acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: August, 2012

Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Hill Top

As I mentioned in my previous post, my mother and I visited England’s Lake District in late May. I went there knowing Wordsworth had lived there, but I was not aware of the other writers who called it home. At first when I found out Beatrix Potter lived in the area, I wasn’t that interested, frankly, because I was never terribly interested in her work. But we decided to visit, and I’m so glad we did, as her little farmhouse was utterly charming and the surrounding area breathtakingly pretty.

To get to Hill Top from where we were staying in Grasmere, we took a bus to Ambleside (a slightly bigger town, which has many ferries to other towns), a ferry to a port near Sawton, and a small bus to Hill Top, which is between Sawton and Hawkshead. Here’s a wretched picture of me, but a decent picture of the ferry, which was a pretty little (vintage?) boat:

The ferry to Hill Top

When we arrived at the stop outside of Hill Top, we were treated to a delightful view of the beautiful countryside and charming little collection of houses. If I understood the information we received at Hill Top, the white house pictured here was also owned by Beatrix Potter, after she married later in life and after she purchased Hill Top.

The sign points the way to Hill Top, but Beatrix Potter also owned the white house pictured here.

The beautiful countryside

After a little confusion, we found the entrance to Hill Top, which you enter after going through a gate and down a little garden path. Upon seeing Hill Top and learning the story behind it, I gained enormous respect for Beatrix Potter. The cottage is part of a small farm and was built in the seventeenth century. Potter, who vacationed in the Lake District as a child, fell in love with the area and was frustrated to learn that farms were being sold to developers. She wanted to preserve the land and the way of life in the area. And guess what — she earned enough money from her children’s books to do something about it! She bought Hill Top in 1906, kept it as a working farm, and continued to purchase more land in the area as time went by.

Charming Hill Top cottage, which Beatrix Potter bought with the royalties from Peter Rabbit and her other tales.

I loved the Arts and Crafts style plaque installed to mark Potter’s purchase of the cottage

Potter continued to write and paint while living at Hill Top, and if you study her later paintings, you can see that she set several stories in the house. Unfortunately, as with all of the house tours we went on in England, photos were not permitted indoors. Hill Top is decorated exactly the same way Potter had it, with many of her possessions, including some of her artwork and sewing. She donated the house and farm to the National Trust of England on condition that it would be preserved exactly as she left it. The house is two floors, with (if memory serves) four rooms on the second floor, one of which was her bedroom, one a study, and one a room filled with curios and collectables, including an impressive dollhouse.

Potter is deeply loved in the area because of her contributions to land preservation, in addition to her children’s books. After a visit to her home, I was very impressed with her myself. When she bought Hill Top, she was an unmarried woman who had become very rich due to her artistic endeavors. Although she grew up privileged, her parents disapproved of her life as a writer and artist, and all of her preservation and conservation efforts were accomplished solely with the money she earned herself from the sale of her books, which were enormously popular.

peek through the garden gate

The gardens were particularly beautiful.

The gardens were filled with rabbits in honor of Peter and his family. How many bunnies can you spot in this picture?

Even if you’re not a fan of Beatrix Potter, if you’re in the Lake District, you should not miss Hill Top. This trip was an absolute pleasure. I enjoyed imagining myself as Potter, living out my dream as a writer and being inspired by natural beauty. I can’t wait to return to the area and visit Tarn Hows, the other piece of land she left to the National Trust.

For small glimpses of the inside of the house as well as an interesting look at how the National Trust preserves the furniture and other objects that belonged to Potter, check out this short video:


Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Dove Cottage

View of Lake Grasmere that inspired Wordsworth

This past May, my mother and I took a vacation in England, starting in the Lake District. While enjoying the natural beauty, we also visited several writers’ homes in the area.

The most famous writer’s home in the Lake District, and one of the most famous in the world, is Dove Cottage, where William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived from 1799-1808, producing Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals and William’s most popular and enduring poetry.

On a personal note: I have always had a love-hate relationship with William Wordsworth. His poetry is undeniably beautiful, and he revolutionized poetry at the time, yet he’s so patriarchal, ya know? In any case, for some reason, I have always wanted to see Dove Cottage in person. It just has such an impressive literary history for a little place. Wordsworth wrote much of his best poetry there, Coleridge and De Quincey hung out with him there, and after he left De Quincey took over the lease, and in typical De Quincey fashion, pissed Wordsworth off by being more unconventional than he was, causing them to stop speaking.

I could only take pictures outside of the cottage, which was just as lovely and quaint as I thought it would be.

Dove Cottage from the front

Entrance to Dorothy’s little side garden

View from the top of the garden behind the cottage: you can see for miles!

It’s easy to see how the area inspired these writers; it’s incredibly beautiful, being simultaneously, and paradoxically, dramatic and quaint. The house itself is small, which I expected, but I hadn’t realized until visiting it how many people had lived there at once: at first only William and Dorothy lived there, but in 1802, William married, and his wife had 3 ¬†children within the following 4 years. That’s not counting the many overnight stays from poet guests. The house is two floors. The bottom floor is extremely dark, with black floors and very little outside light. The top floor, especially Wordsworth’s study (of course) is relatively light, but the rooms are small and I can’t imagine it didn’t feel cramped. Especially for Dorothy, if you ask me.

My last picture is the closest I came to taking one inside the house. I tried to sneak a picture of what they claimed was De Quincey’s opium scales (!) but I got caught before I could manage it. They’re serious in England about no pictures inside the museums!

looking out to the street from the study






Review of “The Group” by Mary McCarthy

The GroupThe Group by Mary McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, this book was fantastic! I hardly ever read what people might consider a “beach read,” but I was going to the beach and decided to read something that might be a little closer to one than usual. I actually marked this book “to read” after seeing Betty Draper reading it on Mad Men (season 2) and finding out that it was a bit of a sensation at the time. What would Betty Draper read (WWBDR)? Apparently she has good taste.

From the beginning I kept thinking, “wow, I wish I could write like this.” There are lots of writers I admire who I don’t actually think this about, for one reason or another. But I thought this about Mary McCarthy for two main reasons (other than the simple fact that her sentence construction and rhythm are impeccable): first, she is *hilarious,* brilliantly poking fun at the cluelessness of her characters without ever losing affection for them, and second, she is so adept at moving among the characters, allowing you to see each one from the others’ perspectives. This latter point is itself deftly satirized as the women in the group try, in deference to their Vassar education, to withhold judgment: “their education had impressed upon them the unwisdom of making large judgments from one’s own narrow segment of experience,” she writes early in the novel, and at another time, a young woman questions her husband’s version of a story: “That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for evidence, even from your own side.” You can see how McCarthy’s characters are always consciously resisting their own privileged tendencies to make rash, conservative pronouncements on others; McCarthy seems to be gently poking fun at this rather academic approach to life, and how it creates such anxiety and confusion for her characters. And of course, much of it hits close to home.

This adeptness of McCarthy’s in changing perspectives also yields another satisfaction, which is how she slowly, little by little, makes the story sadder. What once seemed like youthful folly turns pathetic, even tragic. While never losing its acerbic humor, the novel deepens to reveal how most of these young women, who think themselves so liberated, are much more trapped than they ever realize. (And then Norine shows up and everything is hilarious again.)

Like every novel, this one is not for everyone. Some people might find it too light; others might find it dull or dated. But to me, this was a brilliantly hilarious, often moving, and complex portrait of women’s friendships and inner lives.

View all my reviews