My Christmas card to you…

A carousel blurs lights and time. Imagination, woven into barley-sugar twists of gold, rides into adventure…

Carousel, Bath Christmas Market, 2013

Step aboard a portal – to an enchanted forest? To Green Knowe? A visit to the Midnight Folk?

Carousel in centre of Bath

Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths huddle close to a Christmas tree; its branches draped in stars dropped by a forgetful sky…

Christmas Tree outside Bath Abbey, 2013

A yew berry bides its time. An ancient in the making?

Yew berry - photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Yew berry – photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Cakes of Christmas Past, stirred through with memories. Decorated by my daughter…

Christmas cake 2011

Christmas cake 2012

The Cake of Christmas Present, waiting for dreams in sugar icing…

Christmas Cake 2013, awaiting decoration

Journeys by the fireside… Dazzling tales of the yuletide spirit, courtesy of the man they called “Mr. Christmas”…

Folio Society Dickens

However you mark this time of year, have a happy, magical time…

Season’s Greetings to all Bookish Nature readers. Thank you so much for all your support over the past year…

Merry Christmas!

Photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

Photo taken by my daughter at Westonbirt Arboretum, 2013

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Spotting Wickham…

On Saturday 15th September, we found ourselves stepping into a universe of slightly fuzzy edges, where bonnets and smartphones became complementary accessories – and Time seemed to knit together a dreaming of two eras.

We had arrived in Bath just in time for the start of the 2012 Jane Austen Festival Regency Promenade – and so many Emma Woodhouses and Lizzy Bennets were passing us by in conversation on their mobiles, I began to wonder if Regency reticules might become the surprise new “must haves” for carrying those ‘excessively diverting’ devices.

Caught in that parasol-twirl of the centuries, we hurried to join the crowds along Milsom Street, and found the militia already gathered there…

…with the Town Crier leading the way

– and a whole host of Admirals and Captain Wentworths, Charlotte Collins, Lady Catherines, Mrs Dashwoods and Mary Crawfords following on behind.

Feeling hopelessly inelegant in our 21st century jeans, we trailed in the procession’s wake amongst shoppers and buskers

…past the Pump Rooms and along Abbeygate; through Abbey Green, and past the now serene and welcoming shadow of its beautiful ancient plane tree, where only a bruised and recoiling patch of earth – from which the grass is said never to regrow – holds a shuddering memory of the public hangings that once took place there…

Walking away from that time, into a recreation that both engages with and leaves it behind, we emerged near the Roman Baths and the Abbey…

…stopping traffic along Grand Parade

…and to the final destination at Parade Gardens.

With elbows resting on the balustrade wall…

…and feeling thoroughly absorbed by the spectacle in the gardens below…

– wild, Lydia-esque ideas began to form in my mind. I’m not really one for dressing up, but occasionally I feel the lure…. And now, inspired visions began to take hold in which I (suddenly possessed of seamstress super-powers) would thread miracles through an imaginary sewing machine, and effortlessly run up an empire line frock in time for next year…

I’ve always been totally useless with a needle and thread (hence the imaginary status of my sewing machine) but I’d read, in a recent copy of Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, how many of the devotees of the Festival create their own costumes – and marvelling now at their skill, I fantasised about fashioning an elegant velvet pelisse, or smoothing onto a hanger a finished muslin gown with the pride of a job well done…

All a hopeless dream.

This is the girl who, in school needlework lessons, took a whole year to not finish sewing a tote bag!

But surely I could manage to trim a bonnet, couldn’t I? Looking at the wonderful creations around me, I began to doubt it… Jane’s words from a letter to her sister Cassandra, written in Bath’s Queen’s Square in June 1799, suddenly seemed to echo teasingly through the streets:

‘Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops. My aunt has told me of a very cheap one, near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in quest of something for you…

…Elizabeth has given me a hat, and it is not only a pretty hat, but a pretty style of hat too. It is something like Eliza’s, only, instead of being all straw, half of it is narrow purple ribbon. I flatter myself, however, that you can understand very little of it from this description. Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself! But I must write no more of this.’

And from another letter written a few days later:

‘We have been to the cheap shop, & very cheap we found it, but there are only flowers made there, no fruit… Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. – What do you think on that subject?’

All the ladies around us were impeccably elegant in their choice of bonnet adornment – not a discordant or misplaced ribbon, flower, feather (or greengage!) ‘growing out of the head’ to be seen.

In my own efforts at such practical decoration (be it trimming the Christmas tree, wrapping presents, attempting costume making etc.) there always seems to be a yawning gap between the tasteful effect I aim for in my imagination – and the dog’s dinner that usually takes shape in my hands. Suddenly, I had visions of looking like Lydia gone bonnet-overboard after blowing a whole year’s allowance at the haberdashers…

“If you could dress up as a Jane Austen character, who would you choose?” I asked my husband – and watched as his eyes, bright with the sight of red-coated militia marching to pipe and drums…

…suddenly shadowed with fear…

“Er…er..” he stumbled, warily, not wishing to back himself into any inadvertent corners.

“Mr Collins?” our daughter suggested helpfully, with a teasing glint in her eye. We looked around – plenty of admirals, colonels, Mr Gardiners etc, but no Mr Collins.

“You’d be unique…” I added, encouragingly. “Or you could be Mr Darcy – and take a dip in the Avon over there for added Colin Firth effect…”

Not liking where this was going, my husband’s brow suddenly cleared as he saw a get out clause. “No, no – I’d be Mr Bennet, without a doubt. Then I could stay at home, shut up in my study all day, no family interruptions. Just peace and quiet.” A dreamy expression came over his face. Mr Bookish Nature doesn’t get much peace and quiet…

“Anyway,” he said, diverting attention away from himself, “Who would you be?” he asked our daughter, the teasing gleam turning tables. “Mary Bennet?”

“That’s not very flattering…” she said, sardonically.

“No – she’d be Lizzy. Everyone wants to be Lizzy.”

“Yeah – so you’d have to be Lizzy too!”

“Oh, Lord no – I’m far too old…” I protested – and then suddenly realised, with a mix of horror and mirth, that if my daughter was Lizzy – that would make me…

“Mrs Bennet!” we chorused.

“Oh, my poor nerves!”

How the pages of life turn…

We fell silent again in amused reverie – and returned to admiring the costumes of the Regency folk in the gardens below.

A few time-transporting performances from the militia on the pipe and drums later…

…I noticed my daughter was scanning the crowd with a gleam in her eye.

I questioned her with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, I’m just trying to see if I can spot any Mr Wickhams…” she said, glowing with a sense of fun…

I laugh and feel as old as Methuselah…

Humanity, and all the patterns to which we dance, essentially never change – books, life, people, time; the pages turn and we find the same stories. Art and experience mingle. Life is mirrored; dressed up and displayed back at us. Different times are transposed, one against the other, capturing between their layers truths for us to grasp and tuck like bookmarks into the pages of our own lives.

Through the decades, ever since I was the age my daughter is now – Jane Austen has helped me to bookmark so many truths – through experience, through her novels; the two overlaying each other like tracing paper revealing the pattern by which to cut the cloth…

The often perilous schisms between reality and surface; the traps where truth lies struggling and smothered in self-delusion; the quiet, seeping devastations of daily thoughtlessness, selfishness, deception or hypocrisy; the momentous revelations to be unpicked from the knit of our every-days; the celebration of the quietly kind, the too often overlooked and truly valuable in the face of the dazzle and casual cruelty of the world; the sparkling humour that pins together the absurdities, the discord, the joys and variety of life’s patchwork fabric; and self-knowledge that should sear from time to time if the cut of the pattern is to hold true, and the needle be willing to repair the stitches that go astray. These are just a few of the threads in the Jane Austen weave that have guided my hand on my imaginary sewing machine, as I’ve stitched a garment of learnt insights to wear through my days, helping me to withstand (and to endeavour to understand) the vagaries of life and people – and myself!

And I’m so pleased that my daughter is a Jane Austen fan – and that we are here in Bath today, seeing Jane’s world come alive in front of our eyes – and in ourselves. And I am so very glad that Bookish Nature Junior is already busy stitching her own garment of insights, guided by Jane’s hand; finding truths, learning about life, about people – about how to spot a Wickham! …And, most importantly of all, tackling those very tricky stitches that are all about learning to know herself…

Stories in Rocking Horse Attics…

Maundy Thursday in the beautiful city of Bath was a day of shifting spring sunshine and a pouncing April Fool wind. Swathes of daffodils shivered in Victoria Park, lesser celandines were opening their petals beneath stately trees…

Picture of a Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria

…and we, via Royal Crescent, The Circus (and no doubt the route of many a Jane Austen stroll) were on our way to The Paragon – and our first ever visit to  Topping & Co. booksellers

As we approached the pale blue shop front, we caught tantalising first glimpses through its windows – warm light, lingering readers, towering walls of books, beautiful wood floors – and then the door was closing behind us, and it was like entering a gentle fold of time, back to the bookshops of my childhood…

All around us, floor to ceiling, there was a vast selection of titles; row upon row of backlist volumes as well as current bestsellers, a discerning variety and breadth of choice wherever you looked. The natural history section was a rare treat in itself – packed full of carefully chosen titles spanning years of the best nature writing, not just the latest releases or TV tie-ins. Here was an ideal roll call of writers – a lovely selection of titles by Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, and all the others you would wish to see represented there. It was wonderful to see the New Nature Writing issue of Granta tucked between them, completing the picture.

For a long while, I browsed in the children’s section and marvelled at the beautiful display of hardback gift books. It was a feast of magic for the eyes. Spines of sumptuous red, green, blue or inky black – gold blocked and cloth-bound volumes, all primed to begin their journeys through the lives of generations of readers to come. Heirlooms waiting for a home…

My eye was particularly drawn to a gorgeous cloth-bound volume, containing Susan Cooper’s complete The Dark is Rising sequence; a gem of an edition which I’ve not seen anywhere else – and, until now, never knew existed. It was so heart warming to see this fitting tribute to how special these books are – a gem for a gem, made to be treasured.

There’s something about storybooks like these, especially when gathered together in such numbers – that speaks of magic libraries in mysterious, Green Knowe houses; volumes waiting to be read in rocking horse attics, or in secret gardens – or on Gyptian ships bound for Svalbard…

My daughter’s eyes were shining as she drank it all in. Everywhere we looked our gaze fell on abundant treasures. Bookshops like Topping’s feel such an organic part of the journey of reading. They intensify the whole sensory and tactile experience, so that even before ‘Once Upon a Time,’ the discovery and anticipation begin.

The only way we’re going to keep these special places, and the experience they offer, is to spend money in them – so, as my daughter had some saved up Christmas money, she was able to make her selection from the ‘magic library.’

She chose this beautiful Everyman’s Library Children’s Classic edition of a well loved favourite, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty:

Picture of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Her old second hand paperback copy has all but fallen apart after many a bumpy rucksack journey to school – so this will be her treasure-copy, living long on her shelves for repeated readings (I can almost see those imaginary great-grandkids turning these pages in years to come!)

Picture of illustrations from Black Beauty - Everyman Children's Classics

On its first journey home as heirloom-in-waiting, Black Beauty was joined by Cornelia Funke’s Inkspell (my daughter’s other choice from Topping’s shelves)  – plus quite a hoard of other books which, earlier in the day, we’d bought with our stash of chain-store gift tokens left over from Christmas:

Picture of a hoard of new books

Picture of books - The Little Stranger and Case Histories

I’m looking forward to reading the Sarah Waters and Kate Atkinson (I loved the gripping storytelling and Woman in White, gothic feel of Fingersmith. And Kate Atkinson is a firm favourite, always providing a sparkling festival of fiction delights) but I’m sure I’ll be borrowing some of my daughter’s choices too!  

We’ll definitely be back to Topping’s whenever we get the chance. In fact, I can feel the pull to return there already. Our Rocking Horse Attic is just an imaginary one – but that gorgeous edition of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series definitely belongs there, I think…