This might be a complete dog's dinner of an offering because I haven't even finished the book yet, but I couldn't stop myself writing something about Romantic Moderns - English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris along the way because it is proving to be a truly inspiring read.
It was Rev Cheryl who first waved the flag of enthusiasm for Romantic Moderns in comments here which was quite enough to put it to the top of my list, and you may recall this was my treat buy in Foyle's after the World Book Night editorial meeting. I knew before the train home had reached Reading that Rev Cheryl had advised us well and I have been welded to the book ever since.
The deserved winner of this year's Guardian First Book Award and with doubtless a clutch more prizes to come, the book takes as its central theme the artists and writers of the 1930s and 1940s. Alexandra Harris delineates the explorations they made between the 'modern' present and what seemed like a quaint nostalgia for the past. A wealth of fascinating literary and artistic names populate the stage and all rubbing shoulders with the notion that the past needn't be dismissed and left behind, in fact it was important to retain it and demonstrate that it could succesfully be incorporated into the present.
I am trying to read sensibly and slowly because each chapter is a little microcosm of inspirational reading trails with enticing titles like The Canon Revised, The Weather Forecast, Village Life, Parish News, Variations on a View, Dreaming of Manderley. I want to appreciate every single one in depth so once I've finished I plan to re-read the book a chapter at a time and follow up those trails very slowly through next year, so if anyone else wants to join the Romantic Moderns journey you will be most welcome.
Sorry, avert your gaze all those whom this doth sore offend, but as I've read I've made the oddest notes and nabbed quotes in the front of the book as usual which I need to go back to. They meant something exciting and inspiring at the time and will do so again, so I need to fully explore the context and read around in much more depth.
"Virginia Woolf as 'light brightening and widening'..."
"distance lends enchantment..."
"tradition of sympathy mixed up with not caring..."
"the democratization of the country house... explore that"
"marginalia as an ongoing conversation... yes, that's me"
"the effect of writers on the countryside eg Top Withens assumes significance+++ when Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights are added in..."
"how language has changed the texture of the land..."
"the cycle of threat and survival..."
and so on, all a complete mish mash that I want to explore further.
I've noted a few over-arching themes too..
'The anxiety of artistic identity..."
"How to safely weave nostalgia for the past into the present in a balanced and tempered way, without falling back on the seeming constancies of nostalgia in the face of an uncertain present...hmm"
As I've read I've been listing lives I want to know more about, writers whose books I must read, artists whose work I must gaze at.
Elizabeth Bowen - I have struggled with her fiction on the past, but having learned that she was the successor to Virginia Woolf's style that may be why her books require a little extra stamina. I've already started The Last September and I'm hopeful. Some time ago I also bought a book of Elizabeth Bowen's essays and they lead me into the whole world of the Anglo-Irish, and the notion of the Big House of which I know little beyond the exhibition I saw whilst in Dublin, so those trails beckon.
John Betjeman - I'm always happy to stray into JB territory and Alexandra Harris offers some new perspectives on the man we all feel we know so well.Time to read Summoned by Bells again.
Eric Ravilious - a perennial favourite, timeless appeal and art that speaks to the core of Alexandra Harris's themes, the past and the present overlaying but not suffocating each other... I 'understand' this picture now. We recently stumbled on an exhibition of the photos of James Ravilious in Truro Museum, and now I recognise the significance of those photos too, James seems to have continued his father's work via the camera lens. More about Eric Ravilious on the Imperial War Museum site.
E.M.Forster - well now it's really finally time to read Howards End, a book that I have given up on so many times (shame on me) perhaps because I had never really considered its context carefully enough.
Roger Fry - Mr Groundbreaking in the art and design world it would seem and Virginia Woolf's biography of him has sat here for years unheeded.
Stevie Smith - I'm sure I have Novel on Yellow Paper here somewhere but another writer I have largely ignored despite all that waving not drowning she's been doing at me... or was it drowning not waving? Whatever, hold on Stevie, I'm diving in.
Stanley Spencer - Bookhound's favourite artist...
...no shortage of books about Stanley here and we did two trips to the Tate to catch the exhibition a few years ago too, plus I then went to stay with a good friend in Maidenhead so we did the Stanley Spencer trail down to Cookham. Time to get those books off the shelf and have a good look.
I have Frances Spalding's biography of the Pipers and yet again know and recognise the iconic work, but that's as far as it goes. I knew little about how important they were, a sort of artistic bridge between the past and the present.
And so the list goes on Florence White, Flora Thompson, White's Selborne,and doubtless more because I'm still three chapters aways from the end but one name crops up constantly, T.S.Eliot.
I hadn't quite appreciated the power that one man had to guide cultural and aesthetic thinking but there is little doubt that T.S.Eliot was incredibly influential on the artists and writers of the time. I had coincidentally been reading Four Quartets recently but without the benefit of the knowledge that Romantic Moderns has now invested in the poem. The Wasteland made sense the day I heard a recording of T.S.Eliot reading it and I have a recording of Ranulph Fiennes reading Four Quartets v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y so I'll hope for even more enlightenment.
I suspect Romantic Moderns may resonate differently with each reader, but for me it's been like basking in the gentle glow of a constant literary and artistic flame. It covers an era I thought I knew quite well but how wrong could I be. I definitely hadn't appreciated the finely nuanced sensibilities of the time and the pleasure I have had from learning so much reminds me, if ever I needed reminding, of the power of a single book to invigorate my thinking and revitalize my reading.
That Romantic Moderns flame will flicker on brightly into 2011 for sure.