Category Archives: Books

Lawrence of Arabia, Incognito in Dorset

National Trust guidebook, detail of Augustus John’s portrait of Lawrence, 1919, now in the Tate Britain museum.

Given the chance, I always make a beeline for the home-turned-museum of any writer, whether I like the writer or not. Why? Because writers hardly ever made much money (most of them still don’t, truth be told) and lived quite ordinary lives. But a few became famous enough that their admirers somehow preserved their homes. My theory is that wandering around the home of a writer is one of the few ways to see how ordinary people lived back in the day.

Clouds Hill in the rural reaches of Dorset was once the home of a very non-ordinary man, T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. I had a vague memory of him from the 1962 movie starring Peter O’Toole. I saw the movie on a high-school date in downtown Minneapolis. But what I really remember is Peter’s electric presence on the screen. And those piercing blue eyes! My date was probably a very nice boy, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about him.

How did a world-famous war hero end up as a humble Private on an Army base, with special permission to escape during his free time to this tiny cottage?Why had he enlisted under assumed names as an airplane mechanic and later in the Tank Corps? Why did he want to disappear? What was the big deal about him in the first place?

The questions intrigued me enough to download and read Michael Korda’s biography while I was still traveling. I have to admit just skimming quite a bit of the intricate military and political detail. What I wanted was to understand the man, but he was so eccentric and so private that I think nobody ever really understood him. I think he liked it that way.

The following summary of Lawrence’s life is vastly over-simplified, but it at least begins to explain how he became what, with all due respect, I’d call a very strange dude. Korda’s book, the National Trust guidebook, and displays at the cottage are my sources.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born an outsider in Victorian Wales in 1888. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, had left an unhappy marriage, four daughters and prosperous estates in Ireland and run off with the family governess, Sarah Junner. She was herself an illegitimate child whose father was unknown to her. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence” although they were never free to marry because Lady Chapman would not agree to a divorce. They had a small but steady income from investments, and raised their five sons together.

T. E. Lawrence had a fraught relationship with his parents. They tried to keep secret the fact that they were “living in sin.” His mother in particular underwent a radical religious conversion which she tried to impose on the family. She beat her most strong-willed son, sedated him, had him painfully circumcised at age 9, and by his account, tried in every way to get him to behave like her idea of a perfect child. (Good luck with that). He was glad to escape to Oxford, where he won First Class Honors in modern history in 1910. He went off to Syria to work on excavations run by the British Museum. Then World War I broke out.

The war found Lawrence serving as a Colonel in British Military Intelligence in Cairo. At the time, the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled most of what we now call the Mideast. In 1916, the Arab Revolt began. Lawrence encouraged the uprising and quickly became one of its leaders, becoming adept at guerrilla warfare. He had a fine time of it, racing around the desert in Arab robes, blowing up railway lines, and earning the trust and friendship of Arab leaders like Prince Faisal. Finally, in 1918, Lawrence helped the rebels capture Damascus and the power of the Ottoman Empire was broken.

Lawrence had agreed to do all this because he believed passionately in Arab self-determination. But far above his pay grade, politicians had secretly planned all along to divide the Mideast into French and British sectors. He had been used.

Lawrence went back to England and wrote about his war experiences in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” But his fame dogged him. And it seems he suffered from what we would now call post traumatic distress syndrome–no surprise, since during the war he had been captured, tortured and raped. He needed a safe haven and anonymity. Friends helped him become a humble enlisted man, although his real identity was never much of a secret.

Lawrence was not rich, but he had enough money to gradually turn his cottage into a fine man-cave. He had a special reading chair built. He was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches (Peter O’Toole was well over 6 feet). During the twelve years Lawrence occupied the cottage, he had a large library which was actually his most valuable possession, sold after his death.

He slept in his quarters on the military base, but lounged and listened to music in his cottage while he read and wrote. Besides his own writing, he worked on translations which brought in a little income.

He entertained friends and eventually built a sort of pantry with a bunk bed for visitors. He built a fine bathroom and figured out how to fill his tub with hot water, although the cottage never had proper running water. The cottage never had a kitchen. Lawrence made do with food from the Army mess and nearby cafes.

Another luxury was a series of expensive motorcycles which no mere enlisted man could afford.

Sadly, Lawrence crashed his last beloved Brough Superior on May 13, 1935 and died six days later without regaining consciousness.

There’s a lot to think about in Lawrence’s story, There’s the constant tension between high-level politics and the military people who try to carry out orders which might not have been truthfully explained to them. There are the lifelong physical and psychic wounds of warfare. There are the demands and pitfalls of fame. Lawrence’s strict Victorian upbringing looks in hindsight like it seriously damaged him, but it was probably not so unusual for the time. In his brief 46 years, Lawrence lived a full life, if not a happy one.

The 1962 movie is still well worth watching. In it, Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes are as piercing as ever.

Social Distancing 101 in Eyam, the Plague Village

In the year 1666, the residents of a little out-of the way village in Derbyshire, England became reluctant heroes of the Plague Year. Eyam (pronounced “Eem”) had between 350 and 800 residents in 1665. Between September and December of that year, 42 residents died of the bubonic plague that was devastating England. By the end of the fourteen months of plague, at least 260 villagers had died.

The contagion subsided in the cold winter months. But it returned in force in warm spring weather. By the spring of 1666, many families were desperate to leave–nearby villages had nowhere near the same high rate of infection. Even in faraway London, the rate of infection was much lower.

But on June 24, 1666, two village rectors took a courageous stand that no doubt saved thousands of lives. William Mompesson, who was new to the area and not popular, gathered the villagers and after much debate, persuaded them to self-quarantine. He enlisted the help of the previous rector in his arguments. It was clear to everyone that isolation in the village very likely was a death sentence for most of the people. But somehow, for the good of those in nearby towns and villages, they agreed.

William Mompesson, photo from BBC article cited below

Mompesson promised to relieve their suffering as much as possible and to stay with them to the end. He preached to the parishioners in a clearing in the woods rather than risking close contact in the church. He did as he promised; he survived, but his young wife died after nursing villagers for many months.

The Earl of Devonshire from his grand family seat at Chatsworth promised to provide food and supplies if the villagers isolated themselves. Items were regularly left in a certain location and the donors never made contact with the villagers. Aristocratic Chatsworth, with its vast profitable lands and countless residents, was worlds away from the humble working-class village of Eyam. It still is. The Cavendish family, owners of Chatsworth since 1549, still owe a debt of gratitude to Eyam villagers.

Photo from BBC article cited below

By August of 1666, villagers were dying painful, gruesome deaths at the rate of five or six a day. A woman named Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children over a period of eight days. She had no option but to drag their bodies outside and bury them herself. (Later, another villager survived the illness and took over the job of burying victims).

At the time, no one knew the cause of bubonic plague, or how exactly it was transmitted. There was no effective treatment, and the death rate was about 30 to 90%.

The plague had arrived in 1665 in Eyam in a bale of cloth which contained infected fleas from London. A young tailor’s assistant named George Viccars opened the bale and found the cloth damp, so he hung it in front of the fire to dry.

Photo from BBC article cited below

The heat of the fire activated the fleas. Incubation of plague once a person is exposed takes only a few days. George Viccars was dead within the week, the first plague death in Eyam.

Today, Eyam is a sleepy village whose main feature is its church and graveyard, plus stone cottages with plaques naming those who died.

The church features a Plague Window that tells the sad but inspiring story.

Three of the above photos are from the BBC article cited below. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.

I highly recommend a book about Eyam in the year of plague, “Year of Wonders,” by Geraldine Brooks.

As the world deals with a new and dangerous pathogen, the coronavirus, we will most likely see many similar stories. Some people will selfishly hoard food and supplies, but some will also act with quiet heroism. May we support our scientists and caregivers, and may we treat each other kindly.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35064071

Here is a more recent article about Eyam:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/02/bubonic-plague-coronavirus-quarantine-eyam-england/

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!

 

 

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/

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

In honor of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 1775, I’m revisiting one of my favorite travel memories. In 2014, I visited the home where Jane lived in her last years. And I experienced Six (or fewer) Degrees of Separation from Jane.

Jane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and a family friend. The women were pretty much penniless after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

Edward Knight

It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

On this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival. Jane spun her stories with humor, but also with hard-earned experience in understanding human conflicts.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

In Copenhagen this month, I loved seeing some outfits from Jane’s era in the Design Museum.

The Empire dresses first popularized by Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, were popular in Scandinavia as well as in Jane’s England.

I loved the puff detail on this one, which was made in Denmark’s colony in the Indies. (Taking care of fragile garments like this was the job of slaves–an unpleasant fact that countries like Denmark and England and America are still struggling to come to terms with). In one of her books, “Mansfield Park,” Jane touched on the subject.

Still, I can dream of a ladylike life in a peaceful English village. How about a little cotton jacket for a stroll in the garden?

I just found my DVD of my all-time favorite movie based on Jane’s work, “Persuasion.” It’s about maturity, regrets, making one’s own risky choices, and second chances. It stars Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, and a long list of other fine British actors. I’ll be watching it today, and feeling grateful that in her short life Jane was able to write as much as she did.

Tivoli in Springtime


I’m not big on amusement parks. In fact, I’ve successfully avoided taking either children or grandchildren to Disney World ( bad grandma!)


Rides either terrify or bore me. But I loved Tivoli in Copenhagen. The park opened in 1843, just outside the west gate of the still-walled old city.


King Christian VIII was worried about social unrest at the time. Workers all over Europe were annoyingly demanding higher wages and shorter hours. The founder of the park, George Carstensen, convinced the king that if the people have a place to amuse themselves, “they do not think about politics.” As the city expanded, Tivoli became almost the center. That’s the tower of the City Hall in the background.


I visited at twilight because I wanted to see the fabled lights.


The daffodils were perfect.


So were the thousands of tulips. In fact, the flowerbeds were so perfect that I wondered if gardeners came in nightly and replaced them with fresh plants straight from a greenhouse.


A rock band was getting ready to set up at the Chinese theater. The theater dates from 1874.


The pagoda sparkled.


Families strolled and let cotton candy melt in their mouths.


A pair of peacocks wandered into a restaurant.


There are any number of restaurants, plain to fancy, plus food carts strategically placed.

Tivoli has many faces.


Raincoats for sale? Sure. It rains quite a bit in Copenhagen.


Hans Christian Andersen, 1805-1875, is pretty much the secular patron saint of Denmark. He loved Tivoli Gardens. In 1965, the city put up a bronze more-than-double life size statue of the writer of at least 125 fairy tales, just outside City Hall. He’s holding his place in a book while he gazes up at the bright lights of Tivoli across the street. His knee is brightly polished because everybody sits on his lap for a photo. The sculptor was Henry Lucknow-Nielsen.


Across town, the wistful sculpture of Andersen’s Little Mermaid draws rowdy crowds from the nearby cruise port. It may be all some people really see of Copenhagen.


Minus the crowds, the mermaid is lovely. She seems to ignore the busy harbor behind her. I’m sure she dreads the rowdy cruise-boat crowds, but maybe she’s off in her own world. Edvard Eriksen created her in 1913.

Tivoli in springtime did not disappoint. I loved Copenhagen so much that I’m going back in December (cheap off-season airfares helped).

Will it be cold? Afraid so. It was cold enough for mittens and wool hats in early May. But I expect Chrismastime in Scandinavia to be a fairy-tale experience. Plus there may be snow!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, literature and history of Europe!

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte, portrait by Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte was born on July 30, 1818. Her brother Branwell, an aspiring poet and portrait painter, composed one of the very few images of her. His sister Emily was painfully shy, hardly speaking with anyone outside the family. But she was a bold artist.  Her novel, Wuthering Heights, is still startling in its passion and social critique.

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Branwell  was the only son in the family and great things were expected of him. I think poor Branwell suffered from what we might now call Preacher’s Kid Syndrome: a need to act out, just because his father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, was such an upright man. Branwell studied painting, in between bouts of drinking, taking opiates, and getting fired from various gigs as a tutor–for which his father had taken great pains to educate him. In around 1834, at age 17, Branwell painted the group portrait above. It is now one of the most treasured works in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the centerpiece of a special Bronte exhibit I saw last spring.

Why is this rare painting folded in the middle?  We’re lucky that it still exists, damaged as it is. The portrait, together with the profile of Emily, traveled to Ireland with Charlotte Bronte’s widower after her death as a young bride. It appears that a heartbroken Arthur Bell Nicholls shoved the portraits of his beloved Charlotte and her sisters on top of a wardrobe in an Irish farmhouse, out of sight and out of mind.

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The churchyard where all the Brontes are buried (except Anne, who died at Scarborough and was buried there) is just outside the door of the parsonage. Living there, walking every day past the graves of so many loved ones who had died so young, must have been unbearably sad.

By the time Charlotte died, shortly after her marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Branwell, Emily and Anne were already dead. Most likely they died of either tuberculosis or infectious diseases from the poor sanitation in the village. (Branwell more or less drank himself to death). Nicholls stayed in Haworth for several years to care for his father-in-law. Nicholls eventually remarried. His widow finally discovered the paintings (housecleaning, no doubt) in 1914.

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Sadly, it seems that Branwell had erased himself from the family portrait. This fact was not known until the 1950s, when the oil paint became more transparent with age. Now, it is clear that there was once a man’s figure between the sisters.  Did Branwell already have such a low opinion of himself? Was he ashamed to be seen with his much-more-virtuous sisters? Or did he feel he could not do justice to his own wonderfulness? Or was this possibly a portrait of his father, who took a very dim view of Branwell’s nights spent in the local pub or worse?  We’ll never know.

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The London exhibit also contains items such as Charlotte’s tiny boots. The caption says that for outdoor wear, the boots were most likely worn with wooden platens strapped to the soles for a little protection against mud and snow. How did the Bronte girls manage to walk for miles in the rugged North Yorkshire moors in footgear like this?

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Last year I made a literary pilgrimage to Haworth in Yorkshire.  The town still looks much the same as it did when Emily composed her novel about wild forbidden love on the moors. I was lucky enough to stay at Ponden Hall, a house where the Brontes were regular visitors. It’s now a family home, a lovingly run bed and breakfast, and a venue for  gatherings of artists, writers, and Bronte fans. The charming hosts go out of their way to show all visitors around their historic home.  In the photo below, the bookcase is a hidden door into a secret library. The Bronte girls used to visit the house, a couple of miles from the parsonage, to use the library.

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It’s possible to actually sleep in the “box bed,” shown above, with the little window that reportedly inspired Emily to write her famous scene where the ghost of Cathy appears outside the window, begging to be let in.  Her forbidden and guilt-ridden lover Heathcliffe staggers out onto the moors in desperate search of her. (Did I sleep in the box bed? No, but maybe next time! Do I believe in ghosts? Maybe!)

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights," Public Domain

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights,” Public Domain

In 1939, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played the lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe in the classic romantic film based on the novel.  Since then, there’s been a 2011 film version that makes explicit the racism that Emily only hinted at in her novel, by calling Heathcliffe a “gypsy.” It’s on my list to watch.  There’s a 2009 miniseries, too.

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Did I venture onto the wild moors myself?  Only partway.  I had a broken foot, thanks to a super-klutzy fall just before I left on my trip.

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But I’m determined to hike the moors.  Next time, I hope I’ll be able to follow the signposts and get just a little bit lost in the wild countryside that inspired Emily Bronte and her sisters.

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