Monday, January 30, 2012

Garden Books and Dreams

I love books about gardens. There is something so hopeful about them. The writer often tell an inspiring story of dreams and goals. There is the search for the house with enough land for a garden. It can be small or big, it just has to feel right. Sometimes the land is bare or there already may be a garden, but it is awful and needs to be torn out. Then the dreaming begins and such exciting planning. Garden books are studied and advice is sought. The space needs to be plotted out and the soil has to be prepared. 

The actual planting begins with all its mistakes, happy accidents, and well-thought out choices. There is the inevitable tearing out of things that didn't work, the advise from fellow gardeners, and the happiness at seeing something take root and flourish. Searching for garden ornaments is an ongoing project and designing garden structures such as arbors and pergolas is a creative part of the process. And oh what joy when treasures are found! Finding the perfect fountain to anchor the garden can be a glorious moment. There is the satisfaction as the years go by and the garden matures. One is in awe at the beauty and romance of the pear tree when it blossoms with the most beautiful and delicate white flowers. The result of all that effort is the peace and serenity of sitting in the garden and enjoying the magical retreat that has been created.

At this time of the year I love pulling out my favorite garden books. There are two kinds that I read. First, there are the how-to books. They have the lists of all the different kinds of roses, peonies, geraniums and any other flower you desire. They give advice on which vines will grow best on your pergola. They tell you what kinds of conditions that magnolia tree you want so badly requires. There are instructions on how to trim boxwood or how much sun your hydrangeas need. This information is necessary and crucial to figuring it all out.  

But I also love reading the classic garden books such as those by Elizabeth Von Armin, Beverley Nichols and Frances Hodgson Burnett. These are not how-to books, but are instead inspiring reads about hopeful gardeners and dreamers. Often the story of the garden is a metaphor for discovering meaning and hope in their own lives. Somehow the garden helps them get there. It is the process and the work that allows them to forget about their problems. There is also the joy of being outside in nature with the sun warming their backs, the community of fellow gardeners they meet along the way, the visible results of their efforts, and the paradise they have created that leads them to a greater state of happiness. It is as if creating a garden is a formula for finding happiness. 

As I looked at our garden in the shadows of a late afternoon on a recent day in January, I remembered the days when it was just a dream. I have to say that much of its creation is due to the wonderful books about gardens I have been reading most of my life. Spending time out here on a warm summer day with a good book or just dreaming about the next new plant to introduce into the garden is true happiness.        

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Weekend Miscellany

A few things I am excited about right now...

I can't let the week go by without mentioning Edith Wharton's birthday on January 24.  This year is the 150th anniversary of her birth.  There is probably no American writer who gets mentioned more often than Edith Wharton, especially in terms of old New York.

For example, the enchanting new book "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles ( a love letter to New York) has a lovely tribute to Edith Wharton.  My book club just discussed it yesterday and loved it!  As the characters celebrate New Year's eve the narrator describes the scene:

"Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could.  The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories.  At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy.  Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door.  When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name?
Never, I'm afraid."


The Fifth Avenue Hotel, center of the gilded age social scene
Photo from the New York Times

Th New York Times recently featured a long and fascinating article with many great photos about Edith Wharton in honor of her 150th birthday.  The author of this excellent article entitled "Tales of New York," with a subtitle: "For Edith Wharton's Birthday, Hail Ultimate Social Climbers" writes about the New York heiresses of that time and the locations "where Edith and the gilded girls roamed," including the photo above.  What a great piece about the world in which Edith lived.


The Mount, Edith Wharton's House in Lenox, Massachusetts

If you go to the website at The Mount, Edith's home in Lenox, Massachusetts, you will find many articles about and tributes to Edith Wharton in celebration of her big birthday.  One interesting piece of information I read was that Julian Fellowes cited Wharton's "The Custom of the Country" as one of the influences on "Downton Abbey."  In that book Edith was writing about American girls going to England in the late nineteenth century and marrying English aristocrats. I think you will enjoy this website as it gives so many examples of the influence of Edith Wharton on writers and filmmakers.


I seem to be on a roll right now with some really good books.  I just finished "Old Filth" and "The Man in the Wooden Hat" by the English writer Jane Gardam.  Old Filth is the nickname of the main character, whose real name is Edward Feathers.  "Filth" is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."  Feathers is an English solicitor and judge who made a great success in Hong Kong and has retired in his later years to Dorset, England with his wife Betty.  He is an elderly man who is looking back on his life and his story is fascinating, funny and heartbreaking.  The second book "The Man in the Wooden Hat" is the same story, but told from the wife's perspective.  What a portrait of a marriage! You are in for a treat.  I loved these books and recommend them both, but read "Old Filth" first.


"Midnight in Paris"
Photo from the New York Times

The Academy Award nominations just came out and Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" got four nominations!  I was thrilled because "Midnight in Paris" is my favorite movie of the year.   There is a great article in today's New York Times, "Unlikely Routes Lead to Oscars," about how this movie almost didn't get made.  One producer wondered who would want to see this film since nobody even knows who Gertrude Stein is anymore.  But Woody argued that you don't really need to know those people to appreciate the film.  The film turned out to be his most successful.  Let's hope it wins some Oscars!


So many people have been saying good things about the new biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin.  I just started it and I can tell I am going to be swept away by this one.  


What are you up to this weekend?  I would love to hear what books you are reading and which movies you have seen lately.  I'm going to the Getty Center this weekend to see the new art exhibition "Pacific Standard Time."  We are having gorgeous weather in Los Angeles and it should be a beautiful day up at the Getty with its amazing views of the city.  Have a great weekend!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Virginia, Of Course

Virginia Woolf
Photo in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf's birthday falls this week on January 25.  She was born in London in 1882.  Most people know that Virginia Woolf was a brilliant and groundbreaking writer who wrote "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse."  Along with Proust and Joyce, she broke with the conventions of the past and ushered in the modern novel.  Her books contain some of the most beautiful writing you will ever read.  But there are many things about her that are not known. The English poet Edith Sitwell wrote the following about Virginia Woolf shortly after her death in 1941.


"A short while ago this exquisite being, with the sensibility of Dorothy Wordsworth and the talent of Jane Austen, was still with us.  She was allied to many things in nature; she had the profundity of a deep well of water.  But when she was talking, and listening to the talk of others, you felt that she was like a happy child chasing butterflies over the fields of an undying summer.  Only there was no cruelty; she would catch the lovely creature for a moment, see the colours on their wings, and then set them free again, their beauty undimmed.

There was no happiness that you could not imagine her sharing, nor could you ever guess that there was a shadow in the world.  Brave and shining, darkness could have no part in her.

After her tragic death a friend wrote of her that she had 'an unearthly beauty.'  I would have said 'an unworldly beauty,' for part of her delightfulness lay in the fact that she enjoyed earthly things.  Her beauty was great and she had the kind of unconscious elegance of some tall thin bird, with its long legs and delicate feet, and wondering turn of the head. With this she had a charm which had an innocently mischievous character, like that of a child.

In conversation with her, everything became exciting.  She made thoughts fly to and fro more quickly. She had a swift and flashing sympathy like that which Dorothy Wordsworth must have possessed, her luminous mind lightened and heightened all subjects.  Equally enchanting as talker and listener, she encouraged the conversation of her friends, she teased them gently, clapping her hands with pleasure and excitement when they scored some point.  She was never tired of questioning;  but questions were never wearisome when she asked them, for they led somewhere and often made the answerer see a new truth.

Such was her personality: and her work and her character were indivisible.  Hers was a work more of radiance than of fire.  It had no quality of danger in it.  The beings in her novels and in that enchanting work, 'The Common Reader,' are living creatures: we meet them as we meet our acquaintances, they talk with us, laugh with us.  I do not think that they tell us the secrets of their hearts.  But then, many charming beings are unravaged by passions, undevastated by fires in the heart.  They do not live dangerously, the great adventures are not theirs.  But the flying happiness of the hour, the light on the wings of the bird, the dew on the morning world: these she seemed to hold in  her long and beautiful hands, and as she touched them for a moment they became more real to us and it seemed that they must be unfading."


I found this tribute to Virginia Woolf by Edith Sitwell in the book "English Women" which is part of the "Britain in Pictures" series.  What I love about this description of Virginia Woolf is that it shows a side of her that many people don't know.  It captures the light and happy side of her personality, the enchanting and charming side that her friends loved.  We all know about the darkness and the tragic end it led to, but when we read her letters or the memories of her by friends such as Clive Bell, we get an idea of the fun and spirit that was such a large part of her conversation. She had a great sense of fun, loved practical jokes, and was an incorrigible gossip.  When she told a story it was often embroidered with exaggeration, whimsey and many colorful details, and her friends loved her for the magic she brought to their social circle.

Clive Bell tells a story about the effect of Virginia on her close friends:

"I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey.  After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, 'Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?'  I hesitated a moment, and he supplied the answer:  'Virginia, of course.'"

Happy Birthday, Virginia!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Great Day

"It is always an adventure to enter a new room; for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion..."
--  Virginia Woolf, "Street Haunting"

I was very excited to be hosting a lunch and lecture by the very talented writer Lisa Borgnes Giramonti of the richly literary blog "A Bloomsbury Life."  It turned out to be a very special day, a day of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, and Nancy Mitford.  It was a day of talking about homes and the people who make them.  It was a day of learning how some of the great writers created memorable domestic scenes in their books, scenes that could inspire us in decorating our homes.  Maybe it is the unsettled times we are living in right now, but it seems as if everyone is in nesting mode and interested to hear someone talk seriously about the art of making a home. 

This event was to benefit Robinson Gardens, an historic home and gardens built in Los Angeles in 1911.  Lisa would be giving her lecture called "The Hearth of the Matter:  How I Discovered My Design Style Through Books."

After a lunch that included butternut squash soup, salmon, and sticky toffee pudding, we assembled for Lisa's lecture. She is a warm and engaging speaker, funny and bright, always encouraging and inspiring in her ideas.   She has thought long and hard about how to live a meaningful life and has some very interesting things to say.  She started with the concept that the books she has loved have formed the person she is today.  Her personal style, especially in the way she decorates her home and lives her life within that home, has been influenced by the beautiful moments that occur in books in between the big events -- the descriptions of the food and the houses and the gardens and the parties -- all these things influenced who she is today.  She has learned to live a meaningful life from these great passages and her intention today was to share with us many of the books that made a difference. 

She told us that when she reads a novel she thinks of herself as a domestic explorer, always on the lookout for clues on how to live a more simple, meaningful life.  From the time she was a child she delighted in reading, like so many of us, and would fall into a book and be swept away.  And it was the beautiful moments, when the characters would have an impromptu tea party in the garden, that she wanted to recreate in her life.

A collage of images from Lisa's home in Hollywood

She told us that thanks to "Tender is the Night" she knows how to throw a magical outdoor dinner party

And thanks to "The Pickwick Papers" she knows how to make a house feel snug and warm and welcoming.

And thanks to "I Capture the Castle" she knows that there is sometimes more glamour in disorder than order.

Charleston Farmhouse, where the Bloomsbury Group spent much time

She told us about inheriting a collection of Bloomsbury books three years ago and thus was born her love of the Bloomsbury Group.  Through these books she got to know Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and others and admired their zest for life, passion for art, and dedication to the ideals of friendship and honesty.  They were born into the Victorian era but became fierce advocates for freedom and modernism.  They lived with flair and no pretension in the bohemian household of Charleston, a house that was beautiful and imperfect, filled with art and love.  As Angelica Garnett has described it, life at Charleston seemed bathed "in the glow of a perpetual summer."  This warm and happy house was another inspiration for Lisa and she talked about her fascination with the Bloomsbury Group and the environment they created.

The entry hall of Lisa's home 

She showed us several pictures of her home in Los Angeles, and we saw the ways it has been influenced by her favorite books.  It is a deeply personal home, layered with history and meaning.  Her beloved books are everywhere and I love that she decided to paint her bookshelves black like the ones at Hatchards in London, because the books really look spectacular that way.  Her entryway is papered in a "Secret Garden" style wallpaper so she can imagine she is in a country garden when she walks in the door.  Her Aga stove presides over her kitchen and evokes a kitchen in one of the great country houses, such as in the novels by Nancy Mitford.  There are many British touches throughout and the home feels warm and inviting, well loved and well lived in.  The sheep sculpture by the door gives the feeling of an English pastoral scene right out of "Mapp and Lucia."

Everyone loved the lecture.  It was a magical day filled with many things to think about and nobody wanted it to end. As everyone said good-bye, we all agreed that it was a day we wouldn't forget and somehow I think what we heard will have a lasting influence on all of us.  We loved Lisa's suggestion to pull a table or sofa out onto the lawn and have a party.  Or to use the good china and not care if a piece gets broken.  What good is it if you never use it?  And when our rugs start to look worn, that is the natural wear and tear on a house and it adds lovely patina to a room.  All of these thoughts are part of her warm and comfortable approach to decorating a house.  But most importantly, I think we are all determined to read more and look for inspiration for our homes in our favorite books.


Later that day I thought about a scene from "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf that has always stayed with me, when Clarissa Dalloway is rushing around her neighborhood in London, buying flowers and getting ready for her party later that night.  I have always loved it for the happiness and excitement the character feels as she is about to have her party and anticipates bringing her guests together in the warmth and comfort of her home:

"Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street.  For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh:  but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on the same...they love life.  In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses...brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved;  life;  London;  this moment in June."

All photos --  except the first one, the one of Lisa and the one of Charleston  -- are by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti via

Monday, January 16, 2012

Books and Houses

"Ah!  There is nothing like staying home, for real comfort" --   from "Emma" by Jane Austen.

In keeping with my British theme this month, there is probably no more beloved English writer that I could talk about than Jane Austen.  Her books, written two hundred years ago, continue to be read, made into movies, rewritten and turned into sequels.  Many people believe that this is because Jane Austen was writing about truths, truths about life and about human nature.  Truths that are still relevant today.  And she definitely had it right that most of us just want to be home for real comfort.  Sharing our homes with good friends is even better.

And so on a winter day in January, I can think of nothing better than welcoming a group of women to my house for lunch and a literary lecture. I am very excited to be hosting a special event to benefit Robinson Gardens, an historic home and gardens that was built in Los Angeles in 1911.  The Friends of Robinson Gardens raise money to support and maintain this historic property.  Our guests will have lunch at my house to be followed by a lecture given by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti  of the popular blog "A Bloomsbury Life."  She will be talking about her concepts of creating a warm and welcoming home in her lecture "The Hearth of the Matter:  How I Discovered My Design Style Through Books.


I  love Lisa's richly literary blog and her topic for this lecture.  I will be curious to hear about her favorite writers and how their books have influenced her design style in the homes she has lived in.  How we decorate our homes is very individual but many people agree that it is our personal collections of art, books and travel souvenirs that make our homes warm and inviting.   I have been collecting old books for a long time and years ago when traveling in England I was thrilled to find some treasured books by members of the Bloomsbury Group and I guess I could say that this collection influenced the look of some of the rooms in my house.  I am working on a needlepoint pillow that is a reproduction of one that was designed by Duncan Grant.  I can't wait to find a place for it on a couch or chair.   I have always been inspired by the friendships and devotion to books and art that motivated this group of writers and artists. They spent many happy days at Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and it is their idea of home as a gathering space for friends and fellow artists that has always attracted me.

Charleston in Sussex, England

With Lisa's lecture coming up, I began to think about some of my favorite books and I realize that I often return to them for their cozy domestic scenes as well as their compelling stories and characters.

"Emma" reminds me that some of the most fascinating people are flawed and complicated, though still lovable and nothing is more important than nurturing our dear friendships.  This classic book by Jane Austen also fosters a desire to stay at home and be cozy.


"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens always inspires me to celebrate at home with the people I love.

My two favorite characters Margaret and Helen Shlegel of "Howards End" by E.M. Forster encourage me to bring together the fabulous and dynamic women I know and have them at my house.   I love the scenes of the two sisters having great discussions with friends in their elegant house in London.


An eccentric and fascinating English home I visited recently was the Dennis Severs house in London.

The Dennis Severs house at 18 Folgate Street in London

I had never heard of the Dennis Severs House in London until I read about it on "A Bloomsbury Life."  I am so glad I decided to make it a priority on my recent trip to London.  It is a recreation of an 18th-century house belonging to a silk-weaver in Spitalfields.  The rooms are deeply atmospheric and history is suggested by evocative still lifes and vignettes in every room.   It is truly a unique experience to walk through this house.  There is such an immediacy to the rooms, it is as if the inhabitants had just left before you entered.  The idea of home and all that goes on within the walls of a house is evoked in this experience.

One of the most important things I have learned since I have been blogging is how interconnected everything is and that most people who blog have a passion for something that is often infectious and can lead to many new roads in our lives.  The connections between people, their experience and discoveries, are what make this world of  blogging so interesting.

A room at the Dennis Severs house

And so I look forward to learning about the literary discoveries, connections, and experiences that Lisa has had that have formed her aesthetic sensibility.  I think we will all come away from this lecture with many new books to read and many new ideas for decorating our homes!   I wonder, which writers have influenced the way you decorate your home?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Looking Back

"Siting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry.  She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next field into which the gap in the hedge would lead.  So, she thought, could she at last put circles round her life.  Slowly she crossed that day, as one crosses a field by a little path through the grasses, with the sorrel and the buttercups waving on either side; she crossed it again slowly, from breakfast to bed-time, and each hour, as one hand of the clock passed over the other, regained for her its separate character: this was the hour, she thought, when I first came downstairs that day, swinging my hat by its ribbons; and this was the hour when he persuaded me into the garden, and sat with me on the seat beside the lake, and told me it was not true that with one blow of its wing a swan could break the leg of a man.

She had listened to him, paying dutiful attention to the swan which had actually drifted up to them by the bank, dipping its beak and then curving to probe irritably into the snowy tuft of feathers on its breast; but she was thinking less of the swan than of the young whiskers on Henry's cheek, only her thoughts had merged, so that she wondered whether Henry's brown curls were as soft as the feathers on the breast of the swan, and all but reached out an idle hand to feel them.  Then he passed from the swan, as though that had been but a gambit to cover his hesitation, and the  next thing she knew was that he was speaking earnestly, bending forward and even fingering a flounce of her dress, as though anxious, although unaware of his anxiety, to establish some kind of contact between himself and her; but for her all true contact had been severed from the moment he began to speak so earnestly...He had gone.  He had left her. Even while she conscientiously gazed at him and listened, she was already miles and miles away.  He had passed into the sphere where people marry, beget and bear children, bring them up, give orders to servants...Mr. Holland was asking her to accompany him into this sphere.  He was asking her to be his wife."


Sometimes we read a passage of writing that takes our breath away and makes us gasp at the perfection of the words and how effectively they express what the writer was trying to say.  For me that happened recently with this passage from "All Passion Spent" written in 1931 by English writer Vita Sackville-West. They are the thoughts of  88-year old Lady Slane as she sits outside her new home in Hampstead Heath in London after the death of her husband Lord Slane, a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India, at the end of a long Victorian marriage.  Her six adult children have tried to control her life after the death of her husband, assuming she would be overwhelmed with grief and incapable of dealing with the practicalities of life.  She has always been viewed as an appendage to her powerful statesman husband, with no real life of her own.  They assume she will want to live with them, but she shocks them by declaring she wants to live by herself and buys a small house that she has always loved in Hampstead Heath.

The story is poignant and touching:  a woman near the end of her life finally doing exactly what she wants.  She has simplified her life to the bare minimum -- living in a small but elegant house in Hampstead Heath with her old French maid Genoux.  Her children have stopped visiting, as Hampstead is too far for them to travel.  She does not mind. Now is the time for reflection and simplicity.  Much to her surprise three men have entered her life and are regular visitors. They have neither status nor prestige, which is part of their appeal for her.  They are the agent who helped her buy the house, the builder who helped remodel it, and a reclusive and wealthy collector of fine art Mr. FitzGeorge who knew her in India and is still in love with her.  She has not enjoyed herself this much in many, many years.  Days are spent walking on the Heath or reading in front of the fireplace.  Evenings are spent visiting with her new friends, or sitting by herself lost in thought as she thinks about her life and the choices she has made.

This is a book not to miss.  It will make you think about getting older, looking back, being true to yourself and appreciating the simple pleasures that make life worthwhile.  What a treat to discover this elegiac and beautiful book "All Passion Spent" written by the very passionate and rebellious English woman Vita Sackville-West.   Like Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, Vita felt strongly about the issue of women being repressed by society and she was a fierce advocate for her own personal freedom throughout her life.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Did You Think?

Yes, it's back and everyone I know is watching it!  The first episode of the second season of "Downton Abbey" aired on Sunday and much of it was about World War I, truly a watershed event, and how it has changed things at Downton Abbey.  (Spoiler Alert:  if you haven't seen the episode yet, read no further)  It is 1916 and many of the men are either active soldiers and fighting in France, like  Matthew and Thomas; aspiring soldiers ready to go to battle, like the footman William; or honorary soldiers like Lord Grantham, who is frustrated that he cannot fight.  The war is horrific and there are many scenes that deal with the fighting and the wounded soldiers.  The characters have all been affected by war, including the women. Lady Sybil has left to help at a wounded soldier's hospital, but first gets some cooking lessons from Mrs. Patmore and Daisy since she has never even made a cup of tea. Lady Edith has learned how to drive and seems to have found some purpose in life, and a little romance, offering to help on a neighboring farm by driving a tractor.   Lady Mary is praying for the safety of the man we all know she loves, Matthew Crawley, the heir to Downton Abbey.  He is engaged to another woman, much to the displeasure of all the characters.  And there is something sinister about Mary's new suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle, owner of a newspaper empire.

The house itself has seen some changes and in the opening episode is the setting for a concert to raise money for the war.  Mr. Carlson is stressed out, to say the least.  The household staff has shrunk with the departure of Gwen and some of the young men.  And there is a new villain on the show, Vera Bates ( the wife of Mr. Bates) who has forced his return to their marriage with blackmail threats regarding the Crawley family.  And of course, Mr. Bates will only do the honorable thing.  Remember the dead Turkish diplomat from last time?  This incident continues to haunt the show. There are new servants and some are a bit pluckier than we are used to, such as  Ethel --  she knows there are other opportunities out there for her and that things are changing in the world and will never be the same. Also, the new valet is a soldier who has returned from war to reenter service, though he seems fragile and is suffering from shell shock.  It is obvious that the rigid class system of the past is changing and some of those who have been in service will decide to go out into the world and take advantage of new opportunities, as Gwen did.  At the end of the episode it was decided that Downton Abbey was going to be used as a convalescent hospital.  The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is obviously horrified at all these new developments.

And yet many things are reassuringly the same:  the house still has its lustre, the bells ring,  the silver is polished, the chandeliers sparkle, the fireplaces are made up each morning and the kitchen is running at full steam.   The Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is still concerned with getting her daughters married, and is encouraged that Mary has a new suitor.  Mr. Carson continues to care excessively about keeping up the standards in the house, his way of staving off the unsettling social and war chaos going on outside of Downton.   Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are still the reassuring parent figures downstairs just as the Earl and Countess of Granthan are upstairs,  Mr. Bates continues to be an honorable man, and he and Anna just may be my two favorite characters!  The romances between Matthew and Mary and Anna and Mr. Bates continue to be the driving force in the show.  And Maggie Smith is always a treasure as the Dowager Countess of Grantham,  delivering the best lines in her inimitable voice with eyes bulging and impeccable timing, always making us laugh.  As her withering gaze surveys the flower arrangements made by Lady Grantham, she says  "Cora's flowers always look more suited to a first southern Italy."   Representing the old guard, she is afraid of the technological and social changes that are happening all around her and expresses her feelings with a flourish.

But for me the brilliance of the show is in the relationships between the characters.  There are so many moments between them that are poignant and emotional.  These special moments are the real heart of the show and here are some of my favorites from Sunday night's episode, the ones that required some kleenex:

When Cousin Isobel tells the family that Matthew is engaged.

When Mr. Bates and Anna talk about getting married, having children and buying a small hotel with the money from Mr. Bates' mother.  Anna is overwhelmed with happiness.

When Matthew is leaving for France and Mary surprises him at the train station to wish him well.  Mary's face often has the most anguished expression on it, and I think the actress Michelle Dockery is doing an amazing job playing this character.

When Mary visits Mr. Carlson in his room after his health scare,  just about giving him a heart attack.  They have such a special bond.

When Anna makes her speech to Mary about her undying love for Mr. Bates, claiming she doesn't believe she will ever find anyone else.

When Mrs. Patmore, the cook, (who I love by the way) after losing her nephew in the war, wells up with tears when she sees young William in uniform, knowing he will be in France soon and fighting for his life.

When it is decided that Downton Abbey will become a hospital for wounded soldiers.  There is beauty in that moment when Lord and Lady Grantham decide to put the house to such good use.

It's going to be a great January and February for those of us who love the show!   
What were your favorite Downton Abbey moments?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Making Scones on a January Day

My treasured book on scones by Elizabeth Alston

January is one of my favorite months. The new year feels fresh and filled with all kinds of exciting possibilities.  Many of my favorite books are set in England or other places with cold winters and the characters live in houses whose warm kitchens are usually the heart of the home.  Lots of baking goes on in those kitchens and I treat my house the same way during the month of January. This is the time of the year that I want to be cozy and stay at home reading and cooking.  The cold weather and peaceful nature of January seem to call out for the simplicity of scones.

Maybe the reason I want to make scones is that I made them on Christmas morning for my family and they were so easy and delicious.  We used the adorable red Le Creuset jam pot I bought just for the occasion.

Maybe I want to make them because of the the tea I hosted in December with my friend Cathy to benefit St. Joseph Center which is located in Venice, California.  The tea was at my friend's beautiful home.  Each guest brought gently used clothing to donate to the St. Joseph Center Thrift Store and after dropping off their donations enjoyed a festive champagne tea.  Our guests were excited to be doing a service to others at Christmas time.  We celebrated the holiday with an English tea and, naturally, scones were an important part of our menu.

Maybe I am thinking about scones because the English television series "Downton Abbey" is returning for its second season this month and the characters are always having tea.  In fact The Countess of  Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern) and the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith)  never seem to converse unless it is over tea.  The tradition of tea is one that is quintessentially English and you can't have tea without scones. 

Maybe it is because of a story that Henrietta Garnett tells in the book "Charleston: Past and Present" about her grandmother Vanessa Bell making scones, a story that I have always enjoyed:  

"Tea was at five o'clock, and at about half past four, Nessa would go downstairs into the kitchen and put on the kettle...Sometimes Nessa would make scones.  She would stand at the kitchen table, remove her rings and...sift flour through her long fingers and let it drift into the pudding basin.  She never spilled the ingredients; never made a mess.  The recipe she used was not extravagant.  It required a minimum of butter and lacked varnish of egg-yolk.  They were plain scones and they were very good."

I love this story about Vanessa Bell taking off her rings and making the scones amidst all the bohemian and artistic chaos at  Charleston Farmhouse.  It turns out that Charleston was a place for homey pleasures and rustic baking.

And really there is nothing easier than making scones.  You sift the dry ingredients, cut in the butter, add the liquid and any flavors you would like such as dried cranberries and orange peel.  Then you turn the dough out onto a board, roll it and cut out the scones and bake them.  Homey and unpretentious, they warm up the dreariest winter day.  And their buttery goodness really rounds out an English tea.

To paraphrase Henry James' famous quote about tea, sitting in front of the fireplace between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 pm as the light wanes and the weather becomes chilly, with a cup of tea and a good book is a formula for soothing anyone's spirits.  The words "it is time for tea" simply exude happiness.

These memoirs by some of my favorite British authors are on my reading list for the winter season.  One of my New Year's resolutions is to read more.  Anyone for a cup of tea and some scones?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Downton Abbey" Returns

The new year welcomes in the second season of the delicious and addictive television series, "Downton Abbey," one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television.  The first episode airs on Sunday, January 8.  Did you know that it is the most popular period drama in Great Britain since "Brideshead Revisited" (which coincidentally is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month)?  Here in the U.S. "Downton Abbey" is equally beloved and won six primetime Emmy awards, including best mini-series.  The first episode of season two takes place in the year 1916, two years into World War I and will have seven episodes.  And yes, there will be a third season!  It starts filming in February.

The last episode left us with Lord Grantham announcing that World War I has been declared. Who can forget the very first episode when the kind and benevolent Lord Grantham retained Mr. Bates as his valet, even though Bates' disability prevented him from doing the best job.  Tears were flowing on my end!  Lady Mary tried to have it both ways and protect her interests regarding cousin Matthew's proposal of marriage and apparently has lost him. Lady Edith continues to be disappointed in love and Lady Sybil is embracing the women's rights movement.  The Countess of Grantham, played by American actress Elizabeth McGovern, has lost her baby due to the machinations of the malevolent maid O'Brien.  The servants' world is equally fraught with drama.   Gwen wants to leave service and become a secretary. Anna is in love with Mr. Bates who cannot return her affections due to his mysterious past.  The cook has had eye surgery to correct her blindness and save her job.  Head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes has been tempted to accept a marriage proposal but decides to stay at Downton Abbey, much to the relief of head butler Mr. Carlson.   The characters have grown, none more touchingly than Maggie Smith's character, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, who softened under the influence of Matthew's egalitarian mother and in one of my favorite scenes gave the flower award to one of the gardeners, despite the fact that she had actually won it.  

Many people have discussed the reasons for the great appeal of this series.  One of the reasons most often cited is that Julian Fellowes has made the stories of the characters upstairs and downstairs equally compelling.  I agree with that.  When you add to this the additional elements of gorgeous sets and costumes, the magnificent Highclere Castle where the series is based, incredible writing from Julian Fellowes, and great acting from talents such as Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, as well as younger relatively unknown actors such as the women who play the three sisters --  you have the formula for a spectacular television hit.  The leisurely episodic format of the show makes us feel as if we are immersed in a sprawling Edwardian novel, and that is also part of its appeal.

And of course for the Anglophiles amongst us the show is an adoration of "England's green and pleasant land."  The beauty of the English countryside is ever present and the story of a family and their servants whose personal dramas unfold within a magnificent English country house is fascinating.   There is also the satisfying storyline that is right out of a Jane Austen novel --   sisters that need to be married, entailment, possible loss of a great home, and love and romance. In addition, it looks like the next season will be very much about the affects of World War I on these characters which is not a theme Austen ever went into.  We wonder what will happen to all of the men, members of the family as well as the servants, since every able-bodied young man was required to serve.

Since January is "Downton Abbey month" I thought I might devote the entire month to all things British.  So let's put on the kettle, bring out the good china and have tea in front of the fireplace.  Let's talk about the show and other topics that are quintessentially British.  In the meantime, enjoy the first episode of the second season of "Downton Abbey"! 

First four photos via here