Author Archives: Claudia Suzan Carley

Virginia Woolf and A Room of Her Own at Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882. She was a central figure of the intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group, whose influence is still felt.  Virginia herself was an avant-garde novelist who changed the shape of the English novel with works such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse.

Monk’s House is now a National Trust property. When I visited, I was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Virginia had suffered bouts of debilitating depression for much of her life, but she had always recovered. Between illnesses, she was a fun-loving friend and a wonderful conversationalist.  But she needed a certain amount of “alone” time in order to create.

In her country garden, she spent long hours composing her ground-breaking novels and thoughtful essays in her writing shed. It is furnished just as she left it.  It looks as though she just stepped out for a stroll through her flowers.

One of Virginia’s most famous works is the long essay “A  Room of One’s Own,” in which she examined the need for women to have solitary time and space in order to create. She knew all too well that most women had no writing shed or other personal space. Maybe her need for creative time and space is what prompted a friend, Lady Ottoline Morrell, to describe Virginia as “this strange, lovely, furtive creature.”

Inside the house, I could imagine long and lively discussions at the dining table, with the likes of Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, and H.M. Forster, not to mention Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell.

Her bedroom was originally added to the house as a writing studio.

But Virginia liked the airy room so much she decided to sleep there.  I would too.

Naturally, there are books everywhere in the house.

The drawing room is cosy, set up for long evenings of reading and conversation.

Are these his-and-hers chairs?  I can imagine Virginia in one and Leonard in the other.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia wrote a loving letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and walked out of her beloved country home for the last time. She made her way to the nearby River Ouse.  On its banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded in, and drowned.  Her body was recovered almost 3 weeks later. She was 59 years old. 

After her death, Leonard had Virginia’s ashes buried in their beloved garden. A bust of Virginia stands nearby.  Her admirers leave stones beneath it.

Later, Leonard’s own ashes and bust took their places near hers. In her final letter, Virginia sadly explained that she could not bear another episode of what she called her “madness.” Possibly she suffered from what we would now call bipolar syndrome. At any rate, she described hearing “voices.” The last line of her final letter read, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

The photo  at the top of this post is from the article cited below, “Virginia Woolf: The Woman Who Remade the Novel,” by Jonathan deBurca Butler. The photo, of Virginia in 1902, is by George C. Beresford. The article is an excellent summary of Virginia’s life, her sad death, and her continuing influence on modern literature.

http://www.independent.ie/life/virginia-woolf-the-woman-who-remade-the-novel-34572892.html

Monk’s House is wonderfully maintained by the National Trust. Charleston Farmhouse, where Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell lived, is nearby.  I would highly recommend a visit to both.

Engagement photo of Virginia Stephen and Leonard Woolf, 1912, unknown photographer, Public Domain

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

 

Chateau d’Amboise

What if your job was to guard a strategic section of the important River Loire? And this was in medieval times when rival nobles considered themselves mini-monarchs with a duty to become maxi-monarchs by grabbing the lands and strongholds of their neighbors?

You’d probably build yourself a sturdy fort high on the riverbank and post lookouts in both directions. This happened all over Europe, and it happened in Amboise, on the River Loire in France. The exact history is hazy, but by the 900s the powerful Angevin counts had a fortress at Amboise. From the top of their sheer stone walls they could see everything happening below them in the town and on the river. Over the next few centuries, the nobles began owing their allegiance to actual kings of France.

In 1431, Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Thours, was convicted of plotting against King Louis XI and sentenced to death. But instead he languished in prison until 1434 when the new king, Charles VIII, pardoned him. That was the good news. The bad news was that the king confiscated the chateau and it became the permanent property of the Crown.

Charles VIII grew up at Amboise. As an adult, he decided to extensively rebuild his childhood home.

Possibly he should have paid more attention to the details. Or possibly he just should have watched where he was going. At the age of 27, he knocked his head against a low door lintel and died. He left his young widow, Anne of Brittany, with the ironclad obligation of marrying his cousin, who became King Louis XII. Anne was still Queen.

Louis XII, Workshop of Jean Perréal, 1514, Public Domain

All this had been carefully written into the marriage contract, in order to assure that wealthy Brittany remained part of France.

However, after all that careful planning, Louis XII died without a male heir. So his cousin Francois became King Francois I. The young King Francois was raised at Amboise and lived there as an adult. He brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to Amboise to live out his golden years.

Le Mort de Leonardo da Vinci, Francois-Guillaume Menageot, 1781

There’s a famous painting depicting Francois tenderly nursing the dying Leonardo, but actually Francois was not present at the time, in 1519. However, the King did install Leonardo in a very nice mansion, Clos Lucé, just up the street. There was a tunnel connecting the mansion and the chateau so the two men could visit each other. It’s just a guess, but I think Francois did most of the visiting, glad to get away from the pressures of his court.

And Leonardo was buried in the chapel on the chateau grounds.

In 1560, France was embroiled in the Wars of Religion. A Protestant conspiracy was discovered and dealt with harshly. Over a period of about a month, as many as 1200 people were executed and many were hung from the castle ramparts, where they remained for a long time. This was not pleasant for anyone, including the chateau residents. The royals and courtiers departed, and Amboise began to fall into decline. The stained glass panel above is a modern depiction of the grisly situation.

Today, the approach to the castle is from the lively town of Amboise nestled below the formidable castle walls. That’s the royal chapel on top, where Leonardo rests.

The architecture is still forbidding. Nobody would wander in without an invitation.

The townside tower has a ramp big enough for several horsemen to ascend together. The ancient stonework is meant to impress and intimidate.

The castle itself, much restored and added to over the years, looks inviting, at least on a sunny day.

For me, the royal Chapel of St. Hubert is the best part of the whole chateau complex. It deserves its own post.

Inside the castle itself, though, there’s a lot to admire. The main hall is impressive.

I especially loved the stone corbels at the bases of the arches. I think the castle walls really did have ears. This fellow seems like a reminder to be careful of the intrigues of court life.

Anybody’s secrets could be trumpeted far and wide.

Does this fellow want out?

Of course the pleasures of nature were close at hand in the royal hunting grounds.

Are those the thistles of Scotland? Mary Stuart, who later became Queen of Scots, lived here as a child, then returned as a very young bride after marrying the Dauphin Francis in 1558. (He died young and she returned to Scotland).

There’s Francois I, supported by his symbol the flame-breathing salamander.

I don’t think any of the furnishings or even the rooms are in their original state–the chateau is too old for that, and too many lives have been lived there. But the rooms have the flavor of various historical periods. Above are fine Renaissance pieces.

Then there are rooms with a more Napoleonic flavor–although after the Revolution the damage was so great that Napoleon ordered large parts of the chateau demolished.

In fact, the chateau is not very well explained. There are placards, some in English as well as French. But even the French information seems pretty cursory. I know, for instance, that residents included Nicholas Fouquet after his arrest for angering Louis XIV by building a lavish chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their family here. But I couldn’t find any information about any of these people. Possibly some rooms were closed, or I missed some rooms.

Amboise is not my very favorite chateau, but it’s well worth a wander. And the pretty town of Amboise is a fine base for the Loire Valley.

Just walking the back streets is fun. It’s a real town, not a tourist trap. People live in pretty houses set in leafy yards.

In small houses that open onto the meandering main road, I admired one pretty doorway after another.

Some people live in ancient cave houses tunneled into the tufa stone bluffs, and a few of these cave homes are available to rent.

Right down the street from the chateau, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home is a big attraction. There’s also a new attraction called Château Gaillard–more on that in another post. Yet just down a narrow alley from these world-class attractions, I stopped to admire these feathery beauties just hanging out in their unfenced yard.

Amboise is a fine town where it’s still possible to get away from the tourist crush. Nobody here but us chickens!

Christmas Travel Memories

We always travel in early December, so we get a feel for how Christmas is for other folks. Over the years, many pre-Christmas trips have produced fine memories and given us new perspectives on the holiday season. Above, that’s Siena, Italy, heading toward the beautiful shell-shaped central square. The lights are modest by American more-is-more standards, but they have a special glow in narrow medieval streets. And those streets are free of the choking crowds of summer.

What also stands out in memory is seasonal bugs. A transatlantic flight is a good place to catch one, sadly. That scarf doesn’t exactly look debonair, but it felt good around my husband’s jet-lagged sore throat. I’m sorry to report that on that trip, he came down with a fever and wore the scarf all night. But hey, we could easily be sick at home, right?

I love European store windows. They’re low-key, elegant but not gaudy. Always tempting, of course.

In Assisi one year, we attended a ceremony and procession for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It refers to Mary’s conception, and it is a national holiday in Italy. We just barely understood what was going on, but we felt welcome.

Who knew that Hieronymus Bosch painted a nativity scene around 1515? It hangs in the fine art gallery in England’s Petworth House. I just enjoy the weirdness, but it’s part of Britain’s national heritage, and the National Trust provides a helpful scholarly summary at http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/486154

I especially liked the nativity scene in stained glass in the beautiful chapel at Castle Howard near York, England. It was designed by Edward Burne-Jones and no doubt he used his artistic friends as models.

Castle Howard’s chapel, refurnished in the later 1800s, is a feast for admirers of William Morris.

William Morris was a close friend of the 9th Earl, who got to redecorate even before he inherited the title and the castle itself.

British pubs are especially cozy in winter.

One of my favorite post-nativity scenes is in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It’s Maurice Denis’s “Mary with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John,” 1898.

Of course Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens is the place to be in early December. It’s covered by the Museum Pass and it’s right in the middle of town, so the thing to do is to brave the crowds and pop in daily.

So is it a letdown to be back at home at Christmas? Oh, no! There’s snow, and family and friends.

One of our neighborhood moose paid us a visit today. Seeing these magnificent animals up close never gets old.

Moose and elk look docile, but they’re not. They’re welcome to munch on our shrubs and trees, but we watch them from safely inside.

The Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written in Austria exactly 200 years ago. There’s an article about it at https://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/silent.htm

Our Christmas Eve service always ends with candles and “Silent Night.” I wish every place in the world could be as “calm and bright” as my mountain home. Merry Christmas and hopeful wishes for a peaceful New Year!

Merry Christmas to All Including Dancing Dogs and Sleeping Cats!

My very favorite Christmas image is this shepherd with his dancing dog.

They’re part of a lunette fresco rescued from the monastery of Santa Giuliani in Umbria, painted between 1370 and 1390. So Italians had bagpipes! Who knew? The shepherd’s buddies are talking about the bright star above Bethlehem, and one is even shading his eyes. What’s going on?

Even one of the sheep notices the star. He’s bleating for joy, don’t you think?

What’s left of the two sides of the semicircular lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. The left-hand side has a nativity scene with a shrink-wrapped baby, angels, and adoring cattle.

At my house in the mountains of Colorado, we slept in, but we’ll get moving after another cup of coffee.

We went with three small Christmas trees instead of one big one. By the time we arrived, all the big ones were sold and we were way too lazy to drive out to the National Forest to legally chop one down. But I like having a tiny forest in my living room. I’ll do this again! (In my town, we take our used trees to a giant shredder where they’re instantly turned into mulch for the parks. So there are no sad orphaned trees next to trash cans).

There’s plenty of snow. The deck was a bit of a chore to shovel yesterday, and today there was more.

So everybody is heading out to the mountain to ski. Well, almost everybody.

Merry Christmas to all!

Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s Resting Place

When Jane Austen died in 1817, she was not famous. She was buried as a gentlewoman beneath the floor in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral, with no mention of her as a writer. She had published four of her great novels while living at Chawton, but readers did not know her name. The title page read, “By a Lady.”

I finally made a visit last spring, after visiting Jane’s cottage home in Chawton and the “great house” that played a big part in her most productive years.

No doubt Jane knew the medieval cathedral well, having lived the last eight years of her life in nearby Chawton Village. She spent the last eight weeks or so of her life in Winchester, undergoing treatment that didn’t work. (Theories about her illness include Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others).

Jane lies underneath the stone floor. Her brothers James and Henry arranged the burial. Her tombstone refers to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind,” but the emphasis is on her qualities as a proper Christian gentlewoman, not her genius as a writer and satirist. Only four people attended Jane’s brief funeral service in 1817. She has much more company now.

I’d like to think Jane was familiar with the Holy Sepulchre Chapel.

The chapel’s wall and ceiling paintings date from the 12th and early 13th centuries.

Even more, I’d like to think Jane once stood and gazed up at the exquisite ceiling of the Guardian Angels Chapel, dating from around 1240, by Master William, the King’s painter.

That would have been King Henry III. The ceiling was restored in 1959, so Jane may not have seen it at its best. But I like to think the guardians angels watch over her anyway.

The cathedral has a nice display about Jane on banners and signs in the north aisle.

One sign explains that by around 1850, as Jane’s identity as a writer came out and her fame began to grow, visitors were coming just to see her grave.

In 1870 Jane’s nephew published a memoir about her and used the proceeds for a brass plaque on the wall near her tomb.

By 1900, a public subscription paid for a memorial window above the brass plaque.

Aside from the Jane connection, Winchester is a fascinating cathedral. The building was finished and consecrated in 1093, after all. It still functions as a church, and it’s possible to wander without crowds of tourists.

The beautiful illuminated Winchester Bible, used by the 60 to 80 monks in residence in the 1100s, is worth a visit all by itself.

I especially like the huge heavy “flying” buttresses that hold up the cathedral walls from outside. They form a sort of secular cloister which locals use all the time. I like to imagine Jane attending a service, then hurrying home with a new plot twist or turn of phrase. Maybe, for instance, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane lives on!

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth, because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage. It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.

https://chawtonhouse.org/

George Sand and Friends at the Musée de la Vie Romantique

Musee de la Vie Romantique is a charming, peaceful oasis at the foot of Montmartre in Paris.  (Well, that’s what it was on a sunny spring day the other time I visited. On a recent rainy November day, it was dreary outside. People stood around wondering why they were there. The cheery garden cafe is shuttered and the chairs sit in puddles). Still, it’s worth a stop, especially since it’s free, with donations welcome.

On the way, I passed the Moulin Rouge, THE nightlife spot in Romantic times. From what I can see beyond the tour buses, it doesn’t look too appealing today. Plus I read that animals are used in the current show, in ways a lot of people find distressing. I’ll salute, but pass.

Art Scheffer, portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1840

The house, built in 1830, was the rented home of the painter Ary Scheffer, who was well-known at the time and had royal connections. Scheffer hosted weekly salon evenings attended by everybody who was anybody in the Romantic art, literature and music world.

Le Grand Atelier d’Ary Scheffer, Arie Johannes Lamme, 1851

Scheffer’s studio must have been a nice artistic hangout for his friends and students.

George Sand, bust by Auguste Clesinger, 1847

George Sand, one of the most notorious and talented women of her day, attended regularly with the most famous of her many lovers, the composer Frederic Chopin.  Her real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. Her friends called her Aurore. Though her family was not aristocratic, there was some money, a good education, and entree into high social circles.

George Sand, portrait by Charles Louis Gratia, 1835, Public Domain

She married a Baron and had two children, but aristocratic life was way too confining for her. She ran off with her two children and famously started dressing in men’s clothing, which she considered more practical than the full skirts and flounces of the day. Dressing as a man also let her enter places where women were not allowed, like raffish cafes in Montmartre (where she scandalously smoked in public).

Here she is, presiding over her salon (furnished by her heirs after the house became a museum, with portraits, possessions and mementoes). This portrait is by August Charpentier, 1838. She was striking and charismatic no matter how she was dressed. The poet Alfred de Musset, one of her lovers, said she was “the most womanly woman.” To support and also to amuse herself, she began writing novels, essays, criticism and memoirs. Her colorful life gave her plenty of material, and she was not particularly shy about sharing all her experiences. Note to self: find a good biography, and also her letters.

Frederic Chopin was a regular at the house during his stormy 8-year liaison with George Sand. A plaster cast of Chopin’s left hand reaches wistfully for a plaster cast of George Sand’s right hand in a glass case, along with a pen and some love letters.

Daguerreotype of Frédéric Chopin, Bisson, c. 1849, Public Domain

Poor Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 39. I wonder whether his affair with George Sand lengthened or shortened his life. Note to self: find good biography and letters.

Regulars at the house also included Chopin’s friend the composer Franz Liszt, opera composer Gioacchino Rossini, and the painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, among many other artists of the Romantic Period. Later on, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, and Charles Gounod also stopped by often.

The actress Sarah Bernhardt was a regular, too. Here she is costumed as a character in a play based on one of George Sand’s works.

The house became a museum in 1982.  Heirs of George Sand donated much of the contents.

The audioguide is worthwhile, but not really necessary because there’s a free little guidebook.

In the summer months, there is a pretty tea garden.  The food is nothing special, but it’s a fine place to sit and soak up the atmosphere of La Vie Romantique.

Naturally, George Sand has been the subject of plenty of books and movies.  My favorite is the 1991 movie Impromptu, often streaming on Netflix.  I’ve seen it before, but I’ll be watching it again.  Who can resist Judy Davis as George Sand and Hugh Grant as Frederic Chopin, right at the beginning of their tumultuous affair?

Actually I see that I have it on DVD! Reading the jacket, I remember the rest of the cast: Emma Thompson as a duchess, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands as Franz Liszt, Bernadette Peters as the long-suffering wife of Liszt, Ralph Brown as Eugène Delacroix, and the list of treats goes on. James Lapine was the director.

I’m off! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in mid-1800s Paris.