Friday, September 18, 2015

Afternoon Tea

Sometimes it's fun to pull out all the stops when the occasion is as joyous as welcoming your first grandchild. When I began to think of what I should do to celebrate the birth of my granddaughter, a tea party immediately came to mind. Afternoon tea is my idea of heaven. Little did I know how much fun it would be to prepare for one. Taking out family china as well as tea sets I have been collecting over the years was like a trip down memory lane.

I loved setting the table with so many items from family and friends. The china is a family heirloom, the linens were from my daughter's company Heather Taylor Home and the flowers from our friends Holly and Rebecca at Hollyflora.

I sent photos of the china to the girls at Hollyflora and they came up with the color scheme for the flowers.

This is the Peter Rabbit tea set I collected for my daughters many years ago. Tea parties have always been a fun tradition in our family.

The menu included these luscious lemon bars

We had three different kinds of scones

And shortbread cookies to remind me of our trip to Scotland over the summer

There were cucumber, smoked salmon, and chicken salad tea sandwiches

And pink champagne

The moment before the guests arrived

And the cake by Annie Campbell which tasted as good as it looked! 

I found out that the tradition of having a tea to celebrate your grandchild is popular in the south and even has a name: "Sip and See." I can understand why. The charms of afternoon tea match the delight of celebrating the newest member of your family.

"The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose."
-- George Gissing

Wishing you a happy weekend. Fall begins on Monday!
Go here for an easy recipe for Sugared Lemon-Rosemary Scones. They are delicious!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Classic Novel and the Perfect Setting

Happy September!

What books are on your wish list for fall? Do the books you read change with the seasons? When the weather turns cooler I often want to read a classic novel and this month I chose "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf. Have you read it? If you haven't, you might want to give it a try.

You may ask, why read it now?

Well, there are so many good reasons. Interest in Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf seems to be at an all-time high. Here is what has been going on recently, as well as what is coming up:

Charleston Farmhouse, the country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group, will have its 100th birthday next year. It was rented by Vanessa Bell in 1916 so that conscientious objectors Duncan Grant and David Garnett would have a place to work the land. Record crowds have visited this summer. I am sure that something special will be happening to celebrate the big anniversary next year!

This is also the 100th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out.  After all this time, she continues to be considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. She inspires writers, artists, readers and even ballet choreographers with her writing. Many works of art have been created as a result. For example:

A new ballet, Woolf Works, based on her fiction premiered last May at the Royal Opera House in London. It played to rave reviews. I saw this and it was truly amazing --  an original and beautiful ballet.

Last year the National Portrait Gallery in London hosted its first-ever Woolf exhibition which combined portraiture with biography. I was lucky enough to see this one also. It was an amazing visual experience and captured this multi-faceted woman so well. The most moving objects in the exhibition were the letters she wrote her sister and her husband before committing suicide and her walking stick which was found on the bank of the River Ouse near her Sussex home. 

This summer the BBC aired a drama about Bloomsbury, Life in Squares. I hope it reaches the U.S. sometime soon. Larger groups than ever visited Charleston this summer to see the setting for many of the scenes.

Priya Parmar wrote a biographical novel, Vanessa and Her Sister, about the early days of the Bloomsbury Group with a focus on Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. It is excellent. Luckily for those of us in Los Angeles, she will be speaking about Vanessa and Her Sister in October at the Beverly Hills Literary Escape. Go here to learn more.

And in the New York Times By the Book column this past weekend, in answer to the question "who is your favorite fictional heroine," the novelist Anne Beattie answered Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse. All of this made me realize that it was time to take a second look at this classic novel by Virginia Woolf.


To the Lighthouse is considered Virginia Woolf's masterpiece. She wrote it in 1925, shortly after finishing Mrs. Dalloway. Just as modernist artists like Cezanne were trying to do something different in painting, Woolf was trying to do something different in the novel. Her goal was to change its form and push the boundaries beyond what had been done in the past. She wanted to write a novel that could incorporate the disorder and haphazardness of life, the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, and at the same time tell a good story.

And so we are in the heads of the main characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their family and friends, as we follow their thoughts and actions during their stay at the Ramsays' summer retreat. Woolf is exploring ideas and issues that were important to her and that many of us can relate to: the passage of time, the relation of the present to the past, memory, creativity, art, marriage, family, career versus motherhood, place as a muse, and the power of women. One critic at the time wrote about the book, "Nothing happens...and yet all of life happens." As always with Woolf, the language is beautiful.

She modeled the characters Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay on her own parents. The book revolves around the Ramsays' annual family gathering on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. Virginia wanted to evoke the ambiance of her childhood summers in Cornwall. With the character Lily Briscoe she explored the struggle within women to be artist, wife and mother. Was it possible to have it all? This was a question that haunted Virginia for most of her life. Mrs. Ramsay exemplifies the Victorian ideal of motherhood. Lily Briscoe represents the modern concept of the woman artist.

There are so many beautiful passages --

As Lily Briscoe struggles to finish her painting, she thinks:

"One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."

When one of the house guests returns for dinner, Mrs. Ramsay thinks:

It must have happened then, thought Mrs. Ramsay; they are engaged. And for a moment she felt what she had never expected to feel again -- jealousy. For he, her husband, felt it too -- Minta's glow; he liked these girls, these golden-redish girls, with something flying, something a little wild and harum-scarum about them, who didn't 'scrape their hair off,' weren't, as he said about poor Lily Briscoe, '...skimpy.' There was some quality which she herself had not, some lustre, some richness, which attracted him, amused him, led him to make favourites of girls like Minta. They might cut his hair for him, plait his watch-chains, or interrupt him at his work, hailing him (she heard them now), 'Come along, Mr. Ramsay; it's our turn to beat them now,' and out he came to play tennis." 

Everyone, including Lily, is in love with Mrs. Ramsay. She wields power as the matriarch of the family and is based on Virginia's own mother Julia Stephen.

 Upon finishing the book, Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell wrote:

" the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead."

In what is probably the most famous scene in the book, the family and guests gather around the dinner table to eat Mrs. Ramsay's famous Boeuf en Daube.

"Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things waved and vanished, waterily."

Virginia Woolf wrote about this famous scene:

The dinner party is the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer... I don't think one could have reached those particular emotions in any other way."

Where would I love to read this book? Recently, while drooling over the interiors on my favorite design site House and Garden UK, I spotted this room at Ham Yard Hotel in London. It looks like the perfect bookish spot for settling in with a cup of tea and a good book. It has some of the artsy and bohemian spirit of the Bloomsbury set. Don't you love those lampshades and fabric on the couch and armchairs? I could easily while away a few hours in this delicious room!

What's on your list this fall?
And what is your dream setting for reading a classic book?