welsh women’s classic literature

When traveling I usually take a book on the plane based on where I will be traveling.  The Count of Monte Cristo was perfect for the year we visited the South of France.  Italian mysteries based in the particular city to be visited (Donna Leon for Venice, Iain Pears for Florence) are wonderfully discovered on the website ‘italian-mysteries. com’.  You can find the who, where and what there. England provides all kinds of choices from Agatha Christy and Conan Doyle to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, to the moderns like Virginia Woolf (Oh, did I mention Jane Austen?).  But, Wales presented a challenge.  Before leaving home I read the poetry of the favorite son, Dylan Thomas.

Wales is a proud country with an independent spirit and a strong identity distinct from England.  I met some Welsh people and wanted to know more, wanted to feel that difference.  I wasn’t until the last day in Wales that I found a truly Welsh book.  I was in the bookshop of the Cardiff Art Museum. The museum is a wonderful place filled with, among other things, Impressionist art.  A lovely Renoir I had never seen before!  In the late 19th and early 20th century Wales industrialists grew rich shipping mined raw materials around the Empire.  There was money being made and art being bought.

But, back to the bookshop where I discovered “Welsh Women’s Classics”series.  This is an imprint. previously called the Honno Classics series, that publishes out-of-print books in English by women writers from Wales.  I picked up Hilda Vaughan’s “The Soldier and the Gentlewoman.”  It is a beautifully written book from the 1930’s describing life in a rural community just after the First World War.  The tension is built around a woman of the land who has been cheated out of her home by an entail (still a factor in women’s lives well into the 20th century!) and a weak, wounded war veteran who assumes ownership in complete ignorance of the traditions.The use of language, the novel’s structure are wonderful to read.

soldier and gentlewoman cover 001

Unexpected discoveries are the joy of travel!

traveling in wales

Wales is a delightful place to visit! We had a list of things to do which, naturally, was too long for the time we had.  Since neither of us was interested in driving on the wrong side of the road (a trip should be pleasurable, not scary) two places on our list were scratched off.  Public transportation (as wonderful as it is in Britain) could not easily take us up to Dylan Thomas’ home. And getting to and from Hay-on-Wye would have taken one day more than we had available.  I had hoped to get a picture of myself surrounded by uncountable numbers of books, but it was not to be. On the other hand, looking around my study I could probably accomplish that same thing right here!

We did go to Tinturn Abbey.  “Lines Written Above Tinturn Abbey” by Wordsworth might be one of those poems more famous for it’s name than the poem itself.  I read it before leaving for Great Britain and although I thought I knew Wordsworth and that poem….well, it was entirely unknown by me.

We took a train and a bus from Cardiff.  The lovely, small town where we caught the bus is situated in soft rolling hills. The bus driver was friendly and helpful.

tinturn abbey

Tinturn Abbey was looted and destroyed when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church. It is worthy of a visit and a classic poem (title!).  We found beauty and peace among the ruins left behind in this out-of-the-way countryside place.
inside tinturn abbey

My imagination moved into historical eras.  Thanks to Wolf Hall and Ivanhoe Tinturn Abbey was well populated as I quietly meandered through.

Jane Austen’s Chawton

I have just returned from a trip to England and Wales.  I traveled with my good friend, Lynn, who is a fellow ‘janeite’.  It was essential to visit Chawton where Jane Austen lived and wrote her novels.  We took the train from London to Alton, the nearest large(ish) town, and walked the remaining few miles.  Alton is a modern town but there are several buildings and churches from the 17th and 18th century.  So, despite fast moving cars on roadways and roundabouts we knew somewhere beneath the concrete our favorite writer had trod this same path.  The village of Chawton is quaint in that English pubs, grand houses, peaceful way.

Our first stop was the Chawton House Library.CHL with leslie

Chawton house library  As you can see from the pictures it is a 17th century estate. The connection and story behind it is one of my favorites to relate.  Jane’s oldest brother, Edward, by changing his last name to Knight, inherited the estates and fortunes of a childless relative.  This was one of his homes.  Because of his wealth he was able to support his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters (Cassandra and Jane).  They lived in a cottage down the road and they visited here and the other estates (as well as the other relatives) with great regularity.  The Austen extended family provided comfort, support and entertainment in a time when women’s activities were limited, especially if they had no money of their own.

The second part of the story which I love as much is that sometime in the 1990s this house and land went up for sale.  The myth is that Nigel Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s son) spoke to a group of Janeites and mentioned that ‘if anyone here has an extra million dollars the house is for sale’.  Lucky for all, Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems was in the audience.  She is a lover of early writing and decided to take on the project. Over the years she has restored and renewed this lovely manor house and grounds, and has transformed it into a research and learning center for the study of early women’s writing from 1600-1830.  Among other books one can find the original libraries of Jane Austen’s brother….and by extension some of the very books Jane Austen read. I plan to apply for an internship to study there.  Here is more information if anyone else is interested. info@chawtonhouselibrary.org. http://www.chawtonhouselibrary.org

We then wandered down the road to the JA house museum.  This is a lovely place to drift through, seeing the world she lived in and getting a feel for what that life might have felt like.  I was humbled beyond all expectations by the sight of her writing table, and scolded myself for requiring a computer, a room of my own, and just the right paper and pencils. Jane Austen's desk!  Genius doesn’t require more that a table and a quill pen, a quick wit and lively imagination.

We returned to London having spent a time out of time.