0

‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Italy 2016 (Naples, Rome, Capri, Pompeii)

Another grand adventure with The Beard, to one of my favourite countries.

Music:
‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ by Death Cab for Cutie | ‘Handsome Devil’ by The Smiths | ‘The Ocean’ by Manchester Orchestra | ‘To Sleep’ by Fightstar

Timings:
00.00 Naples | 00.54 Rome | 05.27 Naples | 06.58 Capri | 09.18 Pompeii | 11.23 Naples

3

‘Letters from Iceland’ by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice ****

I am off to Iceland in a couple of days, and could not be more excited if I tried.  It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since I was tiny, and I am so grateful that I am now able to travel there with my boyfriend.  I have – perhaps unsurprisingly – always been interested in books set in Iceland, fictional or not, and have been attempting to get hold of a copy of Letters from Iceland for an awfully long time.  I love travel books, and the fact that this is described as ‘highly amusing and unorthodox’ piqued my interest further.  With the help of lovely Faber reissuing the book, and a Christmas voucher, I have finally been able to add it to my collection. 41pxwwejz8l-_sx316_bo1204203200_

Letters from Iceland is so rich that I felt it warranted a full-length review.  Whilst I was already familiar with, and enjoy, Auden’s poetry, the MacNeice which I had read was sparse to say the least, and I had barely touched upon the prose output of either man.  Letters from Iceland is comprised of Auden and MacNeice’s letters home from their 1936 trip to the country, which were rendered into both verse and prose.

The new Faber edition includes Auden’s 1965 foreword, which I found fascinating in terms of how much Iceland had changed in just three decades.  Clearly, Auden has a real passion for the place: ‘But the three months in Iceland upon which it [the book] is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content’.

Their trip to Iceland was taken at a fascinating time in history; the men set off during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War occurred whilst they were there.  The reasons for both being there, and what they wished to discover, varied, but the way in which MacNeice describes it is rather humorous: ‘You and I / Know very well the immediate reason why / I am in Iceland.  Three months ago or so / Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do’.

LouisMacNeice_NewBioImage

Louis MacNeice

The imagery which both men present is gorgeous and rich.  I loved the sense of rural history which was captured: ‘The town [Reykjavik] peters out into flat rusty-brown lava-fields, scattered shacks surrounded by wire-fencing, stockfish drying on washing-lines and a few white hens’.  They are very aware of their sense of space, and their current position within the world.  In MacNeice’s letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, for instance, is the following: ‘… but please remember us / So high up here in this vertiginous / Crow’s nest of the earth.  Perhaps you’ll let us know / If anything happens in the world below?’

Much emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been placed upon the output of Iceland’s citizens in the fields of art and literature.  The information which has been given about Icelandic authors, and the country’s reading population, is absolutely fascinating, as is that of creative life in the country: ‘The best-known authors and painters receive support from the state, without any obligations to output’.

Handy travel tips have been included for their late-1930s audience, ranging from appropriate clothing – ‘a cape is useless’ – and alternative boat routes to take for ‘those who like the sea’, to the believed necessity for a guide: ‘There are very few places in Iceland where it is pleasant to walk, and for long expeditions guides are absolutely necessary if you don’t want to lose your horses or get drowned in a river’.  Reflections upon the Icelandic diet amuse too: dried fish, for instance, ‘varies in toughness.  The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one feet’, and the beer ‘is weak and nasty, and the lemonade unspeakable’.  ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, which is comprised of many different quotes from authors and visitors to Iceland, and regards different aspects of life in the country, is also rather funny in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

The poetic contributions are often most amusing. In Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, for instance, is written: ‘… though it’s true / That I have, at the age of twenty-nine / Just read Don Juan and found it fine. / I read it on the boat to Reykjavik / Except when eating or asleep or sick.’  I have discovered, through Letters from Iceland, that I am very much a fan of MacNeice’s poetry, from such perfectly-formed stanzas as follows: ‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country / And we like to dream of a heat which is never sultry, / Melons to eat, champagne to drink, and a lazy / Music hour by hour depetalling the daisy’.

WH Auden in London in 1938

W. H. Auden

Auden can be rather sarcastic, and some of his comments occasionally border upon the scathing.  In response to a question addressed to him by author friend Christopher Isherwood, he writes: ‘If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant…  I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me.  The truth is, we are both only really happy living amongst lunatics’.

With regard to further travels, Auden informs us that he ‘didn’t go to Finland after all.  I felt another country would only be muddling.  Finland has not the slightest connection with Iceland, and a travel book about unconnected places becomes simply a record of a journey, which is boring.  I dare say it’s all right if you’re a neo-Elizabethan young man who has a hairbreadth escape or meets a very eccentric clergyman every five minutes, but I’m not’.

Letters from Iceland is a very entertaining book, which is wonderfully varied, both in terms of its seriousness and frivolity, and its differing prose styles.  The techniques used – poems, stories, proverbs, folk tales, and anecdotes to name a few – makes the book a perfect choice to read in one go.  Letters from Iceland is highly recommended, and is a wonderful book to start any trip to the country with.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Wiltshire’ by Edith Olivier ***

Wiltshire, another of Edith Olivier’s non-fiction works, was published posthumously in 1951.  In it, Olivier sets out the history and importance of her beloved county, from its beginnings in the year 878: ‘In that year, at the season of Whitsuntide, when, as the Bible tells us, “Kings go forth to battle”, there were two nights and a day during which the future of all England hung upon what happened on that little lost piece of land, a tiny island somewhere in the Wylye River’.

Olivier encompasses the tumultuous history of her beloved county, from King Alfred to Defoe’s tour through Wiltshire, and from the historical risks of travelling to old-fashioned building materials and methods.  Throughout, she has used quotes from different works which help to set out or back up her points, from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to the beliefs of local historians, who had already written about the county in depth.

Olivier takes into account many different elements of life in Wiltshire – local sports, the accent and dialect, antiquities, the founding of the city of Salisbury, the building of boroughs within the county, the importance of market towns, the expansion of hamlets to villages, and the grand houses which still remain today, for example.

Wiltshire is, on the whole, nicely written, but it is certainly more suited to those who call Wiltshire their home; its history holds some general appeal, but it is very focused – as its title, of course, suggests – upon one county and its inhabitants.

Purchase from The Book Depository