A certain kind of book these days combines literary history and memoir, and investigates the importance of renowned novels from the past to readers today. Rebecca Mead did this in 2014 with “My Life in Middlemarch,” which intersperses her personal story with biographical details about George Eliot, and provides an enriching look at “Middlemarch.” Mead has read “Middlemarch” countless times over the years, finding treasures anew each time. I’ve read it just twice – and loved reading Mead’s book to help me make even more of it.
Mead, born in England, recently wrote in The New Yorker (“The Return of the Native”) that after decades in this country and becoming a citizen, she would return to the UK – to London. She writes about what America has meant to her since she came here, first as a graduate student, then a journalist, and describes the decision as “wrenching.” Her life reminds me of many English novel heroines, especially the ones who long to write – beginnings in a provincial town, hard-working student, Oxford, The New Yorker – an enviable trajectory fueled by love of books.
I’m a Rebecca Mead fan – always glad to see her byline. This article movingly sums up the last two decades – 9/11, Mead’s adventurous career, marriage and motherhood, the joy of Obama’s election and the despair of the more recent one – and I could feel her apprehensive excitement about the move to London (a friend, when I forwarded the article, said “I wish I also had a British citizenship.”) I’m happy for Mead – she will give her son the experience of a different culture and remove the ocean that’s separated her from her mother for so many years. And I’m eager for her to write about London as a local.
She left me a departing gift – a review of Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and Friendship Across Time.” It’s a book I might have missed about Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th C novelist best known simply as Mrs. Gaskell, a favorite of mine.
Stevens’s book combines a time in her own life with that of a little-known part of Gaskell’s life (an unrequited but intense romance). Mead describes the result best: “…a gentle satire on the ways of academia… coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future.”
When I was an English major back in the days of text only (the novel itself contained all that needed knowing), to read about an author’s life was somehow illicit. Virginia Woolf wrote that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions,” and now I feel a frisson of excitement at peeking into the lives, houses and companions surrounding those women authors who penned such long-lasting books.
And it’s a great pleasure to have tales of those lives told alongside the contemporary lives of two masterful writers!
After a little more than a two-hour flight from Sevilla to London Gatwick, we exchanged T-shirts for sweaters, sandals for umbrellas, tapas for pub food, and formal gardens in dry terrain for the lush gardens of England.
By this time Sweet Baby expressed definite opinions about tolerated confinement, whether pack or stroller, car seat or high chair. But she is always glad to ride in her pack on her dad, the family gardener, and we planned three garden visits with lawns and space for running.
In the Kent countryside we stayed in tiny Biddenden Village (a pub, a post office, and a smattering of other buildings smack beside a busy road) in a 400-year old Tudor house – low ceilings, creaky floors, steep staircases, and comfortable rooms.
At Great Dixter (made famous by garden writer Christopher Lloyd), in spite of borders of glorious color and meadows of wildflowers, we loved the house best. Built by Lloyd’s father and the architect Edwin Lutyens, it combines two 15th century dwellings to reimagine a medieval manor. A great room with vaulted ceilings and leaded windows downstairs, and a solar upstairs, with worn rugs, bookshelves, and lived-in chairs cozied up to a huge fireplace. A little hungry for home comfort by now, we might have settled in.
The day of our Sissinghurst visit we woke to cold rain, but after Sweet Baby’s morning nap the clouds lifted. Sissinghurst (my favorite garden) is romantic and full of story, and in spite of summer solstice and the full bloom of Vita’s famous roses, weather kept the crowds down. We walked paths through the white garden, the herb garden, the cottage garden, and climbed the tower. For lunch we ate ratatouille made from produce grown in the Sissinghurst vegetable garden.
The threat of Brexit had begun to color things even before we left Spain, and in the UK tension was palpable. In the village, angry Brexiters complained to us about Obama’s statements to remain, and in London the night before the vote, vocal supporters of each side lined tube station entrances. Our old friends were divided, he to stay, she to leave. And the day after the vote, people looked stunned as they carried on.
Founded in 1673 as an apothecaries’ garden, the Chelsea Physic garden is a tranquil, walled space overlooked by buildings, full of labeled medicinal plants from around the world. On the same day as the huge and sad memorial for Jo Cox in Trafalgar Square, I walked the paths, pushing a sleeping Sweet Baby in her stroller, thinking about the commonality and continuity of plants, looking for solace in the centuries-old garden.
On our last day – a final walk through London and history. From our place near Covent Garden, west through Trafalgar Square (setting up for the Gay Pride Festival), along the Mall to St. James’s park (many visitors, a polyglot of language), ate waffles sitting on a bench, and watched the crowd gather near Buckingham Palace. Then we circled back past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, toward Parliament (posters and stickers littered the sidewalk). We turned onto the Victoria Embankment along the Thames, and crossed the Millennium Footbridge (a bride and her wedding party walking in the midst of the crowd). We spent time in the Tate Modern (Sweet Baby running the ramp in the Turbine Hall), then walked on to the Borough Market for lunch.
Sweet Baby took her parents home for the afternoon nap, but the two old, true London lovers finished it out – back across the bridge and up to St. Paul’s, along Fleet Street and the Strand, and through Covent Garden.
Overhead a jet plane flyover trailed tricolored smoke and thunderous noise – and a downpour began, wilting feathers and costumes and melting face paintings on passersby.
That evening, in the midst of post-festival crowds, Sweet Bride miraculously found us a table at a Thai restaurant where we ate and replayed Sweet Baby’s first big trip.
“Wow!” we said.
On Christmas Day public transportation shuts down in London – no tube, no buses. Nearly everything you read about visiting London in December warns about this closure and the difficulty of getting about.
So we had a plan – walk from our flat in Notting Hill to Trafalgar Square, and then to join a Charles Dickens walking tour. Our younger son, the trail boss, figured out the route, covering so much of central London with streets and buildings familiar from history and literature.
We opened stockings and ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs by candlelight (dark lingers late and comes early in winter London). Then we set off, the day chilly but sunny, past the shuttered shops of Notting Hill along busy sidewalks. (Closing the tube means all the below ground life suddenly appears street side.)
In Kensington Gardens fellow walkers, families mostly, chattered in many languages, children rode in buggies or skipped along with the international excitement of children on Christmas Day. People strolled, not the Londoner’s usual purposeful stride, past Diana’s Playground, Kensington Palace, the Round Pond, the Albert Memorial.
After Hyde Park, the trail boss pointed a line through the neighborhoods of Mayfair and Belgravia with deserted streets and no people – residents here might spend their holidays at country estates. An armed guard at the fortress-like American embassy managed a smile in reply to a “Merry Christmas” greeting.
Just before reaching Trafalgar Square, we stopped for a hot drink in an open (and very busy) coffee shop. We weren’t the only people fancying a Victorian Dickens tour on Christmas Day – a crowd filled the square, tourists but locals as well.
A few nights before, we’d been to a performance of “A Christmas Carol,” staged in a small theatre just off Piccadilly. On the tour we learned that the theatre was located close by the notorious and miserable blacking factory where Dickens worked as a child, and that he, too, loved to walk in the countryside and in London.
The walk was cold! Like penguins we huddled around the guide who read bits from Dickens novels, standing on streets where Dickens lived, and outside one of the many pubs named for him.
We had arranged for a car to pick us up, and after a long day in the cold on foot (six miles by the sweet bride’s pedometer), the toasty quick ride back over the route we’d walked gave a taste of a whole other way to be in London.
In the tiny kitchen of our flat, we turned our traditional comfort meal festive – spaghetti, Lady Baby style zucchini, salad – and miniature mince pies from Ottolenghi. We ate by candlelight and the warmth of the little gas fireplace.
Then, feeling like true Brits, we watched the Downton Abbey finale on the telly (never mind we hadn’t seen any previous episodes). A memorable Christmas Day.
And I’m wishing you the same – with all your important elements in place!
Last December, when we went to London with our younger son and his sweet bride, I thought about my favorite parts of the holiday, wondering if we’d find what I treasure – joy and laughter and love for sure, the cheerful ghosts of Christmas past, and some specifics in the present.
We brought family with us – a critical component, and made a bare bones flat in Notting Hill home base. It was the sweet bride’s first trip to London, Harry Potter and Harrods’ led her list, but by the 21st the fact of Christmas became more pressing.
Friends – a warming Christmas element – were in short supply. We did eat dinner one night with our English friends at their cheery house (ironically, they left the next day for the States to spend their holiday). They gave us a small, bright red poinsettia for the flat’s fireplace mantel.
London provided wintry weather aplenty – rain and wind or clear, cold days – appropriate for the woolen hats and scarves we bought as small gifts to stuff stockings from home, and hung by the fireplace with care.
Solstice night we joined a walking tour to view Christmas lights – Covent Garden and Oxford Street a-twinkle, and giant white snowflakes glittering between the buildings in the tiny lane leading to St. Martin’s Square. Shoppers gathered in front of store windows with Victorian Christmas scenes – the kind that only huge and old-fashioned department stores can offer.
My family later reported spotting that Christmas tradition, “Love Actually,” playing on a big screen in the outdoor part of a pub. I missed it while talking to a fellow walker or I would have returned!
We played Christmas music on a tiny speaker for the iPhones, and heard the live BBC broadcast of the Festival of Carols. (I associate that with early morning on Christmas Eve in Anchorage). And by Christmas Eve, awash with the memories that color the holidays, I wanted to gather food for a feast – even if small.
Dramatic Christmas trees decorate public London – each year the City of Oslo presents the people of London with a huge tree that dominates Trafalgar Square (given in gratitude since 1947, for assistance during World War II), a red velvet tree designed by artists for the Victoria and Albert Museum filled the foyer there, and in Covent Garden’s Piazza giant red balls and white lights covered an enormous tree that stood in a whiskey barrel of startling size.
The bay windows of London townhouses seem designed for Christmas trees, and in our neighborhood one stood out. I opened the gate, snuck inside the tiny front yard, and took a photo. A book tree! Books artfully piled and strung with white lights, broad at the bottom and tapering to a skinny top where an artist’s wooden figure stood with arm raised in good cheer.
We had noticed trees for sale in lots tucked into spaces beside churches and in the entrance areas of big stores. I longed for one in spite of impracticality.
Finally the sweet bride and I cobbled together a tiny tree – evergreen boughs fresh with fragrance from a florist shop tied together with red ribbon, decked with a miniature string of colored lights, and topped by a star cut from shiny paper.
The basics of Christmas magic in place – off to bed!
Two missions shaped our time in London, the first, to support Mrs. Hughes in her exciting endeavor (a five-day course at The Interior Design School), and then to see this favorite city through Lady Baby’s eyes.
Each morning we set out with destination in mind: the London Zoo, the Museum of Childhood (dolls to play with and dress-up clothes), the Princess Diana Memorial Playground (a truly memorable, neverland wonderland of a play space), or a visit to a less familiar part of London and the brand-new House of Illustration with an exhibition about the illustrator Quentin Blake (where the favorite thing was a wheelchair ramp and set of stairs that provided 20 minutes of real aerobic joy with races up steps and down ramp).
I realize I have used the word favorite several times. As does Lady Baby. She shows you two things, like Baby Boy and Pink Baby, and asks which is your favorite? So I’ve been thinking about our London days in terms of favorites – I’m guessing some of these for her:
Paddingtons – both the station where we arrived from the countryside (announcements on the train brought glee, “She’s saying Paddington!”), and a new, small bear (named Baby Paddington, “because his mama lives at KayTee’s house”).
Vehicles to identify – black London Taxis, red double-decker buses, red mail trucks – and the very favorite – speedy motorcycles passing close by on narrow streets. “That’s a noisy motorcycle!”
Watching people while riding the tube with an endless variety of faces. Learning the litany of tube stops on the Central line: Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park, White City (meaning we were near home).
Pushing the button to signal our bus stop.
Our Bracewell Road flat – “our London house,” a comfortable, multi-leveled North Kensington home with a “playroom” (also known as dining room and living room).
Farm animals and play mat we brought from home that provided much quiet playtime and story telling for Lady Baby and Poppa.
The loaner pink baby doll stroller, and pushing it full of babies in the house or to a playground in a nearby park named Wormwood Scrubs.
The pirate ship and sand and watercourse at Princess Diana’s playground, where Lady Baby followed (and maybe coveted) an empty, blue baby doll buggy pushed through the water stream by a French toddler boy.
Egg salad sandwiches and crisps to share at Pret-a-Manger (the fresh food stops making London quick and easy eating such a pleasure).
Carrot cake as a lunch first course. Combined with big mouthfuls of scrambled egg.
Chips and fish fingers at our local pub in the evening.
An eleven o’clock in the morning performance with music (for three to five-year olds) of Judith Kerr’s book, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” at a real Covent Garden theatre. Lady Baby joined in the audience call: “It’s a tiger!” and stood up to stretch her “tiger paws” when the time came mid-performance.
All the stunning dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum where Lady Baby’s delight and awe proved she is indeed the daughter of Mr. Carson (a longtime dinosaur connoisseur). Excitement built as we rounded a corner to encounter the enormous moving, roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lady Baby: “That’s a big dinosaur!”
Gearing up with child-size purple headphones and Mr. Carson’s iPhone to listen to the “Tiger” soundtrack while we made long tube rides or walks to the bus and tube stops.
But the greatest delight in all of London Lady Baby found in Trafalgar Square, a high-five from a life-size Mickey Mouse whom she’d never encountered before.
And my favorite memory? Perhaps “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” – such a dear book, brought magically to life. Maybe that memory will last for Lady Baby as well, and we can “stretch our tiger paws,” and speak of London days.