Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Do you ever wonder about the beginning of a writing career, such as that of the brilliant writer Charlotte Bronte? Most of us would assume that she had unimaginable hurdles because of the time and place in which she wrote. And that was true. She lived in the nineteenth-century when women were generally not published authors. She grew up in the remote depths of Yorkshire, England in a parsonage with her clergyman father Patrick Bronte and her three brilliant and troubled siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell. Their lives were filled with tragedy. All of them died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, and Branwell at 31. Charlotte herself died at 38, just two months after getting married. And yet she and her sisters wrote classic novels that will live forever.

This past weekend was cold and rainy here in Los Angeles and I spent some quiet time browsing through my bookshelves. I love doing this because either I get reacquainted with some old friends or discover some new ones. In this case the book I took down was one I had bought many years ago but had never given much attention to. There was a time when I bought everything I could find on the Bronte family and consequently have a pretty big collection of books about them. I especially loved Juliet Barker's biography from 1994 which was reissued a couple of years ago. (Go here to read more.) The book that caught my eye over the weekend was The World Within, The Brontes at Haworth by Juliet Gardiner, published in 1992. It is filled with letters, diaries and writings by the Brontes. Dipping into it, I was reminded of the challenging beginnings of one of the most brilliant and short writing careers, that of Charlotte Bronte. I came upon some fascinating quotes by Charlotte and others about the beginning of her career and the difficulty of getting published. Here are a few of the most revealing:

Charlotte wrote:

"We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistence: it took the character of a resolve. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed."

After much trouble finding a publisher, the sisters finally found one that would take them on and the poems were published at the end of May, 1846. The title page read:  "Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell." Charlotte wrote:

"Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell: the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because, without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' -- we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice..."

The poems were not a great success. Out of an initial run of 1,000 copies, only two were sold. But the sisters weren't discouraged. They were each writing a novel and Charlotte had written to their publisher to consider taking that on as well.  Either as a work of three volumes, or separately as single volumes. The books were The Professor by Charlotte, Agnes Grey by Anne and Wuthering Heights by Emily. Their publisher declined and was one of several who missed out on publishing one of the most famous works in English literature.

Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were eventually accepted by a publisher, though The Professor was not. Fortunately Charlotte had another book in waiting and it was Jane Eyre. She finished it while taking care of her father who was recovering from cataract surgery. She sent the manuscript off to Smith, Elder & Co. on August 24, 1847. George Smith was so captivated by it that he read it in one sitting, canceling all appointments for the day and refusing to go to bed until he had finished. Six weeks later on October 16, 1847, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published. It was an instant success.

William Makepeace Thackeray, upon finishing it, wrote to the publisher George Smith:

"I wish you had not sent me 'Jane Eyre.' It interested me so much that I have lost...a whole day in reading it at the busiest period with the printers wailing for copy. Who the author can be I can't guess, if a woman she knows her language better than most ladies do, or has had a classical education. It is a fine book...some of the love passages made me cry, to the astonishment of John, who came in with the coals...I don't know why I tell you this but I have been exceedingly moved and pleased by 'Jane Eyre.' It is a woman's writing, but whose? Give my respects and thanks to the author, whose novel is the first English one...that I've been able to read for many a day." 

A reviewer for one of the biggest British magazines called it:

"One of the most powerful domestic romances which has been published for many is full of youthful vigor, of freshness and originality, of nervous diction and concentrated interest...It is a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears."

The 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre 

For a long time Charlotte's family and friends had no idea that she was the writer of Jane Eyre. Her brother died without ever knowing that his sisters had published any writing. It was a while before she told even her closest friend Ellen Nussey. But it was not until January, 1848 when Charlotte saw an elderly gentlemen reading Jane Eyre at Haworth that she decided to tell her father. Her biographer Mrs. Gaskell tells the story:

"She (Charlotte) informed me that something like the following conversation took place between her and him (I wrote down her words the day after I heard them; and I am pretty sure they are quite accurate).

'Papa, I've been writing a book.'
'Have you, my dear?'
'Yes, and I want you to read it.'
'I am afraid it will try my eyes too much.'
'But it is not a manuscript; it is printed.'
'My dear! you've never thought of the expense it will be! It will be almost sure to be a loss, for how can you get a book sold? No one knows your name.'
'But, papa, I don't think it will be a loss, nor will you if you will just let me read you a review or two, and let me tell you more about it.'
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father; and then, giving him a copy of 'Jane Eyre' that she intended for him, she left him to read it. When he came in to tea, he said, 'Girls, do you know that Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?'"

 I think that it's time for a rereading of Jane Eyre. I would love to know if this is one of  your favorites. And have you read any other books by Charlotte Bronte?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Valentine's Day, Casablanca and One Good Book

We just got back from a lovely holiday weekend in the beautiful wine country of Sonoma, California. It was the perfect place to celebrate Valentine's Day. Our "home away from home" was the Farmhouse Inn. It is all about rustic elegance at this inn, with plenty of beauty and a laid back vibe. They grow their own vegetables and keep chickens. Breakfasts were delicious and I am certain that the eggs in our frittatas were from the resident hens. There were several lazy afternoons spent reading on the beautiful deck. Not to mention lots of wine tastings! There are so many wineries to visit in the area as well as the delightful town of Healdsburg, that there is never a shortage of things to do. Though it seems that my favorite occupation just may be hanging out in the room in front of the fireplace.

In this relaxing atmosphere it was easy to finish the book I've been reading -- All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It is a gripping novel about the lives of Europeans during World War II, told from the perspectives of two young people -- Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl living in German-occupied France and Werner Pfenning, a young German orphan whose talent in electronics gets him recruited into an elite Nazi training center. What is powerfully brought home is that both these children have very few choices in life as they get swept up into history. The book looks at the traumatic experiences of ordinary Europeans during the war.

Once the Germans were in power, all freedoms were gone. Anyone refusing to comply with the new rules were imprisoned or shot. For many people, that meant a life of subterfuge. The book shows how this played out in France. There is tremendous suspense as several characters get involved in the Resistance movement. There is also a 133-carat diamond at the center of the story that is hidden by Marie's father -- he is the locksmith in charge of all the keys and vaults at the Museum of Natural History in Paris -- and whose location only she knows. One of the Nazi officers makes it his mission to track this diamond down. All the stories converge in the walled seaside town of St. Malo in Brittany.

I was touched by the loneliness, despair and survival instincts of the central characters. It was particularly moving to watch children endure so many years of devastation. This story is gripping and the unique narrative style adds to the fast-paced nature of the novel. If you haven't read All The Light You Cannot See, be sure to get yourself a copy of this beautiful and poignant book.


After a delicious Valentine's Day dinner at the hotel on Saturday night we returned to our room to discover that Casablanca was on television. I had never seen this iconic film. Of course it was the perfect movie to watch on Valentine's day. But there was another fortuitous connection I didn't expect. As you know, this film is about a love affair between two people who meet in Paris during World War II. I hadn't realized that it was also about the resistance movement during the war. I couldn't get over the connections between the film and the book I had just finished. You have to love the last line of this film. As Rick (Humphrey Bogart) helps the resistance hero Victor Laszlo escape with the aid of the chief of police, Louis (and in the process gives up Ingrid Bergman!), he puts his arm around the policeman and says,

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Such a good film and it was so much fun to see it in the beautiful Farmhouse Inn!

By the way, on the topic of WWII, have you seen Grantchester on Masterpiece Mystery? It deals with the aftermath of the war and is set in England in the 1950's. It is a fabulous detective series featuring an English country vicar who has a talent for solving murder mysteries. Despite his role as spiritual leader of the village, he has a dark side. He fought in the war and is still suffering psychological damage. His memories result in nightmares, a drinking problem and a crisis of faith. He is in love with a woman who is engaged to someone else and it seems as if things cannot go on much longer without reaching some kind of a breaking point. It's astonishing how many dramas we watch and books we read that are about World War II and its aftermath. It makes me wonder if anyone has measured the quantity of art that has been based on this war.

I hope you will read All The Light We Cannot See and watch the television series Grantchester on PBS. In very different ways, they both transport you to another time and place when ordinary people had to deal with the results of extraordinary world events.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Happy Makers

"Nobody has measured, not even the poets, how much love the heart can hold."
-- Zelda Fitzgerald

 Botany Flowers last Valentine's Day

February is the shortest month and also the sweetest with Valentine's Day right in the middle. But maybe the best thing about February is that it's the last month of winter and the precursor to spring. In Los Angeles, it's still chilly enough to want to be inside but there are glimmerings of nature about to burst into bloom. Here a few things that are making me very happy this month.

Photo via here

Reading a wonderful article in the New Yorker about the history of "loving" to read. It turns out that those of us who feel passionate about books are in very good company. Many of us have a love affair with books; this article explains the romance of literature.  

Finding an old book with the loveliest artwork on the cover. I love the sub-title of this memoir -- A study in Friendship. Do you know about Ottoline Morrell? She lived in England during the early part of the twentieth-century and was a fascinating woman who was connected to the Bloomsbury Group. I have collected many books about her and think it's now time to do a little research! 

And speaking of Bloomsbury, there is a new novel about Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. It is a work of historical fiction and has gotten great reviews. 

Another new novel by one of my favorite playwrights, Yasmina Reza. She  is a French writer best known for her plays Art and God of Carnage. Her new novel is also getting great reviews!

Framing this poster from the fabulous Virginia Woolf exhibition I saw at the National Portrait Gallery last fall. It reminds me of our wonderful trip to London. Are you sensing a Bloomsbury theme to this blog post? Not intentional!

Being in awe of the pear tree bursting into blossom; this spectacular event always takes my breath away!

Getting ready for spring with some new outdoor furniture. I have admired Peter Dunham's Fig Leaf pattern forever and was so excited to finally have a place to use it!

Liberty of London's "Secret Garden" series which just debuted this month. It is as fresh as springtime. Each pattern is based on a quote from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The pattern above is called "Jeffrey Rose Tree" and was inspired by the following quote:

"And the roses -- the roses! They came along day by day, hour by hour."

 What a brilliant idea to tie in a classic garden book with a fabric design. Go here to see more.

 Signing up for The Italian Sojourn -- a new lecture series that examines books about trying to reinvent oneself or alter life experiences by changing one's environment. Not surprisingly, they all take place in Italy. This one should be delightful as it is taught by one of my favorite UCLA professors. The books include Up At The Villa by Somerset Maugham, Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M. Forster and Roman Fever by Edith Wharton. Go here to learn more.

And finally the "J.M. W. Turner, Painting Set Free" exhibition that is opening at the Getty Center at the end of the month. It is arriving from the Tate Gallery in London and features the artist's experimental and very modern  paintings done at the end of his career. I can't wait to see this.

Wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Girl On The Train

Sometimes it is so satisfying to escape into a thriller. To open up a book and be swept into the world of a murder mystery. To discover a book that you can't put down. I love this genre but usually watch it rather than read it. "Sherlock," "Broadchurch," and "Grantchester" are just a few of the televised murder mysteries I have enjoyed. Enjoyed may be too weak a word; devoured would be more accurate. They are delicious.

The problem is that I read so much "literary" fiction, I never seem to have time to escape into my guilty pleasure. But last week after reading a review of The Girl on the Train from one of my favorite book bloggers, I went out and bought a copy and devoured it in a couple of days. It was delicious. I was happy that someone I respected liked the book because even though it just moved into the number one slot on The New York Times bestseller list, there is no agreement from book reviewers about its merits. I have read favorable and unfavorable reviews. I am so glad I went on my gut instinct and decided for myself. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

"The Girl On The Train" does not have a tortured and soulful detective at its center but instead a deeply flawed main character Rachel, who is also one of its narrators. Her life is a mess; unable to have children, she is depressed, divorced and an alcoholic. She has been fired from her job in London and, in an effort to keep the news from her roommate, continues to take the train into the city each day and return on the evening commute. This is a way to fill up her empty days as well as do some surreptitious drinking. She is obsessed with one part of the train commute that takes her past the house where she used to live with her ex-husband Tom. He now lives in the same house with his new wife Anna. Although she can't look at that house without pain, she focuses on another one, that of a beautiful young couple, Megan and Scott, who are frequently on their terrace and within viewing distance. Rachel fantasizes about their seemingly perfect lives. Until one day she sees something alarming and decides to get involved in solving a crime.

The problem with Rachel doing anything helpful, for herself or anyone else, is that she has frequent black-outs and a spotty memory due to drinking. She is the textbook unreliable narrator. Megan and Anna also tell their stories and the three narratives become inextricably connected. The job for the reader is to pick up clues along the way, evaluate three troubled and mostly unlikeable women and their male partners, and understand that some things are not what they seem. The ride to the conclusion is a thrilling one. I read the last few chapters on the edge of my seat.

The book feels contemporary in its focus on psychological and social issues such as depression, obsession, loneliness, domestic violence, and alcoholism. But it was the old-fashioned thrill ride of the suspense that kept me reading. I predict all of these elements will keep this book on the best seller list for a long time to come. Pick up a copy and let yourself escape into this gripping murder mystery; it's one you will remember for a long time. And go here to read a fascinating article about Paula Hawkins and how she came to write this book.