The Laurel Chain Tradition at Mount Holyoke College

I just returned from my daughter’s graduation from Mount Holyoke College. Mary Lyon founded the college in 1837 to promote female scholarship. Emily Dickinson studied there for a time. In the Laurel Chain tradition, the alumnae and graduating class process in a parade to Mary Lyon’s grave. The seniors carry a chain of Mountain Laurel and wrap it around the iron fence which surrounds the grave. It is a a sight to behold. Truly beautiful and terribly moving…

Literary Mystery: Why No 19th Century Blockbuster American Women?


Young Girl Ironing - Boston Museum Fine Arts
Young Girl Ironing - Boston Museum Fine Arts

From the Guardian:

“Did housework really prevent a George Eliot or Emily Brontë emerging in 19th-century America?”


A very interesting question. Where were the great American women novelists in the 19th century? They can’t say they were busy ironing because Charlotte Bronte ironed AND dashed off Jane Eyre –  


“Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Brontës. In 1839 Charlotte wrote wearily to an old schoolfriend, “I manage the ironing, and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking, and attends to the kitchen.” True, there was an elderly female servant, Tabby Ackroyd, who had been at the parsonage for years, but her increasing frailty made her more of a hindrance than a help.”

I think American women were more devoted to writing poetry. Much of the published poetry was of the Helen Hunt Jackson variety :






What freeman knoweth freedom? Never he 

Whose father’s father through long lives have reigned 

O’er kingdoms which mere heritage attained. 

Though from his youth to age he roam as free 

As winds, he dreams not freedom’s ecstacy. 

But he whose birth was in a nation chained 

For centuries; where every breath was drained 

From breasts of slaves which knew not there could be 

Such thing as freedom,–he beholds the light 

Burst, dazzling; though the glory blind his sight 

He knows the joy. Fools laugh because he reels 

And weilds confusedly his infant will; 

The wise man watching with a heart that feels 

Says: “Cure for freedom’s harms is freedom still.” 


(HMMMMMMM….well – not my cup of tea)



Helen also wrote books – so American women were writing, just not writing the 19th century equivalent of the blockbuster. Helen wrote “Ramona” a book about Native American rights – pretty ground breaking, but not nearly as famous as the Brontes or Eliot or Helen’s contemporary – Emily Dickinson who like Helen, came from Amherst, Massachusetts. She was, however, well received during her time by the likes of Thomas Wentworth Higgins who chose to publish her poetry in The Atlantic over Emily’s. At the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Helen the greatest American woman poet. 


I suppose Ramona just doesn’t have the staying power of the Brontes or Middlemarch. It is free on line, try it and see what you think…

Books and the Inevitable Decay

Presumably - the place readers can no longer go. Sigh.

In spite of all my ramblings about BUYING books, I do enjoy libraries. Apparently one of the more well know libraries in the world, The Bodleian, is in danger of crumbling:

And as I take steps into the past I’ve never taken before, I now find there are steps from the past I’ll never be able to take again. Specifically the steps on the ladders in the Bodleian. Which are now, it was reported at the weekend, too dangerous to scale under health and safety regulations.”

Mr. Gove does make the safety crew seem a bit draconian. Surely they will move the books downstairs? Or, send special baskets up to professional balcony dwellers to send back down like Emily Dickinson did out of  her bedroom window? They DO seem to have a plan. I was so horrified by Mr. Gove’s suggestion that the books were permanently off limits, I had to check – here is a link to the new “scheme” – I love that – scheme. It feels like a plot. Perfect for a library.

Anyway – ultimately, he makes the perfect point,

“One of the joys of reading English Literature is that you need not go to the Bod to commune with Jane Austen. You just need to pop by Oxfam and you can get Pride and Prejudice for less than the price of a jar of instant coffee.”

So true.

The Children’s Book – Not Just for Kids Anymore


I think a truly great book is one you can re-read and enjoy as much the second time as you did the first. I don’t re-read many books because there are so many new books to read. I feel I should spend my reading time reading new novels and biographies. Sometimes, it seems there is a dearth of new material and I flop around, fish out of water like, wanting a book that gave me the same expereince as such and such a book. It was during one of these unsettled in-between-a-good-book times I re-read ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt. It was every bit as satisfying as if reading it for the first time. 

Byatt’s novels can be very challenging. I have to admit, I have not read all of them. I was stumped in ‘The Virgin in the Garden’ by the brilliant boy, Marcus,  who sees what I can only assume is geometry, “He saw intersecting cones, stretching to infinity … he saw that he was at the, or a, point of intersection, and that if it could not pass through it would shatter the fragile frame to make a way.” Being able to see math or geometry in my head is certainly one of  my deficiencies. I can barely add and subtract mentally and when I do, it never turns out well. When I was reading the passages concerning Marcus, my eyes crossed trying to imagine what this child was experiencing and because I was working on a masters at the time, I decided I would have to save the Frederica books for another summer, winter, whatever…  

But I have read Byatt’s short stories and the two novellas in ‘Angels and Insects’ and I must say …ooo … they are very interesting and enjoyable in a voyeuristic, sometimes creepy kind of way. Those crazy Victorians! Imagine what they would do with the Internet! ‘Possession’ remains my favorite Byatt book.

She has written a new book and it sounds like she has returned to the novelistic form more similar to Possession than her more recent books. The reviews about ‘The Children’s Book’ appeal to my rampant Anglophilia. It takes as it’s subject the latter decades during the Victorian period leading up to World War I. This stretch of British history  is the decisive period where many of our ideas concerning idyllic childhood came from. It was also the time when fairy tales became required childhood reading.  It is a romantic time, but like so much of life, it had a seamy underbelly. I am torn between loving the romance and tradition it created and being enlightened and horrified by the untold secrets people kept. It is reminiscent of  my love of fashion plates. The engravings are idealized renderings of the fashions of the time. The reality was actually muddy hems, ruined shoes and little variety in the average woman’s wardrobe. The women portrayed by the fashion plates were a minuscule percentage of the female population. I know this and while I am comforted by the ideal, intellectually I am fascinated by the reality.

The bottom line is – I must have this book! It will not be released in the U.S. until OCTOBER! I can’t wait that long, so I am ordering from Amazon UK today, here is a link if you would like to read it now as well.  This is shaping up to be a great reading summer. So many books! So little time.

Beloved Battered Books

I love this:

“Battered copies were more moving than pristine ones. She was one of those collectors who invest to get close to a time and a period.

A First Edition of Sense and Sensibility


 “It was as if, in her very private life, the writers and personalities of the period became her surrogate friends.”



A First Edition of Sense and Sensibility


I can understand this approach to collecting. I love battered books as well. I love old book stores. I love opening the cover and reading,  “To Helen from Aunt Mary, Christmas 1942…” I imagine Helen. I imagine Aunt Mary. What happened? How did this book end up becoming separated from Helen?   Paula Peyraud loved her books. Imagine – a first edition of Sense and Sensibility…

May Day

When I was a little girl, on the first day of May, my mother would cut strips of construction paper and we would weave little paper baskets at our kitchen table. She would then let me pick flowers from our springtime garden to place in our homemade baskets. When the baskets were full we took them, hand in hand and quietly hung them on my friends’ doors. We would ring the bell and run. It was so much fun to see my friends looking around the corner to find whoever hid the basket on their door. Surprise!

My memories of May Day were always filled with flowers. When we were trying to pick a day to be married, I decided there couldn’t be a better day for a wedding than May Day.

It’s time for a May Day Fashion Plate…