Friday, September 21, 2012

Breathless--and Breathtaking

I last posted nine breathless and breathtaking days ago, but I now find myself briefly domiciled in Cambridge at the home of my wonderful niece Elisabeth and her wonderful family.  And when I say wonderful, I mean wonderful.  There is no greater act of ceremonial hospitality known to the annals of anthropology than the loan of an iMac, which I find at my disposal for the duration of a stint of child-minding.  This is particularly light duty since the children involved are for the moment all at their schools.

Only those who have travelled in Britain can fully appreciate how much rural beauty has been preserved on a small, highly populated island.  The protection of the environment has been a feature of British customary law since times immemorial, certainly since long before the concept of the “environment” even existed.  One wise historian defined patriotism and “the love of locality”; and Britain is a land of thousands of beloved geographical nooks and crannies.  Despite its dramatic urbanization, Britain is still a land a villages.  The village, as it developed in medieval Britain, has practically no American counterpart, even in New England, built by transplanted English villagers.  For the truth is that you can scarcely build a village in less than a quarter of a millennium.  American villages had hardly got started when they were overwhelmed by the architectural chaos demanded by the internal combustion engine.

Most of what I have been doing since my last post is visiting old friends.  Two of those visits—one to Mayfield in Sussex, the other to Cardiff in Wales—I shall perhaps write about on later occasions.  They were particularly intimate in character, and not the easy fare of a public travelogue.  But there has been some upscale tourism as well.  A week ago today my friend John Smith drove me to Barnes station (beyond the river from Hammersmith) whence I travelled quickly back to Waterloo Station in London, changed trains after a brief wait, and an hour later found myself in Peterfield, Hants., in serious Anglo-Saxon territory.  Here I was met by my old friend John Filer who transported me by Jaguar to his (relatively) new abode in West Meon.  You have perhaps not heard of West Meon?  Well, it’s slightly to the west of East Meon—the Meon being a sort of meandering creek that in those parts passes for a river.  It would be rash to hazard a definite opinion as to which is the more gorgeous of the two villages.

But for us West Meon was mainly a base camp from which to set out on a day’s culture-crawl, a visit to two famous literary abodes.  The first of these was Chawton), the lovely old house in which Jane Austen spent the final years of her miraculous writing career.  The house is now a well-kept museum, and it is possible to visit every room in it, many of them filled with authentic relics  of one of the greatest novelists the world has ever known.  In a small frame on one wall, in her own clear hand, was one of several beautiful prayers she composed: Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our Thoughts on Thee, with Reverence and Devotion that we pray not in vain.

Historians have often taken a rather dim view of the state of English religion in the eighteenth century.  William Edward Hartpole Lecky, one of the great historians of Britain in the eighteenth century, opines that most Tories of the period probably “regarded the Church as an admirable extension of the police force.”  So it’s good to recall Jane Austen and some others like her.  One of these lived just down the road a piece, at Selborne.  The Rev. Gilbert White was a somewhat eccentric country parson. When his early academic ambitions foundered on the shoals of the eccentricity just alluded to, White went to ground in the village of Selborne where he spent the rest of his life in preaching, in pastoral work, and (above all) in recording his minute observations of the natural world around him that later became famous as The Natural History of Selbornethe pioneering eco-classic, and still the unsurpassed example of English language “nature writing”.  His house, too, along with its splendid gardens, has been successfully turned into a public museum.  In it I spent two inspiring hours.  Austen and White: an impressive cultural double-header!

 Gilbert White's house from the back lawn

Here are three more photographs of beautiful things I saw during the week: (1) Saint Dunstan’s Church, Mayfield, Sussex, where I worshipped last Sunday; (2) Daniel Gabriel Rossetti’s triptych The Seed of David in Llandaff Cathedral; (3) Renoir’s La Parisienne, one of the most famous paintings in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.