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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

03 FEBRUARY, 2014

Virginia Woolf Visits Stonehenge

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“The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge … is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it.”

While travel writing dates as far back as Ancient Greece and became popular during the Song Dynasty of medieval China, the travelogue enjoyed particular prominence in 18th-century Western literature, mostly in the form of diaries, and thrives even more vibrantly today, when sharing words and images is easier than ever for a connected generation of global citizens. But one of the genre’s most unsung yet most colorful heroes is none other than Virginia Woolf.

In August of 1903, young Woolf journeyed to visit Stonehenge — the legendary prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, which archaeologists believe was built sometime between 3000 BC and 2000 BC by a culture that left no written records and which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on imitation and the arts, the glory of the human mind, and the joy of music and dance — comes 21-year-old Woolf’s beautiful account of visiting the mysterious monument:

We came at last — for I must pass here a great deal I pondered in my mind as I went — to the sign post, which points to Stonehenge. Our way had been by the river, & enclosed by downs. We now came out on the top of Salisbury plain, & the downs spread without check for miles round us. I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with the start with which one sees in real life what ones eye has always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain — so that when we settled to meet the riders at ‘Stonehenge’ I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place — the stones might be arranged for instance as they are now — in the stalls of St James Hall — But otherwise the pictures had prepared me fairly truthfully — as to shape & position that is; I had not realised though that the stones have such a look of purpose & arrangement; it is a recognisable temple, even now.

We promptly sat down with our backs to the sight we had come to see, & began to eat sandwiches: half an hour afterwards we were ready to make our inspection.

Stonehenge between 1890 and 1900. (Public domain image via The Library of Congress)

At the time of Woolf’s visit, more than a century before archeologists with the Stonehenge Riverside Project found evidence strongly suggesting that Stonehenge was intended as a burial ground, the origin and purpose of the famed earthworks site remained a mystery that only deepened its allure. Woolf marvels:

The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. There are these great blocks of stone; & what more? Who piled them there & when, & for what purpose, no one in the world — I like to repeat my boast — can tell.

I felt as though I had run against the stark remains of an age I cannot otherwise conceive; a piece of wreckage washed up from Oblivion. There are theories I know — without end; & we, naturally, made a great many fresh, & indisputable discoveries of our own. The most attractive, & I suppose most likely, is that some forgotten people built here a Temple where they worshipped the sun; there is a rugged pillar someway out side the circle whose peak makes exactly that point on the rim of the earth where the sun rises in the summer solstice. And there is a fallen stone in the middle, longer & larger than the other hewn rocks it lies among which may have been an altar — & the moment the sun rose the Priest of that savage people slaughtered his victim here in honour of the Sun God. We certainly saw the dent of his axe in the stone. Set up the pillars though in some other shape, & we have an entirely fresh picture; but the thing that remains in ones mind, whatever one does, is the stupendous mystery of it all. Man has done nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for — I know not how many thousand years.

Aerial view of Stonehenge, WWII. (Public domain photograph via The San Diego Air & Space Museum)

Woolf finds in this fossil of ancient ritual a poignant metaphor for the disconnect between spiritual worship, as it was originally conceived, and the vacant pantomime of Western religion:

I like to think of it; imagine those toiling pagans doing honour to the very sun now in the sky above me, & for some perverse reason I find this a more deeply impressive temple of Religion — block laid to block, & half of them tumbled in ruin so long that the earth almost hides them, than that perfect spire whence prayer & praise is at this very moment ascending.

It is matter for thought surely, if not for irony, that as one stands on the ruins of Stonehenge, one can see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

1645 painting of Stonehenge by J. Blaeu

On September 5 that year, Woolf and her companions trekked to Stonehenge a second time. A connoisseur of the finery of words but without high regard for punctuation, she writes in another diary entry:

We have had singular good fortune in our expeditions; & our two visits to Stonehenge have impressed such pictures on my mind as I never wish to be obliterated. . . .

But expedition is a hateful word; I would call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went in all reverence with a pure desire to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there may be’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of ones sins.

She ends by capturing that “singular & intoxicating charm” in an exquisite vignette:

We walked across to Stonehenge, & sat within the Circle. Our choice of day gave us the whole place to ourselves. The solitary policeman whose strange lot in life is to mount guard over Stonehenge had taken shelter behind one of his charges. The apoplectic sheep, who can imitate a standing motor car which is still palpitating to perfection, were gazing outside the Circle, & as far as we could see, we had not only Stonehenge but the whole ocean of plain entirely to ourselves. One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids — or whoever they were — for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of alter made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.

A Passionate Apprentice is an enchanting read in its entirety, a rare glimpse of the celebrated author’s formative years and lesser-known sides. More of Woolf’s gorgeous travel writing is collected in Travels With Virginia Woolf, edited by legendary travel writer Jan Morris.

Complement this with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the language of film, and how to read a book, then revisit her little-known and lovely children’s books.

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31 JANUARY, 2014

George Orwell’s Dessert Recipes

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Sugar and spice and a respite of nice amidst hardship.

It’s no secret I have a soft spot for unusual cookbooks, especially ones with a literary or art bend — from homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and Modern Art Desserts to actual recipe collections by Alexandre Dumas, Andy Warhol, Liberace, and Alice B. Toklas, and especially The Artists & Writers’ Cookbook. Naturally, I was delighted to learn that George Orwell — who had some strong opinions about tea — was also quite the culinary connoisseur. As one of history’s most dedicated diarists, he filled countless notebooks with his ideas and pasted in them various newspaper clippings he wanted to save, from gardening tips to recipes. Indeed, his keen interest in cuisine came through in his dealings with people he met — like the Searles, a poor family with whom he stayed when he set out to learn empathy by immersing himself in poverty.

George Orwell: Diaries (public library) reveals two unexpected culinary treats from the beloved author’s time with the Searles: In the same extensive diary entry from March 5, 1936, which gave us 33-year-old Orwell’s contemplation of gender equality in work and housework, he writes down Mrs. Searle’s fruit loaf recipe to keep himself from losing it, noting parenthetically that it is “very good with butter.”

1 lb flour.
1 egg.
4 oz. treacle.
4 oz. mixed fruit (or currants).
8 oz. sugar.
6 oz. margarine or lard.

Cream the sugar and margarine, beat the egg and add it, add the treacle and then the flour, put in greased tins and bake about ½ to ¾ hour in a moderate oven.

He also includes her simple recipe for sponge cake:

5 oz. flour, 4 oz. sugar, 3 oz. grease (butter best), 2 eggs, 1 teaspoonful baking powder. Mix as above and bake.

What’s especially heartening about these recipes is that they channel a simple celebration of life despite the painful confines of poverty, a certain immutable human capacity for delight even amidst hardship.

George Orwell: Diaries is an excellent read in its entirety, full of insight and wisdom far less fleeting than one cycle of the gastrointestinal tract. Complement it with Orwell on the four reasons why we create, then revisit The Artists & Writers’ Cookbook.

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20 JANUARY, 2014

The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Endearing Record of His First Loves from His Secret Boyhood Diary

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A lesson on self-awareness without self-consciousness.

As a hopeless lover of famous diaries, I was at once astounded and thrilled to learn that in the summer of 1910, shortly before turning fourteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald began keeping a short memoir in a notebook labeled Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald of St. Paul Minn U.S.A., in which he collected fragmentary observations about his life and his social circle. Though he only kept it for six months, the celebrated author would later turn to the journal again and again, drawing on the vignettes and people in it as inspiration for his fiction. But despite being a critical piece of literary history, the Thoughtbook remained a well-kept family secret for decades, with access granted only to Fitzgerald’s official biographers, and only sparingly. Eventually, it ended up at the Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina, in a facility out of a James Bond movie — a humidity-sensitive vault deep underground, controlled by fingerprint- and eye-scan doors.

In 2013, the prized artifact finally came to public life as The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary (public library), featuring a transcription of Fitzgerald’s original diary contextualized by scholar David Page, and accompanied by a selection of photographs from Fitzgerald’s childhood.

There are two particularly curious and prominent features of the Thoughtbook — young Francis’s propensity for lists, and his intense dedication to being a ladies’ man, meticulously recording his interest in various girls and theirs in him. Best of all, however, is the intersection of the two — his lists ranking the girls according to their appearance and his affections.

Fitzgerald at age fifteen, taken while he was a student at the Newman Academy in New Jersey just a few months after he finished the Thoughtbook.

In the opening entry, titled “My Girls” and penned in August of 1910, he details with delightful freedom of spelling and grammar his impressions of his first two loves:

My recollections of Nancy are rather dim but one day stands out above the rest. The Gardeners had their home three miles out of town and one day James Imham, Inky for short, my best friend, and I were invited out to spend the day. I was about nine years old Nancy about eight and we were quite infatuated with each other. I was in the middle of the winter as soon as we got there we began playing on the toboggan. Nancy and I an Inky were on one toboggan and Ham (Nancies big brother) came along and wanted to get on. He made a leap for the toboggan but I pushed off just in time and sent him on his head. He was awful mad. He said he’d kick me off and that it wasn’t my toboggan and that I couldn’t play. However Nancy smoothed it over and we went to lunch.

Kitty Williams is much plainer in my memory. I met her first at dancing school and as Mr. Van Arnumn (our dancing teacher) chose me to lead the march I asked her to be my pardner. The next day she told Marie Lautz and Marie repeated it to Dorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. I dont remember who was first but I know that Earl was second and I was already quite overcome by her charms I then and there resolved that I would gain first place.

In another entry, written a month later, Fitzgerald introduces Violet Stockton, who would later serve as a major inspiration for the female characters throughout his fiction:

Violet Stockton was a niece of Mrs. Finch and she spent a summer in Saint Paul. She was very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes big and soft. She spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r’s. She was a year older than I but together with most of the other boys liked her very much.

[…]

At the time I was more popular with girls than I ever have been befor. In truth Kitty Shultz, Dorothy, Violet, Marie and Catherine Tre all liked me best.

In an entry from November of 1910, young Scott pens a list under the heading “These are the boys and girls I like best in order,” with clarifier that “the first three boys are tie”:

Art
Bob
Cecil
Shumier
Boardmen
Bigelow
Sturgis
Jim
D. Driscoll
R. Washington
Paul
Speply
Rube
Mitchell
Smith
Smith
Alida Bigelow
Margaret Armstrong
Kitty Schulz
Elizabeth Dean
Marie Hersey
Dorothy Green
Caroline Clark
Julia Door

But the most remarkable aspect of the list is a sentence that young Scott wrote vertically along the middle of the page, between the two columns of names — an expression of his crystalline awareness, even at such a young age, that human personality is in constant flux and that to change one’s mind is an essential part of the human journey:

This list changes continually
Only authentic at date of chapter

Indeed, what makes the Thoughtbook so extraordinary is the absolute earnestness with which young Scott observes his life as it unfolds, full of self-awareness but free of the self-consciousness by which most adult writers are chronically afflicted — perhaps the same outlook that Fitzgerald wanted to instill in his own young daughter twenty-three years later.

Pasted in the Thoughtbook is an endearing earlier entry from another journal, which young Scott wrote in 1908 at the age of eleven:

I love Kitty Williams. Today in dancing school I told her she was my best girl. I dared Earl Knox to say “I love you Kitty,” to her and he did it. Then I did it too. She asked me if I liked dancing school and I said I liked it if she went. Then she said she liked it if I went.

Beneath it, a list appears ranking his favorite girls in 1911:

  1. Kitty Schultze
  2. Alida Bigelow
  3. Elenor Alair
  4. Marie Hersey
  5. Julia Dorr

He then replicates the list for 1912 — but since the journal was only kept between August 1910 and February of 1911, it appears to be a projection for his future affections, making it all the more of a charming curiosity:

  1. Elenor Alair
  2. Kitty Schultz
  3. Marie Hersey

On February 12, 1911, he records his changing affections yet again:

Since dancing school opened this last time I have deserted Alida. I have to new crushes, to wit — Margaret Armstrong and Marie Hersey. I have not quite decided yet which I like the best. The 2nd is the prettiest. The 1st the best talker.

He adds, proudly:

Last year in dancing school I got 11 valentines and this year 15.

But brains prevail over beauty and Margaret wins out over Marie. In another entry from February 24, young Scott gushes:

I am just crazy about Margaret Armstrong and I have the most awful crush on her that ever was. This has been the case ever since Bob’s party. She is not pretty but I think she is very attractive looking. She is extremely graceful and a very good dancer and the most interesting talker I have ever seen or rather heard.

He proceeds to recount an impossibly endearing anecdote, brimming with the exalting highs and crushing lows of teenage love:

Jim Portfield and I were invited to call on Elizabeth Dean by Elizabeth and when we got there we found her too and we started out for a walk. Margaret and Jim walked ahead and Elizabeth and I behind. This made me mad and this was further inflamed when they got a block ahead of us. Then Elizabeth told me some things. She said that Margaret had given her a note the day befor in school which said “I know I am fickle but I like Jim just as much as I do Scott.” When I learned this I was jealous of Jim as I had never been of anyone before. I said some ridiculous things about how I was going to get even with him in Margarets estimation when we reached the country club. Elizabeth went ahead and asked Margaret which of us she liked the best. Margaret said she liked me best. All the way home I was n the seventh heaven of delight.

Slim as it may be, The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary is infinitely delightful and highly recommended. Pair it with grown-up Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing and his exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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