Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Historic London for a Historian

While in London with the SEU students, I had the opportunity to see some historic sites I missed the first time. Striking out on my own our very first day, after spending a few hours in the Churchill War Rooms, I found the Banqueting House not too far away. For a while, in the 17th century, this was the most regal building in London, where the kings held receptions for foreign dignitaries and put on lavish theatrical productions.

The main hall was most inviting, given the objects on the floor:

Yes, those are beanbags. Why are they placed there? So visitors can listen to their audio guide while studying the ceiling, which is completely filled with paintings by famous artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was commissioned by Charles I to glorify the concept of the divine right of kings.

The paintings are beautiful, and the beanbags come in handy so no one will hurt their necks trying to study them. That theme of divine right of kings, though, is a little ironic. This building is the very place where a scaffold was erected outside a window on which Charles I was beheaded in 1649.

Another site I wanted very much to see was Kensington Palace. The grand entrance showcases this sculpture of Queen Victoria.

Going through the rooms, I learned a lot more about the monarchs William and Mary and George II. Particularly impressive were rooms such as the King’s Gallery:

The one disappointment was an absolute exclusion of anything about Victoria. I found that puzzling since this was one of her main residences. Instead, I was treated to a display of Princess Diana’s dresses. Yes, they were nice, but not high on my priority list. And no, I didn’t take any photos of them. Sorry.

Everyone who goes to London must spend time at the Tower. If you get a humourous Beefeater guide, it’s a plus. We got one.The history of this place is filled with sad tales of imprisonments and executions, many of which were unwarranted as the historical records are studied today. The main tower in the middle of the complex is where it gets its name.

From one angle, you can see the Tower with Tower Bridge in the background, a photo I thought worth taking.

Of course, one stop in the complex for everyone is always the building that houses the Crown Jewels.

A pearl often missed by most, but not by a historian with my particular interests, is the church just outside the Tower that has been there a long time: All Hallows. In its crypt is a fascinating little historical museum.

This church is where John Quincy Adams married Louisa Johnson, a British citizen and the only First Lady who was not born an American until our current First Lady, Melania Trump.

A display showcases the records of the church where the marriage is recorded.

On our last London day, we were able to tour Parliament.

I had been there twenty years ago, but don’t recall seeing as much as we did that day. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the places where one would most like to take a photo: House of Lords, House of Commons, Queen’s Robing Room, etc. But the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, now serves as the entry for visitors and photos can be taken there:

St. Stephen’s Chapel, which once served as the meeting place for the Commons, is now a historical treasure trove of paintings and sculptures:

My time in London was a historian’s delight.

Literary England III: The Brontes & Dickens

Just a few weeks prior to my England trip, Masterpiece Theater presented a movie on the Bronte family called To Walk Invisible. Since I knew I was going to be at the Brontes’ home, I made sure to watch it.

The film was so authentic with respect to the accent in their native region that it was not always easy to understand what was being said. But the gist of the story came through. And, as always, the quality of the acting and production was superb.

I learned a lot through that presentation. The three sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—originally published under pseudonyms as men, thinking they wouldn’t be accepted as female authors. Their lives were tragic in that none lived to the age of forty, and Charlotte, the eldest and the one who made it to thirty-nine, witnessed the deaths of her brother and her other two sisters in the space of one year. Their short lives are why they didn’t have the opportunity to write more.

So we are left, primarily, with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey as testimonials to their talents.

The Bronte parsonage (their father was an Anglican clergyman) takes full advantage of the Masterpiece film. The first room on the left as you enter is the dining room, but it doubled as their writing room. Outfits worn in the film are now part of the tour.

Outside the gift shop is an appropriate memorial to the sisters:

This visit provided one of my most amusing driving experiences. I was dutifully following the GPS directions, which told me I had arrived. What I saw before me was a narrow and winding road going almost straight up (to where I did not know). I followed it, only to come to a dead end at the Bronte gift shop. There were no other cars around, no place to park, and I had to do one of my famous 12-point turns to get back in the other direction. From that height, we could see the actual parking lot down below on our left.

I now know why the couple of people at the top looked rather puzzled as to why we were there. But this meant I had to negotiate my way back down through that narrow alleyway and find the entrance to that parking lot. Managing that without destroying both sides of the car may have been one of God’s minor interventions in my life.

In London, three of us made the trek to the Charles Dickens Museum, located in one of the homes he rented for a number of years. While I’ve seen many film adaptations of Dickens’s works, especially A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist, I believe I’ve read only Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (my early reading in school is becoming a rather dim memory now).

The three-story museum (four stories, if you count the basement) in this venerable townhouse is laid out exactly as it would have looked when Dickens lived there, with much of the original furniture.

When Dickens wanted to entertain, which he did quite often, he would invite visitors to his parlour.

Often, at these gatherings, Dickens would dress up and be the actor in scenes from plays. He loved entertaining others.

Right next to the parlour was his library, which has the desk Dickens used in this home, and on which he wrote Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

The saddest fact I learned on this tour had to do with Dickens’s marriage. His wife, Catherine, with whom he had ten children, suffered from depression later in life and Dickens didn’t want to deal with it. He initiated a legal separation and had a mistress for his remaining years. These portraits of the Dickenses are from an earlier, happier time.

This should be a cautionary tale. We celebrate literary genius—and Dickens certainly had that—but a solid foundation in the Christian faith and the moral character required of us is the legacy that has the greatest significance.

That’s the legacy I want to leave.

Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.

Literary England I: Shakespeare & Austen

Thus far, in my review of my trip to England, I’ve focused on history, cathedrals, and C. S. Lewis. Well, I’m not going to leave the history sphere, but let’s stay with it via the literary aspect. Some of the students were taking the course for credit as a literature offering with my colleague who accompanied us. I must also point out that she was the true organizer of the trip; I was merely along to help out (and give Lewis his due).

When one thinks of English literature, there is one name that immediately comes to mind. Here is the presumed home of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I’ve only dipped into certain portions of Shakespeare in my life, rarely reading any of his plays all the way through. My love of film, though, has exposed me to many of those plays. When I was in England twenty years ago, I even attended a performance of Henry V at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London.

In the museum, I was struck by a plaque that shows just how much we owe to Shakespeare for many of the phrases that fill our vocabulary today. Take a little time to read this:

We also visited Shakespeare’s grave in the local Anglican church. The inscription on it, presumably written by the man himself, is what one might expect of Shakespeare:

Another author’s home on our stop was that of Jane Austen.

When I write, I can sit in my nice, plush recliner with the laptop comfortably in front of me, as I’m doing now. It was a little different for Austen.

Sitting in that chair, which doesn’t strike me as very comfortable, and writing by hand on that tiny table, would have required a serious commitment to writing. She had that commitment.

Although I’ve seen countless adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and films of other Austen books (Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park), I admit I’ve only read one of her novels, Northanger Abbey, and that was in preparation for this trip. Learning about her life—a short one even by nineteenth-century expectations—helped me understand why she chose the subjects she did, and also gave me greater insight into the humor she injected into her critique of upper-crust society in her time.

Upstairs, in her bedroom, there is a framed letter on the wall, sent by Winston Churchill. In it, he notes that when he was ill at one point during the war, Pride and Prejudice was a source of healthy distraction for him. Have a look:

One can find most interesting historical nuggets where least expected.

We also visited the homes of other literary greats. I’ll continue the tour tomorrow.

At the Kilns

If I had an official bucket list, what transpired on Thursday, May 11, would have been at the top of that list. That’s the day I arrived at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

Lewis lived in this house for the final thirty-three years of his life. It was here where he wrote most of his books and essays, here where he took care of the cantankerous Mrs. Janie Moore for twenty of those years, and here where Joy Gresham eventually resided as Mrs. C. S. Lewis.

Prior to the tour, we had time to walk through the wooded area that Lewis used to be able to see through his study window. Now there’s a house in the way of that view, but that’s fine—the owner of that house has a plaque with Narnia inscribed on it. I’m sure Lewis wouldn’t mind that.

I have read often of the pond and woods around the house but never realized how extensive the area is. And beautiful. Very beautiful.

I think the students would have appreciated more time to explore. I know I would have. Next time, I’ll have to take that into account when we return.

The home and grounds are well maintained. I don’t remember who took this photo of me outside, but it gives the sense of the peaceful atmosphere.

As I took the tour, images of where Lewis would have been sitting and of other events I’ve read about at the home came to mind. Upstairs we were ushered into Lewis’s bedroom.

Lewis sometimes used the room right next to it for his work. Yes, I had to sit there for a few moments.

We did more than the typical tour, though. Walter Hooper, who knew Lewis personally and helped him with correspondence during his final summer when he suffered a coma, and whom Lewis wanted to make his permanent secretary (Lewis died before that could happen), arrived to speak with us.

Mr. Hooper had communicated with me via e-mail as I was writing my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, and was a great encouragement to me as I progressed through my research and writing. He graciously accepted my invitation to share with our group at the Kilns.

There were other people in our little tour group, so I invited them to stay and take part in the session with Mr. Hooper. They were delighted. I then had the honor of introducing him.

He spent an hour relating his personal experiences with Lewis and answered questions. Then he conversed with the attendees afterward one-on-one. I can say emphatically that this interaction was the highlight of the day—and for me, the highlight of the entire two weeks in England.

After this experience, there was one more that was obligatory—going to Lewis’s grave to pay my respects.

Someone had recently placed flowers on the grave. It’s hard to see in this photo, but there also was an envelope there with “Jack” written on it (the name Lewis’s friends used for him). Yes, it was tempting to open that envelope and read the contents, but I refrained from doing so.

In the survey I conducted with the Wade Center when I was amassing research information for my book, there was one response that I think fits nicely here. The respondent commented,

I long to go with others on a walking tour in heaven with Jack (as he used to do with Warnie and others) and have a good lengthy chat with this man who for years now has seemed like a good, dear friend.

I can relate to that. I also hope to do the same.

Lewis’s Oxford

Twenty years ago, I had a whirlwind tour of a very small section of Oxford. This time, with my university students, I was able to spend a little more time—not enough, but more directed, more significant, more focused on the sites with which C. S. Lewis was familiar.

Lewis taught at Magdalen College for approximately thirty years. For the first time in my sixty-six years, I was on the same grounds.

Lewis’s rooms were in the New Building (“new” because it wasn’t built until the eighteenth century), top floor, the two windows to the right of the protruding section in the middle.

I neglected to take a picture of the sign that told students to keep off the grass. It would have been humorous.

Next to the New Building was the entrance to Addison’s Walk, a lovely wooded path by the winding river. It was here that Lewis had a long conversation with Tolkien and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, that convinced him to believe in God.

We also stopped by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was from this pulpit that Lewis delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read: “The Weight of Glory.”

My favorite passage from that sermon is a poignant reminder of how we should view other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . .

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

What visit to Lewis’s Oxford would be complete without a stop here?

We had our evening meal at the “Bird and Baby.” I was particularly interested in seeing the section where Lewis and his Inklings friends had their weekly get-together. At first, it was filled with diners, so I waited until after we had finished our meal (the Shepherd’s Pie was very good, by the way) and then I was able to get this photo without bothering too many people.

You can’t read the plaque above my head in this picture, but here’s what it says:

What could be better than this for someone who has studied Lewis as much as I have?

How about time spent at C. S. Lewis’s home with Walter Hooper, the American who became Lewis’s close friend and who then has spent the rest of his life as the agent for his literary estate?

That’s what we did on the next day. That’s also what I’ll be posting about tomorrow.

Stonehenge, Romans, & Beautiful Bath

It seems to be obligatory that all tourists in England must go see a certain circle of stones. The reason is that they are quite ancient, dating back to the third millennium B.C., and that they remain a source of academic study: how did they get all those huge stones there and what was the purpose of this structure?

Stonehenge probably started as a burial place and then developed into a way to calculate the seasons by the position of the sun in relation to the stones. Naturally, since this occurred in ancient times, modern New Agers who look to occultic Druids like to think that’s the primary reason for these remains. But it really has more to do with the seasons.

Can you imagine the problem they must have had when the seasons changed?

Other ancient ruins are found in the city of Bath, which became an outpost of the Roman Empire. The Romans sought to re-create their civilization in Britain. One means for doing so was to build an immense public bath over the hot springs (in case you wonder how the city got its name).

What you see here is only the surface of an immense complex underground that can be explored now. It took a few hours to do so.

When the Romans left, the city later was transformed into a spa destination for the high-born who considered the springs to have healing properties. Famous British authors such as Jane Austen would use Bath as a setting in novels; Austen’s Northanger Abbey is one example.

The elite would hang out at an establishment known as the Pump Room, where they had their tea and engaged in polite conversation. The Pump Room still maintains a lively existence.

So we simply had to taste for ourselves:

Bath is a beautiful city. I hope in the future I can see more of it.

My account of this trip continues the next two days with a new focus—the highlight for me—C. S. Lewis.