports the restoration of an historic home and gardens in our community.  A group of women bought it at a silent auction, a date was chosen, and it happened last week.  I was very excited because we had been working very hard on the garden to get it looking its very best.  I planned the menu and two lovely friends helped me do the cooking.    

We set the table, decorating it with flowers and chocolate candies, and welcomed our guests.  We walked them outside and amidst happy chatter they sipped chilled glasses of Fresh Peach Bellinis and wandered through the garden. 

The weather couldn't have been better, the sun warmed our backs and the green of the leaves was an especially vivid shade.  The perfume of the star jasmine wafted through the air.  Everyone agreed it was a beautiful day for eating outside.

We sat down on the patio for lunch and toasted the beginning of summer.  There was a lot of talk about summer travel plans, good books, new movies, and even blogging!  Here is what we served:

 Zucchini SoupArugula Salad with Lemon VinaigretteRoasted Shrimp with Feta, and Eton Mess

After the party was over and everyone was gone, I brought in all the flowers from outside and my kitchen looked festive for days!  

As I enjoyed the long lasting beauty of the flowers, I thought about the garden lunch -- it was a wonderful day of being outside, dining alfresco, laughing, talking about many different topics and getting to know a wonderful group of women, who stayed for most of the afternoon!

After thinking about it all, I realized that my favorite thing to donate to a charity event is an experience such as this.  I think that the people who purchase it enjoy the event, in this case a lunch, and the person who donates it can have a lot of fun putting it together.  Especially if you do it with the help of friends.  It gets you into the kitchen, motivates you to work on your garden, and gives you an opportunity to meet some very generous and lovely new friends.  Everyone feels good because they all contributed to a worthwhile cause, and had a very good time doing it!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Fondness for Green

"We think we deserve some good luck.  Yet I daresay we're the happiest couple in England.
-- Virginia Woolf, after purchasing Monk's House in 1919.

I have always wanted to visit Virginia Woolf's home Monk's House, and now I feel as if I have.  Have you seen the June issue of "The World of Interiors"?  If you enjoy seeing the houses in which writers lived, you will love this article on Monk's House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf's cottage in Sussex, England.  I love seeing the places where writers lived and worked, the environments where all that creativity took place.  We can wonder, for example, which room Virginia Woolf was in when she came up with the idea for a new novel? Was she warming herself in front of the fire when she suddenly saw the main character in her mind?   How did the morning sunlight coming through the kitchen window, together with a soothing cup of tea inspire the ideas that lead to a story?  Was she daydreaming in the garden when the perfect solution for how to end a book came to her? These kinds of musings are especially relevant in the case of Virginia Woolf, since houses and their interiors have such a strong presence in her books.  As the writer of the article points out, the Woolfs adored Monk's House and lavished great time and attention on making it the very best it could be.   It was almost like the child they never had.

The house dates from the late 17th century and was lived in by millers and carpenters until Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought it at auction in 1919.  Virginia told her friends that it was an ancient Monk's house with niches for holy water, but this was an instance of her famous verbal embroidery (though there were niches on either side of the chimney); monks never actually lived there.  It is a charming brick and weather-board cottage with a large garden in the Sussex village of Rodmell.   As Virginia's books began to make money, the Woolfs were able to add amenities to the house. At one end of the house there is an extension built in 1929 that was possible because of the money Virginia earned from her novel "Orlando."  They added a studio for Virginia in the garden.  The garden was Leonard's pride and joy; he created and cared for this beautiful retreat where they spent many happy hours.

The view of the house from Leonard's Italian garden

Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century found their way to Monk's house, including T.S. Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E.M Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Roger Fry.  Eliot told the story of the slope in the bathroom floor that made the bath water sit higher on the right.  The artists Vanessa Bell (Virginia's sister) and Duncan Grant hand-painted most of the furniture and decorative objects in the house. It is a house bursting with the personalities of the two people who lived there and, as with so many great houses, it allows us to understand them better.  "Places explain people," as David Garnett once said.

This issue of "The World of Interiors" takes us on a tour of the inside of the house and gives us a glimpse into the domestic life of Virginia Woolf.  It is a beautiful article with great photos, written by Caroline Zoob who is the last tenant-curator of Monk's House.   She tells us that Virginia "felt an irrational pain and sense of failure when her painter sister Vanessa Bell ridiculed her fondness for green."  But even though she was often influenced by her sister's artistic pronouncements, Virginia went ahead and included her favorite color in almost every room of the house.  

The sitting room at Monk's House, featuring Virginia's favorite green

The canvas-work seat of the chair in front of the writing desk in the sitting room, made by Duncan Grant's mother

The dining room with its green enamelled stove
The chairs were designed by Duncan Grant and the yellow seat backs were worked by Mrs. Grant

Virginia's sunny ground floor bedroom, surrounded by the garden.  Vanessa Bell painted the fireplace surround, signing it "VW from VB 1930."   She featured a lighthouse at the top of the tile work.

My favorite detail?  It has to be Virginia's Shakespeare collection which she bound in colorful papers.  In 1936, she wrote to E.M. Forster that she was "rebinding all my Shakespeares - 29 volumes - in coloured paper," labelling the spines herself.

 Lady Ottoline Morrell gave Virginia the Chinese silk shawl which is draped on this chair in her bedroom.  Virginia would write here using a board which would sit upon the chair's arms.  

Virginia's Shakespeare collection rebound by her "in coloured paper" -- it almost looks marbleized.
How beautiful!

Virginia Woolf's fondness for green is just one of her personal preferences that we can see in the way she decorated her home.  Pick up this issue of "World of Interiors" to see all the gorgeous photos of her charming Bloomsbury retreat and to read the fascinating article. (Photos by Caroline Arber and text by Caroline Zoob)   Notice how personalized everything is --  her hand or that of her sister Vanessa is responsible for almost everything.  Her approach to decorating this country cottage reveals a time and a sensibility when most things were hand decorated and this approach to making a home was the welcome relief she needed from writing her books.  Her friends enjoyed being at Monk's House and many of them wrote about it:  

"I loved the untidy, warm, informal nature of the house with books and magazines littered about the rooms, logs piled up by the fireplaces, painted furniture and low tables of tiles designed by the Bloomsbury artists, and writing done in sunny, flower-filled , messy studios.  A smell of wood smoke and ripe apples lingered about it, mixed with the fainter under-perfume of old bindings and old paper."
-- John Lehmann

It sounds like a wonderful environment for inspiration.  And now I can picture Virginia sitting in that chair in her bedroom with Ottoline's scarf wrapped around her shoulders writing one of her books.  With Shakespeare nearby to guide her, she was in a great space to unleash her creativity.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Schiaparelli and Prada at the Met

Wallis Simpson wearing Schiaparelli

"She shook back her shining hair .  For this evening, she had managed to borrow the Schiaparelli dress.  It was made of taffeta, with small side panniers stuck out with cleverly curved pads over the hips.  It was coloured dark blue, green, orange and white in a floral pattern as from the Pacific Islands.  
He said, 'I don't think I've ever seen such a gorgeous dress.'  
'Schiaparelli,' she said.
He said, 'Is that the one you swap amongst yourselves?
'Who told you that?'
'You look beautiful,' he replied.
She picked up the rustling skirt and floated away up the staircase.  Oh, the girls of slender means!"

 --  Muriel Spark, "The Girls of Slender Means" 


Last week I was in New York and got a chance to see the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's retrospective "Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada:  Impossible Conversations."  It is a fascinating and beautiful show, comparing and contrasting work by two designers of different generations.  It includes an imaginative film by Baz Luhrmann featuring the actress Judy Davis playing Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada.  They are sitting across from each other at a dining table having a conversation about clothes and feminism.  Although the women lived during different time periods, there are many similarities between the two.  They were both born in Italy to old, conservative families.  Both of them rebelled early on and when they started designing clothing, they brought an original and fresh perspective: Prada inspired women to dress for themselves and not for a man and Schiaparelli was influenced by Surrealism through her friend Salvador Dali and incorporated it into some of her designs.  (The surrealist designs are outstanding, though they don't dominate the show; most of her clothes are elegant and relatable.)  Her lobster dress was worn by Wallis Simpson and is in this exhibition.  It is truly something to see!

A film featuring Miucccia Prada and actress Judy Davis playing Elsa Schiaparelli plays behind the fashions they designed

This segment is called "Waist Up/Waist Down" and pairs skirts by Prada with jackets by Schiaparelli

Shoes by Prada and necklaces by Schiaparelli

Judy Davis playing Elsa Schiaparelli in the film by Baz Luhrmann that plays throughout the exhibition

If you get a chance to see this show, don't miss it.  You will enjoy getting to know these two strong and creative women through Baz Luhrmann's film.  I loved Judy Davis' portrayal of Elsa Schiaparelli.  The conversation between her and Miuccia Prada as captured in this film is fascinating.  And the clothes are fabulous!  Both designers have made major contributions to the art of fashion design and it is exciting to see such a large collection of both their designs in one place.   Don't miss Shiaparelli's "Lobster Dress and her "Tears Dress," both influenced by Salvador Dali.

 Photo via here

All photos (except the last two) from The New York Times

Friday, June 15, 2012

Picnics and Jane Austen

"They had a very fine day for Box Hill...Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there.  Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and everybody had a burst of admiration on first arriving..."
-- "Emma" by Jane Austen

The Cotswolds, England -- June, 2010

Books and travel take us places.  Sometimes when we travel, we notice things that remind us of something we have read in a book.  In fact, we may be at our travel destination because of a book.  After all, we read for images and we travel for images, and those images can stay with us forever.  It is not surprising that they intersect.

When I was in the English countryside for a garden tour and saw this vista in the Cotswolds, I was reminded of the Box Hill Picnic from Jane Austen's novel "Emma."  "Emma" is one of my favorite books and has always been a book that can take me to a cozy place.  No matter how badly behaved she is, I think we all love Emma.  Her heart is in the right place, though it is sorely tested during the episode of the Box Hill picnic.   And even though the Box Hill picnic was in another part of England, I thought that this vista in the Cotswolds with the verdant hill in the distance looked as if it could have been the setting for the misguided outing that forms the core of Jane Austen's great novel.

Image via here

All the main characters were part of that expedition to Box Hill -- Emma, Mr. Knightley, Miss Bates, Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax.  They made the leisurely trek, chatting as they walked along, pointing out the beautiful highlights of the surrounding landscape.  It was an idyllic scene.  Mr. Woodhouse would have been safely deposited in an armchair in front of the fire at Donwell Abbey (Mr. Knightley's residence), happily looking at Mr. Knightley's books as he awaited the group's return.

Travel and books supply us with vast amounts of images to store in our memory bank.  It is exciting when the two worlds intersect.  In many respects, Jane Austen led me to the English countryside.  I already knew that part of the world from her books before I ever visited.  Those novels sent me there.  I hope these images from the English countryside and Jane Austen inspire you to get outside this month of June and have a picnic.  It is one of the quintessential summer pleasures and a great mood lifter.  Throw a blanket on the grass and be sure to include strawberries and champagne.  It will lead you on a beautiful journey of images and you may find yourself remembering a special scene from one of your favorite books.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Discovering Isabel Colegate

Something very exciting is happening in the literary blogosphere.  Many book bloggers are writing about and bringing attention to women writers from the past, some of whom are not widely read or talked about and some whose books are not even in print.  These are excellent writers who deserve to be read and even though they may be difficult to find in a book store, you can always order them online.    Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and Isabel Colegate are three that come to mind.  Because of Rachel's review of The Shooting Party on her wonderful blog Book Snob,  I recently had the pleasure of discovering this wonderful novel by Isabel Colegate.  If you haven't read this book, I urge you to do so immediately.  I just read the last pages and was so moved by the beauty and the sadness of this book that I hurried over to my computer to write about it.    

Those of us who were fans of Downton Abbey are familiar with the customs of country life for the English upper class during the Edwardian era in the years before World War I.  A family like Lord Grantham's would have tea every afternoon, wear formal dress for dinner, and organize a shooting party for the weekend.  

Who can forget the image of Lady Mary, elegant in her tweeds, striding between the two men who love her during the shooting party scene of the last episode of season two?  It turns out that Julian Fellowes was influenced by The Shooting Party when he created "Downton Abbey."

The Shooting Party is a beautifully written and touching novel about England during the Edwardian era just before World War, with a focus on the British class system.   It was published in 1981 and is the most famous of the 14 books written by the excellent English writer Isabel Colegate, a writer not widely known in this country.  The novel's theme is pre-World War I England on the eve of the catastrophic war, its countrymen unknowing and unprepared for what lay ahead.

The story takes place in the autumn of 1913 on the Oxfordshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby.  He has invited a group of friends to join him on his estate for the biggest shoot of the season.  As with "Downton Abbey," we get a microcosm here of the British class system, a self-contained world within the grounds and house of Sir Randolph.  We meet the servants and gamekeepers who facilitate this age old ritual of the house and the hunt.  They have dreams and opinions about making their lives better, as well as loyalties to the family.  Tom Harker is a thatcher by trade but on the shooting party weekend works as a "beater," one of the men who rouse the birds from their nests for their flight to death.  He is filled with class resentment, and yet admires the shooting skill of the men involved in the hunt.  There is Dan, the son of the gamekeeper Glass, who is very bright and an excellent student.  Sir Randolph is planning to send him to university and pay for his education.  Sir Randolph himself is a benevolent man with a devotion to keeping things the way they are and preserving the great land and house he has inherited.  He believes it is his duty to care for the men and women who work on his land.  He and his wife Minnie watch over the group of guests and attend to their comfort.

The guests are an eclectic group.  There is Lord Gilbert Hartlip, who is famous as an excellent shot but takes it so seriously as to adversely affect the experience.  Lionel Stephens is a successful lawyer who is also a talented sportsman (in fact he and Lord Harlip are serious rivals) but is more occupied with falling in love with Olivia Lilburn, the beautiful and intelligent wife of a man who doesn't appreciate her.  Sir Randolph's grandchildren are there.  Osbert is a sensitive and introverted child who spends the entire weekend searching for his pet duck, whom he is terrified will be killed in the hunt.  Osbert's older sister Cicely is having her first flirtation with one of the guests, a young Hungarian count.   An animal rights protester Cornelius Cardew wanders onto the estate, trying to talk to Sir Randolph about his cause.  

We know almost from the beginning that some one will die during the shoot and the discovery of who that person will be is the topic of suspense that dominates this book until the end.

The book is elegant and subtle, never hitting the reader over the head with any of the issues that are present throughout the story:  class tensions, the rights of women, anti-violence and animal rights.   These issues are there but are woven subtly throughout the book, coming up in dialogue or behavior.  
The elegance of the book comes from the way the time period, the country estate, the land, and this way of life are evoked.  The details and texture of things seem to be illuminated in a golden glow.    They are rendered so beautifully as to almost appear as a painting of a time long ago, an era that no longer exists but is given eternity though a work of art.

Here is the opening of the book:

"It caused a mild scandal at the time, but in most people's memories it was quite outshone by what succeeded it.  You could see it as a drama all played out in a room lit by gas lamps; perhaps with flickering sidelights thrown by a log fire burning brightly at one side of the room, a big Edwardian drawing room, full of furniture, tables crowded with knick-knacks and framed photographs, people sitting or standing in groups, conversing; and then a fierce electric light thrown back from a room beyond, the next room, into which no one has yet ventured, and this fierce retrospective light through the doorway makes the lamplit room seem shadowy, the flickering flames in the grate pallid, the circles of yellow light round the lamps opaque (a kind of tarnished gold) and the people, well, discernibly people, but people from a long time ago, our parents and grandparents made to seem like beings from a much remoter past, Charlemagne and his knights or the seven sleepers half roused from their thousand year sleep.
It was an error of judgement which resulted in a death.  It took place in the autumn before the outbreak of what used to be known as the Great War."

The book is not long, only about 200 pages, and it is to Colegate's credit that she was able to convey so economically this vanished world and its obsession with things that would no longer matter in a few months, when the ultimate "shooting party" of World War I destroyed so much of what these people valued.  It would take away the lives of so many of their young men, young men exactly like those in Colegate's novel.  The Shooting Party is a heartbreaking book, but one you will respect for not manipulating your feelings in an obvious way and truly deserving the emotion it creates.  

By the way,  Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by women writers, mostly English authors whose books were written in the twentieth century.  They are a great source for beautiful editions of many important books that have fallen out of print.
Also, if you would like to learn more about some of my favorite book bloggers, you can find out here.

Have you discovered a gifted writer whose books are not well known or widely read?  Please pass along your discovery, as we would all love to know!           

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Summer afternoon, summer afternoon..."

A dreamy retreat in dappled sunlight, perfect for sitting over cocktails and appetizers

"Summer afternoon, summer afternoon, to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."  --  Henry James

Garden Tours are filled with such great inspiration.  The gardens are naturally the focus.  We learn so much from the talented gardeners who have planted and nurtured all those flowers and plants.  But we also get to see the garden retreats, the beautiful outdoor spaces that the homeowners have created in order to enjoy the summer season.  This is where they can sit with a glass of lemonade, read a good book, and daydream.  Here are a few gorgeous outdoor rooms I have seen on recent garden tours.  They have me thinking about Henry James' famous quote about summer. I could see myself enjoying a lovely summer afternoon or evening in any of these enchanting spaces...

This is a true outdoor room, cozy and functional with its couches, coffee table and fireplace.  A place to go after dinner on a warm night, to play scrabble and eat ice cream.  That fireplace would have to be lit!  S'mores anyone?

This space has such a romantic and peaceful feel with its striped awning and mounds of greenery.  I would love to see it on a warm night with the candles lit, music playing and maybe some impromptu dancing! 

Can't you just picture the girls from an Edith Wharton novel here, dressed in their white muslin dresses with their heads together gossiping and sipping iced tea while the men play tennis?

This enclave of red roses beckons us after a swim to sit and have a grilled lunch or dinner

 Four friends could play Bridge in this elegant nook, accompanied by mint juleps 

This rustic enclosure would make a great spot for a country breakfast

And this cozy porch makes me want to sit and visit with the neighbors

I have also been spotting some beautiful outdoor table settings --

This one calls out for a garden party

Sunday lunch in the garden would be perfect here

This table in a garden room is special enough for a midsummer wedding celebration  

 And this was the setting for a very special birthday party featuring the first peonies of the season

These tables are bursting with summer goodness.  There are so many possibilities for enjoying the outdoors.   Here's to a great summer of garden parties, picnics, enjoying the view, visiting with friends and eating delicious meals in whatever retreat you've created for yourself -- whether it's a simple chair under a tree or a dining table on your patio.

  The most important thing is to relax and celebrate the best that nature has to offer.  Flowers make us feel better and a garden soothes our spirits.  Be sure to enjoy those summer afternoons!

All photos by Sunday Taylor