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Book Review: The Real Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Harper, 2013

Reading The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne gave me more pleasure in a book than I’ve had in a very long time. I find that I’m really becoming fond of Jane, and not only because I love her novels. Perhaps part of it is having had just a glimpse of her own world in London and Bath—a real picture to replace my many imagined ones.

Jane Austen has always been an elusive figure for me. I know several of her novels inside and out, backwards and forwards. Yet even after reading biographies of the woman behind them, such as Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, I couldn’t have told you much about her, other than the outline her life followed. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that her sister Cassandra supposedly burned the bulk of Jane’s correspondence, so there are large gaps in Jane’s own commentary on her life. But some of the fault lies with the family as a whole, who, according to Byrne, “wanted to project the image of a Jane that was ‘discreet, decorous, and reticent.’”

We are left with the idea of a Jane Austen who led a highly circumscribed life, trapped in her spinsterhood and passively dependent upon her family for any socialization or promotion. As Byrne puts it, “in the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbors and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village.’” Byrne thoroughly disproves this myth in The Real Jane Austen. Inspired by a scene in Mansfield Park describing the effect of “homey” objects and surroundings on Fanny Price, Byrne looks at eighteen objects that either belonged to Jane or affected her life in an important way. She paints a picture of a woman who is daring, worldly wise, well-traveled, happily independent, and connected to, rather than insulated from, the people and events in Europe and the British Empire.

Several portions of The Real Jane Austen truly bridged the gap for me between the Jane of biography and the Jane that “appears” in her novels. I have to be honest and say that the wry, all-knowing voice that I hear when I read can hardly be that of a lonely, sheltered spinster sitting in a parsonage.

The real Jane spent a good portion of her life traveling and visiting friends and relations scattered throughout England. She twice lived in Bath and had a brother in London with whom she several times stayed. She visited a relative of her mother’s who had inherited Stoneleigh Abbey, a grand estate in Warwickshire, and its house and grounds were an obvious inspiration for many fictional scenes. She loved the seaside, particularly the town of Lyme, and sight-seeing to places like Box Hill. These places and carriage scenes (which Jane must have experienced time and again) ground her novels in her own reality.

The real Jane had connections with the exotic world of British India and with revolutionary France, a circumstance which forever colored her opinions of the French. Her father’s sister, orphaned and impoverished, sailed for India to try to find a husband. She not only found a husband, but perhaps also a lover—Warren Hastings, the first governor of India. Many speculated at the time that her only daughter was Hastings’ daughter. This daughter, Eliza, eventually married a French aristocrat and spent a period during the Revolution with the Austens while her husband tried to defend himself and his property in France. Jane certainly was not isolated from the wider British empire.

The real Jane had an intimate knowledge of the works performed on stage during her lifetime. The Austen family reveled in presenting amateur theatricals over the holidays and chose popular plays, which, surprising perhaps for a clergyman’s household, ran the gamut of content and moral tone. In this family atmosphere Jane began writing her own stories, which were far from the moralizing works we might expect from a clergyman’s daughter. Her experience of theatrical literature and their amateur productions is apparent in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

The real Jane had two brothers at sea and one in the army, which explains why soldiers and sailors feature so prominently in her books. She had an aunt tried for shoplifting in Bath. She had a fair share of love interests and turned down (after accepting!) one very appealing proposal. Indeed, Byrne makes a reasonable case that the real Jane purposefully chose singleness in order to avoid the endless work and literal physical danger of marriage and childbirth.

Sir Walter Scott liked to read Jane Austen; he said she was “the first novelist in history to offer an accurate representation of ‘the current of ordinary life.’” He perceived that Austen’s characters are instantly recognizable as ‘real’ people.… He was thus the first to pinpoint in print one of the greatest qualities of Austen’s characters: the fact that we can all identify people like them among our own acquaintance.” Byrne demonstrates that Jane’s novels are this realistic because she mastered the art of transferring her own wide-ranging experiences and acquaintances onto the page. While her novels are far from autobiographical, her life informed them in an exceptionally rich way.

I think I would have liked the real Jane Austen. I might have been intimidated by her, but I think I would have liked her. She was pointedly honest, brave, and had a cheeky sense of humor. The Real Jane Austen was a treat to read; it was lively and just different enough from the typical biography to really propel the book forward. I’m ready now to buy my own copy of this book, read some of Jane’s favorite authors, and reread Mansfield Park (my least favorite of Jane’s novels) with a fresh, open mind. I’d say Paula Byrne accomplished a lot with her biography!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

charlotte bronte

Vintage, 2017.

I always have a hard time answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s kind of like trying to figure out my favorite food—there are just so many good ones out there. There’s a favorite for every mood and for every season of the year. But Jane Eyre always rises up to near the top and, if I’ve recently read it, it is the top. Jane Eyre is, perhaps, a cliché-sounding answer given my literary interests and my personality. It’s rather like Joe Fox assuming that Kathleen Kelly digs Pride and Prejudice and how he bets she “just loves that Mr. Darcy.” Yet it is terribly easy to come up with ways in which Jane Eyre is one of the best of all novels (Pride and Prejudice is, too!). It never disappoints in its vividness, its intensity, and primarily in the way in which its words reach to the very heart of human thought and emotion.

It’s hard to imagine such a novel coming from an author with inner solitude. And, come to find out, Charlotte Brontë herself embodied that impassioned spirit of her novels. She was intense, socially awkward, and endowed with what William Thackeray called “an impetuous honesty.” Yet I never realized how much—and how brazenly—she poured her experience into her work until I read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, my first Brontë biography.

The Brontës (all of them) were undeniably an awkward and puzzling, if genius, bunch. I had a brief introduction to them in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible, but even that dark and unflattering portrait failed to display the full extent of the Brontë family’s hardships and—honestly—weirdness. After reading A Fiery Heart, it seems like the themes of their literary production were a natural outpouring of their great hardships and losses.

“Charlotte was essentially a poet of suffering; she understood every corner of it, dwelt both on it and in it. In life, this propensity was a chronic burden; in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.”


Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery

Jane Eyre, the greatest of Charlotte’s creations, is a fiercely independent woman. Most of Charlotte’s females are. This doesn’t mean they are ultra-feminists; rather, it’s as if they are fierce in their forced independence. Charlotte and her sisters had responsibility thrust upon them almost from their earliest consciousness. Charlotte lost her mother at age five, her older sisters three years later, and her father was never an emotionally-steadying influence. His clergyman’s income was insufficient support for all of the adults living in the home, and it naturally fell upon women in the Brontë’s class to earn income by teaching, whether in a boarding school or as a governess. For Charlotte, this forced employment, which she came to despise, led her into great mental and physical distress. It was as if she felt her soul stifling in the life she had to lead. This gave her an air of fierceness in her social interactions, the way she expressed opinions, and the way she pursued relationships. This comes through in Jane Eyre’s conversations with Mr. Rochester and in her determination not to abuse her morality.

Charlotte’s female characters also suffer through impossible love—love that is unrequited or morally forbidden. Lucy Snowe agonizes over Monsieur Emanuel in Villette. Villette, I learned from A Fiery Heart, could be Charlotte’s autobiography. While studying at a boarding school in Brussels, Charlotte developed a great passion for the school director’s husband, Constantin Heger. He recognized her talent and encouraged it, but that was not enough for her. She sought a level of mental and spiritual communion impossible between a married man and his pupil. I felt shame for Charlotte in her inappropriate and blundering pursuit of Heger, her letters to him awful to read. Yet I was brokenhearted for this young girl that just wanted to be loved and to have someone recognize the real person inside her. She repeated the process a second time when she assumed a relationship between herself and her publisher, George Smith. This relationship, however, does not seem to have left as many scars, for it was Heger that ended up in Villette.

I get the sense from a A Fiery Heart that several of the Brontë siblings, Charlotte included, must have suffered from mental illness, although Harman never calls it anything other than a vague sense of “depression.” Their personal losses were staggering, watching a mother and two siblings die while they were young. And then Charlotte endured the deaths of her other three siblings—first Branwell, then Emily and Anne—in rapid succession. I feel like Branwell never stood a chance of success between having a sense of entitlement and suffering from what must have been something like PTSD. Emily and Anne never wanted to leave home. Charlotte herself suffered extreme health anxiety for herself and her sisters in adulthood, and no wonder.

I believe, then, that Charlotte’s acute suffering drove her success as a writer. Undoubtedly good writing comes from great perception and an appreciation of beauty or psychology or whatever truth the writer wants to focus on. But for Charlotte her suffering became her art. She suffered “over how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work.” Harman says of Villette that “all her life’s suffering” went into it, but I think that it could as easily be said of Jane Eyre, too. Her novels “travelled inward, not outward … [and] reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before.” Here was Charlotte’s travail in the birth of the modern novel.

As a present-day reader, I have always assumed that Jane Eyre held a certain Victorian sensibility, an inevitable moral message. I assumed that by having a heroine with enough moral courage to refuse illicit love that Victorians would have loved and applauded it. I have never thought of it until now as “cutting-edge.” But contemporary readers were shocked by it—shocked by its raw passion and its rage against society as Jane found it.

Reading A Fiery Heart has changed the way I view Charlotte and will change the way I read her books. It’s time to revisit Villette and try The Professor. The story of her life—and death—is a haunting one. I am glad she lives on in her words.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: This Rough Magic

mary stewart


The author Mary Stewart is one of my favorite finds from years ago when I wandered up and down the library shelves looking for something new. The old book I picked up then was Nine Coaches Waiting, and it captivated me. It captivated me in the way an old movie from the 50s or 60s does, portraying a brilliant, exotic backdrop, an unrealistic luxurious lifestyle, and sparkling dialogue.

Mary Stewart was a British author who came to the height of her powers in the late 50s and 60s, so it is no coincidence that her books remind me so strongly of the same era’s films. She excelled at writing contemporary Gothic-style romance and romantic mysteries. Normally, I am not a huge fan of romance, but Stewart is just that good, and the romance is not too heavy-handed.

During our trip last summer to the UK, I spent a lot of time in Waterstone’s, the British equivalent of a Barnes & Noble, only far better. So much of the fiction I love is British fiction, and it was a paradise to see all of my hard-to-find-here favorites stocking the shelves, covered in lovely, attractive designs. I can rarely find Mary Stewart on a bookshelf here, even at the library, and over time I’ve ordered a few American reprints online. But Waterstone’s had gobs of them with period artwork on the covers. Oh, if only I had had more space in my suitcase. I came home with way too many books as it was.

Of the many Stewart books on the shelf, I chose This Rough Magic, thinking that it was one I hadn’t read before. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading it, I realized it was one that I had read probably ten years ago. But I lucked out in that I couldn’t remember “who did it!”

this rough magicThis Rough Magic is the story of young and single Lucy Waring, who is visiting her sister’s family for the summer on the Greek island of Corfu. Lucy has been trying her luck as an actress in London and failing miserably. Although she’s on holiday, she’s thrilled to find out that the London stage icon, Julian Gale, is living on the estate next to her sister’s villa. The elderly actor lives the life of a recluse, however, and Lucy does not expect to meet him.

Lucy’s adventures begin when she’s out for a swim in the bay and encounters a dolphin. The dolphin charms Lucy with his apparent desire to make friends. A few minutes into their friendship, however, shots are fired toward the dolphin from somewhere up along the rocky coastline. Lucy spots a man standing on the balcony of Julian Gale’s estate and assumes he is the shooter. Foolishly running back uphill, Lucy has a fevered exchange with the man, who turns out to be Gale’s son, Max. (Max is played in my head by a middle-aged Cary Grant.) Max, of course, denies being the shooter. Needless to say, Lucy and the Gales get off to a rough start.

While she might be able to dismiss someone cruelly taking shots at a dolphin, events soon become so serious that Lucy cannot ignore them. A local teenager, the son and brother of the hired help at her sister’s villa, drowns out at sea during that same night. The young boy was out with the English neighbor, Godfrey Manning, taking nighttime photographs of the sea. Godfrey claims the death was an accident.

Lucy finds herself caught between the conflicting tales of Max Gale and Godfrey Manning. The men hate each other, but why? And what was really going on during that nighttime sail? Lucy quickly ends up in over her head trying to trap a killer. But Mary Stewart loves strong heroines—intelligent, full of common sense, likable—and Lucy is no exception.

Along the way, Lucy discovers the secrets of the reclusive Gales. Julian is convinced Corfu is the magical island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The locally revered saint is St. Spiridion, which is a close Greek match for Prospero, and many local boys are named Spiro. The island’s topography and plant-life are reminiscent of the play, as well. Is “this rough magic” of Prospero’s still at work on the citizens of the island?

Mary Stewart never disappoints me with a cookie-cutter or lackluster tale, and her writing is always smart. She might be writing popular fiction, but she does not dumb it down. In This Rough Magic alone, she covers Shakespeare, local religious beliefs, counterfeit money, and the Communist-era conflict surrounding Albania. She has a great command of dialogue (which is another way in which it is reminiscent of a classic movie). The only thing that did not ring true to me in this volume was the speed with which Lucy falls in love. For all of her cleverness, she assumed the innocence of her favorite rather too quickly, in an uncharacteristically emotional way.

My favorite thing about Mary Stewart, though, is her firm grasp on her setting. She makes the most of her setting’s history and local color, and literally provides an armchair vacation for her readers. In This Rough Magic, Corfu comes alive in vibrant color and sound. Reading Mary Stewart is escapism at its best.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries


McFarland: 2016

My career in the publishing industry was a short one. Yet during that time, I was able to indulge my enjoyment of combing through resources and turning them into a narrative, a cohesive whole. My writings were small-time, my name on the contributing writers page printed in what was probably a size 6 font. After many history classes and many years of reading history books and biographies, I admit that I sometimes dream of writing a work of my own.

A colleague from my writing days, Dennis Peterson, recently realized the dream of having his own name on the cover of a published work. Dennis has long been an enthusiast for Southern history and the history of The War Between the States in particular. He found his niche in researching Jefferson Davis’s cabinet and bringing together all of the scattered knowledge of the secretaries and their accomplishments in one volume, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. I am thrilled for him that he achieved such an accomplishment and, of course, I am more than a little envious. He asked me to do the honor of reading and reviewing his book here.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is perhaps the most thorough treatment of the subject available to historians today. As Mr. Peterson points out in his preface, authors who attempted a similar objective were published more than sixty years ago. Many personalities and cabinet positions continued to remain unknown. Mr. Peterson’s book is devoted to a detailed explanation of each cabinet department and sub-department and the men who filled the varying positions within them and a narrative of how each department operated during the war.

Certainly there are so many individuals catalogued here that, aside from the most influential personalities, it is hard to keep a firm grasp on them. Yet taken together, a pattern, or narrative arc, emerges; that is, the story of the Confederate cabinet is largely a story of failure. Many highly-educated and politically experienced men filled these positions, yet, nearly to a man, they were unsuccessful in their given task. Part of me wonders if this was largely because the Confederate government was thrown in over its head far too soon after its birth. There was no honeymoon period in which to streamline operations; it was immediately in crisis mode. Looking at the flip side of this situation, it’s obvious that the Union had a great advantage in its own momentum as a working government (all other advantages aside).

The greatest blame for the failure of the Confederate cabinet, however, appears to lie with Jefferson Davis himself, who had deeply flawed ideas about leadership. One of the recurring themes of Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Davis could not or would not delegate; he micromanaged his deputies and, in many instances, purposely installed yes-men. He also chose men who he thought would be political assets, but who had no experience in their appointed field. These factors led to natural frustrations and a high turnover rate—another reason the Confederate government never gained any momentum. And he failed to understand the political dynamics at work in the states of the Confederacy; these states, which had felt so strongly about their rights as to leave the Union, were not eager to work again with a central government. I cannot help but contrast Davis’ management style with the way that Lincoln strategically assembled his cabinet. Whether or not we like the way Lincoln managed the war from his end, it’s apparent that Lincoln was an immense advantage to the Union, whereas Davis was a disadvantage to the Confederacy.

Aside from some of the intriguing and new-to-me information found in the book (my favorite being the history of torpedoes and submersibles), what I appreciate the most about Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries is that Mr. Peterson found a hole in history and he set out to fill it. Time and again in my casual reading of history I find mention of people whose stories are yet to be told. Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries goes a long way toward telling some of those stories.

Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries appears at an opportune time—or a very unfortunate one, if Americans are trying to run as fast as they can from any hint of the Confederacy. My opinion, however, is that now is the time to learn all that we can about our American past, approach historical people and their ideas with objectivity, and place the current American sociopolitical climate in context. In that case, works such as this one are necessary.

Book Review: The Last Days of Night

last days of night

Random House, 2016.

I have two favorite periods in American history: the colonial and Revolutionary era and the Gilded Age. Perhaps what fascinates me most about these two particular periods is that, in each, America is recognizable as America, but it’s also on the cusp of becoming something new, something even more familiar to a modern American. During the Gilded Age, it’s the emergence of the financial and manufacturing empires and the technological advances like the telephone and the automobile that turned America into its modern self. One of the most revolutionary of all Gilded Age advances was the switch to electric power and its use in creating light.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore is the fictionalized retelling of the “current wars” of the blossoming electric industry and its transformation into the form familiar to us today. During the “current wars,” Thomas Edison holds the patent for the lightbulb, but George Westinghouse is making a better one—and he’s harnessed the superior A/C current. But Edison brings a series of lawsuits against Westinghouse and it looks like Edison will eventually win the years’-long war of attrition between them. Westinghouse, in a last-ditch effort to find a fresh solution to his legal troubles, hires Paul Cravath, an extremely young and inexperienced recent graduate of Columbia Law School.

Paul Cravath is someone with whom it is easy to identify. He’s smart and he’s lucky to have a good job and be selected by George Westinghouse. But he’s stuck between his humble Tennessee roots and the expectations of the glamorous New Yorkers with whom he rubs shoulders. After being personally intimidated by Edison, Paul determines to beat the manipulator at his own game. Yet he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He navigates threats and deception and makes more than a few rookie mistakes. He also falls in love, but feels unworthy of that love as a New York outsider. Paul is always striving—to stay ahead of Edison, to impress Westinghouse, to be worthy of love—but along the way he is tempted to cross the line and become the very thing he hates, a man without honor.

Paul Cravath

Paul Cravath, Wikipedia.

In the beginning, Paul sees himself in the business of telling moral stories—making a narrative from the facts, telling who was bad and who was good, “until the righteousness of his plaintiff or his defendant became overwhelming.” But in the “current wars,” it quickly becomes hard to distinguish the good from the bad. And what will become of Paul himself? Reading his story leaves me asking the question: is it possible to keep your honor, to not stoop to deception or intimidation, in trying to win battles of this scale? Making a profit and coming out ahead is not inherently a dirty business, but what do you do if you stand to lose everything when your opponent stoops to manipulation, or even violence? In the end, Paul “committed his own sins to prove that Edison’s had been greater.” Moore makes the case that it’s possible for the underdog to win in big business, but there’s inevitable collateral damage and an immense personal cost to character. There are no longer clear boundaries between good guys and bad guys.

The birth of something new is inherently painful. I think most people would agree that many of these “titans” of modern industry were also “robber barons,” but it is less likely that we think of the inventors and revolutionaries of the same era as having just as shady a past. After all, we read about them from youth upward in brightly illustrated books, observe their history displayed in museums, and think of “progress” and “The American Dream.” Reality is not often so clear-cut. The Last Days of Night dissolves our illusions about the inherent altruism of innovators and cautions us for the future.

Reading The Last Days of Night is a rich and rewarding experience. Moore brings to life the two radically different inventors, Edison and Westinghouse, the bizarre genius Nikola Tesla, the famous opera singer Agnes Huntington, and the intimidating financial baron J.P. Morgan. Paul travels from the glittering, yet still dim, streets of New York and the lush Delmonico’s restaurant, to the farms of Nashville, Tennessee, and the specialized laboratories of Westinghouse and Tesla. Under the influence of Moore’s pen, America in 1888 becomes a living, breathing place.

The Last Days of Night is perfectly well-paced and suspenseful. From the opening scene in which a lineman burns to death on an electric wire, to the first attempted execution with an electric chair, the novel is atmospheric and suspenseful. Moore captures the spirit of an era in which anything is possible, yet there is great uncertainty. The switch from gas to electric light was by no means guaranteed.

I was inspired by how Graham Moore put his interest in this historical story to use. Each of the major figures portrayed here was a historical person with a fascinating story. But because there is little scholarly research about Paul himself, Moore turned to writing fiction rather than biography. This seems like a risky business, and as I am not an expert in the subject area, I don’t know if he did the characters justice. However, there is a chapter-length section at the end of the novel that explains how he made his character and plot decisions and the changes he made in order to make the narrative flow. So, in the end, I can’t tell you if The Last Days of Night is true, but I can say it was marvelous entertainment.

★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

British for a Day (or More): Reflections on Doing the Touristy Things

London has long held a prominent place in my imagination, jostling for space in there with Paris and Rome. At times London has the advantage, especially if I’m reading about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, the ambassador John Adams, or Churchill and the Blitz. It has been variously populated in my mind by Elinor Dashwood, any number of Dickensian characters, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and Harry Potter. And, of course, there’s Sherlock, the greatest of all the sleuths on the telly, calling London home.

I admit I geeked out when my London guidebook came in the mail and I glanced over the Tube map. St. James—Piccadilly—Baker Street—Hyde Park—oh my! What’s a girl to do when she wants to see all the things? Well, she just puts on her comfy walking shoes and indulges in everything British!

Good morning, Big Ben!

Since this was our first trip to London we tried to hit the essentials. I won’t bore you with descriptions of them all as, honestly, you can travel the world from your internet browser. But I do want to share the experiences that left me feeling happy to be British for the day.

The Birthday of a Queen

Our first day of sightseeing was a humdinger. On our Tube ride to Westminster, we were surrounded by Londoners dressed to the nines in top hats and tails for the men and high heels and wild hats for the women. Once street-side, these dandies moved en masse toward an undisclosed location. A friendly policeman told us it was the Queen’s birthday and that shortly “Trooping the Colour” would take place at the Horse Parade (which was just a fancy way of saying “The Queen’s Birthday Parade” was about to start). We moved on to get in line to see Westminster Abbey and thought, “Well, that was fun to see all of those people.”

Westminster Abbey overwhelmed all of my expectations. I’d been to a few cathedrals already and wasn’t thrilled at the nearly forty pounds it would cost to get in. But at the risk of sounding cliché, the Abbey was stunning and I was bowled over by the history packed into its every nook and cranny. It isn’t often that you can stand in a place where nearly a millennium’s-worth of monarchs have been crowned, married, and laid to rest. Every square inch of the Abbey is a monument to someone whose name is probably halfway familiar. My favorite area was the light and airy Lady Chapel; Mary I and Elizabeth I, sisters and rivals, are buried together here. I was somewhat heartbroken that photography wasn’t allowed and I hope to get back there sooner rather than later to absorb even more.

After spending a good hour or more in the Abbey, we decided to find our next stop, the Churchill War Rooms, which wasn’t far off near Downing Street. My husband suggested that we ask a policeman if the Queen was still around where we could see her. I never want to actually look like a tourist, so I shied away from this idea, saying that there was no chance she was around since all of the crowds were gone. But he, fearing nothing, walked up to the next smiling cop, who told us that in approximately fifteen minutes she would be coming out on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, just the other side of the park. So we went tearing off through St. James’s Park and came out near the Victoria Memorial fountain in front of the palace, where I happily gave my husband all of the credit. We magically ended up with a perfect view of the balcony and with more than a few minutes to spend thinking, “This is unreal.”

At one p.m. on the dot, the Queen walked out on the balcony following a fanfare. And as if that weren’t amazing enough, the rest of the royal family joined her a minute later. I like to think that, whoever the next reigning monarch may be, I have seen him (or her?). We cheered with the crowds during the flypast, happy to join the British on their special day, although when the red, white, and blue were in the air, there were a few cries of “USA!” and “Vive la France!” to be heard). Seeing the Queen and the royal family was quite a rush, one of those serendipity moments that could not have been planned better had we tried. We walked off in love with foreign travel, gladly forgetting that, the night before, we had arrived too late to eat any dinner and were nearly too hot to sleep in London’s record-setting heat.

We finished our first sight-seeing day at the Churchill War Rooms where we learned, among other things, that Churchill was quite the character and that we weren’t sure we would have liked him personally. But the Rooms were perfect for indulging that curiosity about what it would be like to be hidden underground beneath and behind floors and walls of concrete upwards of ten feet thick.

More reflections coming soon!

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Picador, 2010.

Years ago, before I ever read one of her books, I saw part of an interview with author Hilary Mantel. I didn’t know anything about her and I had no reason to continue listening, until she said something that grabbed my attention and has inspired me ever since. “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.

Mantel repeated this idea in an interview for The Paris Review and proceeded to explain how she found herself in the midst of historical fiction:

“I’d read all the history books and novels [about the French Revolution] I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that.”

My mind has been captured by this idea—writing fiction to cover the territory that history leaves out—ever since. And I, too, feel as if I have missed my chance of becoming a historian. I am hours from the resources that interest me, tied to the schedule of running a house and raising children, and undoubtedly lacking the education that would make me a respectable member of the historical community. Given my love for literature, maybe I should just start using my historical imagination and write a story.

In her novels, however, Mantel proves that it’s possible to be both a good novelist and historian. There are academics out there who would debate that statement based upon the spin she puts on certain historical figures, but I think it’s safe to say she has revolutionized the way we view Tudor history. In her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which opens with Wolf Hall, Mantel takes everything she could find about Cromwell and dramatizes it, creating her “documentary fiction.” Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from near the end of his service to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey through the years in which Cromwell insinuates himself into Henry VIII’s innermost circle. He engineers the downfall of Queen Katherine and the rise of Anne Boleyn, prodding Henry away from the Church all the while. By the end of the novel, Cromwell’s rival Thomas More is dead, Anne has failed to produce a male heir, and Henry is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour’s family—and it’s a little less certain who Cromwell really is.

The White Tower within the Tower of London

Cromwell is a fascinating enigma in Mantel’s hands. He is at times tender, patient, generous, and terribly cold and calculating. He serves Wolsey and then the king, yet is secretly an evangelical who despises the abuses of the Church. He is the blacksmith’s boy with a murky past, yet he rises to advise and turn the heart of the king. Cromwell hides—even from himself—behind a cloak of ambiguity. The reader is never sure what Cromwell believes. He masters the “defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.” Early in life he adapts the motto “Choose your prince”—and then serves his prince in whatever way is expedient, becomes whatever his prince needs him to be. “That is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him.” Over and over we are left wondering, How can such a man go along with this? How can he be party to something so terrible?

We get the feeling that Cromwell orchestrates every Englishman—and Frenchman and Spaniard and Pope—to his purpose. And he loves it. “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” Yet Mantel is sure to remind us what a horrifying place Tudor England is. Each man is out for himself—out to raise his family’s name and out to better his own station. Lives change overnight at the king’s whim and the world dances to stay on his good side. Cromwell, after making a last ditch effort to save the life of Sir Thomas More, receives from Henry a chilling dressing-down and reminder of the razor-thin edge between even his life and death: “‘Do I retain you for what is easy? … I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm… Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’”

This Tudor world, with its plagues and beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake, is so vivid that it’s hard to look away. Even though I know the end of Thomas Cromwell, and seeing his life unfold is something like watching a train wreck, there’s enough tenderness and humor in him that I cannot help but like him. The book is undeniably hard to read—Mantel doesn’t tell us everything, and understanding Tudor history is like unraveling a Gordian knot—but I’m looking forward to diving back in with the second volume of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

**Reading tips: Wolf Hall is not only hard to read because of the complexity of Tudor history, but also because Mantel has an annoying tendency to use the pronoun “he” all the time. Before reading the book, I was lucky enough to find a book review telling me to assume that “he” usually refers to Cromwell. It gets easier to follow as the book goes on. Also, as “documentary fiction” about a corrupt foreign world, there are some adult elements in the book.

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

My grandmother’s childhood home in Center Point, Indiana.

Both sets of my grandparents moved into assisted living in the last couple of months. One of each couple is struggling with mental or physical difficulties, and living at home came to be too much. All four of them are in their nineties, so you might say that they are lucky to have made it this long on their own. Yet there is something indescribably sad about watching an elderly person’s world grow smaller while, at the same time, your own grows wider. It does not require much imagination to think of how it must feel to have a lifetime of independence stripped away, bit by little bit.

One of my grandmothers, possessed of unusual foresight, wrote out the story of her youth for her grandchildren some time over twenty-five years ago. Maybe she had always felt loss at not knowing enough of her own grandparents’ backstory and determined to record her own story for posterity. Whatever the reason, I have a handwritten journal from her, filled with her earliest recollections of childhood on a west-central Indiana farm—learning at a one-room schoolhouse heated by a pot-bellied stove, bottle-feeding a pet lamb, using a chamber pot at night, and picking corn by hand in the summer.

About the time these written recollections leave off, the slide photos pick up. One of the favorite family gathering pastimes of my young cousins and I was asking to have the slide projector set up for a slide show. We soaked up the story of our grandparents and our mothers through pictures of different houses, road trips across America, funny clothing, and hilarious hair styles. Aside from all of the fun, sitting together in the darkened living room and watching the snapshots as they shuffled through the projector grounded us in a sense of place and the kind of people from which we came.

Hannah CoulterReading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is like sitting and listening to your grandmother tell stories about the people she knew and the corner of the world in which she lived. Recently widowed for the second time, the elderly Hannah sets herself to remembering life and laying up the lessons it taught her. Her life is not my grandmother’s life, but their need to tell their stories brought them together in my mind.

Hannah came to adulthood shortly before World War II, and her life grew from the farmland of northern Kentucky. She was dirt poor—but bright and intelligent—and had the advantage of a grandmother who prepared her with everything she would need to know simply by teaching her how to run a farm. Her insulated world was scarred when her first husband was killed in the war, but Hannah rebuilt her life a few years later with a survivor, Nathan Coulter. For Hannah and Nathan, carving a living out of the land, raising responsible children, and dwelling in “membership” community with their neighbors was the only right response to an outside, foreign world that had been on fire and consumed so much of what they loved. Hannah discloses her hopes and expectations for her children and grandchildren—even though in them she begins to see her way of life, lived for hundreds of years before her—aging and dying with the members of her own generation. She shares her tender sorrow at the change and loss of her world.

Hannah tells her story gently and with a lifetime of wisdom; I found it as thought-provoking and inspirational as if it were told to me by someone that I respected and loved. She describes the years of work in building a marriage by love and kindness and how to survive grief and the loss of expectations with thankfulness in all things. Peeking through Hannah’s words is a vision of a God of love and a communion with Him and our loved ones in that love.

Hannah Coulter is the first novel I have read by Wendell Berry and he certainly strikes me as a modern master of his craft. He’s created a story of truth, not only in the way his characters seem to be people I’ve known at one time or another, but also by mingling the way that they live with the broad truths of the world that God gave us to live in. He turned my thoughts to my grandparents, to the lives they’ve lived and the people they’ve known, and how their stories will only ever be fully known by them.

I cannot do justice to the words Berry wrote, so here is some of my favorite wisdom from Hannah.

On grief and loss:

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the tread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”

On marriage:

“The gentleness I knew in him seemed to be calling out, and it was a gentleness in me that answered. That gentleness, calling and answering, giving and taking, brought us together. It brought us into the room of love. It made our place clear around us.

Nathan said, ‘You’ve seen those dragonflies flying together joined. How do they know to fly in the same direction?’

‘They know,’ I said. ‘They know the same way we know.'”

“It would be … like the coming of the rhymes in a song, a different song, this one, a long song, the rhymes sometimes wide apart, but the rhymes would come…. But you may have a long journey to travel to meet somebody in the innermost inwardness and sweetness of that room. You can’t get there just by wanting to, or just because the night falls. The meeting is prepared in the long day, in the work of years, in the keeping of faith, in kindness.”

On memory:

“What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years. A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation, going back and back to the first Indians. And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away. When I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.

Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say ‘Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.’”

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can only return by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.… When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

“Even old, your husband is the young man you remember now. Even dead, he is the man you remember, not as he was but as he is, alive still in your love. Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this grief and timeless life.”

“Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were.”

On expectations:

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

On thankfulness:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice everymore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Jane Austen’s Bath

“I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath–I do like it so very much . . . Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?” —Northanger Abbey

Visiting Bath, England, was a treat for this Brit-lit lover because the city has, to a great degree, the same form and appearance that it had in Jane Austen’s lifetime. Its eighteenth-century Georgian architecture and honey-colored Cotswold limestone have been lovingly maintained and an Austenite can walk from Jane’s lodgings at the eastern end of town to the Assembly Rooms or Pump Room following the same streets and taking in the same sights (cars and tourists aside) that she did.

The streets hum with activity as walkers take in the shops, peruse the Roman Baths, stop for tea and Bath Buns, and admire the Abbey. The mind’s eye can easily overlay 2017 with a vision of the past—the outlying farmers bringing their produce to market, the elegantly dressed young ladies out for their morning air, the grandest women riding across town in sedan chairs, or Beau Nash himself (the King of Bath) marshaling the cream of society for a daily round of polite gambling and dancing.

The Royal Crescent, with No. 1 at far right.

Bath’s most elite citizens at the end of the eighteenth century made their homes on the Royal Crescent: that iconic, gently curved row of stately houses with a wide-angle view of the countryside. Having a Royal Crescent address, or even a house on its sister The Circus, was just as sought-after as the medicinal effects of Bath’s renowned waters. For many of England’s nobility, it was enough just to rent one of these houses a few months out of the year. Others came and, flush with cash, decided to stay. Such was the case at Number One, Royal Crescent, where Henry Sandford of Ireland lived from 1776 to 1796. Number One is a house museum today, restored and decorated as it would have been during Sandford’s years in the house.

Number One Royal Crescent is one of the better-presented house museums that I have visited, including many of my favorites here in the U.S. The house appeared to be professionally cared for and in tip-top shape. I was interested to note the many similarities between Number One and the houses from the same period that survive in Charleston—the architecture, furniture, and attention to fine, classical details. It is obvious that Charleston’s wealthiest residents were connoisseurs of English taste and lived in just as high a style as their counterparts in England. The docents in the museum here were, however, the best part of the house. An elderly (I’m assuming volunteer) lady was stationed in each room, supplied with fun facts and ready to answer questions. Each one was cheerful and gracious, just as you would imagine an English lady to be, and all together they left a wonderful impression on me.

Of course, my imagination was also piqued here because it was only a few short decades later that Jane would have rubbed shoulders with occupants of houses like Number One. The interiors looked like a BBC costume drama and there was a pianoforte in one room fit for Georgiana Darcy. However, I learned several startling things about that time period while visiting the house that forcefully reminded me that the past is a foreign country. Think, for example, of the chamber pots kept in each room of the house (I used to think they were just for, well, bedchambers). There would have been one in the dining room, of all places, behind a screen. Fortunately the men would have waited for the women to withdraw from the room after dinner before using it, but they still had no reservations about using the pot while continuing a conversation with their friends. The women who needed to use a chamber pot had to return to their bedrooms, where they would have needed the assistance of their maids to sit down on one. Then—there was the meat rotisserie in the basement kitchen, operated by a captured stray dog. Opinions wavered as to whether this was cruelty or kindness, since the dog would have been fed well in payment for his labor. I was also confronted in the kitchen with the lack of refrigeration, or really even an icebox, and the terrible question of what did they do with their food? I guess you would have had to eat up—because the leftovers won’t be any good tomorrow!


Abacus, 2014.

I found a fun book along these lines while I was in Bath—Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The Adkins follow English men and women, rich and poor, from birth to death, as Jane would have found them. While some sections were dry and fact-laden, others were intriguing and even at times appalling or downright hilarious.

I laugh to read of the “smock weddings,” where a bride could appear naked or in her shift to make plain that she brought nothing to her marriage or to release her groom from paying her debts, and of wife-selling, the easiest way for the poor to “divorce.” As a mother, I shudder as I read about dangerous birthing practices and infant and mother mortality rates, and I have to scratch my head at the common practice, even in Jane’s family, of fostering out infants “until deemed old enough to return home.” What? And then I have to be thankful for modern sensibilities that allow for women and poor people to be educated; in the nineteenth century I would have been way out of my place as a woman. My stomach turns at the lack of personal hygiene and heads filled with lice and at the idea of not wearing underwear.

There are aspects of Jane’s world that are attractive, such as the quiet, the slower pace of movement, and even the thought of sharing books around the evening fire. I also admit I like her time-period’s taste for classical beauty in its art and architecture. Yet after a day spent wandering Jane’s Bath, I was thoroughly grateful to eat fresh, tasty food, take a hot shower, and throw myself on a clean bed in an icy, air-conditioned room.

The River Avon from the Pulteney Bridge

The Pump Room

One of the Assembly Rooms

Great Pulteney Street

Bath Abbey

Serendipity in Italy, Part 3

I’m homesick for Tuscany. But “homesick” doesn’t seem to be the right word, as I’ve never been “home” there. Is there a word for how I feel about a place that isn’t my home? I feel the same way about Colorado and the alpine cabin I spent a week in every summer for six years. Its a punch in the gut when I see a picture of that far-away place, a warm prickle of longing when I replay a memory in my mind. Its the kind of feeling reserved for the most special of places and faces. It happens when I see a picture from Tuscany—a hilltop village baked golden brown in the sun—or hear the name Siena.

For this series, I’ve gone through my vacation memories and pulled out the serendipitous moments. Siena, though, was Serendipity. From start to finish, Siena boasted the best day and a half of our trip.

Siena wasn’t as much about seeing the sights as experiencing Tuscany. We saw the duomo, its baptistery, and a strange crypt-like room—each only halfway memorable—and we wandered the frescoed halls of the Palazzo Pubblico, which was more memorable. These were smaller repeats of things we had seen in Florence. Siena, though, came across as the “real-deal” Tuscany. [I won’t go too far with that statement because Siena is still one of the larger towns in the region and there’s so much more to explore; the smaller towns are probably even more so the “real deal”]. It had all of the Tuscan charm of Florence without the size or bustle.

In Siena, we said, “This is Italy.”

Let’s start with our journey into Siena. The train was a relic; it had at most three cars hooked together and moseyed its way out of the station. Rick Steves’ warning that Italian trains run slow was at last proved correct. The mint-colored interior of our car appeared to have been untouched for at least forty years. There was no climate control and the narrow windows were opened school-bus style, allowing hot air to buffet our faces. But no matter. The route the train followed (and this held true for the train out of Siena as well) was a back country road compared to the interstate of the other train routes we had taken. We ponderously crossed over the main streets of villages with names like Castelfiorentino and Poggibonsi, their houses and businesses stacked right up to the tracks. We meandered through dozens of sunflower fields and a few vineyards. The distant views of tiny, ancient towns crowning nearly every rise kept me glued to the window and vowing to come back someday in a car.

The taxi ride from the station to the hotel was unforgettable. The driver shot through the narrow, inches-wide streets, while shoppers and tourists and grannies wove around the car and stepped off of the sidewalk without a glance to the right or left. I know I held my breath, and I know he missed people by inches. I would like to see some statistics on hit-and-run incidents in Italy.

Now, I always feel some trepidation about booking foreign non-chain hotels sight-unseen and booking one in Siena was no exception. This time, however, I hit the jackpot. I’m not even sure I will name it online for fear it will be “discovered.” It was more than just a home base, a place to sleep and maybe eat breakfast. I would call our hotel a Tuscan destination.

My expectations were low as the taxi pulled up to a nondescript door along a very brown side street (everything here was sienna—the name given to that brownish-orange color of earth in Siena). The hotel foyer was also unremarkable, though it appeared to have its original period ceiling. But that view down the hall—! Through double glass doors at the end of the hall was a landscaped terrace with a low, stone wall overlooking endless miles of Tuscan countryside. And, when we made it up to our room after checking in with a crew of cheerful, lovely young ladies, we had the same view from the window. Our room had a timber and clay tile ceiling over a fluffy bed, a luxurious bathroom, and I was starting to wonder why I had thought we needed only one night in Siena.

For lunch we found a hole-in-the-wall ristorante around the corner from the hotel. A large group of attractive young, dark-haired, Italian men filled the front room, sitting around a dining-room-sized table sharing platters of mouthwatering food. A huge refrigerated case full of cheeses, meats, and all manner of pasta concoctions took up the rest of the space. We ordered from a hand-written, all-Italian menu, and asked for nearly every tomato dish they offered. My mouth is watering remembering the bruschetta, caprese, and panzanella, all piled high with chunks of sweet tomato and ribbons of basil. Hands down, it was the best food I ate in Italy.

The Duomo of Siena

The floor in the duomo was covered in these intricate designs.

A stunning ceiling with gold leaf in the Palazzo Pubblico.

Dinner that night was a close second. It might have taken top honors if I hadn’t still been suffering from a bad cold, which caught up with me again at dinnertime. Even so, eating at the Antica Osteria da Divo was one of the most fun dining experiences I have had. A hostess led us through the brightly-lit, cavernous restaurant toward a set of stairs at the back. We followed her down into a cellar-like room, with tunnels leading off in several directions. Our table had its own niche in the rock, making it a quiet and cozy space. We snuck a few surreptitious pictures after the hostess walked away. We shared a family-sized bowl of ribolitta soup, bolognese (that I am still trying to replicate) over fresh tagliatelle, and stuffed pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes. There may have been some more chocolate mousse involved, too. I was able to taste only half of the food around blowing my nose, but I’d do it again in a minute.

The interior of the Antica Osteria da Divo.

The day had turned to night by the time we left the restaurant; it was dark and mild. We wandered toward the piazza in the glowing light spilling from storefronts and restaurants, casually searching for the day’s serving of gelato. We found a spot to sit directly on the still sun-warmed stone pavement of the piazza, facing the beautiful tower of the Palazzo. Siena’s piazza is the largest open town square in Italy, and people treat it like a beach—spreading out, reclining, and people-watching.

We settled in for what turned out to be our most entertaining people-watching adventure yet. Couples and children strolled around us from every direction, the young Arabs were peddling the same light-up toys that we had seen in Florence, but the group that drew our eyes stood only a few feet away. There were two middle-aged couples and two teenaged boys, probably from Germany. They looked and interacted like in-laws and cousins. One of the boys had bought a light-up spinner and tried to set it in motion. The trick was to fling it up in the air, like shooting a rubber band, and it would float in a helicopter motion back to the ground. The peddlers could launch them as high as the roofs surrounding the piazza. The boys could not launch it more than a couple of feet and sideways. After several minutes of futility, one of the men motioned for the spinner with a “Here, let me do this” face. He confidently grasped the toy, flicked the band—and it smacked back into his hand. He shook out his hand in pain while his family burst into laughter. Then he began to giggle. And giggle. We watched for fifteen hilarious minutes as first one family member, then another, tried the toy with little luck. They never stopped laughing; they had themselves so wound up that we started laughing, too.

We could not understand a word of their language, yet laughing with them created an instant affinity for a family we’d never met and would never see again. We were reminded, as we were so many times on this trip, that people are the same the world over. When they finally drifted away, the piazza felt sadly empty and quiet. In a few short minutes, we got up and wandered off, too.

The next morning, I admit that I was rueing my decision to move on to Rome after only one day in Siena. But we squeezed every last drop of pleasure out of our time. The countryside was bright and clear, the air soft before the heat of the day. We found a gourmet cold breakfast on the terrace: hams, cheeses, boiled eggs, fruit, breads with an abundance of honeys, jams, and butters, and teas and coffees. We parked along the stone wall in a shady, cool spot. After we had eaten, one of us went back to our room for our books; we wanted desperately to prolong the enjoyable moment. Pulling away at last was hard. This was a place and time to be bottled up for safekeeping in our memory.

Given the abundance of over-exuberant travelogues—maybe including the one you just read—the reality of this “homesick” feeling gets lost in superlatives and cliche. It is hard to avoid saying, “This was the best pasta I ever ate … That was the most charming village I’ve ever seen ….” The truth is, though, some places stick with you more than others, and it’s a surprising sensation. I really have no idea why my brain would assign the same emotion to a place where I spent a few days as it does to places where I’ve spent years of my life. But it does.

Maybe someday I’ll invent the right word to add to the lexicon.