Thursday, June 11, 2015


tug o'war

"This is a diminutive letter, but you excuse duodecimos in summer."  From Volume IV of The Letters of Horace Walpole (p.2).  This post will be necessarily short as well, since I am preparing for one of my annual painting trips.  Art supplies yes, but what to pack for books?  The question looms.  More Walpole...?  This Walpole shelf houses the set I am slowly reading my way through.  As you might guess from this picture, I am in the midst of Volume IV:   

And it is absolutely riveting!  I have no time to get into the details, but will say that the letters amble quietly along for a while, then BOOM, all hell breaks loose!  (Okay, okay - Walpole's beloved cousin gets kicked out of the army and out of parliament, and Walpole defends him, and the ensuing letters and Walpole's own footnotes with all the backstory - very meta indeed - kept me reading late into the night - I know this sounds dry as dust, but not so! trust me!)   But, back to packing for my trip - do I want to drag Walpole off to a tiny island where I won't be doing much reading anyway?  And, then, there is this to consider - the seven cartons of books we bought at the village book, plant, and bake sale last weekend includes the following, which have somehow formed my next to-be-read, or at least to-be-browsed pile:

There are some tempting diversions in this stack - new reads and re-reads both!  Thus I am experiencing an internal struggle - a literary tug o'war - about whether or not to allow any of these books to derail me from the Walpole set before I'm even at the halfway point.  A slippery slope, to mix metaphors.  I'll confess that I've already read one book from the booksale - this shabby charmer:

Round About Chatsworth by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Frances Lincoln 2005), aka Deborah Mitford.  Such a pleasing little picture book, illustrating long walks from the main house to each of the points of the compass, in all seasons, replete with quirky landmarks, outlying cottages and farm buildings, and generally gorgeous English countryside.  The Dowager Duchess has opinions about historic preservation and bureaucracy and doesn't hesitate to share them in her to-the-point text.  Not that she's acerbic, exactly, I mean, look at her, there on the back cover: 

But she does have decided opinions, based on hard-won experience.  Isn't she dear, in the bracken?  I remind myself that reading her book was not, in fact, straying far from Walpole at all, since he himself visits Chatsworth in Volume III, and gossips about the Duke of Devonshire and many other Cavendishes all throughout his letters.  One of his female relatives also married a Cavendish, come to think of it.

Well, I remain undecided, although I'm leaning toward packing Volume V and my diary and calling it good.  The other books will wait for me, I hope.  As I continue to get ready for my trip, I'll close with a bit more from Walpole (Volume IV, p.102):

"I always find it worth my while to make journies, for the joy I have in getting home again."

Thursday, June 04, 2015


speaking volumes

Last night I made inroads with Volume IV!  Shall I mention a few things from Volume III before we move on?  Horace Walpole to his inquisitive friend George Montagu, in 1756, from Volume III of the Letters (p.35):

"You bid me give some account of myself; I can in a very few words: I am quite alone; in the morning I view a new pond I am making for gold fish, and stick in a few shrubs or trees, wherever I can find a space, which is very rare: in the evening I scribble a little; all this mixed with reading; that is, I can't say I read much, but I pick up a good deal of reading."

His life as a country gentleman is appealing, no?  How about this, from the same to the same, on May 5, 1761, describing a spring evening in the country (p.399):

" Strawberry, where my two passions, lilacs and nightingales, are in full bloom.... Gray and Mason were with me, and we listened to the nightingales till one o'clock in the morning."

This period in his life is so interesting - in his early 40s he's withdrawing from politics while still observing them closely, spending more time in the country, and visiting other country houses, while building his own and furnishing it.  He's taking up correspondences with a few women, and will spend the next several decades writing to them, along with the men he's already been writing to for twenty years (and he pitches his letters to the specific recipients so well, regarding topic, tone, and word choice).  He's straying into Patrick O'Brian territory, too, with talk of naval battles and expeditions, and it's fascinating to read such similar language, yet not from a historical novelist, rather from a contemporary, as Walpole's time begins to overlap with the world O'Brian describes. 

I keep taking notes as I read - to what end I'm not sure - but it's an old habit and I enjoy it, so here we are.  More great words from Walpole, scattered throughout Volumes II and III of his Letters; it's a pleasure to write them out:



The end of Volume III is particularly verbose, as Walpole pulls out all the stops to describe to his far-flung friends the coronation of King George III and the weeks of hoopla surrounding it.  When it's all said and done, however, he says (p.443):

"Well! it was all delightful, but not half so charming as its being over."

Not being a fan of spectacle myself, I empathize - lilacs and nightingales for me too, please.  As the painter Renoir famously remarked:

"Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls."

Painting of course being on my mind, what with my solo show opening tomorrow evening.  Which I know I've already mentioned here twice, but these things do not happen often and thus bear repeating.  The next morning is the village book, plant, and bake sale, so that will be a wonderful thing to wake up to on Saturday.  And the lilacs - a huge old lilac hedge lives just across the street from our house.  It's in full bloom right now and the scent of it fills the breeze.  But no nightingales - they speak only in books in this part of the world.  We do hear hermit thrushes, though - one of my favorite sounds in the world, their song - and many other visiting beauties, at this time of year.  Ryan and I take long walks in the evenings, listening.

Friday, May 29, 2015


song of myself?

"After some silence, one might take the opportunity... to revive a little correspondence with popular topics; but I think you are no violent politician, and I am full as little so; I will therefore tell you of what I of course care more, and I am willing to presume you do too; that is, myself."  (Volume III, pp.161-162)

I'll take a cue from Walpole and proffer some news from Planet Sarah.  My painting show opens in a week and I am still allaying wayward anxiety with the soporific of these beloved books.  At the halfway point in Volume III of The Letters of Horace Walpole (my 1906 reprint of the Peter Cunningham edition of the 1850s), I am thinking that I will definitely be reading this set for the foreseeable future.  As if there was ever any doubt!  Nothing else has distracted me since I began and I just cleared away the few lingering hopefuls from the future-reading pile on the bedside table.  I'm going to keep on with the Letters for very simple reasons - they are highly entertaining on many levels (personal, historical, general, specific, literary, social, all of everything!), the prose is lovely, and the cast of characters is fascinating.  They are full of humor and pathos and all states of being in between.  And I care.  What more could I want in my leisure reading?  Not that everything I do isn't leisure reading, but you know what I mean.  So, as summer approaches and my blog posts become necessarily fewer, since I'll be outside painting as much as possible, it's safe to assume that my Walpole-reading will carry on.  Five and a half volumes remain as yet unread.  I find this fact quietly exciting.  Please know that I will continue to write here when time permits.

Before I sign off this evening, though, I will mention how comforting I find the Letters.  I've often written about books as comfort food, and they are all the more so during difficult life transitions.  This is on my mind because tomorrow we attend the memorial service for my cousin.  She died of cancer this winter, at age 34.  I did not know her well, but she was the next cousin, after me and my sisters, in this particular branch of our family tree, and her death remains a shocking inescapable fact.  An epitaph that Walpole wrote contains these lines (p.108):

     "The Grave, great teacher, to a level brings
      Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings."  

That says it all, doesn't it.  Why am I reading about all of these people I never knew, so long ago, their lives and deaths, I ask myself sometimes, when I pause, in the Letters.  I answer myself, I care.  But I can't leave on that note, it's far too sad.  I offer this instead, a little sparkle on the surface of Walpole's great sea of words (p.187):

 "...I have writ enough.... by what I have writ, the world thinks I am not a fool, which was just what I wished them to think..."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


town and country

As I transition slowly from Volume II into Volume III, I can't help but think that reading Horace Walpole's Letters is a pastime that could keep me happily occupied for the entire summer.  I don't recall ever attempting to read such a huge series at this time of year - for the last decade my long reading projects have all taken place during the winter months, when being indoors coincides with a need for increased concentration and perseverance.  At that time a sustained reading project feels, in short, worthy.  But I have jumped the fence somehow and find myself in the middle of this one, after an extra long winter spent in the company of ancient authors.  And I must say it's a lovely place to be, like a wide field out in the open.  The experience is certainly helping to alleviate some anxiety about personal events looming on my immediate horizon, including an upcoming solo exhibit of my paintings.  Reading is, after all, my anti-anxiety medicine of choice!  So calming!  Keeps me busy (as does writing) so I don't worry as much!  And besides, it's been fascinating in its own right to see Walpole's transition from town mouse to country mouse, as he settles in at Strawberry Hill, and works on his house, gardens, and prospects.  Of course he goes back and forth between them constantly and his correspondence reflects that too.  I love watching his life unfold, and I love his turns of phrase. More quotes from Volume II (before I set sail with Volume III): 

"You deserve no charity, for you never write but to ask it.  When you are tired of yourself and the country, you think over all London, and consider who will be proper to send you an account of it.  Take notice, I won't be your gazetteer; nor is my time come for being a dowager, a maker of news, a day-labourer in scandal.... The town is empty, nothing in it but flabby mackerel, and wooden gooseberry tarts, and a hazy east wind."  (p.283)

"The town is empty, dusty, and disagreeable; the country is cold and comfortless; consequently I daily run from one to t'other, as if both were so charming that I did not know which to prefer." (p.383)

"...the times produce nothing: there is neither party nor controversy, nor gallantry, nor fashion, nor literature - the whole proceeds like farmers regulating themselves, their business, their views, their diversions, by the almanac.... I, who love to ride in the whirlwind, cannot record the yawns of such an age!  (p.384)

"Do you get my letters? or do I write only for the entertainment of the clerks of the post office?" (p.436)

His friends must have shouted with laughter as they read.  I smile and take notes, which is more my style.  One more letter I'd like to quote from at length describes his attempted capture of a robber, in the middle of the night.  Again thanks to Yale, I will instead point interested parties to the entire letter.  Just so good.  He has great comic timing.  Can you imagine being the recipient of such a letter!  Well, I suppose we all are now, thanks to the publishing arts. 

As I read along, I love to take note of how Walpole sees himself.  He is a gazetteer, an almanac, historian, socialite, watcher; he describes himself to his friends often, usually in a comic mode.  At one point he says:

"The present journal of the world and me stands thus: ..."  (p.363)

One letter begins with the place and date written at the top, during an unusually cold May:

"May 4, as they call it, but the weather and the almanac of my feelings affirm it is December." (p.436)

The almanac of my feelings.  How wonderful.  That phrase reminds me of nothing so much as Frank O'Hara's long poem In Memory of My Feelings (one of my favorite titles of anything, anywhere), which begins:

"My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
 and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
 He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals."

And this in turn reminds me of Horace Walpole.  Who we will be talking about again soon, I feel quite sure.  Meanwhile this country mouse will continue to enjoy reading about his forays into town and back again.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


hiding in plain sight

What led me into this Horace Walpole madness, anyway... I found myself wondering this afternoon (nearly finished with Volume II of his Letters).  Oh yeah, it was that charming David Cecil book I read many weeks ago, Two Quiet Lives.  The second Life in the book describes Horace Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray.  My examination of Gray led to my reexamination of Walpole, which may continue indefinitely.  But back to Gray for a moment.  I would have sworn I had nothing else by or about Thomas Gray in this house, unless it was his most (his only?) famous poem, the oft-quoted and -misquoted Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, perhaps contained in some fat English poetry anthology.  But I would have been wrong.  For today I was rifling through some books I haven't looked at in ages, namely a section in my shelves devoted to printers, printing, and fine press books of interest.  Many of these are thin, and once tucked into the shelves, near-invisible.  I pulled out one such, a diminutive hardback, about forty pages long:     

Isn't that a nice paper cover?  The black cloth spine has the gently faded title spelled out in gilt, but inside, the title page is much more readable.  In fact, it's a lovely piece of typography altogether, almost a hymn to legibility:

An Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard by Thomas Gray, printed at the Southworth Press in Portland, Maine, in 1930.  Number 91 of 990 copies printed.  The introduction by famed bookman John T. Winterich takes up half the book, and speaks much of Johnson and Boswell and briefly of Walpole, who loved this poem and first ushered it into print for his friend.  Fred Anthoensen's fine presswork continues inside, with little block illustrations (woodcuts? they don't feel like engravings...) in varied colors throughout:

I see from my bookseller's code inside the back cover that I bought this book in 2006 for six dollars.  And then promptly tucked it into my scant accumulation of admired books by Maine printers and promptly forgot about it.  Well, tonight I'm going to do what this little book is me asking to do - set aside Walpole's Letters for a few moments - the book is so slender that's all the time it will take - and read it.  Of course the other thing this book is asking me:  What else on those bookshelves have you completely forgotten about...?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


insolvent consternation

So much to talk about - painting, spring book sales, bookselling, family, food, gardening, home life, world events, and of course the cat, the cat! - lots happening on all fronts - and yet all I want to do is write out perfect sentences from Horace Walpole's letters, both into my diary and then, here.  Nearly halfway through Volume II of The Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Peter Cunningham.  Walpole is in his early 30s and has bought the house and grounds that will become his little gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill.  But more about that another day.  Back to the aforementioned perfect sentences:

"I can't afford to hate people so much at such a distance: my aversions find employment within their own atmosphere."  (p.67)

"I am going to tell you a long story, but you will please to remember that I don't intend to tell it well; therefore, if you discover any beauties in the relation where I never intended them, don't conclude, as you did in your last, that I know they are there."  (p.127)

"You will be diverted with a story I am going to tell you; it is very long, and so is my letter already; but you perceive I am in the country and have nothing to hurry me."  (p.141)

"I am come hither for a few days, to repose myself after a torrent of diversions, and am writing to you in my charming bow-window with a tranquillity and satisfaction which, I fear, I am grown old enough to prefer to the hurry of amusements, in which the whole world has lived for this last week.  (p.150)

"I now jump to another topic; I find all this letter will be detached scraps; I can't at all contrive to hide the seams: but I don't care."  (p.199)

"I have so little to say, that I don't care if I do tell you the same thing twice."  (p.215)

His use of language continues to delight me.  More words, from both Volumes I and II - some are repeats from an earlier post, I know, but see the quote directly above - a good writer could spin entire historical novels out of these little lists, it seems to me:




Should we start working these into daily conversation?  Perhaps yes?  I could go on, and in the future I'm sure I will.  However before I call it a day, I will just mention one recent happening of note.  While driving to the grocery store this weekend we passed a book sale in a local church.  I said, Noooo, don't stop... but Ryan did stop, because he had seen the sign on the door.  Which read, in part: 3$ PER BAG.  Mercy.  We bought and bought.  Eight bags, 130 books.  (You do the math.)  Most are for resale, but I do have a small(ish) stack set aside for perusal.  When that will be, on some post-Walpole day, I can only guess, but there they are, some of my up-nexts.  Ryan caught me coming out of the church, with two of the bags:  sheepish grin, really shouldn't be buying books, but...

I simply can't help myself - I never can, when it comes to books, especially buying books.  Insolvent consternation!  Voluminous calamities!  Indolent diversions!  Abominable prudence!         

Friday, May 08, 2015


"...the chapter of myself."

I wonder how many posts I will end up writing about Horace Walpole.  Shall we find out together?  I just finished Volume I of his Letters.  400 pages of letters plus 150 pages of front-matter.  At the end of this volume he is only 29 years old.  It is January of 1746 and his letters are full of news of the Jacobite Rebellion.  His father has recently died, and so has his beloved dog Patapan.  On to Volume II shortly, and then perhaps on to the remaining six volumes after that.  But first, a few notes about readability.  I must say, for the hundredth time at least (forgive me), how much I love reading published diaries and collected letters, for their open-endedness and candor, their coverage of events both personal and historical as they arise, and their cumulative effect.  Reading them feels voyeuristic and yet not too much, because these letters were preserved and valued during the lifetimes of the correspondents, and often returned to the senders after the death of the recipients, or vice versa.  So, they were quite public, in a way, even at the time they were written.  I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to mention that these letters feel so full.  The opposite of edited.  Like life.  There is no paring down, in fact there is often padding, from not knowing what to say but wanting to write to a friend anyway, in spite of having no real news.  My patience for fiction in general has been thin lately, so I'm not surprised to find myself a maximalist when it comes to reading choice.  Life is so full and rich, even when nothing much is happening!  I love writers whose prose reflects that, and in nonfiction I have come to love writers who write a lot, over long lifetimes.  Among so many other things, they keep me from having to decide what to read next, because I can always just keep reading whatever it is I am reading right now.  Which is Horace Walpole.

On my mind after finishing this first volume:  when writing letters, does one say what one really wants to say?  Walpole is so good at tailoring his letters to please the recipients, that I often wonder.  But I do know, apropos of above - writing even when one has no news to share - that Walpole is a master at that (p.260):

"If I went by my last week's reason for not writing to you, I should miss this post too, for I have no more to tell you than I had then; but at that rate, there would be great vacuums in our correspondence."

Again (p.267):

"My letters are now at their ne plus ultra of nothingness; so you may hope they will grow better again."

And again (p.325):

"Does Decency insist upon one's writing within certain periods, when one has nothing to say? because, if she does, she is the most formal, ceremonious personage I know.  I shall not enter into a dispute with her.... I had rather write than have a dispute about it.... it is merely to avoid scolding that I set about this letter: I don't mean your scolding, for you are all goodness to me; but my own scolding of myself.... One can scold other people again, or smile and jog one's foot, and affect not to mind it; but those airs won't do with oneself; one always comes by the worst in a dispute with one's own conviction."

These are the times I love him best, when he veers off into self-reflection.  I wish he did it more often, but his main correspondent from this time period was living in Italy and so most of Walpole's writing to him encompasses politics and social tidbits he considered newsworthy or entertaining from afar.  Walpole will describe himself and his feelings from time to time, but only for short passages, and then a disclaimer usually follows (p.320):

"...I think I have pretty well exhausted the chapter of myself."

However, Volume I of the Letters does contain some extraordinary exceptions.  First, Walpole writes to his beloved cousin offering him a share of his worldly goods, if that is what it will take for the cousin to marry and be happy.  A beautiful letter.  Here it is, courtesy of Yale.  I love the last paragraph especially.  Second, two letters ably answer that question I mention above - He writes so well, but what was he really thinking?  In this particular case, we know exactly.  After the death of their father, one of Walpole's elder brothers sends him a terrible letter, about a parliamentary matter.  Cursory, insulting, truly awful.  Walpole writes a long reply, addressing his brother's statements one by one.  And doesn't send it.  In a masterful display of tact, he takes the high road and sends instead a single paragraph in reply.  Condensed, lovingly bitter.  Again, thanks to Yale, I point anyone interested to these very letters.  The terrible letter from his brother (see page two! the last sentence is a killer!).  The reply Walpole didn't send.  The reply he did send.  And not just the printed text, but also the handwritten letters themselves.  These, more than anything, make me want to read on.

I wish my aversion to reading a lot of text online wasn't so strong - I'd be reading all of the Horace Walpole letters on the Yale website (thousands more! to and from!) instead of just the selection in the printed volumes I have on hand.  But, as I found out last year with Samuel Clemens, when I read my way through his printed correspondence and gallantly tried to continue using the UC Mark Twain Project's online e-reader... I couldn't do it.  My heart belongs to real books.  No surprise there, I know.  

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