Category Archives: Literature

Three Witches for Halloween


Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist, painted “The Three Witches” from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in 1782. They look surprisingly modern to me. They look like they know unspeakable things, and their mouths are set as though they’re not about to tell all they know. I always think of Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” as sort of endearingly eccentric mumblers, but these three look like they mean business. 

In theater circles, this play is usually called “the Scottish play.” There’s a superstition that saying the actual title inside a theater, except as necessary in performance of the play, invokes a curse. Terrible things will happen.


The painting is in the European collection at the Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena. I think it’s pretty scary, especially after reading that since the play was written, many people have believed that it incorporates actual supernatural incantations used by actual witches. Speaking the words out loud is said to invoke real spells and curses. (Cue thunder and lightning).

The inscription on the frame is in Greek. It’s a quotation from the ancient playwright Aeschylus: “Not women, but Gorgons I call them.”


Who are Gorgons? They are Medusa and her sisters, monsters whose glance turns men to stone. The Medusa painting above is by Caravaggio, around 1593-1610. It’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. (The image is in the public domain). OK, if I suddenly had snakes instead of hair, I’d scare myself to death before I turned anybody to stone. Just saying. 


No doubt there are many other images of Shakespeare’s witches. I’ll close with one painted by an American artist, William Rimmer, in 1850. The weird sisters here have called up some kind of apparition.


I expect to see all kinds of apparitions (wanting candy) on Halloween. Me? I was Cleopatra for this year’s youth group Halloween party. (I could have carried some kind of snake, come to think of it).


But it’s chilly out. For the Halloween Stroll tonight in my small town, when traffic is blocked on the main drag and everybody turns out in costume, I might go with an older outfit: Crazy Cat Lady. Some people would say it’s not a costume: it’s what I really am. Anyway, it features a comfy chenille bathrobe. Happy Halloween!

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!

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Rudyard Kipling’s Beloved Bateman’s

 

1fac83c7-7594-479b-a24f-4643c42663f6The Nobel prize-winning British author Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936 in his beloved country home, Bateman’s, aged 70. The house is deep in the rural countryside of East Sussex, close to the site of the Battle of Hastings.

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Public Domain portrait of Rudyard Kipling, from John Palmer’s 1915 biography

I have to confess I’m not really familiar with much of his work, but I loved visiting the home where he and his wife chose to spend the last 34 years of his long and productive life.

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They bought the house in 1902.  It had  no bathroom, no electricity, and running water was only downstairs. But Kipling wrote, “Behold us, lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house–A.D. 1634 over the door–beamed, panelled, with old oak staircase, and all untouched and unfaked. We have loved it ever since our first sight of it.”

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The house is now in the hands of the National Trust.  Most of the furnishings are from Kipling’s happy time there. It is hard for us to appreciate just how famous this man was even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but the house was a peaceful retreat from Kipling’s busy life–he was active in politics and journalism, besides literature, all his life.9313938c-3171-478f-ad25-bc04c49b1791

His wife Caroline ran his affairs, working tirelessly in a tiny hidden office with a window looking out into the entry way, above and to the right of the fireplace.  She kept an eagle eye on the many people who knocked on the door, seeking time with the great man.  Not many were admitted when he was working in his study, pictured below. (We should all probably have someone like Caroline to turn off our internet when we want to get something accomplished).

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Kipling spent a good part of his working life in India and Africa, writing about both the glories and pitfalls of British imperialism.  He wrote with foreboding about the difficulties–and the morality–of maintaining the global British Empire, which was still in its heyday during Victorian times.

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In 1915, at the outbreak of World War I, Kipling’s son John was wild to join the fight.  He was rejected by both the Royal Navy and the Army because of poor eyesight.  So Kipling used his connections to get his son into the Irish Guards. John Kipling was killed in the Battle of Loos, aged 18, having been sent in with reinforcement troops.  He was last seen stumbling blindly on the battlefield, possibly from a face wound. His childhood bedroom, pictured above, is a poignant memorial to a lost son.

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I especially liked the dining room. The walls are covered with embossed leather brought from India.

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Above the fireplace is a painting that everybody in the family hated, but it was too good to get rid of. (Or maybe it was a gift from someone who was not to be insulted? I have items like that in my house, but I generally just get them out when the giver is visiting). The painting really is pretty ugly. It seems to show a naked crying baby, maybe with a mother or nanny wondering what to do.

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Mr. Kipling’s chair was placed so that his back was always to the hated painting.

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I think the kitchen must have had modern conveniences in the years leading up to Kipling’s death in the house in 1936.  Now, it’s a serene mostly-empty space where National Trust volunteers and staff dry flowers from the gardens.

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Literary fashions come and go, even for Nobel prize winners.  Having seen Rudyard Kipling’s country home, maybe I’ll find the time to dip into his writings. I’m sure Mr. Kipling would appreciate a visitor.

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

 

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!

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

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Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613.  It was rebuilt in 1614 and operated until about 1642, when the Puritan movement in England closed theatres, and demolished in 1644. The American actor and producer Sam Wanamaker organized a group that worked tirelessly for decades to build a replica, based on drawings and best guesses.  Construction had begun when Mr. Wanamaker died in 1993; performances began in 1997.

I finally made it to the Globe this month, and I’ll go again every chance I get. Lately I am rediscovering London, after avoiding the city for years because of the expense, the crowds, the pollution, and on and on. I’ve been tootling around the English and Welsh countryside instead, loving the small towns and villages and historic homes. But London is still glorious.

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I saw a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s “A Misdummer Night’s Dream.”  Of course, photos are not allowed during performance, and I would not want them to be. But I did snap some photos before the performance began. The “rude mechanicals” were Globe staff members in this production, and they regaled the audience with jokes and instructions before the show got underway.

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My vantage point was from the uppermost gallery, with a roof and wooden benches–still cheap as theatre tickets go, but not as cheap as the “groundlings” places at 5 pounds apiece.  It’s standing room down there, as it was in Shakespeare’s time, and there’s no shelter from the rain.  It rains a lot in London. No umbrellas are allowed, but people wore raincoats and ponchos, and obviously had a good time.  The rain was only on and off, and not many people left during intermission. It looked like a lot of fun down there. I would do it.

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But I was glad enough to have a thatched roof over my head, a plain wooden bench and the cushion which I hired for a couple of pounds extra. After a day chasing around London and standing in museums, the old dogs were barking.

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The setting on the Thames, a few hundred yards from the site of the original Globe, is part of the revitalised South Bank nightlife area.  It’s lively and fun and feels perfectly safe, at least along the river walk. St. Paul’s Cathedral, which earlier that day held a Service of Thanksgiving for the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, looms majestically across the Thames.

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Outside of London (tootling around in a rental car) we took in some other Shakespeare sights, including my favorite, Ann Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Long live the Bard!

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dear William!

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“Chandos” portrait, thought to be William Shakespeare, circa 1610, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, I’m revisiting an old post about one of my many treasured Shakespeare experiences.

Some years ago, I found myself with a lot of Frequent Flyer miles that were about to expire.  No one was free to travel with me.  So I treated myself to a solo trip to England.  I decided to see as much live theater as I possibly could. In the course of two weeks, I saw 18 plays.  Some days I doubled up and took in a matinee plus an evening performance.  I saw plays at grand theaters, in the London equivalent of “Off-Broadway,” and in tiny rooms above pubs.

At that time, to get to Stratford-upon-Avon, I had to take a train from London, then transfer to a bus.  (Now, there is a convenient train that goes all the way to Stratford).  I had dreamed for years of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company in their home theater, the Swan. One evening, I saw a very fine production of a Shakespeare play with the actors in modern dress.  Which play, you might ask?  I think it was Romeo and Juliet, but I can’t be sure. (On the train, I met a woman who had saved the program from every theater performance she had ever attended.  Although she was a theater professor, I thought that was a little obsessive.  Now I wouldn’t mind having all my programs).

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The Dirty Duck pub, Stratford-upon-Avon, photo by Lindsay Dearing, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The next morning, I went to the bus stop for the trip back to London.  Just outside The Dirty Duck, the pub still frequented by theater folk and tourists alike, I spotted an actor I had seen the evening before.  I stopped and complimented him on his performance.  He seemed delighted to be recognized; he had only a medium-sized part.  I’m thinking maybe he played Juliet’s father. I know how much talent and hard work it takes for any actor to get even a non-speaking, spear-carrying part in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did remember his performance, I thought he stood out in the character, and told him so.  He thanked me graciously.  Just then, the bus pulled up and I got on.

The bus was about to pull away from the curb when the actor jumped up the steps with a great theatrical flourish. He stood beside the driver, peering down the aisle at all the passengers.  “I am looking for a LADY,” he intoned, in his best Shakespearean elocution.  He spotted me and moved up the aisle toward me.  He took my hand, bowed low with a great stage flourish, kissed my hand, and made a great show of presenting me with a perfectly ripened peach.  Everyone on the bus applauded, he took a very grand bow, and he was off with a jaunty wave.

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Like all artists, actors pursue their passion even though they know they are very unlikely to gain riches or fame. I wish I could remember the name of this actor, who shared a magical personal moment with me and went out of his way to entertain a busload of non-paying strangers.  Did all this happen 26 years ago?  Yes, it did.  Travel memories are lifelong!

I’m off to England, and looking forward to seeing a play in the Globe Theatre in London. Photos to follow. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!