Archive for 2010

Proper Introductions: When Knighthood Was in Flower

Monday, October 25th, 2010

"There lived a Knight, when Knighthood was in flow'r, Who charmed alike the tilt-yard and the bow'r."

You don’t have to spend much time around here to know that I am a Romantic of the old order. I love the tenderness of a well-turned phrase, the high sensibility of a love letter. My heart plunges and rises and plunges again with the pathos of a Chopin nocturne and I am always the one sniffling in the theatre at the end of a Jane Austen movie.

And I absolutely adored When Knighthood Was in Flower.

It was one of those books that you will always remember the time and the setting of your first reading: I was twenty-one and it was August and I spent several languorous summer afternoons in its thrall, sprawled across my bed with a plate of crisp apple slices and only occasionally coming up for air or a drink of water. I can still recall the breathless page-turning (how often do books really grant that pleasure in this distract-able age?) and the gasp and sob at a particularly poignant turn of events. (I even got choked up merely telling Philip about it the other night, all these years later…)

When Knighthood Was in Flower was written by Charles Major in 1898 and basically instigated an entire generation of historical romantic novels. It was #9 on the list of Best-Selling American novels in 1900, and has been adapted for the stage and several film productions, including Disney’s 1953 The Sword and the Rose.

It is the story of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII and the courtly commoner, Charles Brandon, and is told in a charming first-person narrative from the perspective of a friend to both, Edwin Caskoden, the royal Master of the Dance. (Charles Major even went so far as to have written the book under the pen name of Caskoden, furthering the sense of authenticity to the events portrayed.)

It is truly a beautiful read, gilted with the pure, flashing gleam of chivalry and gemmed with passages fit to pierce the heart.

“…how rich is a man who has laid up such treasures of memory to grow the sweeter as he feeds upon them.  A rich memory is better than hope, for it lasts after fruition, and serves us at a time when hope has failed and fruition is but—a memory. Ah! how we cherish it in our hearts, and how it comes at our beck and call to thrill us through and through and make us thank God we have lived, and wonder in our hearts why he has given poor undeserving us so much.”

Charles Major, When Knighthood Was in Flower

Incidentally, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is another title by Charles Major and his second best-seller. It was published in 1902 and tells the story of an Elizabethan heiress, set against the harrowing history of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books.

A Time to Keep

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

animals who act like it's Spring

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.

~George Eliot

lettuces in the cold frame

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

~John Keats, Ode to Autumn


Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

~Emily Bronte

October mornings

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayest rest
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

~William Blake, To Autumn

blue clouds of mist flowers

All-cheering Plenty, with her flowing horn,
Led yellow Autumn, wreath’d with nodding corn.

~Robert Burns, Brigs of Ayr

the barnyard raj

I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

a new baby (her name is Hetty)

Desperately trying to keep–to fully live–these fleeing hours and days of the year’s tender flourish, mostly by heeding Hawthorne’s advice above. Counting up what I love, what makes my heart glad and makes each day’s beauty so lucid and real.  Opening my eyes to see, not merely look. Catching at the gossamer strands of the poignant season as they fly and weaving my praise in a pattern of wordless joy…

God bless you all in autumn’s gilding as His touch sets the world aflame…

A Book’s Beauty

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

It’s easy to forget—or perhaps never fully realize in the first place—just what a treasure we hold in our hands in the form of a book.

Household Words, published by Charles Dickens

In times not too far past, books were solely the possession of the wealthy. As recently as the publication dates of many of my favorite nineteenth century novels, books were serialized in magazine format so as to be affordable to the common people. In some cases, whole villages would go in to purchase one copy for the local pub, from which a designated reader would enthrall the listeners in weekly installments. Charles Dickens was certainly a pioneer of such journals, and it was a profitable medium by which to introduce writers and their words to the middle classes. His now legendary publication Household Words was where equally legendary works like Cranford and The Song of the Western Men first saw the light of day. (Though I have heard tales of what a tyrant he could be when it came to word count—apparently that is why Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South ends so abruptly, as he basically told her to ‘wrap it up’.)

The history of books as we know them and the effects of industrialization upon their original craftsmanship is a fascinating one, and at times as fraught with peril and heroism as the best legends. Not only did the monks of the early Middle Ages preserve the written words in their keeping from barbarian invasions—often in the face of unimaginable violence—they established the criteria of true artisan standards in the bindings of the books themselves. From clumsy wooden boards encasing animal skin parchments, they progressed the work of bookbinding to a high art, to include elaborate tooled leather covers (sometimes studded with jewels) and meticulously-penned pages characterized by gilded illuminations and flourishing script. These books were so valuable—as irreplaceable as the lifetime spent crafting them—that they were secured with chains and heavy gold clasps (themselves often engraved with exquisite designs) within the monastery library. (I have to wonder at which modern developments they would be more amazed: the mass-production standards of industrial binderies or the cavalier treatment of library books!)

"Lucy! Lucy! What's that book? Who's been taking a book out of the shelf and leaving it about to spoil?" "It's only the library book that Cecil's been reading." "But pick it up, and don't stand idling there like a flamingo." ~ A Room With a View, E. M. Forster

The amazing thing is that not that much really changed in the binding of books from the monks’ early advances until the mechanization provided by the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of paper-making from the Far East in the tenth century opened new vistas of possibility and established the “signature”—or large sheets folded and cut to create smaller folios of standard page sizes—as the basic component of a book’s structure, a basic process that endures to this day. And under the stimulus of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400’s, the creation of text leapt from hand-written pages or wooden block impressions, to the endless variety and availability of movable type. Book-making became the property of printers or the life trade of binders. And the concept of a ‘home library’ was born.

...A thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts of conditions. ~Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Though it would still take several centuries to streamline the craft sufficiently to make books affordable beyond the confines of the wealthy, book-making preserved certain careful requisites over the years. The signatures were pierced along the spine edge and sewn together with fine linen thread, attached to cords in much the same way as the medieval bindings. In later interpretations, these were glued to a strip of tarlatan or English mull which was then glued to the boards while the cords were woven into the boards themselves for superior durability. This mull is the ‘webbing’ that is often visible in the cracked hinges of old books—a dignified, if ‘natty’ mark of good breeding on the part of the book itself. If you look inside the front and back covers of an old book, or a well-made new one, you can see the ghost of the mull beneath the endpapers. The spine itself was never glued to the binding—this is a modern contrivance. Instead, the book was built around a hollow back, through which the surfaces of the cords were visible. This is where we get the tradition of decorated panels between raised bands in spines—they are merely ‘faux cords’, built up to resemble the originals.

The replacement of the leather cords with cotton tape in the bindings, and the 1820’s innovation of starch-filled cloth coverings, both contributed to the leveling of the field—it’s interesting to consider how little such changes may have had to do with book-makers’ benevolence and how much with seemingly unrelated political and social events. At any rate, cotton and linen became an affordable choice for the middle classes, and the book industry grew with the demand.

The Industrial Revolution flung wide the doors and made books the possession of the masses. A triumph for literacy, but, unfortunately, a travesty for the art of the book itself. Literally thrown together by machines at a dizzying rate of speed, all the old loving, careful craftsmanship and most of the fine materials gave way to mass-production and popular prices.

There were some, even at that time, that thought the cost too high—the loss of an artisan skill and a market potentially flooded with twaddle. With astounding foresight and knowledge of the dangers of full mechanization of society, they championed a grassroots movement devoted, among other things, to the renewal of integrity in the book trade by way of small, private presses.

The man at the helm was one William Morris. And the movement was none other than Arts and Crafts…

Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris in 1891

to  be continued in Part Two…

Proper Introductions: Rumer Godden

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Rumer Godden, 1907-1998

At the gentle (and brilliant) suggestion of a reader, I have decided to act upon a notion I had back in the summer, before I even opened the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books, namely, a series of proper introductions to the authors and titles you will find on my shelves.  My  books are selected with great care and intention as it has been my ambition to create a space of trust and beauty and worth wherein my readers may peruse with abandon–without having to wade through what Charlotte Mason so endearingly termed ‘twaddle’. Granted, there is plenty of lighter reading amid my tomes, but that mainly of a nineteenth or early-twentieth century variety and, consequently, wholesome in tone and moral structure. The books in my shop are there for a reason, either by first-hand experience with the title itself or by a confiding trust in the author based on previous encounters with other works.

Basically, I am always hunting and selecting the authors I love and the books I love for the sheer joy of sharing them. Many have asked how I can bear to part with them–I must confess with a blush that many I already own. Mrs. Downs always said that a real book collector is bound to become a book seller one day or another out of sheer necessity! But even the ones which don’t reside in my personal library are a literal delight to pass on as I envision (and even hear of) the delight with which they are received.

I am hoping that these social pleasantries will aid you, not only as you cast your eyes over the titles and descriptions in my shop, but in making the acquaintance of these books and their authors in your own corners of the world.

And now, without further ado, I present Rumer Godden.

My first introduction to Rumer Godden came by way of a picture of the books on a bedside table of a respected writer. I didn’t have to know more than that to send me scurrying to the library to check out The Greengage Summer. The writing was not sparkling–it was shimmering, luminescent, by times restrained and luscious, filled with beauties that hurt and honesty that was painful at times. I’m not a big fan of ‘coming-of-age’ novels as they all seem to follow a rather predictable route with a lot of predictable and usually distasteful elements. Greengage broke that mold for me, and left me wanting more of Godden’s gorgeous prose. She reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Goudge, with her depth of perception and insistence upon prying beneath the surface of things, not to mention her obvious love of beauty. And though this particular novel did not reveal the deep spiritual vein that I was to encounter in other works, I knew, somehow, that it was there.

Rumer Godden was born in Sussex, England in 1907, and spent her childhood in Colonial India, returning to Calcutta to open a dance school in 1925. She died in 1998 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Much of her prose is flavored with the customs and conflicts of the British regime in India, and, later, with the devotion of Catholicism, to which she converted in 1968. She was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and she wrote more than 60 works during her lifetime.

There are a number of Godden’s books on my shelves.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is the story of a single English mother making a determined way for herself and her children in the Eden-like Vale of Kashmir–against the best counsel of her friends and advisers.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy tells the agonizing story of Lise, a former prostitute who finds her vocation among a society of nuns in post-war Paris, and is a good example of how Godden can write of truly horrifying and heart-breaking things without being more graphic than is absolutely necessary.

China Court is a tale of an English country house in Cornwall and of the family who has lived in it for over 100 years. Drawing on the medieval Book of Hours, Godden intertwines the five generations with the ‘Hours’ of China Court, from Lauds to Matins.

The Creatures’ Choir is a lovely translation she made of the French nun Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Choral de Betes. An absolutely delightful collection of poems based on the prayers of 26 of God’s creatures, ranging from the swallow to the starfish, the peacock, the mother hen, the hedgehog and the flea.

In This House of Brede is personally one of my very favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from a review I wrote of it for YLCF:

From the very first pages of Brede I knew that this book was like nothing I had read before. It is the story of a wealthy and successful career woman who enters a Benedictine monastery in England in the 1950’s, and much of the detail of cloistered life was taken from Godden’s own experience of living in the gatehouse of an English Abbey for three years. Philippa Talbot’s story is woven amid that of the threads of the other nuns and novices in a tapestry as complex and beautiful as the richly-colored ceremonial vestments made with loving skill in the workrooms of Brede Abbey. It is a tale that is strangely gripping for its quiet setting of shaded cloisters and flowering parkland. But the real venue is the hearts of the women who inhabit the monastery, and the true drama lies in the choices they make whether or not to give Christ full sway in their lives. It is an absolutely gorgeous book, radiant with spiritual truth and written with a lovely starkness that only emphasizes the renunciations these courageous women have made. But it is a starkness that glows beneath with warmth and fire and godly love, and it rings with what Phyllis Tickle in her introduction calls a ‘bright sadness’.

I do hope that this helps a little if you have never met Rumer Godden. I think she’s well worth getting to know.

"The stitch of a book is its words." ~R.G.

Back to a City of Bells

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

...a faint mist of autumn hung over roofs and towers, a mist that seemed to be of gold dust... ~Elizabeth Goudge, 'A City of Bells'

What a perilous thing is revisiting.

In retracing the steps of former joys, one always runs the risk of replacement. There is always the danger of finding things not quite so magical as memory has painted them. Be it the effect of time or merely the angle of the sun on a given day and our soul’s alignment with it, we can never really recreate a past happiness. Once vouchsafed, a remembered joy is ours to keep in token and pledge of the eternal joys it signifies. But not ours to recover; that’s not in our power any more than the original gifting. That’s part of the deal.

But there’s a contrary to this fact, an opposing force that lures us back to scenes and settings where we have known a deep encounter of the soul, all danger notwithstanding. It’s the longing that stares down the fear of change and makes high adventure and pilgrimage of a simple return visit. And I believe that it is truly spiritual at its heart, as all profound desires really are. It stems from the same motivation as that of the patriarchs, scattering their altars to the Living God in the wake of their wanderings. A going-back can be a reaffirmation. It can be a context within which the mercies of God stand out in startling color and where we silently bow the soul and remember the miracle of His kindness.

O joy, O joy, For the humming street and the child with its toy. For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well. ~Matthew Arnold

I experienced this very thing last September, standing on the Green before the western front of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England. We had driven over from Devon, leaving our cottage in its steep, wooded combe well before daylight, crossing into Somerset in a dawn-lit haze of autumn mists. The early gilding on shrouded hills and hedgerows, the light-filled vapors out of which materialized church steeples and barn roofs, seemed things of joy in themselves and a loving prophecy over the gladness of our day.

We had promised ourselves that we would come back one day, after that dazed and happy Maytime discovery when the sudden realization that we were literally walking in the pages of an Elizabeth Goudge novel had been treasure and gift. Dear Wells! I think it must be the most perfect little city in England—in the world! And never more so than on a sunny Sunday morning in September with the day’s first kiss gleaming on the cobbles and wakening the riotous colors of flowers burgeoning from every basket and barrel in town. The streets were so quiet as we made our way to the Cathedral, expecting at any moment to see the towers and spires looming golden above the medieval gates, that the place seemed enchanted, dreaming over days gone by. But just as before—just as if I had never seen the majestic western front with its myriad carvings and portraits in stone mounting to the blue sky in a triumph that could never be mistaken for mere loftiness—it took my breath away.

I stood on the quiet Green in a kind of rapture. And then I turned to Philip, who was just as delighted as I was.

“Let’s pretend that we live here!” I cried. “Just for this one day!”

And for one magical day, we did.

We passed before the western front and beneath the age-blackened Penniless Porch to find the High Street and its pretty Market Place almost as deserted as the Green. The cobbles were shining and the well at its heart was bedecked with flowers, geraniums and petunias and impatiens. Tucking into a quaint little café just outside the shelter of the Porch we had a “full English” in a sunny window overlooking the square until the bells summoned us back to the Cathedral for sung mattins.

We entered the hush and holiness of the great house of God at an ancient oaken door in the western front and made our way down the shadowy aisles to the Quire, from whence the strains of organ music were issuing. The steward directed us to a seat just behind the choir stalls, to my infinite joy and satisfaction, and we took our places in an awe-filled silence. I didn’t know where to look first—from the centuries-old yet still-vibrant tapestries that hung behind the stalls, to the soaring vaults of the magnificent roof, to the splendor and radiance of the exquisite Golden Window to the east. But then the choir processed in with the clergy and the beautiful old service of sung mattins had begun. And I could think of nothing else.

We followed with a quiet joy through the hymns, the lessons, the responses, and before the service was half-over we both knew, as we confessed to each other afterwards, that we were coming back at three for evensong.

Instantly it seemed that they had come to the very center of peace... ~Elizabeth Goudge, 'A City of Bells'

After service we spotted the friends we had arranged to meet—another golden blessing upon our day—and hastened to catch up with them in the Cloisters. Hugs and then proper introductions all around before repairing to a pub on the High for lunch and the face-to-face conversation we’d been looking forward to for so long. As Aaron and Jessica were agreeable to the evensong plan, we spent the intervening time wandering about the city, weaving back towards the Cathedral by way of the medieval Vicar’s Close just north of the great edifice, brought to life by Elizabeth Goudge as Henrietta’s little street of walled gardens and uniquely personified houses in A City of Bells.

We made it back to the Quire just in time to take our seats, this time quite intentionally behind the choirstalls. And the organ swelled and the clergy processed in once more and the robed choir—this time with the cherubic addition of the boy choristers, fidgeting with their ruffled collars and holding their music almost before their very noses.

The evensong service was even more worshipful to me than the mattins had been, as I was able to enjoy the magnificent setting as a part of the very act as opposed to a wonder in itself. It has always been so striking to me to consider the particulars of a cathedral’s construction, and with what careful intention each feature was designed to anchor the unseen realities and draw a worshipper inwards and upwards with an irresistible awe. To lift my eyes to that splendid Golden Window that seemed to spill the very light of heaven as the choir sang of lifting one’s eyes to the Lord; to close them and sense the glory and joy that awaits every saint as the music resonates with the joy of the Gloria; to face the east as a body with strong voices invoking together the great Creed of my faith—all of these things make worship a very real and tangible thing for me.

The Magnificat was a setting by Howells and it was so firmly triumphant that my heart swelled and throbbed and my eyes burned. I glanced over at Philip, and his eyes were wet, too. It was that magnificent, and had about it, strangely, that same sense of sublimity as that moment in time at Cape Cornwall. And those beautiful little choir boys, with their distracted, fidgety air and wandering gazes, opening their mouths perfectly on cue and giving us perhaps the purest music on earth.

Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible... ~Elizabeth Goudge, 'A City of Bells'

After our friends had gone we strolled slowly over the Cathedral, still wrapped in the golden haze of happiness that the service had produced. We visited the Chapter House, mounting the stone steps worn by 700 years’ worth of bishops and clerics, deploring the senseless destruction of many of the carvings by Cromwell’s men; we peered at the Cathedral towers through the tiny leaded lattice of the Chain Gate, by which the vicars passed from their residential Close into the Chapter House and Cathedral. We visited the tomb of the knight that Henrietta favored and paid our respects to the faithful little dog at his feet, waiting patiently all these hundreds of years.

“I can perfectly understand how Elizabeth Goudge could have an imagination fired early with such color and life,” I whispered to Philip, “with the spiritual and the holy literally breathing through it, being born in a place like this!”

This Cathedral in this lovely little gem of a city in the midst of this green and pleasant land.

We walked back down the echoing aisle hand in hand and stood long at the western door, admiring the symmetry of the medieval “scissor arches” and the grey forest of pillars stretching into the distance of the nearly-deserted nave.

After supper at the same pub we’d had lunch in, Philip went to get the car and I cherished my last few moments in the heart of Wells. I walked all around the Market Place in the gathering dusk, breathing in the beauty and the quiet—even the street musicians packing up from their quarters beneath the Penniless Porch and bantering with people they passed on their way back down the street seemed touched with the sheen of fancy like a centuries-old vignette in the cool magic of the night. I passed beneath the arches of the Porch and stood on the Green one last time, looking up at the beautiful edifice golden against the evening sky as if the very stones were alive and lit from within. Serene and benevolent it seemed in that light, with the time-worn faces of the saints and apostles and kings and queens gazing placidly down.

They stood in their ranks, rising higher and higher, kings and queens and saints and angels, remote and still. ~Elizabeth Goudge, 'A City of Bells'

“I’ll come back,” I promised both them and myself. I’ll keep tryst again.

Then back through the Porch and back to the well were I sat until Philip returned, looking dreamily at the golden spires rising over the golden gates, like a vision of the Heavenly City.

The joy of the day was a tangible thing shared between us. We had braved the loss of our first sweet fascination with the place and found it doubled—trebled. We had known the blessing of God there once more. We hope to know it again, to retrace our steps one day and marvel anew at the love that broods over our ways.

We drove home that night in a mostly-silence of utter content, with the waxing moon and her lady-in-waiting of an evening star raining silver down upon us.

But that moon told me how long we’d been there, and how soon we’d have to go.

“One full moon to another!” we had once said so merrily.

It had seemed endless. And it had flown, as all truly happy things have a way of doing.

But it was ours. And it was as safe as memory could make it.

It was the time of year when Torminster was at its loveliest, a moment when it seemed that the streets of the city were paved with gold. ~Elizabeth Goudge, 'A City of Bells'

Superlatively Cornwall

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Here was the freedom I desired, long sought for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone. ~Daphne du Maurier, 'Vanishing Cornwall'

A year ago I was waking up in England.

I was going to sleep at night to the sound of the sea pounding on a Cornish shore and opening my eyes in the morning to the carol of robins and the cry of gulls outside the open casement. Lying amid downy pillows, drowsily bewitched by the glitter and dance of crystalline light upon green, growing things. Stealing to the window seat to lean out and drink in the eternal freshness that is the essence of England.

Dearly as I had anticipated this trip, familiar and beloved of old as was the English countryside to my exiled heart, I never could have dreamed what the West Country would come to mean to Philip and me. How this particular bit of Cornwall would enslave us for life in a captivity we’d never wish our freedom from and would haunt us to the point of pain upon the slightest remembrance. We’ve been remembering with a vengeance this month, all those bright, blessed days of high adventure out in a little car we’d named Black Bess, with a picnic in the back and the AA atlas spread open on my knees and no earthly idea where we’d end up. Meandering lanes so narrow the ferns and campions brushed both of Bess’ sides at once. Sailing over golden, wheat-stubbled uplands with startling flashes of sapphire sea glimpsed between the hedges, and scuttling down cobbled streets into Cornish villages that seemed to clutch for sheer life to the cliffs that encased them.

An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. ~Henry David Thoreau

There were whole days on foot, as well, when our peregrinations took us high among the cliffs themselves, their sheer faces silvered in the light of the sun and the aquamarine waters seething and foaming on the rocks far below. The dizzying precipice before us and the romance of headlands green and misty with distance to the east and the west seemed the stuff of legend come to life. By the end of our sojourn we knew them all by name and most by fond association. Sandwiches in the field bag and blackberries from the hedgerows were manna and ambrosia on those days, and there was always a bit of a village to dip down into via a steep footpath for a pint of ale or a bracing cup of tea or some Cornish ice cream.

One afternoon our wanderings took us as far as St. Michael’s Mount, and after enjoying the property—a former castle turned residence reached only by boat at high tide—we decided to venture on towards Land’s End, the westernmost tip of England.

“Might as well,” Philip said. “We’re that close.”

So accordingly we navigated unmarked roads winding along the coast and down into villages that seemed to have been forgotten for centuries. But as we drew near to Land’s End itself I began to have some forebodings, and upon sight of the long queue of cars and the monstrous shopping plaza crowning the famous point, we kept going without a second thought, congratulating ourselves on a disaster averted. The quandary of tea presented itself as a serious one, however, for I taken hold upon the thought of our portable refreshment in view of a lovely sweep of Cornish coast with the tenacity of a rat terrier. Unspoilt was a requisite; deserted would be a plus. (And only Philip can tell just how grudgingly I relinquish such a notion once embraced…)

“I wonder what Cape Cornwall is,” I mused, my finger on the map.

“Let’s find out!” said my adventurous husband.

The guidebook informed us that it had once been thought the westernmost point in England until more accurate mapping awarded that distinction to Land’s End. As we crested the last hill and looked down upon the scene that opened before us—the turf-covered hills sweeping to dramatic cliffs, Highland cattle grazing placidly among crumbling stone walls, a blue sea crashing its violence upon deserted rocks and a high mount crowned with the remains of an engine chimney from the long-vanished days of tin mining—we both had the same thought.

I uttered it first:

“I’m glad—glad—this isn’t the westernmost point!”

How we love and smile over the British superlative, in constant employment to distinguish one wonder of earth or architecture from another in a realm crowded with such miracles: the smallest medieval church in England; the tallest steeple on the north coast of Devon; the widest girth of oaks in Herefordshire.

More spectacular than the small inland mines are the chimneys and engine-houses of those built above the sea, perched like the nests of eagles. ~Daphne du Maurier, 'Vanishing Cornwall'

But to think of such a characterization spoiling so majestic a place—as we’d seen it done just down the road—was too painful to contemplate. And so we didn’t. We grabbed our tea satchel out of the back of Black Bess and we started off immediately over one of those green pastures, passing through a gate in the stone wall with a friendly sign reminding us to close it behind, making our way down among the grazing cattle. Behind us, the high, bracken-covered hills glowing russet in the afternoon sunlight. Before, the towering mount, rock-strewn and forbidding even in its mantle of grass and wild flowers. Only once were we given pause in our merry objective: a bull lifted his head from the turf he was nibbling, pawed the ground rather half-heartedly, and started to advance, piqued, no doubt, by my scarlet skirt which was flapping a challenge in the wind. We edged by with a pacifying word or two and a noticeable sigh of relief.

A footpath led down among the cliffs on the eastern side of the mount, and it was there by swift and mutual agreement that we decided to pause for our tea: there where the land ended at the terrible beauty of cliffs falling sheer to the roiling tempest below and where silence deferred to the terrible music of the sea breaking on time-blackened rocks. I dropped down upon the soft turf in my billowing red skirt and stared, trying to seal it all upon my memory in every particular. Off to the northeast, more green-capped cliffs and the remains of another engine house, ghostly, strangely symbolic of Cornwall and the natural resources that have failed them again and again. Closer by, a singe white cottage clinging to the cliffs like a seagull roosting momentarily, and the great diadem of a Victorian mansion crowning the hill above. The sea pounding so fearsomely below that it made me giddy to peer over the cliff’s edge. The pure white of the spray and the shocking blue of the clear water. The sea birds wheeling above our heads. The lovely and mighty headlands dreaming in the golden haze of a late afternoon in September. The Isles of Scilly, a dim outline on the western horizon, the very embodiment of ‘fairie lands forlorn’. It was so beautiful, so simply breathtaking, that it seared and stabbed and kindled a longing that was akin to despair.

I know it now for what it was, for what it meant. It was Homesickness. For a place I’ve never seen and a Country towards which all the beauty of this world stands as waymarkers.

I have never felt so unequal to the description of a place or the impression it made on me, but as we were sitting there together in the wind, a prospect of unearthly beauty all around us and a bracing cup of West Country tea in our hands, I smiled over at Philip.

“It would have been worth it,” I told him, breaking our silence, “the money saved, the hassle of leaving, the flight over, traveling halfway around the world, just if we’d come for this one moment alone. This is enough.”

Even the terror and folly of scrambling out on the natural bridge that spanned out from the cliff at our feet was a wild sort of gift of the place. A foot-wide passage dropping sheer on either hand to jagged rocks and boiling sea far below, the narrow sides of which seemed to shrink and deteriorate even as one traversed it—my sickening fear and the laughing relief of safe ground again only made the romance more real.

“Whatever possessed me to go out on that crumbling bridge?” I asked Philip a few evenings ago amid the tame, domestic shadows of our front porch, shuddering involuntarily though the night was warm. “Was I crazy?”

“Yes,” he laughed with satisfaction. “But you remember it, don’t you?”

I remember it. I will remember it with pain and joy and sadness and longing all the days of my life. I will remember standing on top of the mount itself, feeling that close to the Heaven it made me ache for. I will remember the lingering walk back through the green hill fields, past the tiny ruin of ‘the oldest Christian chapel in Cornwall’ with cows grazing around it, through the friendly gate that had admitted us to such outer courts. I will remember leaning over that final stone wall with a loving, desperate eye and then turning to go without looking back.

I think I will remember it even in Heaven.

The beauty and the mystery beckon still... ~Daphne du Maurier, 'Vanishing Cornwall'

A Harrowing Tale

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

I felt like the villain in a Gothic novel.

I had stormed the castle gates, hooded and veiled, and thrown the guards into confusion with a diversion of smoke. Right to the very heart of the fortress I plied, past those who fain would shield their queen to the death, into the sacred quarters of the monarch herself. Sweeping the sentry aside (albeit gently), I took the lady captive and spirited her away before her subjects half-knew what was happening.

It was then that the rush of peril abated somewhat and the high adventure of the thing started to break down. All I can say is that it was a good thing my husband was working at home that day.

“Philip!” I shrieked, running towards the house, gloved hands cupped carefully over the prisoner. “What do I do now?”

It had seemed so easy in theory. The books had all made the process of re-queening a hive so simple and straightforward. And, as I realized now to my supremely wounded sensibilities, utterly, utterly heartless.

We put her in a jar and set her on the counter. And we looked at her. So very beautiful with dainty wings all out of proportion to the long amber body and one small white spot where the apiary had marked her for the benefit of novice beekeepers. We knew what we were supposed to do. What the books would tell us we had to do for the sake of the whole hive and the new queen that was waiting in a box in the dining room to assume her throne. But there was just no way that either one of us could do it. Nothing so senseless as that.

“I could take her in the car when I go out later and release her,” Philip said.

“It has to be a good three miles away,” I replied, my eyes still bent on the bee, struggling against her invisible walls. “To be safe.”

Last summer we had weathered a fiasco of virgin queens in a failing colony that rivaled any of the treacheries of the Stuarts and the Tudors. We captured one swarm only to have a rash of micro-swarms break out later in the day all over the yard as various bees swore their allegiance to the newly-hatched queen of their choice. We couldn’t risk that again, or the very real danger of the bees taking matters into their own hands and doing away with the new queen in the presence of the old one.

And while the nearly-empty brood frames confirmed our fears that “Mary Mac” just wasn’t laying, her former service to the colony demanded—in our minds , at least—a nobler end than an unceremonious squashing. More of a riding off into the sunset. Or perhaps a wild colony of queenless bees…

At any rate, foolish or otherwise, we took her for a ride and let her go. Offered the choice between wise-and-cold-blooded and foolish-but-merciful, I’m going to stick with the latter any day.

The next day we returned to the pillaged hive and placed a small box with a screened top on the floor between two of the frames. Then we closed it all back up again with a prayer that the bees would accept the new queen as their only hope of making it through the winter. Today I went back in with a pounding heart. I removed the super and peered down into the hive body. The little box was covered with bees but their attitude was unclear down in the dimness between the brood frames. I lifted it out into the sunlight and held it up close to my veiled face. There didn’t seem to be any hostility there—the bees were strolling over the surface of the queen cage with apparent indifference to my impertinent proximity. I took off a glove—carefully, hoping no one would notice—and gently pried the screen from the cage, tapping it as I did against a frame of brood that I had laid across the top of the open hive. Out she came, gasping, no doubt, from her long confinement, and instantly the bees were upon her.

I held my breath and prayed out loud. This was the moment of truth. Either they would receive her as their new monarch, or they would instantly fall upon her as a usurper, ‘balling’ her and putting an end to matters within moments.

Were their movements gestures of acceptance? Were they cleaning and preening her—or attacking her? Being the greenhorn that I am, I had absolutely no idea. I picked up the discarded cage, making ready to put her back in should things turn ugly.

But then something incredibly beautiful started to happen. As the new queen stumbled over the bees and brood of the frame, the workers all fanned out around her in an unmistakable dance of welcome. They circled her like the weavings of an ancient rondeau and fluttered their small wings in welcome. I seriously could not believe my eyes.

And I find it hard, so very hard to believe that someone could not believe in a God of order and beauty and breathless creativity after looking into a beehive.

I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me to be a Queen, as to be a Queen over so thankful a people. ~ Elizabeth I

Lucy Maud Weather

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." ~Anne Shirley

My sister and I have always held that this is the perfect time of year to be reading a Lucy Maud Montgomery book. No matter how many times they’ve been read and re-read—the condition of my beloved paperbacks is quite appalling!—there is just something about September that seems to evoke a mood sufficiently wistful to fully savor the beauty of her books.

I have only to think of them and the precious friends they gave me, Emily, Pat, Kilmeny, Valancy and, of course, the immortal Anne, to feel enlivened with lovely ideals. But to fall into one of them: to settle down amongst the orchards and hill fields that Lucy Maud brought to life before us, to amble along Lover’s Lane with Anne wrapped in a reverie, or to see the home lights of Silver Bush winking out comfortably in an autumn night—this is pure bliss. For me it’s grounding and good medicine, like a heart-to-heart talk with a beloved companion. And trusty companions these books have surely proved themselves to be, in my girlhood and in my womanhood alike. They gave me a vision long ago of what a beauty-filled life could look like in a completely ordinary setting, and for that I will be eternally grateful. And whenever I need reinforcement, it’s never farther away than the second shelf from the bottom of my bookcase.

Our summer was over. It had been a beautiful one. We had known the sweetness of common joys, the delight of dawns, the dream and glamour of noontides, the long, purple peace of carefree nights. We had had the pleasure of bird song, of silver rain on greening fields, of storm among the trees, of blossoming meadows, and of the converse of whispering leaves. We had had brotherhood with wind and star, with books and tales, and hearth fires of autumn. Ours had been the little, loving tasks of every day, blithe companionship, shared thoughts, and adventuring. Rich were we in the memory of those opulent months that had gone from us–richer than we then knew or suspected. And before us was the dream of spring. It is always safe to dream of spring. For it is sure to come; and if it be not just as we have pictured it, it will be infinitely sweeter.

~Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Story Girl

originally published on

Congratulations are in order…

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

"Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?"- Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

The ‘chic vintage affair’ with which I envisioned conducting the drawing just wouldn’t cut it for the outpouring of entries that came in, so I had to resort to a slightly more no-nonsense chapeau in straw and black velvet. (But it is rather more Anne-ish than a feathered and frilled number, wouldn’t you agree?) I just have to say that I was completely overwhelmed and delighted with your response to the very first giveaway drawing here at Lanier’s Books. You were all so generous with your words and your recommendations that I feel like we have a wealth of richness right here in the comments section. So many of my beloved friends were mentioned that I quit trying to jump in and comment myself for fear of cluttering things up with my rhapsodies–but what joy it gave me to see all the shared loves and connections occurring among you! And so many new titles and authors to meet! Thank you for joining in with such enthusiasm. I wish I had the words at my command to let you all know just how encouraging your friendly participation has been to me and how much I cherish your kindness. And I wish I was able to give a book to every single one of you! But without further ado, allow me introduce to you our winner:

Judi Hayes, who offered us Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl

(Judi, if you will send me your address via my secure contact form or via email to laniersbooks AT gmail DOT com, I will package your book and drop it in the mail post-haste.)

Thank you, again, dear friends, for entering into the spirit of things! This has been so much fun that I promise it will be the first of many drawings and giveaways here at Lanier’s Books. 🙂 Be sure and take a look at all the favorite book recommendations if you haven’t had a chance…

(And have a peek in the Bookshop tomorrow to see some new titles on the shelves…)

Party Favors

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

"Many happy returns of the day," said Piglet...

One month ago I drafted a post introducing the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books and I pushed ‘Publish’ with a pounding heart.

Four weeks later, we hit the 100-mark with books sold and marked the first small anniversary of a dream-come-true.

“I can’t believe I’ve done this one hundred times,” I told Philip as he watched me wrapping the illustrious volume.

I can’t believe that I get to do this. I can’t believe that I get to play emissary between these treasures and the readers that love them. I can’t believe the kindred connections that have been made in a month. The glowing kindnesses of comments and emails. The breathtaking gift that surprised me by ‘return post’ one day last week.

I am truly overwhelmed. And so very grateful–to God and to the kind folks that take the time to stop in here–that I wanted to do something to acknowledge it. I wanted to have a little party. And to give away a one-month birthday present.

The title I selected is a very special one: Elizabeth Goudge’s A Diary of Prayer. It’s a book that has meant a lot to me personally, and a lovely and inspiring look at the prayers that influenced our own dear Elizabeth.

So here’s what you have to do: leave a comment below recommending a favorite book (these will be gifts in themselves!) and perhaps a little memento of what it’s meant in your life. The comment form will be open until midnight EST on Saturday the 4th of September.  A winner will be selected by the very unscientific but historically reliable method of name-drawing out of a hat (I promise to make it a chic, vintage affair) and will be announced on Sunday the 5th.

And thank you, again, dear readers and friends, for making this little site a place that you pause on the web. I hope and pray that it’s a ‘pause that refreshes’.

So Owl wrote…and this is what he wrote:
Pooh looked on admiringly.
“I’m just saying ‘A Happy Birthday’,” said Owl carelessly.
“It’s a nice long one,” said Pooh, very much impressed by it.

from Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents, A. A. Milne