There are conflicting arguments that on one hand it is necessary to take a break from one’s writing in order to ‘get some distance,’ ‘come back fresh,’ ‘see the forest for the trees,’ etc., and on the other, we are never not working. We are always thinking about writing, consciously or not, because living gives us the material for our work.
Yesterday I heard John Banville discussing his work (more on that in another post,) and he told an amusing anecdote. When he was newly married, he was having a massive row with his wife, and in the middle of her rant, he stopped her to say, ‘can I use that in a book?’ – You can imagine how that went down…
So it was with great pleasure that I took a day trip to Bath, the city which has so much to do with the Herschels, and spent the day almost entirely not thinking about the Herschels.
My lovely friend Patricia Hammond, aka The Canadian Nightingale, invited me & our friend Richard Barnett, aka Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, medical historian, and author of the excellent Medical London as well as the delectable (forthcoming) Dedalus Book of Gin, to a day out.
Thus early on Wednesday morning, three bleary artistic-types found themselves on the platform of Paddington Station, and were swept off through the smog of London out to the green expanse of the Chilterns, towards Bath.
We were going to Bath specifically to visit The American Museum in Britain. Patricia had discovered it, and so off went one Canadian, one Brit, and one American, to find this most unusual place: the only Museum about America that is not in America.
We arrived so early the Museum wasn’t yet open, so we ambled around the grounds and gardens, admiring the stunning views over the Somerset valleys. The Manor is at the southern end of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and yes, it deserves the name. To lounge outside in the sunshine beside the Georgian warmth of Claverton Manor was glorious.
It was the first, and quite possibly only, time in my life where I found myself a source of interest simply because I am from Rhode Island. The museum was fairly quiet on a Wednesday morning/midday, and we chatted with a number of the museum assistants. I’m used to thinking of American Anglophiles, but to see British…America-philes? …English people who were such fans of American history was very, very interesting.
Much of the museum was surreal to walk through, because they have recreated a house and a tavern from New England, and it was very much like being in a time capsule and going to particular places at home, in Rhode Island, like the DPI: ‘The Captain Daniel Packer Inne Restaurant and Pub.‘ When I’m in town, I tend to go to the pub, because the atmosphere is proper old New England with a touch of Old(e) England. And they have amazing clam chowder. The ‘tavern’ bit of the museum reminded me of the DPI.
So much of the furniture was like that of my grandparent’s house, which is now up for sale, that the experience was very unsettling. It wasn’t quite like being at home, but it was close enough to make me feel homesick, and sad in a way that was difficult to put into words. I don’t know if the house will still be in the family the next time I go to RI, and I don’t think I’ll ever stay in the house again. I grew up there, as did generations of my family for the past 200 years, and losing it is something I would frankly prefer not to face. I would rather focus on England, and Europe, than New England – the New World feels like my old one.
We toured the museum, which exhibited displays ranging from historic American quilts – including one from Westerly, RI – to the Shaker lifestyle, furniture, and clothing styles. We decided Richard was best suited to Shaker attire, with a long coat & waistcoat. We decided Patricia and I were not particularly suited to bonnets and wool cloaks.
Another room contained a stunning, red-wallpapered boudoir from New Orleans with a massive four-poster, crowned mahogany (or walnut) bed, mirrored dressing table and mirrored armoire, and another was full of musical instruments, including a piano, a harp, and a parlour guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
We took lunch on the terrace in the sunshine, and had ‘gumbo’ which was, to my experience, half-American and half-British in influence. Have you ever eaten gumbo on top of a baked (what the English call ‘jacket’) potato? I introduced R & P to ‘snickerdoodles’ – sugar cookies with cinnamon. Yum!
And we celebrated P’s birthday, which was the following day, with a ‘Tussy Mussy,’ or nosegay of flowers.
The Museum’s special exhibition on Marilyn Monroe was well-put together; it showcased a number of her famous dresses, and we were especially amazed at how, without her in them, the dresses were, for the most part, fairly normal. But just add Marilyn and bam! they become amazing. Hers is a glamorous and tragic story indeed.
After exhausting the museum, I was delighted to show my companions the ‘secret’ route down Bathwick Hill into town. The views over Bath from this field are heart-wrenching, and I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the walk more than once during my previous trips to Bath.
We ambled into town, where I introduced P to my favourite little boutique. ‘Not Cartier’s’ is in the Covered Market. A girl would be hard-pressed to find an Aladdin’s cave of baubles and costume jewellery better priced.
We restored ourselves with tea and some of Sally Lunn’s famous buns. Clotted cream, jam, lemon curd, oh my!
After Sally’s, we walked to New King Street, where I showed R & P the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, in the house where they used to live. It was closed so late in the day, but I explained a bit about William’s discovery of Uranus, the sibling’s move from Bath to Windsor, and Caroline’s subsequent successes – particularly her daring ride on horseback from Windsor to Greenwich, which plays a part in the novel.
We wandered uphill to the Royal Crescent, where students lounged, listening to bad 80s music. Once upon a time, a person would have looked for a radio or ‘boom box’ in such a scene, but we couldn’t see the source of noise at all, probably because it was such a small bit of technology. A far cry from Caroline and William Herschel singing their concertos in the Octagon Chapel.
Well-dressed, white-haired folk walked their terriers and whippets. As we sat upon a bench all in a row, P devised a theme song to a particularly portly dog which half-skipped, half-waddled along.
Much as we didn’t want to, we finally made our way back to the station, back to Paddington, and back to London.