I’ve been to London many times and whenever those who don’t know me very well ask why I keep returning to the same city, I’m hard pressed to explain to them what London means to me. My London is not the city that exists now. Madame Tussaud’s and the London Eye are all well and good, but my London is the old city, the Square Mile that was bordered to the north by the Oxford Road, to the South by Vauxhall Gardens, to the east by Mile End Road and to the west by Hyde Park. To my mind, Richmond, Hampstead, Brixton and Golder’s Green are not in London. Though I may visit these places, they lay outside the parameters of the London I see in my mind, the London I see when I walk the streets today. You can still see Georgian, Regency and Victorian London on practically every street. Kensington Palace, St. James’s Palace and Apsley House still exist. Hatchard’s bookshop and Fortnum and Mason, the Burlington Arcade and the Tower are still to be found. True, there are no longer Hansom cabs or sedan chairs for hire, no hawkers crying their wares in the streets and, certainly, no dandies strolling in St. James’s Street, but every now and then you come across a London view so perfect, so historically right, that it makes the trip worthwhile.
If you’re a Waterloo enthusiast (and who isn’t?) you’ll find the comprehensive Waterloo 1815 website of interest. Simply register and you can download unpublished correspondence written by those who were on the scene,whether English, French or Prussian. For instance, in an undated letter George De Lacy Evans provided a detailed description of the the charge by the British Heavy Cavalry, a bit of runs: ‘The shock was irresistible. The firng at this point ceased; the smoke cleared away; those masses, a moment before so menacing and conspicuous, and on which all eyes were turned, had disappeared; or left only the traces of a dispersed rabble, flying over the plain. Vast numbers, unable to escape the cavalry, abandoned their arms, and threw themselves on the ground. Here were seen horses trampling down whole ranks, and plunging with difficulty through the bodies; there, a crowd of French soldiers surrendering as prisoners; many defending to the last.’
In addition, there are books for sale and archives that include items relating to the French and Prussian armies, detailed returns of the killed and wounded, along with strengths of particular units prior to the campaign and items of importance from order books and journals, making hitherto unpublished records accessible online. In the words of the immortal Duke of Wellington, all I can say is, “Wooo Hooo!”
Author Helen Simonson has put a new twist on the traditional village cozy with her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, as described in the following snippet taken from her website: You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart.
The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?
Well, dear reader, I just finished the book and the glowing reviews floating around the internet are justified. Being a traditionalist when it comes to my village cozies, at first I was hesitant about a modern day novel that featured Pakistanis. Nothing against Pakistanis mind, just against anyone fiddling with a tried and true formula. I was wrong. Simonson didn’t fiddle with it, she improved upon it. Aside from the (welcome, as it turned out) inclusion of non-British characters, everything else you’d expect in a terrific cozy read is there – an assortment of village characters, a great love story, greedy developers, a self absorbed son, crazy aunties and a good dollop of Rule Britannia traditionalism. Did I mention humor?
Oh, yes, something else is present, as well – terrific writing. Here are a few passages I especially loved and which will give you a taste of the tone of this delicious novel:
The wall of the long walnut bar to the west end was hung with arched wood paneling on which racks of bottles were ranged below portraits of past club presidents. A portrait of the Queen (an early portrait, badly reprinted and framed in cheap gilt) hung directly above some particularly vile colored after-dinner liquers that no one ever drank. The Major always found this vaguely treasonable.
“Mr. Ferguson can trace his lineage to the Ferguson clan of Argyll,” said Hugh Whetstone, who tried to ferret out the genealogy of everyone he met so he could use it against them later.
“I won’t stand for you being disrespectful, Roger,” the Major responded. The current fashion for bandying about stories and jokes, as if the royal family were the cast of a TV soap opera, was deeply distasteful to him.
“Look, I can’t possibly assist you,” said the Major. “I mean, with just losing my brother . . I have so many things to see to . . . family and so on.”
“I understand,” said Grace. She looked at him and he read in her eyes a disappointment that he should have stooped to the dead relative excuse. Yet he was as entitled as the next man to use it. People did it all the time; it was understood that there was a defined window of availability beginning a decent few days after a funeral and continuing for no more than a couple of months. Of course, some people took dreadful advantage and a year later were still hauling around their dead relatives on their backs, showing them off to explain late tax payments and missed dentist appointments: something he would never do.
Like many others, I’m taken aback that Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is Helen Simonson’s first novel. And like the rest, I can’t wait for her second. You can read the entire first chapter at the The New York Times site. Kristine
By Vicky Hinshaw
In May of 2009, my husband and I spent two weeks in England, another trip to feed my near-fanatical interest in all things historical and British. Our first stop after arriving was in Wiltshire, where we stayed at the lovely Stanton Manor Country Hotel.
As always, I had a long agenda for the trip, centering on visits to stately homes and the opportunity to learn about the families who lived in them. Number one on the list was Bowood, the country estate of the Petty-Fitzmaurice family, perhaps better known by the title of the head of the family, the Marquess of Lansdowne.
The area of the Bowood estate was part of the forest of Chippenham and belonged to the crown until the early 18th century when a house was begun on the ancient site of a hunting lodge. The first Earl of Shelburne purchased the unfinished property in 1754 and enlarged the house. His son, the 2nd earl and first Marquess of Lansdowne, hired famed Scottish architect Robert Adam (who had designed Lansdowne House in London) to further enhance the house and build an adjacent orangery and a menagerie (housing a leopard and an orangutan); Adam also built a mausoleum for the 1st earl in the extensive parklands surrounding the house.
After WWII, when Bowood was used by the Royal Air Force, the main house was left empty and decaying. In 1955, the 8th Marquess had it pulled down. The orangery and adjacent buildings were remodeled to house the family and its collections.
Beginning in the 1760’s, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (who else?) designed the gardens, which include a lake, a classical temple and rolling fields. Two decades later, picturesque elements were added: a grotto, waterfalls, and a wilderness. In the 2,000 acre parklands, magnificent Rhododendrons bloom every spring. This impressive display, begun in the 19th century, includes many rare species. Wandering through the colorful scene, over the carpet of bright bluebells and beside blossoms of every shade was a most delightful way to spend a May afternoon in 2009 for my husband and I. As we strolled, we came to the sober Adam-designed mausoleum which now houses the remains of generations of family members.
The art collection has many paintings associated with family members such as Admiral Lord Keith, great-grandfather of the 5th Marquess. Keith officially accepted the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte on behalf of the British crown in 1815.
Admiral Lord Keith’s daughter was Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, close confidant and correspondent of Princess Charlotte of Wales (daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV). After the Princess died in 1817, Meg married the Comte de Flahault, who served as an Aide-de-camp to Napoleon. Though her distinguished father disapproved, the Comte was well liked and friendly with many Whigs such as Lord Holland and the Duke of Bedford, and the Admiral grew fond of him.
Margaret Mercer Elphinstone,
Baroness Keith, Comtesse de Flahault
Meg, an heiress both from her father and her late mother, was well known in regency-era society. She was a good friend of the poet Lord Byron and received from him the Albanian costume in which he was painted about 1813. Meg also was portrayed in the outfit which is on display at Bowood. Meg succeeded her father as Baroness Keith. She was known in England by the latter title and as Comtesse de Flahault in France. She and her husband divided their time among homes in Scotland, London and Paris. Emily de Flahault, daughter of the Comte and Meg, married the 4th Marquess of Lansdowne and is the mother of the fifth Marquess.
Bowood is not only a fascinating piece of history; it is part of the evolving fate of the English Country House. In today’s difficult economy, such a property must pay its own way. Supporting a family and employees, upkeep and renovations, cascading expenses and taxes – are almost crippling in their combined effects. While many institutions provide assistance (usually in exchange for public access), adequate funding usually means all sorts of services and events that bring in paying customers. The house and garden are just what I love, but the vast majority of the customers when we were there were at the children’s Adventure Playground. Bowood has also opened a golf resort and fine restaurant nearby. A quick perusal of the website will tell the story clearly.