Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Dr Johnson's Reading Circle visit Stratford Upon Avon

Daring to leave the cosy safety of Dr Johnson’s House, the Reading Circle traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon to visit one of the oldest historic house museums of them all, Shakespeare’s Birthplace. 

On the way, the group were given a Shakespeare related quiz, the results of which would be revealed at the end of the day and confirm that we were not exactly Shakespeare scholars.

The first stop on the tour was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a site of tourism since the 18th century and an official museum since 1849, when the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was set up to stop PT Barnum buying it and shipping it over to the US. Thousands of people have visited it over the years, with a tradition being to carve their names on the walls and windows. We caught the signatures of Henry Irving and Thomas Carlyle scratched amongst a nest of names but other celebrated vandals include Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

For those less destructively minded there was a visitor book going back to when the building was an inn called the Swan and Maidenhead. Names in there include Thackeray, Byron and Tennyson but was opened up on the page signed by Keats, he’d listed his place of abode as ‘everywhere’, because he was a waggish dude and a mad lad. 

As an eighteenth century inclined group, one of the main interests in Stratford-Upon-Avon were the works and efforts that people like Johnson and Garrick put into establishing him as national icon. The visitor’s centre had a number of objects that related to this, including early souvenirs such as Shakespeare busts and snuffboxes and a collection of items related to Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. 

Held to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth (though five years late), this was a massive undertaking which swelled the town numbers and caused the creation of a temporary ballroom, racetrack and a huge pageant. Unfortunately the weather disagreed, the ballroom flooded, the pageant cancelled and hundreds of London’s bon ton were left wet, dirty and quite furious. The Birthplace contains a ticket (at a guinea), a souvenir medal and the Jubilee Cup, won by a horse called Whirligig.

Even the enthusiastic Boswell, who turned up to the event in Corsican national dress, felt a little washed out by the end, writing:
“After the joy of the Jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.”

The house itself is a small, cramped affair with large painted leather covers to insulate the walls. There were the rooms in which John Shakespeare made gloves, a bedroom for girls and one for boys, and the master bedroom where Shakespeare was born. Costumed guides lingered in a number of key rooms, giving little talks and answering questions. There were great efforts to give an impression of how the house could have looked in Shakespeare’s day, with period furniture and reproductions, they even went to the trouble of hiding a walkie-talkie in a little leather bag. 

Outside, the sun was shining brightly and we wandered the garden before sitting down and listening to a little of Johnson’s introduction to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. He hadn’t gone to the Jubilee, being more interested in Shakespeare’s words than the man himself (and finding the whole idea a little naff). Johnson declares Shakespeare to be the ‘poet of nature’, what’s more, he declares that Shakespeare is not best enjoyed by select quotation, but by whole plays.

“His real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”

We listened to this recommendation of Johnson’s, as actors in another part of the garden acted out popular speeches.

We next went to the RSC’s gardens besides the river Avon. The sun was still shining, the wasps were wrestling and we supplemented our lunches with huge hunks of cake. While we sat eating, it was pointed out that all the lamp posts were different, this is because the garden contains a collection of lamp posts from around the country.

From the RSC gardens, we walked down the river to the Church of the Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried. It was a brilliantly quiet place, lit by the sun through stained glass. There we saw the graves of Shakespeare and members of his family and the mediaeval font where they were baptised. The information boards in the church do a great job of explaining the rites and rituals that Shakespeare would have known and compares them with they way they celebrated now. Despite tourists, the church still felt like a living place of worship. As we left, a party of Buddhist monks in saffron robes entered.

The next place on our tour was Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s oldest daughter lived with her husband who was a doctor to the rich. It was home to the most enthusiastic and knowledgable guides, who boasted about the high ceilings, the flagstone floors, superfluous use of expensive timber and multiple windows. The top rooms had an exhibition about Tudor medicine with a collection of trepanning tools and instructions on how to read urine. 

After a little rest in Hall’s Croft gardens, we walked towards New Place, the home which Shakespeare died and we would end our tour. On the way we had a sneaky-peek into the Guild Chapel. Shakespeare’s father had been paid four shillings for "defasyng ymages in ye chapel” but the whitewash has been stripped back and something of them remains. They are wonderfully detailed, disturbing and peculiar paintings of the dead rising from their graves and are well worth popping in for.

When we arrived at New Place, we found it wasn’t there. In 1759 the Reverend Francis Gastrell tore the place down in revenge on tourists who smashed his windows in for tearing down a mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare. The town were so enraged by his destruction of the house that they run him out. Now it is a beautiful set of gardens; the first a sculpture garden, the second a sunken knot garden and the last a lawn with two mulberry trees. We sat on the lawn, munching on mulberries and enjoyed the last of the sun, grateful for a very good day out.


We all had a fantastic day out and look forward to meeting again in October to tackle Henry Fielding’s ‘Joseph Andrews’.


Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Review: The Rapture by Claire McGlasson


It’s not often I read a book the same century it was released, let alone a month later but ‘The Rapture’ by Claire McGlasson is about something that is rising up my list of interests, The Panacea Society. Starting with the peculiar ‘Satan’s Mistress’, then my visit to Bedford, then my reading of ‘Octavia: Daughter of God’, the Panaceans went from something on the fringes of my fascination to somewhere on the inside part of the edge (above Dr Forman but below William Harrison Ainsworth). It is also something I would have wanted to write a novel about some day.

I was a little wary with the book’s title. Not only did the Panaceans not believe in the concept of the Rapture, they believed in the opposite - they believed that their members would live forever and would be part of bringing Jesus down, rather than going up to meet him. (When members did start dying, they thought those members souls would go to Uranus, waiting to come down with the big J). But it became clear that ‘rapture’ did not mean the belief of being snatched away by God, but the emotion of it and its straddling between joy and insanity.

 The story is about Dilys Barltrop, Octavia’s daughter who found herself surrounded and buried by her mother’s religious organisation. Like Octavia, Dilys was prone to melancholic episodes and was sent away from Bedford a number of times, once to a cousin’s house and once to the south of France. She returned and lived back in the society. When her mother died, it was Dilys who organised all of the estate, selling Octavia’s house to the society for a nominal sum and receiving an annuity with which she lived quietly in a society owned house a little away from The Campus. Her main pleasure was to go down to the River Ouse and have an ice cream. 

The novel takes Dilys, her anxieties and the pressure cooker of living with, and being the daughter of, ‘The Daughter of God’ and dramatises it. While it uses many genuine Panacea members, makes extensive us of Panacea archives and includes a number of key moments of the society, it is definitely a work of fiction. The timeline of the society is moved around and squished up, the relationship between Octavia, Dilys and her brother Adrian is changed, there is a whole new character called Grace who is the plot’s catalyst…oh, and there’s an accusation of murder.

This meant that I read the whole book in two minds, one as a person interested in the society and the second as a reader of a novel. As a result, I both love this book and dislike it.


It’s clear that most readers are supposed to come to the novel first and then perhaps find out more about the society, to do it the other way round is a little disconcerting. There are a couple of blatant mistakes, Joanna Southcott is labelled the seventh prophet of ‘The Visitation’ and not the second. There is (what I feel) a negative slant on the notion of Overcoming. As I understood it, the process was more one of confession and self-accusation, whereas in the novel it becomes something of a mini police state. Nor does the book create the feeling of community and belonging that many of the members seemed to get from the society. Another big change is that the novel has scenes with Adrian trying to break into The Campus to visit Dilys when he actually visited with his children. Dilys’s fate at the end of the novel has her taken somewhere which is not the south of France.

And there’s Grace. A character invented for the book, she becomes the housemaid at Number 12, where Octavia and Dilys live. She and Dilys share their doubts, develop a friendship, a love and possibly a relationship, mostly through glances. Dilys herself narrates the novel (in the present tense) and is not the most reliable of narrators, being heavily weighed down and disturbed by her strange life. It may be that the relationship was consummated, it may be that it was consenting or not, the way the book is told leaves it uncertain. She exists in the book as a chance for grace, a chance for escape and a chance for love - as a novelistic conceit, she’s brilliant. Having a character break through Dilys’s shell, tease her out of herself, give her things to hope for and a secret to keep the book motoring along with great tension.

This is a really great novel.

When the novel and historical aspects lined up, I could enjoy it without reserve. The scenes where the members go down to London for the unveiling of Price’s Southcott Box is nail-biting; the bits where the members sneak around Bedford, burying linen squares of protection next to important buildings, are delightful and the dramatisation of Emily Godwin ‘casting out Controls’ by playacting fighting demons with a penknife are far more horrifying and shocking then they should be.

Even the parts that must be made up, like Dilys peeking through a keyhole to see her mother bare-chested, simulating breast-feeding with her closest followers, are deftly and engagingly written. The ending (spoiler) with Dilys going to an asylum, as her mother had been, but believing it was a ship to freedom with her brother, was harrowing and deeply moving - even if it has never happened. For those unencumbered by knowledge of the Panacea Society, this is a gripping and wonderful novel. For those with an interest in such things, it’s a gripping and wonderful novel with some massive liberties taken with the events.


Oh, and the accusation of murder? In the book, Dilys claimed that Emily Godwin poisoned Edgar Peissart, who had been kicked out for seducing a young man, in order to make her prophecy of his death come true. I very much doubt this happened but it did make for a great story, and that sums up this book well.