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Monday, September 21, 2015

Jane Austen in Bath, England

Parade Gardens

The Statue of Jane Austen in the Jane Austen Centre.  She stood 5 ft 6 inches tall.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) only lived in Bath, England a few years, 1801-1806, yet two of her six novels are set there, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Bath is that kind of place.  It may not make you a novelist, but it does leave an indelible impression.

Let’s take a glimpse at Bath as Jane Austen saw it and glance at her circumstances. It hasn’t changed much. The city was a spa then and now, as it has been since before Roman times.  In Jane Austen’s day it became a playground for wealthy families, with gala balls and a rich social environment.  Today, tourists flock, directors film their movies here.  Cobbled streets.  Stone houses that almost seem like monuments.  Tea rooms abound.

But, let’s back up a pace or two and talk about Jane’s Bath and her writing.  I always hated lengthy, involved deconstructions in high school English class.  The teacher destroyed a good story, going on and on about symbols that sailed over my head like a poorly hurled vase.

My boredom wasn’t entirely the teacher’s fault.  He was in his wilting 50s.  I was a hormone raging seventeen year old.  Different times of life.  Different experiences.  And how could he have possibly known Jane Austen’s mind?  She was 25 or 26 when she moved here, half his age and triple his imagination.

So, I’m only going to throw you one triumphant point about Jane Austin’s novels.  They’ve lasted.  Seems like a new film, or TV interpretation comes out yearly.  (For my money, BBC is far and away the best).  Jane’s plots still ring true, with characters you’d recognize in your own life.  Interfering parents.  Loves won and lost.  Stuffy know-it-alls.  Busy bodies.  Iron clad social codes.  Jan Austen wrote novels about the same sorts of people you find in your town, or next door, or in your family.  For those reasons, today’s reader still finds her prose witty and alive.  Grab one of her books.  I’ll leave the rest to you.

Jane Austen was a keen observer of the ins and outs of matrimony, yet she never married.  Came close once, but broke the engagement off the morning after she’d accepted.  She wrote of courtship, and nailed the doubts and fears and false assumptions, as though she’d been in love a hundred times.  As with any good novelist, she had a hawk’s keen eye, not only for romantic threads, but also familial situations, social mores, poverty and excess, slights and human strength.  In short, she wrote a fictionalized rendition of early 19th Century society, which in the human elements mirrors our own.

For her, the city of Bath was a microcosm.  Although she lived there only a short time, a lot happened to her here.  The family changed residences several times:  1 The Paragon, 4 Sydney Place, Green Park Buildings (no longer standing), 25 Gay St.

The blue door marks 4 Sydney Place.
Her parents married at one of Bath’s local churches, St Withins Walcot, and her father died during the family’s time in Bath, throwing the family into poverty.  The words of Mrs. Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice come to mind, “Oh, Mr. Bennett!  We are ruined!”

In Northanger Abbey, you’ll find as much or more romance and comic misunderstandings and emphasis on social standing and wealth, as you find in Pride and Prejudice.  Set in Bath, the city is everywhere in evidence, from visits to The Pump Room, to The Royal Crescent, and everything in between.

The Royal Crescent

Bath Abbey
"They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight… they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy and she felt happy already. They were soon settled in comfortable lodgings in Pultney-street."

A painting of Pulteney Bridge as Jane would have seen it.  Things haven't changed much.

Another view of Bath's magnificent Georgian architecture.
Want a summation of this delightful novel?  Catherine Morland loves Henry Tilney.  Catherine’s friend, Isabella Thorpe, loves Catherine’s older brother, James.  The Tilneys and Thorpes scheme to find the proper matches for their children.  James is a good friend of Isabella’s brother, John. But, John is comically rude and overbearing.  Ignoring Catherine’s spite towards, John, the Thorpes naturally decide Catherine is a good match for him.  You can take it from there!  Complications galore.  Fun poked at one and all.  Characters you love and those you’d love to slap.

The other Austin novel written with Bath and its environs in mind, Persuasion, is another lighthearted example of romance, familial battles, and love lost and won and lost and won.

Both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published in 1818 after Jane Austen’s death.  How did she die so young (42)?  Various theories, the latest of which is tuberculosis, perhaps contracted from raw milk.

I’ve already mentioned many of the sites you’d want to visit in search of the real Jane Austen. But, don’t forget the Jane Austen Centre, located at 40 Gay Street, just down the block from where Jane lived at 25 Gay Street.

The Jane Austen Centre
The beauty of Bath, England is that it’s so well preserved.  You can’t see Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ London.  Well, you can, but it’s so overgrown you’ll need a guide and an imagination vivid enough to picture Washington D.C. as a swamp.  In Bath, on the other hand, you can experience almost exactly what Jane saw.  You can walk the same streets, view the same buildings, read her descriptions and test the accuracy for yourself.  Have tea at The Pump Room, any of half a dozen other places. Take a ride in a horse drawn carriage.

Tea at The Pump Room

Bath has not forgotten her famous daughter and writer.  There’s even a Jane Austen day and Regency Ball, when revelers flood the streets in 18th Century costume.  The next one is June 2016.  Go to the link above and read all about it.  Hey, you can even rent a costume and wig!

When you’re in Bath, to paraphrase what was said of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, if you seek Jane Austin’s monument, look around you.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bath, A Jewel of an English City!

A typical street in Bath, England, with typical English weather.

When you think of the city of Bath, England, what comes to mind?  Drawing a blank?  Can’t get past the tower of London, Big Ben, and beer?  I sympathize.  Fortunately, I am here to enlighten you with a very brief overview of the glories of this uniquely delightful English city.

Bath, England:  Romans, Georgian Architecture, Jane Austin.  Pick just one and you’re in for a lifetime of blissful study.  We picked all three and ran ourselves raged in our five day, four night stay.  Yeah, you might say, but I don’t read, don’t like architecture, and who the hell is Jane Austin?

To that, I say, you are absolutely right to enjoy some reruns of The Flintstones, swilling a cold beer and munching a bowlful of grease laden, overly salted chips.  By the way, that’s chips in the American version.  Chips in the English version are what Americans call French fries. The Brits call our chips, crisps, a word difficult to say after you finish your first six pack.

Crisps are crispier than crinkled crumpets.  And by the way, what the Brits call crumpets, we call English muffins and what they call muffins….oh what the hell, change channels and pop another cold one.

But, for those worldly folk who travel to far places, and whose sweep of mind spans all forms of knowledge, let’s briefly explore Georgian architecture.

Bath is an almost perfectly preserved Georgian city.  By the way, what does the term Georgian architecture mean?  Well, first you have to know who George was.  From 1714 to 1830, a succession of British monarchs were named George, Georges I, II, III, and IV to be exact.  You may remember George III, the monarch during America's War of Independence.

An example of Georgian architecture....found all over the city.

And what is the style?  Some would say, exact symmetry.  Evenly spaced windows of the same size, chimneys on either end of the house, smaller dormer windows above. Pediments over the front entrance and windows.

When you stroll through this Georgian wonder of a city, you may notice some large bricked up windows.  Mark those down to the ‘window tax,’ another clever nonsensical result of government spending more money than it was bringing in.  To figure the tax on a house, the taxman counted the windows. This bit of governmental detritus floated from 1696 to 1851, and was dubbed ‘Daylight Robbery.’

A closeup of apartments on The Circus

The Circus

A view from No. 1 Royal Crescent

The Royal Crescent.  No 1 is on the far right.

I told you everything in Bath is close.  The Circus and The Royal Crescent are only a couple of blocks apart.

Every street in Bath is a testimony to the Georgian style, but some you must not miss are The Royal Crescent (No 1 is open to the public), and The Circus, a fabulous array of Georgian townhouses.  As you may know, originally Circus meant circle or ring (Latin).  Hence, modern circus tents are usually round, and we also have the nautical and aviation term circumnavigation.  In London, there’s the famous Piccadilly Circus, a vast traffic circle in the center of the city.

A view of the Roman baths.  Open for bathing until 1970!

The famous Pump House, next to the Roman Baths, and featured in a couple of Jane Austen's novels.
On to the Romans.  The Romans built a temple here in 50 A.D. and dedicated it to the Celtic goddess Sul and the Roman goddess Minerva, the goddess of healing.  Clever these Romans, to incorporate a local god along with their own.   The Romans named the city we now call Bath, Aquae-Sulis, the waters of Sulis.

Soon after, the Romans built an elaborate bath on the site of hot-springs, whose waters had been noted for centuries for their healing powers.  The baths and associated museum and displays are the best curated Roman remains I’ve seen, and that includes those in Rome.  The repair, uncovering, and upkeep are stories in themselves, and the results are a master’s class in Roman civilization and a Roman’s daily life.

Inside The Abbey

The Abbey's ornate ceiling.

Another place to visit is the world famous Bath Abbey, or as it’s officially known The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It’s an Anglian church now, but it’s history dates to 757 A.D. and an Anglo-Saxon monastery.  The Normans pulled it down to build a Norman cathedral.  In next few centuries, Norman edifice fell to ruin, and was then rebuilt to become a Catholic monastery, only to be ruined in 1539 when Henry VIII ordered monasteries dissolved.  Repairs began 70 years later and finished in 1874.

Pulteney Bridge, also showing the weir (lower right corner), a method of flood control.
Don’t miss The Pulteney Bridge, one of only a few bridges in the world lined with shops.  Completed in 1774, it crosses the River Avon.  What's another bridge with shops?  Come on, you travel junkies!  The Ponte Vechio in Florence, Italy, of course.

Shopping?  Oh, yeah, let’s get to that.  Bath is number one on my list for shopping areas.  Bath Street, in the old downtown is just the start of a bee hive of name shops, specialty stores, and bargain spots.  We had tea at Waterstone’s Books, at 4-5 Milsom, in the heart of the downtown.  Café W is known for it’s selections of local produce, including cookies and cakes.  The staff is friendly and since it was near closing time, the wait-staff passed out unsold pastries to all the patrons.

 The closeness of all the sights and shops and pubs makes Bath an ideal city for strolling.  Walk a few steps, see a major attraction, walk again and have tea, then a couple more blocks and you're at another attraction.  Perfect!

Ok, ok, now what about Jane Austin?  Sorry folks, that’s for another day, another blog, but soon…

And remember:  More yet to come, with closer looks at the Roman Baths, No 1 Royal Crescent, Pubs, and tea emporiums.  Oh, yeah, Bath is a small wonder world!

Getting there:  Trains leave from London's Paddington Station every 30 minutes for the hour and a half trip.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

A year ago I wrote about Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case.  So why revisit the same author?  Because he’s THAT good.

In The Girl Who Wasn’t There, von Schirach taunts us with another closed and shut case.  Sebastian von Eschburg had an unusual childhood, to say the least.  He’s risen above it.  A renowned photographic artist, his works play with reality and truth, bridging the boundaries of both.  He provokes, he guides his viewers into places of wonder.

Von Schirach carves his character in clear, distinct, but circular lines, making us wonder, plumbing the depths of an unknowable mind.  The language is sharp, concise, chiseled.  Take this short description of an episode in the protagonist’s beginning as a photographer:

“…the owner of a perfumery came into one of these small studios.  She wanted nude photographs of herself. She was in her mid-forties and she and her husband had divorced a few months before: the pictures were to be for the new man in her life.  She blushed when she said that.”

You’re immediately caught with the awkwardness, the abruptness, and a pathway leading to the heart of the book.  Somewhat romantic, but in the sense of gauze-covered glimpses, in a dream-like reality.

You wonder, why would a writer take the time to bridge the stepping-stones of his character’s development as a photographer?  The sure answer is, the reader needs to be lead carefully from transient soul to artist.  And yet, there is always that misty covering, the fog of who Sebastian von Eschburg really is as a man, as well as questions about his character.

Then comes the kicker.  A foot to the solar plexus.   The artist is accused of murder.  A seasoned lawyer, Konrad Biegler agrees to represent him.  Sebastian gives him no help at all in his own defense.  The evidence piles up.  Blood.  The murder scene.  It’s open and shut…or is it?  Dark shadows of deception darken every corner.  Still, the artist refuses to speak.

By this time, you read faster.  Ya gotta know!  This is a short book, just over 200 pages.  Once you open it, you won’t leave your chair, and when you finish, you’ll be breathless.

The Girl Who Wasn’t There, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ephesus: An Ancient City More Grand than Pompeii

We took a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean last summer (July 2015) and one of the most interesting stops was Ephesus (Efes in Turkish).

Your first question (you’re going to have a lot more):  What the hell is Ephesus and if I’ve already seen Pompeii, why would I want to go there?  Gather ‘round studly, well-traveled men of the world, and glamorous, sophisticated ladies.  Glamorous ladies, feel free to find a spot on my knee, while your husbands tremble with jealously.

The ancient city of Ephesus has many ties, not only to antiquity, but to the Bible.  Yes, it’s in Turkey, just below Izmir, but it was a Greek city, founded a thousand years before Christ, and it may have been a Hittite settlement even earlier.  Then came the Romans. The Middle East is like that.  A wedding cake with too many layers to count.  You can only take a bite at a time and in the limited time we were there, about a six-hour tour, all you could do was lightly nibble, like a tiny, sunburned mouse on a 30 second diet.

Hot?  Oh lordy!  Talk about needing some slaves with fans.  I should have brought a Camel Pack, or a six pack of Efes Beer, brewed in Istanbul.

But, enough about my dehydration. How big was Ephesus back in the Greek/Roman days?  Some 300,000 people.  It was often referred to as the Gateway of Asia.  In fact, back in the shadows of antiquity, it was the fourth greatest city of the world, after Rome, Alexandria (Egypt), and Antioch (Syria).

We walked in, marveling at rubble, reconstructed edifices, and cobbled streets. Recognizable names sprang out of our guide’s mouth and we chewed on those for a bit.  St Paul probably wrote here and he certainly preached in the great amphitheater more than once.  He had a close call when merchants who made their living selling magic charms of The Goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek) thought he was cutting into their business and took it personally. 

It is believed that St John wrote his Gospel here. (see the following photos)

The Ruins of the Church of St John

The Amphitheater
The amphitheater at Ephesus offers one of the best microcosms of Greek and Roman life. How do archeologists know the size of an ancient city?  A rule of thumb:  Take the number of people the amphitheater held and multiply by ten.  Not exact, to be sure, but the amphitheater was in many ways the focus of social life.  Discussions, political and philosophical, athletic contests, gladiator fights, live theater, and executions all took place here. 

Not into the Biblical and historic aspects?  Ok.  Sting and Elton John played the ancient amphitheater and after one raucous performance, when powerful speakers the size of tanks threatened to make the walls come tumbling down, the government put a limit on volume.  Other cities could take a lesson.

The Arcadian Way. In the distance is the Library of Celsus

Cleopatra and Mark Anthony strode the flagstone-covered main street, the Arcadian Way.  At one time it was a hundred feet wide and even today it’s impressive.  It's startling to realize your Nikes are striding along exactly where famous Roman sandals trod.

Onward, with far more to see. There are elaborate terraces where the rich lived, and even now many of the delicate tiles and frescoed walls survive.  For a long time, these homes were not excavated because archeologists hadn’t devised a means of protecting them from the weather.  Now the whole area is tarp covered and digging continues.  A walkway allowed us to wander up the side of the digging and permitted a god’s eye view of  the wonders from top to bottom.  Below us, archeologists in ones and twos dusted and cleaned, reclaiming the past.  Much more activity here than in Pompeii.
 (see the following photos)

Note the archeologists at work.

One thing you will not see is the Temple of Artemis (Diana), which was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  The Goths destroyed it in 268 A.D.  It may have been rebuilt, but another John, St John Chrysostom (a noted anti-Semite) led an angry mob in 401 A.D. to finish the job.

Immediately, you find yourself asking:  What were the other six Wonders of the Ancient World?  Second question:  Where the hell is my guidebook?  Gotcha covered, bro.  The Great Pyramid of Giza (still standing), The Colossus of Rhodes, Lighthouse of Alexandria, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (all three destroyed by earthquakes, Statue of Zeus (like The Temple of Artemis purposefully destroyed), and The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which may or may not have existed.

The Library of Celsus
Back to Ephesus’ stone streets.  A most impressive structure is the façade of the Library of Celsus, built to hold some 12,000 scrolls.  Completed around 135 A.D., 130 years later earthquakes and fire wrecked it, and a thousand years after that, a similar catastrophe completed the destruction.  Archeologists reconstructed the face of it in the mid 1970s.

I’ve given you just a few tidbits, a small hors d’oeuvre at a banquet of archeological and historical delights.  If you enjoyed Pompeii, you’ll suck up Ephesus like an alcoholic historian. Both cities lead you back thousands of years, into the still beating hearts of lost civilizations.

Applause follows.  Light kisses on the cheek from the glamorous, sophisticated ladies.  Boisterous slaps on the back from the well-traveled men of the world.

The Temple of Hadrian as it looks today

The Temple of Hadrian as it once looked.

Remains of the Roman (and Greek) baths.