Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Look life in its iron face" - Charlotte Bronte

"I approve nothing Utopian. Look life in its iron face - stare reality out of its brassy countenance" - Shirley (Charlotte Bronte)

Day 14

This was essentially a travel day for me. It took me nearly all day to reach Haworth, home of the Bronte family. I reached a town nearby called Keighley (pronounced Keithley), and rode an old-fashioned steam engine train into Haworth. It couldn't have been more fitting, because stepping into Haworth is stepping into the past.

Haworth is a beautiful hilltop town, first settled centuries ago. Much of the architecture has remained the same throughout the years. It is lush with gigantic trees and blooming flowers - exquisitely quaint! It was love at first sight. I stayed at a bed and breakfast/restaurant that is positioned at the top of one these hills and overlooks the town. Haworth is so tiny that you can't even find it on Weather.com. It did make my guide book, probably mostly due to the pilgrimages people make there to see the hometown of the Brontes. Besides Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare's birthplace), it is the most visited literary landmark.

Because of Haworth's tininess, it was incredibly quiet by the time I settled in at 4:30 or so. I walked through the town and found a beautiful park in the center of town (literally called Central Park). There I sat down to read Jane Eyre for a little while, and then I headed back to my hotel, where I feasted on lamb and mashed potatoes. England is pretty much a meat and potatoes kind of country, but the meal was delicious nonetheless.

Day 15

I was able to sort of ease into this day (really I didn't have much of choice because the town doesn't get moving until 10:00 a.m.). I headed for the Parsonage Museum first. It is creepily located behind a cemetery hooded with gigantic trees and tons of gravestones. From the house, you can see the original tower to the church where Emily and Charlotte's father used to preach (the church was moved from its original location).

As a quick aside, I have to admit that I wasn't as excited to visit the home of the Brontes as I was to see Jane Austen's home. My preference is for Jane Austen, but I appreciate and enjoy the works of the Brontes as well. I can say now retrospectively that both experiences were amazing and enlightening in entirely different ways.

The museum is in the house where the Brontes lived for many years. There were six children altogether, and two died in their infancy, leaving Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. All of the children died before reaching the age of 40, while their father outlived all of them.

It became clear to me pretty quickly why the works of the sisters are so grave and morose. Theirs was not a happy childhood, as they lost their mother and their siblings at very young ages. Poor Charlotte outlived all of her siblings, who all died around the age of 30. Anne and Emily died of illness, while Branwell self-destructed in alcoholism and drug addiction. Charlotte died of illness while in the early stages of pregnancy (she was the only one to marry).

I couldn't help but feel incredibly sorry for Branwell, who was initially thought to be the genius of the family. He tried to be a portrait artist for a while, but he just didn't really have any direction. There is a portrait he did of the three sisters that I saw while in London; sadly, he painted himself out of the portrait. A lot of the artwork that he did later in life predicts his own untimely death. Once his alcoholism was out of control, he was locked in an upstairs bedroom to prevent him from hurting himself or family members.

After finding out more about the family history, it certainly became clearer why the characters in their works are so eccentric. The brooding and tortured characters of Heathcliff and Rochester have more than one thing in common with Branwell. You also have to consider the fact that all these people knew was their home life; it wasn't exactly easy to go out. It makes me that much more impressed with what Charlotte in particular was able to accomplish. In spite of all of the tragedy she faced, she still persevered in her art, and clearly she must have used writing as an outlet for her pain. It is so sad again to think about her finally finding happiness only to die six months later (and pregnant!).

The entire family certainly seemed ahead of their time. Patrick Bronte, their father, worked hard to improve the sanitation and education of Haworth citizens. He was able to work his way up in society through his own education, and his example of a solid work ethic seemed to greatly influence his children. The Bronte heroines were more independent and even feistier than an Elizabeth Bennett for example. They didn't rest on what was expected of them, but made their own decisions. Wuthering Heights borders on irreverent at times, while Jane Eyre finds her strength in religion. Branwell, through tragically fated, had an extremely modern sense of art - depicting images of sex and death. The controversy that came to fruition in the works of the Brontes made them that much more alluring for their Victorian readers (and still to us today).

After leaving the museum, I decided to take a seven mile hike to see Top Withens, the sight of what was allegedly Emily's inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights (not really the building). While I have always enjoyed walking, I came to enjoy it that much more throughout my trip, because I'm just not used to having the opportunity to walk places - most places are too far or it's too hot to walk. Anyway, I know that seven miles is a long distance, particularly when you are walking up and down hills. I purchased a little pamphlet that provided fairly detailed directions as to how to get to Top Withens.

I set off on my walk, cheerily romping through fields of goats and sheep. There were gorgeous views of farmland in every direction. At one point, I did go off course, and luckily ran into a man who helped to steer me back in the right direction. The first destination was the Bronte bridge and waterfall. The sisters walked here and would sit and relax by the water. There is a stone in the shape of a chair where Charlotte supposedly sat for repose and inspiration. I of course sat there for a few minutes (I have to admit I was already feeling tired from the walk).

Eventually I continued on for what seemed like the longest and most obscure part of the walk. My directions were to "follow the path as it undulates through the moors". What choice did I have but to follow the path? There were no landmarks at this point - it was just me and the goats. Then came the uphill climb. Eventually I made it Top Withens, and the view is spectacular from there. The countryside goes on forever.

Fittingly, as soon as I reached that spot the clouds rolled in. If you haven't read Wuthering Heights, you should know that it is an incredibly creepy and sad story full of deeply conflicted characters. So, of course the source of its inspiration should be doubly creepy. The only room that remains in tact looks like it may as well be a prison cell. I continued on through a tiny little village to return to Haworth.

I so appreciated the fact that the only way you can see these spots is to walk there. No one has paved roads through the area to take tourists. It seems that the way I saw Jane Austen country compared with Bronte country was appropriate for the different kinds of writers they were. Jane Austen country is more easily navigated and frankly - more inviting, while Bronte country is almost reclusive and private.

I am really glad that I had the opportunity to see both areas and consider the differences between the writers. They all wrote about what they knew in their own personal lives. Jane Austen was probably more social and therefore more able to write about realistic relationships between "average neighborhood people". The Brontes wrote about isolated small groups of people who had impassioned and dramatic relationships with each other that were full of death and destruction.

One isn't necessarily better than the other, even though Charlotte thought that she was much better than Jane Austen. After someone advised her to write like Jane Austen, she insinuated that Jane's work was full of boring accounts of average people (but still admitted that she was a skilled writer). I still think that my personal preference is for the works of Jane Austen, but I have a newfound appreciation for the Brontes, specifically Charlotte.

What I'm reading: Jane Eyre. I really and truly do love this book. Jane is a bundle full of contradictions and complications, and her relationship with Mr. Rochester seems both plausible and enticing. In my opinion, her understated perseverance through her trials and tribulations must mirror Charlotte's own efforts to stay afloat. Jane was able to say that she cared more about herself than anyone else, even the man she loved; what courage that would've required during that time! She also admits her feelings to Mr. Rochester before he admits his - another act of bravery during a time where men ALWAYS intiated relationships.

Other observations:
-People in small towns are quicker to befriend and chat with you than people in bigger cities.
-Beware suspicious plants that "bite" you when you brush up against them
-Even sheep seem scary when you're walking through the moors
-The Yorkshire accent is a very tricky one to understand - I had to do a lot of vague smiling and nodding in response to things people said.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance!": Southampton and the Isle of Wight

Day 12

When I arrived into Southampton on the previous night, I must admit that I was disappointed with what I found. The city is like any other city at first glance, with few remnants of its powerful past. Most of what I immediately saw were shopping centers and modern hotels. I knew that it wouldn't have the charm of other places I visited: I read about its current state and many people I encountered in England didn't really have anything positive to say. I was still hopeful that I would learn from the city and enjoy it.

In some areas, you can still see parts of the medieval wall that used to enclose the city. Unfortunately, Southampton was bombed extensively in World War II and lost much of its architectural history. Jane Austen would have known a much different place than the one I encountered.

On my first full day in the city, I decided to change my attitude, and so it was done! I decided that instead of being upset that I wasn't in an aesthetically pleasing city, I needed to see it for what it was, and find out as much as I could about its history. So, what else would I do but go to a museum. The Maritime Museum there has a fairly extensive supply of relics from the port of Southampton. Southampton is probably most famous as the sight of the launching of the Titanic. So, in the early 20th century, the city lost many residents to the sinking of the ship, and then later to the war. In seeing and reading about these events, I appreciated the comparison between Southampton and the other locations I visited. I was sad to think about the long-lasting effects of devastation on this city, and it made me appreciate even more the history that has been salvaged.

I walked around the older part of the town after the museum, and was able to locate the street where Jane probably lived with her brother Frank. The original house is no longer there, and no one is sure where the house was. It was a very quiet, creepy sort of street though. I didn't see any people or cars . . .

I stopped back in at my hotel, because yes - this is the very same hotel where Jane celebrated her 18th birthday. The heading of this entry refers to a letter she wrote to her sister about the time she spent at the Mercure Hotel. It was one of the first places where she danced with a boy! I did go into the room where she had her birthday celebration. Again, like the rest of the city, it has been modernized . . . let us not forget though - she was there! The room next door is named for Gilbert, who was supposedly a love interest for her at the time.

To add to the general creepiness of Southampton, I will fill you in on the hotel hauntings. I asked the concierge about them, and he said that there have been some stories about Molly the maid moving things around in room 6. I had a slight panic attack then, because that was my room! Then he said it USED to be room 6, but it is now room 16. There have also been stories of an old man and a little boy walking in the basement together. I really am not a person who scares easily, but I must admit that I had trouble falling asleep that night. Any time I heard a floorboard creek or someone walking down the hallway, I just got a bit nervous. Maybe it took me back to the days of reading scary stories at sleepovers. Even though the hotel has been renovated, it is still old and creeky.

Day 13

Because there really wasn't too much to see and do in Southampton, I decided to take a ferry to the Isle of Wight the next day. I took a quick 25 minute ferry to the island, where I decided I would go see two things: Osbourne House and Carisbrooke Castle. Osbourne House was the vacation home of Queen Victoria, and Carisbrooke Castle has a very very long history of important residents.

I took a fairly long walk to Osbourne House. The grounds were immediately impressive and well-maintained. I first walked around the walled garden, home to many varieties of flowers and plants. Then I went to tour the house. It is HUGE and ornate - again in Victorian fashion. When he died, it was Alfred's wish that the house remain the way it was, and so Victoria didn't change a thing. Rulers since Victoria have also respected that wish. There is incredible artwork that adorns the walls and even the ceilings in some rooms.

I appreciated the fact that they make you go in order through the rooms; this way you know you aren't missing anything. I do NOT appreciate when museum/palace visitors have absolutely no concept of personal space or manners. I found myself getting annoyed because people were bumping into me, and I had to remind myself to ignore it. If that's really my only concern, I think I'm doing just fine.

Nearly a mile away from the house, there was a separate cottage for the children to play in and do their schoolwork. Apparently they didn't want to see or hear the children! In that same area, there's a cute little fort and pretend cannons that the children would play with. You can also see Queen Victoria's bath house. It would literally be carted into the ocean, so that when she went for a swim, no one would be able to see her with less clothing on. The Victorian Era was, after all, all about modesty and restraint. We will see later that this is why the Brontes were thought to be a scandalous family.

I had lunch at the cafe there, and then headed to Carisbrooke Castle. I didn't realize it at first, but the Isle of Wight is actually very large! It took me probably an hour to get to the castle (I had to change buses and walk quite a ways). I actually walked up the wrong path I think, because I had to literally walk all the way around the castle in order to find the drawbridge that covers the moat (it no longer has any water in it).

Once inside, I found a gigantic fortress. Some parts are in ruins, and some are fairly well preserved. Princess Beatrice was the last resident of the castle in the early 1900s (she was Queen Victoria's daughter). She decided to make it into a museum and a place people could visit. Parts of the castle were originally built in the 13th century. In the 17th century, Charles II was imprisoned there for a while until he was executed. It wasn't exactly a rough life for him there; he still had 20 course meals and entertainment. I was somewhat distracted again by the visitors of the castle - there were many children endearingly pretending to be knights. One dad told his little boy, "No knights were much quieter than you are right now."

I walked around the top of the castle wall, where there were incredible views in every direction. I am finding that you learn so much about people based on their reaction when you ask them to take a picture. I've decided that I want to be in the pictures so that people know I was there (rather than just have a picture of the scenery). It is rather awkward to ask people to take a picture of you by yourself, but I'm pretty used to it by now. Anyway, the man I asked at the castle was very nice, and actually has relatives who live in Galveston. It is such a small world!

I left the castle, hoping that I would somehow locate the bus stop. The Isle of Wight is pretty user friendly with transportation, but you have to first find the bus stop. I ended up on a neighborhood road, and I stopped to ask a husband and wife how to get to the main road. At first they said to just walk with them and they'd point it out, and then they offered to drive me to the bus station. See - people are so nice! The husband was funny because once he learned I was from Texas, he excitedly said, "Oh well you get to ride in my pickup truck to the station!" They asked me how we were feeling about the oil spill (not the first time it has come up). I think they were under the impression that Americans are mad at the British. I just said I think people are mad in general, and looking for anyone to blame. Anyway, I so appreciated their kindness, and made it safely back to my ferry stop after that.

So, in short, I'm glad I went to Southampton after all. It provided an interesting contrast with the other places I visited, and I was able to see the Isle of Wight (maybe one of my favorite stops!)

What I'm reading: Wuthering Heights in preparation for Haworth. I forgot how scandalous it is! There is so much swearing and anger and anti-religious comments - really on the part of all the characters (except maybe Edgar). It just seems outrageous that a situation like that could have ever happened. Regardless, Emily did have a flair for drama and character description. Her characters are disturbingly vivid, Heathcliff in particular.

Other observations:
- Seagulls are REALLY noisy at all times of day.
- Walking to places is so nice and I will try to do it more often once I'm home.
- It's important to try to make the best of a situation that falls short of your expectations.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!" - Tennyson: Lyme Regis

Day 10

When I told different English people along the way that I was going to Lyme, most had never heard of it or had never been there. This was exactly the reason I wanted to go: I thought it would probably be just as pristine as it was in Jane Austen's time.

While I did arrive in Lyme the night before, it was a little bit too late to do extensive exploring. I did "immediately go to the water", as Anne Elliot does when she arrives in Lyme (Persuasion). I was instantly enchanted with Lyme: simple, beautiful, natural, unpretentious. There was a cluster of buildings to my right, and a cluster of my buildings to my left; then there was the ocean. That's all you need really!

On my first official day I went to sit in the gardens overlooking the water. I read somewhere that Lyme is mostly a retired community, and certainly most of the people I saw on their walks were older, and some were older tourists. It has a quiet, no-frills feeling to it that you don't always get with ocean-front areas. I did some exploring of some little art galleries and shops. In a couple of the galleries, the shopowners would just stop what they were doing and chat with me. This was certainly a different (good different) reception than I was used to so far. No one I have met has been unfriendly, but there is something about small town people; they are just quicker to warm up to you.

I then went to the local museum. What has certainly been reinforced to me on this trip is that to find out about the area's culture - just talk to the people who live there. In order to find out about the history - go to the local museum if one is available. Because I didn't find very much about Jane Austen in Lyme in my research before the trip, I was also hoping to find some more information about her visits to the area.

Most of the museum was dedicated to the fishing/sailing/pirating history of the town. I did learn that American and British troops trained in Lyme for the battle at Normandy. The Duke of Monmouth tried to take control of England by first landing in Lyme. As referenced in my title, though, Tennyson (very famous British poet), was more interested in seeing where Louisa Musgrove fell in Jane Austen's Persuasion than he was in seeing the sight where Monmouth landed.

There was a section of the museum devoted to Jane Austen. There isn't a whole lot that is known about her whereabouts in Lyme, just that she really enjoyed the time that she spent there. What I learned is that of all of the places mentioned in her books, Lyme and Bath are the only real locations. Bath she thought was pretentious and cold, while Lyme for her was just the opposite. Though every so slightly disappointed that I couldn't learn more, I decided that the value lay in spending time in Lyme, enjoying it as she did. It was there that she must have gained some inspiration.

I spent a lot of time on the Cobb, a long area of rock that leads to the sea. This was, in fact, the spot where Louisa fell. I can see now how that would have been fairly dramatic - it's a long fall! I did test the water, and it was in fact freezing cold. The winds in Lyme were the most brutal I think I've ever encountered - included the weather I faced in Ireland! Some of the local people did go swimming in regular bathing suits, while I wore a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and a windbreaker (not to swim in of course).

Day 11

I again started out my day with some writing in the park. I'm trying to keep precise records of this trip, because I don't want to forget anything! I actually ended up getting sunburned, even though I was wearing long sleeves because of how cool it was. The weather is so unpredictable here, and it's tricky to plan for it.

I went closer to the water to do some reading. I am eally enjoying visiting a place like this, where you don't have to feel guilty if you aren't constantly "seeing the sights". The point in going there is to relax and reflect. You can just feel that everyone around you is in the same frame of mind.

I walked as far as you can down the road, where apparently people still scavange for dinosaur fossils (or just rock fossils). Mary Anning first made this hobby popular in Lyme, and it really became an industry.

I went back to one of the shops, where I planned to buy a silver necklace that I liked. I was sidetracked by an art gallery, where a cute little man was making frames for prints. He was so incredibly nice to me, and gave me tips about Edinburgh. He had very kind things to say about Americans, Texans/Texas in particular. His wife was the artist, and he was a fisherman. His portrait (painted by her) was actually featured in a museum in Edinburgh. I ended up buying a print there of a painting she did of the street that leads to the Cobb.

I really hated to leave Lyme; it was a scene from yesteryear. I can see why Jane Austen loved it so. I'm going to say it: I think that if we had been contemporaries, living in the same place, we would have been great friends. Or maybe when you travel alone you begin to imagine friends for yourself.

What I'm reading: Persuasion still. I like to take my time with it, because it is much more cerebral that her other books. Anne has an appreciation of the little things that appeals to me. In spite of all of her trials and tribulations, she remains positive and tries to always be good. Jane wrote that Anne was so much better than her - than anyone she knew.

Other observations:
- People in this area say "okay?", and their vocal inflection goes up, as though they're asking a question
- Everyone says I'm "gutsy" or "brave" for taking this trip, but it is EASY to travel in such a nice place where everyone you meet is nice and helpful
- Never underestimate an authentically nice person.
-Pack for EVERY kind of weather.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Only by seeing women in their own homes . . .": Chawton and Alton

Day Seven

"Only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgement." - Emma

I arrived into Alton around lunch time and I was greeted by the lovely owner of the bed and breakfast there. She (Joan) suggested that I go to Jane Austen's house that afternoon. I had a day-long tour of the area planned for the next day, but she said she didn't think the museum would be part of this. She showed me to my adorable little room, named for Jane Austen, and I took a quick power nap to make up for the lack of sleep from the night before (a squeaky door kept me awake for a lot of the night).

I attempted to follow Joan's directions to the Chawton house. She said that it would be about a 15 minute walk, and that I would in fact have to go through a busy intersection. I followed the path as best as I could tell from the map, but that led me to the edge of a highway essentially. I started to get a little nervous at this point (mostly for my safety). I was trudging through high grass, wearing sandals of course, as the cars noisily whizzed by. I continued on until I saw a sign for Jane's house. Joan said not to follow the signs, because they were for cars, so I ultimately decided to turn back to where I came from and ask for directions. One thing I have certainly learned: never be afraid/ashamed of asking for directions. You wouldn't want people to be lost in your hometown, right?

I eventually found my way, and happened upon an adorable little town, mainly consisting of five houses, Jane Austen's house, a pub called Greyfriars, and the estate and church. Be forewarned that the rest of this account will have its moderately to majorly cheesy moments. I first entered the front parlor, where Jane would have received her guests. There I was able to hover for a few minutes over the very writing desk where she worked on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. I asked the museum worker if I could take a picture next to the piano (not an original, but probably from the same time period). She asked me to play it for a little while, and she would take a picture of me while I played! She said they "love to have people play". What a great moment (understatement)!

I was really surprised at how many objects there actually came from the family, but I later learned that most of the descendants of the Austen and Knight families are still in the area. Among the most interesting treasures: a topaz cross Jane's brother brought back from his travels overseas, a lock of Jane's hair (sort of creepy yes), and a lock of her father's hair (doubly creepy). Probably my favorite item there was a beautiful quilt, hand-stitched by Jane, Cassandra, and their mother. It is still immaculately in tact, and the colors remain beautifully vibrant!

I'm sure the other museum goers thought me a little strange: I remained in each room for probably 10 to 15 minutes, just soaking it all in. I had to have a picture in her bedroom. I must admit that I got emotional a couple of times - this was when it really hit me. To be in that place where Jane Austen stood, and wrote, and spent time with friends and family - it is such a gift! I will never ever forget it! I had a really difficult time leaving her home, but I knew that I would probably have time to return later if I so desired.

Day Eight

"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?" - Pride and Prejudice

My tour guide for the day, Phil Howe, came to pick me up a little bit before 10:00 that morning. I wasn't sure exactly what we would see. I just knew that he would show me some places where Jane would have gone to attend balls and dinners (places that the average person would not be able to find on their own).

Phil came very highly recommended, and Joan told me that one of her guests told her that the Jane Austen tour was "the best day of her life". Pretty great accolades! He asked what I'd like to do that day, and pulled out a map of different locations he wanted to show me. I basically told him that I would like to see as much as he can show me. I knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunity, even if it meant spending more money. Not only does Phil come highly recommended, but he is a historian, a former business professor, a former English major, and just an all-around intelligent man. Even Anne Hathaway was going to take his tour before shooting "Becoming Jane", but the poor thing was too tuckered out to go out that day.

He first pulled out a biography of Jane Austen written by Claire Tomalin. I told him that I was not sure which biography was best, and so I hadn't read any yet. He said very decisively that this one was the best, and that we would be following a route that she provides in Chapter Eight.

I wrote all about this day in my journal already, and it ended up taking me ten pages! Because all of the details may not be quite as interesting to my readers here, I'll provide a shortened version. Phil first took me to one of the homes where Jane would have attended a dance (the home of the Bolton family). The estate now belongs to the family who owns Harrod's in London, and it is their country vacation home for two months out of the year. Can you imagine using a place that beatiful for so short an amount of time!

Phil pulled over near a wide open expanse of country to talk about the landscape with me. He said most of the area is relatively unchanged, except for paved roads and highways. The individual properties have basically remained the same, and many of the estates still belong to the same families who owned them while Jane was alive. I didn't want to tell him this (I was afraid he might not like the comparison), but the land reminds me a lot of La Grange and Schulenburg, where my family owns a farm. He talked about how some of the hedges in the area were only two hundred years old, to which I responded: "That's as old as my country!". It's amazing when you stop to consider how much more history England has in its little pinky finger than the whole of the United States.

We pulled over again near a field of purplish bulb plants, with an occasional purple or red flower sprouting up. He asked if I knew what kind of crop this was, and I answered that I had absolutely no idea. "Poppy flowers - Opium of course!" was Phil's response. It is strictly used for medicinal purposes (morphine, etc.), but this is the same plant used to make heroine . . . those crazy Brits! I then made the association with the Wizard of Oz: Dorothy falls asleep in a field of red poppies.

We went on to some other estates in the area frequented by Jane. Almost every estate has a chapel and a stablehouse. The wealth of the estate was reflected in the stature of the chapel. Some chapels had plaques commemorating the end of family lines (when the last son died without an heir to the property). When this happened, families tried to adopt an heir: Edward Austen inherited the Knight property in Chawton, and therefore became Edward Knight. His ancestors run the Jane Austen Society.

We saw the home of the Bigg Withers; Jane was friends with the daughters of the estate. Their brother proposed to her, and she first accepted only to take back her response 12 hours later. There are no records as to why she said yes, or why she later said no. Phil would know if there were - he was able to quote ANY line from ANY letter relating to Jane Austen (whether it was from her or from a neighbor). We saw the home of Madame LeFroy, whose nephew Tom was rumored to be a romantic interest of Jane's (thus the basis for "Becoming Jane"). There is very little about him in her letters; whatever romance they had was short-lived, but he did later say that he had a "childish love" for Jane Austen.

Phil seems to think that Jane probably never experienced love, although she wrote about it. Many of her letters were destroyed by Cassandra, her sister, so there is a lot that we don't know. I'd like to hope that she knew love in some respect, otherwise how could she write about it so beautifully. She certainly knew what loveless relationships looked like, because throughout her books there is a fear of marriage without love or respect. The idea of love in relationships at that time was novel though, simply because people didn't really have a lot of options: they had to marry someone in their neighborhood because that was all they were exposed to.

We then stopped in Steventon, Jane's birthplace. I knew that it was her birthplace, but I didn't know that the house was no longer there. I really wasn't disappointed at the land being house-less, because it was just as amazing to stand in the spot where she grew up. Poor Phil had to put up with some tears on my part, as I was again overwhelmed with the experience. We stopped in to see the chapel where her father would've preached; it was certainly the most modest of all the little chapels that we saw.

We stopped in at The Vyne after this, a gigantic estate that is rumored to the inspiration for Pemberley or Netherfield (the homes of the heroes in Pride and Prejudice). It is breathtaking - built during the time of the Tudors and still in excellent repair.

We made our way back to Chawton and Alton after that. We stopped by the Knight estate; Jane's brother Edward lived on the estate while she lived just down the road in the Chawton house (which really belonged to him). His house is amazing - exactly what you would picture from reading the descriptions in one of her books. There is a long driveway leading up to the house, and Phil pointed out the window to the room where Jane would've worked on her manuscripts as she looked out over the land. Now the house is a library specializing in early British novels written by females. People working on their doctorate degree can actually live in the stablehouse and use the library for research. Never before did I consider getting a doctorate's degree, but now . . . . hmmm.

Day Nine

I woke up to a lovely breakfast at the B&B. I had the traditional English breakfast - a fried egg, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon (which has a consistency more like Canadian bacon), and sausage. It was delicious, probably because it was home made. During breakfast, I chatted with an older couple from Scotland. The couple and Joan were funny about phrases that don't seem authentic, like: "Have a nice day!" They were saying that they think that's an impersonal way to say goodbye to someone. After that, I was certainly self-conscious about how I bid them farewell. They also giggled at me when I said "awesome" because it is "so American". They did, however, commend Americans for their enthusiasm.

I headed into Alton after that. I visited a gallery that houses beautiful pottery. They had a lovely garden as well, but unfortunately, the rain kept me from spending a whole lot of time in there. It is a very cute little town - pretty quiet really. I read my book in a cafe for a little while.

What else do you think I did with my remaining time? OF COURSE I went back to Jane's house in Chawton (not by the highway this time). It was much quieter that day, and I just sat on a bench outside of the house for a while, reading Persuasion. I couldn't believe I was reading the book that she literally wrote down just a few feet away!

I parted ways with Joan, dear Alton, and dearest Chawton. I headed to the train station to go to Lyme!

What I'm reading: I finished Pride and Prejudice and started Persuasion. I'm really glad that I read the two of them back to back, because they make for a very interesting comparison. Pride and Prejudice is light-heartedness, misconceptions, and flirting and dancing, while Persuasion is heartache, poor treatment, and loss. Of course as was Austen's style, each has a happy ending. Persuasion certainly has a more melancholy undertone - it makes sense when you consider it was the last book Jane wrote, and at the time she was fairly ill (and probably knew that death was imminent).

Other observations:
-I hear Michael Buble everywhere I go
-People are naturally nice
-to go = take away
-thanks = cheers
-named = called (i.e. My daughter is called Caroline)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oxford: Not to be confused with "The Other Place"

Day Five
I arrived into Oxford late the previous evening. I had a slightly traumatic experience with the hotel situation. I arrived at the hotel only to find out that my room had been given away because the owner thought that when I asked if I could cancel, I was actually cancelling. Lesson learned: always confirm hotel reservations. She had another room in a building where some students were living, and though I wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation, it ended up working out. She charged me less because she felt badly.

On the morning of day five, I headed into the city center (or centre here) to take a walking tour of Oxford University. There was a group of about twenty of us. We had a lovely tour guide named Monica; I've noticed that tour guides have become my closest acquaintances since I'm traveling with none. Thank goodness they are so polite, accommodating, and knowledgeable.

First and foremost, our guide made sure to distinguish between Oxford and "The Other Place" or Cambridge. Oxford is divided into 38 separate colleges. If you apply there, you have to preselect your college. I would assume that they all have good/bad reputations, but can you really choose incorrectly at Oxford?

We first visited Jesus College, one of the oldest established colleges (established during Queen Elizabeth's reign). Lawrence of Arabia attended Jesus, just to name one famous former student. Almost every college includes a chapel, dining hall, residences, classrooms, and maybe even a library. Jesus College is very proud of a magnolia tree that lives in its courtyard, because it is the only one in England that has survived over the years. I couldn't help but find this amusing, when we have them around every corner in Texas!

We also saw Trinity College (from a distance), and went into Keble College (Victorian Era). As the Victorians were prone to, Keble was created in an ornate and large manner. I also saw the front of the building that appears as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. Some students were walking outside the building in the traditional attire that is donned for special events like graduation, exams, etc. Students who receive scholarships wear longer gowns.

Oxford is incredibly breathtaking in its architecture. Chances are that my pictures won't do it justice. One of the most interesting aspects of the architecture to study are the gargoyles atop the buildings. Some were redone in 1993 with depictions that would spell out the letters of the university's first female president's name: Marilyn Butler.

At the end of the tour, Monica showed us the memorial for the bishops who Queen Mary (daughter of Henry VIII) put to death because they refused to comply with her preferred religion of Catholicism. It was interesting to me to see these men revered as martyrs, when the martyrs I'm familiar with (St. Thomas More for example), were martyred for remaining faithful to Catholicism under Henry VIII's reign.

I grabbed lunch in a cafe near where the tour finished, and took my lunch into the courtyard. A middle-aged American man asked if he could use one of my chairs. Once I noticed there weren't any other tables available, I offered to share my table with him. He saw that I was reading Pride and Prejudice and asked if I was a student of (can't remember the name). He said that he was going to be teaching at Oxford this summer through a program with the University of Texas, and his focus . . . British Romanticism - including people like Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

I tried to maintain composure as I asked him many questions about his teaching experiences, curriculum he includes in instruction, etc. I thought it was so fortuitous that we should meet that day! I tried a few months ago to arrange a meeting with someone at Oxford, and had no luck. Here was someone who not only would be teaching at Oxford, but who also was stationed in my neck of the woods. He was very kind and answered all of my questions, in turn asking me questions about the school where I teach, my students, and the novels/books we read.

He expressed that my students will certainly be at an advantage when they enter college having read Jane Austen. We both agreed that though it might be a difficult process, it will be invaluable for students to discipline themselves to read and re-read for understanding, and then of course make connections to their own lives and the foibles they observe in the people around them. We shared some ideas about readings to pair with Pride and Prejudice. I appreciated the fact that he was an interested in our high school education as I was in education at the college level. We exchanged information, and he encouraged me to contact him with any questions. What a happy meeting (to use Jane's vernacular)!

After lunch, I headed to the Oxford's Museum of Modern Art. It isn't very big, and has exhibits that rotate through every few weeks. They were exhibiting Howard Hodgkin, a painter. I have to confess that I'm not drawn to a lot of modern art, particularly when it is a few lines and dots (and looks like something a five year old could do).

I was glad to catch a few minutes of a video about the artist though, because I learned that what he created was actually meticulously planned out. He had some interesting things to say about people trying to stifle his desire to be an artist, as well as just how much he had to depend on his own determination and ambition to succeed. He spoke to the interviewer about the perception among the English that ambition is sinful, as it is so self-focused. How different that is from the American sentiments relating to ambition! We see it as an incredibly valuable asset.

I then headed to the botanical gardens. Did I mention that the weather has been beautiful so far!! It really has felt like California weather - 70s and breezy. Needless to say, the gardens were an oasis. Because it was a Saturday, there were a lot of families there picnicking and enjoying the day. Little girls wore big sunflower tiaras that they made in the craft area.

I went to get dinner after that at a restaurant a little farther away from the university. It was nice to have a little more peace and quiet, as the university was incredibly packed and busy that day. I'm definitely getting more used to the eating by myself/being by myself in general. It is so rare, after all, that we sit and observe and contemplate. It doesn't matter if people think you're weird for being by yourself, because you'll never see them again in your life!

What I'm reading:
Pride and Prejudice! (can't figure out how to underline on this computer - they are different than the U.S. I swear!) This is the third time that I've read it, and I can't help but think how complicated Elizabeth Bennett is. She so clearly knows and doesn't know what she wants all at the same time. At least in the end, she isn't too proud to admit what she finally learns that she wants. The character descriptions in the novel are amazing; I still have to chuckle at Mr. Collin's speeches, Mrs. Bennett's rantings, and smile in admiration at Jane's kindness. This is why we love Jane Austen: those people still exist for us today in our everyday lives! We all know a Mr. Collins or a Mr. Bennett.

Other observations:
-British people talk very quietly so as not to disturb those around them, unless they're between the ages of 15 and 20.
-Exit=Way Out
-In England, people pronounce the "h" in herb
-You have to let waiters know when you'd like the check, otherwise they just stare at you.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever" ~Keats (London)

Alrighty I'm here in England - finally able to make a post! It's hard to believe I'm already on Day Five! I suppose the most sensical thing to do is to give you a quick run-through of each day, with reflections . . .

Day One
I arrived in London around 7:00 in the morning. After waiting a horrendously long amount of time in immigration, I made it out of the airport. Finding the hotel luckily wasn't too tricky - it just took a long time. I was trying to push through on literally no sleep because I knew I didn't want to miss one moment unless I HAD to.

I was told that my room was ready at the hotel, so I decided to power-nap and shower, and then head on my merry little way. The room was teeny teeny tiny, but had everything I needed (air conditioning, bathroom, bed, etc.). It was also in a great area of the city that was relatively close to everywhere I ended up going.

I grabbed a quick lunch after freshening up and headed to the British Library. I was able to see Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte's early manuscripts written in their own handwriting. The library is also home to a writing desk of Jane's where her spectacles rest (the teensiest rounded metal-framed glasses you ever saw!). Jane's handwriting was controlled and linear, while Charlotte's was more compact with eloquent loops. There was a British high school English teacher there with a group of his students, and he was asking them to observe the changes in language from the ancient manuscripts to what we understand as "modern" English. Some students were resistant to the exercise, and very honestly admitted that they "didn't see the point" (an all too familiar phrase). Another student chimed in to defend his teacher, saying that we can't appreciate the development of the language unless we know its origin and changes. I couldn't help but think (even in my jet-lagged state), what a good reminder this was to read the classics with my students in order to reinforce the history of linguistic development.

After leaving the library, I headed to Covent Garden to see the home of Jane Austen's brother Henry, where she lived for a short while. It is, somewhat disappointingly, in the middle of the commercial hubbub of that area. It is now a business. I of course still enjoyed having the opportunity to see one of Jane's old haunts. Covent Garden is swarming with tourists, and I actually allowed myself to get a bit lost there. I'm a pretty controlled person by nature, and I thought it might do me some good to explore without a plan. The good thing about taking this kind of chance in London is that sooner or later, you'll find an underground station and there you'll be able to manuever a way back to what is familiar.

I have to admit that I made a promise to myself to visit H&M in London (a store possibly a notch up from a Forever 21). I discovered one in Covent Garden, and allowed myself two modest purchases - a girl has to do some shopping after all! I took a walk along the River Thames for a little while on that lovely and breezy night. I found a lovely park near the Parliament building that is home to Rodin's Burghers of Calais, and so I sat there for a little while pondering the meaning of life. I then succumbed to sleepiness, and headed back to the hotel.

Day Two
The jet lag probably hit me harder on this day than the previous day. It was very difficult to get out of bed, but I eventually made my way back to the River Thames. I was interested in seeing an exhibit there featuring Salvador Dali. England seems to be quite taken with all things Alice in Wonderland; because Dali illustrated an edition of that book, they devoted an entire exhibit to him. Upon arriving in the area, I found out that the exhibit closed because of funding issues. I was disappointed, but determined to go on to the next activity.

I then went to the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The orginial Globe burned down in a fire on the other side of the Thames River. I wasn't sure what to expect (because it isn't the original), but I found it to be a really enlightening experience. Our tour guide articulated the considerable amount of time and energy that were put into the project (30 years to research and four years to build). She also gave a very interesting depiction of the actors, theatre-goers, and writers of that time. Her description of the "cheap seat" visitors was pretty amusing: men who washed once a year, reeked of Spanish wine and garlic, and who heckled the actors when they made mistakes. The tour guide also referred to peoples' interest in "hearing" plays rather than "seeing" them (there wasn't very much emphasis on sets, costumes, make-up, etc.). I couldn't help but think how different things are today. I think that we all internalize what we see and hear; the visual image helps to solidify the story and message of what it is that we hear. Yes students - this is why I allow movies.

After leaving the Globe, I went to the British Museum. I wanted to see an exhibit there featuring sketchings of the great Renaissance artists (Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, etc.). After paying the suggested donation amount and checking my bag, I found out that you had to pay another 12 pounds to see the exhibit. I was too annoyed to pay any more money (I was still able to see a drawing by Michelangelo that was displayed in a "free" area), so I went to see the other exhibits that I wouldn't be charged for: Asian drawings and porcleain designs, exhibits on Indigenous people from different parts of the world, and an exhibit on coping with death and different approaches you'll find across the world.

After the museum, I went to meet a family friend of ours named Luca. We watched the World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany in Leicester Square. The area was very busy and touristy; it is bordered by Trafalgar Square (home to the famous lions) and Piccadilly Circus (the area famous for its theaters - or theatres as the spell it here). After the game, people were running down the streets singing "Ole ole ole ole . . ." while waving Spanish flags.

Day Three
I met up with my friend Joe from college that morning near his flat in Hampsted (home to Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet). We walked around the area for quite some time (I was consistently hopeful of a Kate Winslet sighting), stopping in at the Hampsted Heath, a famously huge park with many ponds and forest areas. Hampsted is a really cute and quiet neighborhood area of London. It's what you would imagine finding in an encyclopedia under the title of "cute and authentic British neighborhoods" - many older buildings and churches. It proved to be a nice break from the rush of busy London.

That afternoon we went to the home of John Keats, a famous British poet. He died unfortunately at the age of 25 in the home that we visited. The home is not in its natural state, but has been redecorated to mimic the time period it its arrangment of the rooms/furniture. It was a very quaint and pleasant little house, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for his sad fate: he displayed an incredible amount of talent at a young age and then didn't have the opportunity to flourish.

I returned to the city that night to have a polar opposite touring experience: I went along for the Jack the Ripper walking tour! Our tour guide took us to the sites where Jack committed some of his most terrifyingly grotesque murders of area prostitutes. The guide was very entertaining, and did voices for the different characters in his story. While the tour didn't actually provide authentic sightings (as many of the buildings are no longer there), the stories prevailed. I thought back to a course I took in college, when my professor constantly referenced the influence of the Jack the Ripper murders on British literature written around that time period (Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, etc.). The fear of premeditated/unpremeditated - and often monstrous - brutal attacks on women was clear throughout those selections. Another reinforcement that real life guides the production of great literature, whether directly or indirectly. This is why we must always consider the context of the literature that we read.

Day Four
I met Joe for breakfast near Fleet Street: area frequented by Charlest Dickens, and consequently the inspiration for A Tale of Two Cities. Now it is overrun with business, and I couldn't help but admire the way the businesspeople dress in London! Everyone looks as though they've walked right off the pages of Banana Republic ads.

We stumbled across a lovely park down a side street, and read and chatted there for a while. One of the many great things about London is that there is a surprisingly large amount of green space. I was feeling as though I was in a giant overwhelming city, and then all of a sudden, there would be an oasis of serenity right around the corner or just down a side street!

Following our park visit, I headed to Kings College to meet with an English professor there. She had been kind enough to agree to meet with me to discuss my trip, along with my questions/concerns in my planning for the AP course. I found her to be fairly down to earth and understanding of students who come from diverse backgrounds. She expressed her efforts to be sure to understand where students are coming from in their understanding of literature and their writing abilities, so that she can appropriately instruct and assist them. She did say how important she thinks it is that students are able to reference the Bible and Greek history/mythology in order to appropriately analyze literature. While this is a major emphasis for the AP Literature course, it was a good reminder for me that I should also be sure to reinforce the importance of allusions in context.

After the meeting, Joe and I went to the National Portrait Gallery where we saw Cassandra Austen's original sketching of Jane. The reviews of it are varied: Jane's niece thought it only resembled her "pleasant countenance" while Sir Walter Scott thought that it was a good "likeness" of her. If it did in fact look like her, I'm sorry to say that Jane was not exactly a beauty; she did have interesting eyes (perhaps a not-so coincidental similarity between her and Elizabeth Bennett?). The Gallery also contains Bramwell Bronte's portrait of his three sisters; oddly enough he painted over himself in the depiction.

What I'm reading:
Northanger Abbey. It was the first book that Jane wrote, and it is actually pretty clear in her writing. The writing is good, and the character descriptions insightful and interesting, but there is a little bit of a distracted quality to the writing. She doesn't always follow through with sub-plots. There is a note to the reader at the beginning (written by Jane), that she doesn't particularly support her writing of Northanger Abbey - that she feels differently about the subject matter later in life than she did earlier in life.

I once took a Facebook quiz to find out which Austen character I was most like, and it matched me with Catherine Morland (of Northanger Abbey). I can certainly see some similarities: She tries very hard to do the right thing, and must consult everyone she knows to see what that might be. When she doesn't do the right thing, she frets incessantly over it. She secretly loves drama, and has a wild imagination. Sound familiar?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Confessions of a High School English Teacher

So - while the people in my life know this about me, I still feel that I must state it clearly and unabashedly: I am a Twilight saga fan. I first read Twilight when a student loaned it to me last year. She kindly brought her copy to school for me to take home, and so I had no other choice but to read it immediately and return it to her. Luckily for me, that weekend brought a rainy Saturday, and I henceforth shut myself indoors all day to read of Edward and Bella's courtship. Consequently, I immediately purchased and read the other three books. I of course have seen all of the movies that have been made thus far - Eclipse most recently.

Apart from the overwhelming amount of repressed (and unrepressed) teenage angst apparent in the movie, I was drawn yet again to popular themes reiterated throughout great literature. It's no coincidence that Twilight references Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet. Bella refers to Jacob as her tried and true Paris while Edward is her romantic and whimsical Romeo. The parallels are clear: forbidden love, impossible love, expected love, and love that knows no boundaries. Whether we realize it or not, literature has proven to be the inspiration for so many other mediums of art (most obviously motion pictures). Movie-goers are excited to see powerful stories retold visually, and this anticipation stems from their love for the literature! I will not agree that people are not reading anymore; Harry Potter and Twilight fans are the cold, hard proof that a good story can excite millions.

There has certainly been a recent resurgence of movies commemorating these classic love stories. There was the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice. When given many options (and without prompting), one of my classes chose to watch this movie, and they were riveted for its entirety. We talked some about the limits the characters faced in terms of their sex and class, and I realized how much this still exists in the lives of my students.

The fact that these themes are relatable from one generation to the next was clear with the contemporary version of P and P: "Bridget Jones' Diary". Bridget is a slightly less tactful version of Elizabeth Bennet, whereas Mark Darcy is quite obviously the seemingly cold Mr. Darcy. Many of us are influenced to believe that we belong with certain kinds of boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, and this is the main source of Bridget's (and Elizabeth's) conflict throughout the movie (and book).

Let us not forget the beloved modern version of Emma released in the 1990s: "Clueless". Cher flounces around believing, endearingly so, that she knows what is best for everyone around her, just as Emma does. Again, the correlation with the male characters is clear - Elton is representative of Mr. Elton, whom Cher chooses as the romantic partner for Ty, ignorant of the fact that Elton was pursuing Cher all along. The influences of classic literature in our modern world are limitless.

Truthfully, this blog entry is being composed in an effort to procrastinate packing and preparing for my imminent trip. Yes I will be leaving in just a few short hours, and I am nervous, excited, anxious, and thrilled. I always forget, however, just how stressful packing can be; one never knows what type of outfit a day/evening will require. This is not a time for vanity though. This is a time for efficiency and practicality. I do NOT need more than three pairs of shoes, and I do NOT need any particular type of clothing except for the extremely comfortable and wrinkle-free kind.

I really could not be more excited! While family, friends, and students have all sent me sincere best wishes for an amazing trip, I can't help but think they might be a little bit tired of hearing about Jane Austen. No matter though - on I will prattle about her genius:) I think my incessant Austen-rambling is working: some of my family members are "promising" to read a Jane Austen book while I'm away. And yes - there will be a quiz (And no - students you can't start a sentence with "and")!