Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ode to a Victorian Gardener and Poetess: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

“If we love flowers are we not born again every Day", Emily Dickinson to Mrs. George S. Dickerman, 1886

One of the earliest gifts my mother gave me was a book of poems by Emily Dickinson. It was a hardcover gold leafed paged coral and pine green designed book entitled, 'Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson'. I was ten years old and the first poem to stand out in my memory was:

I'm nobody!  Who are you?
Are you nobody, too? 
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell; 
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

As you can tell, I was born a pessimist with optimistic yearnings! I leafed through my treasured, well-worn hardcover today and page numbers with favorite poems were circled and my ten year old self made notes in the margins. My mom would be proud, indeed! 
So it is with great love and a deep abiding admiration for one of America's best Poets of the Victorian era, I give you Emily Dickinson: Gardener and Poetess...

Emily Dickinson's 19th century New England garden

During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson was more widely known as a gardener, than as a poet. Her poetry for the most part was privately published and often enclosed in letters pinned together by flowers or in bouquets that made the poem concealed at the flowers’ center and the flowers themselves one message. John Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’ deeply influenced Emily Dickinson because she said he was a geologist first and an artist later. So before she wrote poems, she gathered, tended, categorized and pressed flowers. After poetry writing became her main job, cultivating bulbs, plants, and flowers within a portion of her father’s land as in the glass enclosure of a conservatory, built just for her, remained a favorite occupation. 

 Emily Dickinson's Herbarium, digital facsimile. By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University

Dickinson would explore nearby woodlands and meadows for new flowers to collect. Ultimately, she pressed over 400 specimens into a leather-bound album, arranging her specimens artistically, labeling sixty-five of the four hundred with the genus and species according to the Linnaean system of classification.   Though only a few of Dickinson's poems were printed during her lifetime, many people remembered receiving one of them, often tucked into an exquisite bouquet that she had grown and arranged herself. These interests can be traced in her literary work as well. Indeed, more than two-thirds of Dickinson's lyrical letters to family and chosen friends and one-third of her brilliantly idiosyncratic poems have wildflowers or other flowers as their subject.  For instance,

In an 1845 letter to her friend Abiah Root, Dickinson inquires: "Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here."

Emily Dickinson’s teacher, Mrs. Almira  H. Lincoln, wrote a book entitled, ‘Symbolical Language of Flowers’.  She was just one of the Victorians who believed that each flower or plant had symbolic meaning.  For Emily, the jasmine meant ‘passion’ and to give someone a jasmine vine meant, ‘You are the soul of my soul’. Jasmine appeared on the first page of her herbarium as well.

Some of Emily Dickinson’s favorite flowers include: the gentian, the crown imperial, the geranium, the rose and the Indian pipes which adorned the first edition cover of Emily Dickinson’s poems in 1890. Flowers seem to be at the heart of the life of Emily Dickinson. She was wearing a white dress to signify her marriage to the Muse, her artist’s self.  She says, ‘The daisy follows soft the sun’ believed to have been written for a man, an imagined lover she called, “Master”.  As in her famous unsent letter to “Master,” Emily yearns for ‘the queen’s place’ next to him at night.

Included in my mother's gift of Emily Dickinson's book of poetry to me, at age ten, was a handwritten facsimile of Renunciation in Dickinson's own hand. 

There came a day at summer's full
Entirely for me;
I thought that such were for the saints,
Where revelations be.
The sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new.
The time was scarce profaned by speech;
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at sacrament
The wardrobe of our Lord.
Each was to each the sealed church,
Permitted to commune this time,
Lest we too awkward show
At supper of the Lamb.
The hours slid fast, as hours will,
Clutched tight by greedy hands;
So faces on two decks look back,
Bound to opposing lands.
And so, when all the time had failed,
Without external sound,
Each bound the other's crucifix,
We gave no other bond.
Sufficient troth that we shall rise --
Deposed, at length, the grave --
To that new marriage, justified
Through Calvaries of Love!

Feel free to leave any comments, 

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Review of The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Product Details
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; First Edition edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 034552554X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345525543
 Book Synopsis
 I feel it's only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh's central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday. She's also going to make you want to pick her up, shake her and scream, why can’t you let yourself be happy? But for Victoria, the answer is as complex as the question is simple. She's spent her childhood ricocheting through countless foster and group homes, and the experience has left her in pieces. Painfully isolated and deeply mistrustful, she cares only about flowers and their meanings. She herself is like a thistle, a wall of hard-earned thorns.

When we first encounter Victoria, it's the day of her emancipation from foster care, her eighteenth birthday. "Emancipation" couldn't be a more ironic word for this moment. For Victoria, as for most foster care survivors—-myself included—-freedom really means free fall. She has nowhere to go, no resources, no one who cares about her. She ends up sleeping in a public park, tending a garden of pilfered blossoms, and living on her wits. It's only when a local florist sees Victoria's special way with flowers that she is given a means to survive. But survival is just the beginning. The more critical question is will Victoria let herself love and be loved? 

The storyline weaves skillfully between the heavy burden of Victoria's childhood—-her time with Elizabeth, the foster mother who taught her the language of flowers and also wounded her more deeply than Victoria can bear to remember—-and the gauntlet of her present relationship with Grant, a flower vendor who's irrevocably linked to the darkest secret of her past. At its core, The Language of Flowers is a meditation on redemption, and on how even the most profoundly damaged might learn to forgive and be forgiven. By opening up Victoria's very difficult inner world to us, Vanessa Diffenbaugh shows us a corner of experience hidden to most, and with an astonishing degree of insight and compassion. So hold on, and keep the tissue box nearby. This is a book you won’t soon forget.

My Thoughts
Author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh is the founder of the Camellia Network, an organization that supports youths transitioning from foster care. Diffenbaugh and her husband are foster parents, and while she says the novel is "100 percent fiction," the book does draw on some of her personal experiences. Victoria's character was inspired by a young woman whom Diffenbaugh had mentored. "She had a very serious attachment disorder. She'd been born into the foster care system, she had a number on her birth certificate, and she didn't even know who named her," Diffenbaugh says. "There were brief moments when I felt that I knew her, and I loved her, and I knew that she was capable of loving me back, but I could never quite get through to her."
Diffenbaugh says foster parents should expect to be tested. "You have to really prove yourself to young people," she says, "and if your answer is clear and consistent and loving — even if it's angry and disappointed — what's important is that you're being real and honest and not going anywhere."

As much as Diffenbaugh loves flowers, she says, the focus of the book is foster care.  The flower angle emerged organically as Diffenbaugh sat down to write the book. The first scene she wrote is one that takes place in the flower market. A man looks at Victoria in a way she doesn't like, so she later brings him rhododendron, meaning beware. 

Victoria is the protagonist and central character in The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel, which explores the complexities of foster care. Victoria Jones is often sullen silent, and hostile, but she speaks the language of flowers. She knows that red roses signify love. The primrose means childhood, which she never really had growing up in a series of foster homes and institutions in northern California. The hawthorn means hope, which Victoria ran out of after never being adopted and then turned out of foster care and left on her own when she turned 18. Aging out of the foster care system convinces Victoria to be suspicious of all attachments. She sleeps in the park and does odd jobs in a flower shop for small change, until the power of flowers opens her life. Victoria does have a connection with flowers. The flowers also represent something that Victoria is good at. For Victoria, the flowers give her a real sense of success. 

For a debut novel, The Language of Flowers is exquisitely written with characters that feel real in every sense of the word. Victoria and her relationship with Elizabeth is heartachingly real. The character's leap off the page so much so they make you become interested in their lives, their hopes and dreams. All you want is for her to find her place in the world with loved ones who truly care for her so she will never again know the feeling of being neglected and abandoned. So she does not have to put up a front of being strong all the time; her walls will come down willingly, wantingly, cravingly so...

Victoria keeps going to different families, but no one wants to keep her — until she meets Elizabeth when she is 9. When they first meet, Victoria lets Elizabeth know she's aware of the rules.

"You can't poison me or give me medicine I don't want. Or hit me — even if I deserve it," Victoria says
Elizabeth responds by telling her, "If I were trying to poison you, I would give you foxglove or hydrangea ... depending on how much pain I wanted you to feel and what message I was trying to communicate."
She then tells Victoria she's giving her starwort, a flower that means welcome. The talk of flowers piques the young girl's interest, but she remains outwardly guarded.

"They look like daisies to me," Victoria says. "And I still think they're poisonous."

I hope dear reader that you will choose to read The Language of Flowers, give it a chance to let the characters come to life for you, let the writing wash over you and hopefully the psychological, sociological and familial characteristics will give way to the heartwarming truth about life, love and the real observation that the only thing human beings expect in life is to be...wanted. 

Please feel free to leave any comments,


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Event Update: Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde Preview Exhibition

This evening I had the pleasure of attending a Pre-Raphaelite themed lecture event at the English Speaking Union followed by a wine and cheese reception. I just wanted to share some lecture information for anyone who may be interested. I will be sharing several links: one link to the Tate Britain site itself for museum details, one link to the related organization Historians of British Art which one of the lectures and prominent Pre-Raphaelite biographer is affiliated with Mr. Peter Trippi. When you click the link for Historians of British Art, look to the right hand side for Events and click on the first event listng New York Conversation. When you do so, a pdf file will ask to be downloaded. I advise you to download, save, and read the attachment because it gives a very specific run down and overview of the upcoming Tate Britain Pre-Raphaelite exhibit and lecture event that took place tonight:

 Event Details for tonight's lecture:
 Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde - Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 6:30 - 8:30 pm

The English-Speaking Union - U.S. National Headquarters. In September 2012, Tate Britain (London) will open the much-anticipated exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. Co-curators Tim Barringer and Jason Rosenfeld will give U.S. audiences an early look at this important exhibition, addressing its key themes and its evolution as a project, during an informal, richly illustrated conversation at The English-Speaking Union. Their lively discussion will be moderated by Peter Trippi, president of Historians of British Art and a co-curator of the recent touring exhibition J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. The conversation will be followed by a wine reception.

Some paintings that will be featured in the Tate Britain 2013 exhibit by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
 Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Beloved ('The Bride') 1865-6

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 
Monna Pomona, 1864

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Heart of the Night (Mariana in the Moated Grange), 1862

These paintings and others on the museum site were featured during one of the lectures in a fascinating slide show and retelling. I chose the first one because it will be one of the primary featured Rossetti paintings and the other two because they are not that familiar to me.

For more exhibit details,  Tate Britain

One of the organizations here in the United States affiliated with Peter Trippi and to download that PDF I mentioned above, Historians of British Art

Please feel free to leave any comments, 

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Review of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (May 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805090037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805090031

In Hilary Mantel's Own Words

"Bring Up the Bodies is the second part of my trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. I have been interested in Cromwell for years, and wanted to get beyond the negative portrayal of him in popular history and fiction. He was a ruthless man, certainly, but no more so than other contemporary politicians; and in Henry, a man of violent temper, he had a very demanding employer. As soon as you get back beyond the prejudices about Cromwell, you find a clever, enterprising, resilient and optimistic man, with a story well worth telling. He was at the center of Henry's court for almost ten years, and when you look at events from his point of view, they seem very different from the stories of the Tudor court to which we've grown accustomed. 

Originally I thought I would tell the story in just one book. But as I made progress with Wolf Hall, I discovered the richness and depth of the material. I was glad to alter my plans. Now the project will reach a conclusion in The Mirror & The Light, the book that is still ahead of me."

 Book Synopsis

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry VIII has become disenchanted with the audacious Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and strong will have alienated his old friends and the noble families of England.

When the discarded Katherine, Henry's first wife, dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed,  the focus of gossip and malice, setting in motion a dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over a few terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally himself with his enemies. What price will he pay for Anne's head?

 My Thoughts

Bring Up The Bodies is the middle volume in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. With trilogies, middle volumes are usually the weakest because they don't have the familiarity of the first and seldom live up to its promise. Often they just serve as the preface to the third volume. Bring Up The Bodies does not have this worry. On the contrary it is riveting in its own right.

The divorce between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon took seven years with the focus of the book being the downfall of Anne Boleyn which was done in three weeks. Reading Bring Up The Bodies gives the reader an obvious sense of urgency. Even though,  I knew exactly what the outcome was to be, I did not want to stop reading nor could I put it down!  I was hooked!

One fascinating aspect of Bring Up The Bodies was Hilary Mantel's scenes between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn .His distinct apathy towards her during her downfall, even though, it is expected on one hand, it is something entirely different when reading it. Mantel's descriptive prose makes one feel as if they are actually present. I found this quite chilling. Especially when you realize we are seeing them through Cromwell's eyes!

The last volume in this heady Cromwell trilogy will deal with the downfall of Thomas Cromwell after Henry VIII's failed marriage to Anne of Cleves. He has four years yet to live! It shall be a brilliant ending I'm sure!

Whether or not you are familiar with this provocative era in history or you are merely curious to see what all the fuss is about, pick up or download a copy and begin the journey...Come and meet Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and those wives Katherine Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and others...

Please feel free to leave any comments,

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A review of Mrs.Robinson's Disgrace The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

Product details
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (30 April 2012)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 140881241X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408812419  


On a mild winter's evening in 1850, Isabella Robinson set out for a party. Her carriage bumped across the wide cobbled streets of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town and drew up at 8 Royal Circus, a grand sandstone house lit by gas lamps. This was the home of the rich widow Lady Drysdale, a vivacious hostess whose soirees were the centre of an energetic intellectual scene.

Lady Drysdale's guests were gathered in the high, airy drawing rooms on the first floor, the ladies in dresses of glinting silk and satin, bodices pulled tight over boned corsets; the gentlemen in tailcoats, waistcoats, neckties and pleated shirt fronts, dark narrow trousers and shining shoes. When Mrs Robinson joined the throng she was introduced to Lady Drysdale's daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Edward Lane. She was at once enchanted by the handsome Mr Lane, a medical student ten years her junior. He was 'fascinating', she told her diary, before chastising herself for being so susceptible to a man's charms. But a wish had taken hold of her, which she was to find hard to shake...

A compelling story of romance and fidelity, insanity, fantasy, and the boundaries of privacy in a society clinging to rigid ideas about marriage and female sexuality, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace brings vividly to life a complex, frustrated Victorian wife, longing for passion and learning, companionship and love.

My Thoughts
I really wanted to fall in love with 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace' but alas I haven't! 
This really should be no surprise. I am a romantic at heart and do not believe in affairs; fictionalized, loosely based on truth or otherwise! To each his own, I suppose but what I discovered in 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace' was a woman who was so isolated and neglected by her travelling businessman husband that she became a fantasist with infatuations of men she met; primarily a much younger Mr. Edward Lane. Her one strong flaw was writing her desires and feelings down in her diary and stupidly keeping it in such an obvious place. For if her husband had never found it, that mock trial, would never have happened and both their affairs could have persisted! You see, what Kate Summerscale has done is write the British version of Madame Bovary with her ideas on Victorian social mores thrown in extensively.

 I was hoping that by reading 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace' it would help me to better understand the viewpoint of 'the mistress'. However, I just came away with frustrations and too many questions. I understand writing fictionally about a middle class Victorian married couple and the social, economic and political ideas of that time. What I could not get past as a reader and writer, was the obvious journalistic stance Kate Summerscale proivdes throughout 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace.' For instance, even though 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace' is broken up into parts where the storyline is moved along chronologically, huge portions of each chapter of part one begin with a long narrative background of each character before the character really comes alive through their feelings, behaviors and thoughts. This was the most frustrating aspect of reading 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace'.  As a reader, if the storyline is well-written, I should be able to follow the characters without a long running introduction. Kate Summerscale's background as a newspaper journalist comes into play here and gets in the way too much for me. I enjoyed the diary entries, even the salacious moments and was just hoping for a bit more storytelling and not so much story-dragging. 

I highly recommend 'Gillespie and I' by Jane Harris instead of Kate Summerscale's 'Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace'. 

Please feel free to leave any comments, 


My review of The Unfinished Business of Eadie Browne by Freya North

  When your present meets your past, what do you take with you - and what do you leave behind? ** Eadie Browne is an odd child with unusual ...