Hazel McHaffie

National Trust

Georgiana, Lady Chatterton – writer

We writers are always thrilled to find unexpected literary treasures.

So, when I visited the moated National Trust property,  Baddesley Clinton Hall, in Warwickshire, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover a hitherto unknown-to-me writer associated with it, and enthusiastic volunteer guides only too ready to tell us all about her. Georgiana, Lady Chatterton is one of the three aristocratic ladies being promoted there just now. Who? do I hear you cry?

Henrietta Georgiana Marcia Lascelles Iremonger was born in London, on 11 November 1806 and at the tender age of 17, she married Sir William Abraham Chatterton, 2nd Baronet of Castle Mahon, County Cork, who was eighteen years her senior. Their circle included the literary intelligentsia as well as royals, but Georgina coupled a busy social life with writing, producing 29 novels and travel books between 1837 and 1876. In 1859, now a widow, she married Edward Dering, a fellow writer. The story (which may be apocryphal) is told with some glee that Edward was actually asking permission to marry Georgiana’s niece, but the older lady misheard and thought he was proposing to her. She accepted, so he gallantly went along with the misunderstanding.

Baddesley Clinton has books and quotes by Georgina and information about her, tastefully scattered around the rooms, as well as many glorious paintings by her aforementioned niece, Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen, the second lady highlighted at the Hall.

This exquisite portrait of Georgiana by her, sits on an easel in the room where Rebecca continued to paint until she was in her 90s. (Apologies the lighting was tricky.)

Georgiana loved the idea of her thoughts and words being retained for posterity, preferably entombed in a library …

… and I’m sure would have thought the one at Baddesley Clinton a perfect resting place.

Whilst friends and acquaintances would forget her and vanish in their turn, she reflected, her words would continue to be read sympathetically by strangers for generations to come, granting her a very special kind of immortality.

What a lovely and unexpected find.

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Are you sitting comfortably?

May Bank Holiday included a couple of National Trust properties for me this year – Cragside House in Northumberland and Acorn Bank in Cumbria – fascinating places with rich histories, each in their own way evocative of a bygone age. So I thought I’d give you faithful followers a little holiday too, take you to some wonderfully inviting places to sit, to write, to read, simply to meditate. (Apologies for the quality of some of the pictures – taken on my iPad so limited control.)

Imagine for yourself what the peace, the serenity, the ambience, would conjure up in your mind.

At Cragside

A sumptuous Victorian Country house, the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. So let your thoughts roam free as you …

sit surrounded by fantastic gardens …

in elegant rooms …

beside roaring fires …

in the midst of enormous wealth and inheritance …

looking over fabulous views …

Acorn Bank

A virtually empty-at-the-moment 13th century building spanning occupancy by the Knights Templar through to the Sue Ryder Foundation before becoming a national treasure. So imagine again where your thoughts would roam …

sitting in a chair once occupied by a renowned writer …

snuggling up in window seats …

Feel any historical novels coming on?!

How about sitting alone in the fragrance of a well stocked herb garden …

The NT are alive to opportunities; I found seats beckoning me everywhere I went. What’s more the beautiful dovecot building at Acorn Bank has been given over to reading. It houses secondhand books alongside a lovely comfy chair and even 3-for-2 offers!

What more could a writer visitor from Scotland ask for? Well, maybe a book about Edinburgh …

Happy days.

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The privilege of ready access to books

With a whole lot of quite ridiculous chasing up and down the country over the past fortnight, we’ve seized the opportunity to visit interesting places en route to relieve the boredom of long drives and give the spine a chance to decompress. I’m not going to wax lyrical about architectural phenomena, nor indeed regale you with tales of great families and grand alliances, nor yet conjure up visions of loveliness twirling parasols on the avenues while dashing young beaux pay court in the rose garden. No, for the purposes of this blog, I want to home in on one of my favourite topics: books.

Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield in Somerset has been on my to-do list since it was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, and it was conveniently on the way to Cornwall two weeks ago. Secondhand Bookshop, TyntesfieldIt has a fascinating history based around an ordinary family who acquired extraordinary wealth  from the sale of guano (yes, indeed, bird droppings!), and I was haunted by the vision of the last owner, unmarried and alone, living in just three modest rooms but surrounded by magnificence and beauty which he had carefully shrouded and preserved for generations to come after his death. It more than lived up to my expectations; in my view one of the loveliest houses in the Trust. A veritable Gothic extravaganza set in superb gardens and surrounded by gorgeous period estate houses and ancient trees. With so much to see then, it was intriguing to find … a second hand bookshop at the entrance!

A big tick for the love of books, huh?

Belton HouseA week later Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire was only a swerve away from the A1 to London. A quintessential country estate, it’s much smaller and less spectacular than Tyntesfield but still well worth visiting, especially with its direct links to the abdication of Edward VIII. But the reason to include it in my blog is twofold. First because the Trust has cunningly converted the stables into a series of most attractive bookshops with used volumes on every conceivable subject crammed into each stall. Wouldn’t you just love to perch here and lose yourself in a period tale or two?

Converted stables at Belton HouseStalls at Belton House

 

And second because of the library in the main house.

Main library at Belton HouseA beautiful light and airy room with a huge collection of books. But most notable of all, back in the days when an army of servants scurried up and down uncarpeted back staircases to avoid being seen by the family, here they were encouraged to pop up to the family library and borrow books from it to improve their reading skills and their knowledge – provided they put them back, of course. Amazing! A remarkably advanced approach to staff welfare.

So our dalliances during long excursions became unexpectedly book-orientated and uplifting. Long live the physical book.

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Bigotry? Intolerance? Prejudice?

We’ve heard so much negative comment lately about people with religious beliefs being bigoted and intolerant, I want to share an entirely different experience with you.

When last year I received an invitation to run a series of workshops on the challenges of medical ethics for a group of Christians (from the Christadelphian Church) near London in March 2012, I confess I hesitated for lots of reasons. But the organisers were very persuasive, and I eventually succumbed to their flattery.

The conference was this past weekend. And I’ve survived to tell the tale.

Life has been very pressurised of late and I had a lot of baggage to shed in order to free my mind up to facilitate group work effectively. So I used the journey south to unwind, visiting two magnificent National Trust properties. The first was Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire,Fountains Abbeywith its awesome architecture and stonework, and its dramatic cloister.The cloisterJust standing surveying all this ancient beauty, soaking up the centuries of peace and devotion, is balm to the troubled soul.

And then on to Ickworth in Suffolk, very grand, housing fabulous paintings, and also steeped in history.

(SORRY: photos inadvertently lost.)

Oh, and a quick trip to nearby Ixworth Thorpe to see the house where I was born. I’ve only visited once before, taking my mother round her old haunts, and it holds no memories for me because I was a mere babe when we moved from here, but it’s part of who I am. (No plaque outside yet though, I see!)

Anyway, suffice to say I’d shed a lot of tension before arriving at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Another lovely building looking great in the sunshine.

From the moment I introduced myself the team couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. The whole atmosphere was warmly inclusive. So far so good.

I had five and a half hours to fill with my workshops so that took care of most of Saturday. My sessions are totally interactive and the course they run is partly determined by the cues I get from the participants, which means I have to be ready for anything. Fairly keeps the adrenaline flowing, I can tell you! But I take a few tricks up my sleeve in case things flag.

It’s my belief that, in order to understand the enormity of the choices relating to the big dilemmas of modern medicine, and to empathise with individuals and their families grappling with such questions, you need to engage emotion as well as intellect. So throughout the sessions, as I presented increasingly difficult scenarios, the delegates imagined how they might feel in such situations (eg being infertile, or dying from a degenerative disease, or suffering from psychiatric disorders, or listening to a child begging not to have any more aggressive treatment), and they moved on a continuum from very comfortable (represented by soft easy chairs with lots of cushions) to very uncomfortable (pebbles on seats and upended chairs). There was a fence to sit on for those who couldn’t decide, and we even introduced a moral high ground (high seat covered in a velvet cloth) for the few who took up a fixed moral position.

Were these Christians bigoted or intolerant? They were not. Were their minds closed to new ideas? Not a bit of it. Were they holier-than-thou? By no means. They were impressively honest and compassionate and realistic. Yes, they live to a high standard, based on a foundation of firm principles, but it was obvious there was no party line when it came to assisted dying, abortion, infertility treatment, organ transplantation … They thought for themselves. They might not agree on the solutions, but they challenged each other healthily, respectfully. They acknowledged their own prejudices, recognised the weaknesses in their arguments, and had the courage to admit there was room for change within themselves. Every single person allowed themselves to be uncomfortable, to alter their position. We laughed a lot. Some tearfully shared painful experiences. We engaged honestly with the issues. And the world is a better place because there are folk like this who have the courage and humility to accept that there are no easy trite answers, who are ready to really listen, to understand, and to support others going through life’s traumas, without thrusting their own opinions on them.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable and heartening experience.

Indian proverb: Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

 

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In praise of Robert Goddard

I’ve just had the great indulgence of three long days secreted away on trains travelling the length of the country, keeping myself deliberately out of communication by phone or email. Hours and hours lost in books! Bliss.

You may remember one of my New Year resolutions was to acknowledge brilliance when I found it. This week I want to sing the praises of one of Britain’s best mystery writers whose books were my companions on the said journeys.

Robert Goddard is one of those authors whose skill leaves you reeling. His debut novel, Past Caring, is in my personal top five. I rarely read a book twice – too many books, too little time – but this one I did. And I was riveted both times.

The hero is flawed – a disgraced teacher, a history graduate, with a failed marriage and no prospects. His help is enlisted by a shadowy figure in Madeira, to research a 70-year old mystery. The backdrop is the Liberal Government’s constitutional crisis just before the First World War and the Suffragette movement, and in Past Caring the historical context really comes alive. Fluid writing, intricate plotting with loads of twists, believable characterisation – a totally gripping read.

Take no FarewellGoddard’s fond of flawed protagonists. Take no Farewell, another favourite, features a failing architect – a deliberate ploy to enable the author to indulge his love of architecture of that period. Geoffrey Staddon has never forgotten his first important commission, to build the best house he ever designed. But when life is disintegrating around him he reads that the love of his life, Consuela, the mistress of that house, is on trial for murder by poisoning. Remorse and shame come flooding back. He absolutely has to save her from the gallows. Twists and turns, revelations and secrets, keep the reader on tenterhooks to the very end.

So what can we say of Robert Goddard overall? He specialises in suspense and intrigue, unlikely heroes, altered reality, redemption. He’s a stickler for authenticity in his locations and history. He’s the kind of author who does his research thoroughly – but he has the skill to make the topics accessible to the uninitiated. The reader is left with the choice to pursue the contexts to whatever level of detail they choose, not doing so doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story itself. And the range of subjects this writer weaves through his varied stories is a measure of his own great interest in life in all its forms and vagaries.

But if you like simple linear plots – he’s not for you. Just when you think you’ve grasped the way things fit, he spins you back out of control again. Relationships, eras, acts and consequences, they’re all juggled simultaneously. And if you find it hard to hold names in your head, you’ll need a very large piece of paper to list all the characters and how they fit … or did, until the plot twisted for the umpteenth time. But if you love Prague or Madeira or Devon or wherever the book is set, you’ll find his narrative so evocative of the place you’ll be walking those streets with him.

Two reviews, I think, sum him up:
‘Combines the expert suspense manipulation skills of a Daphne du Maurier romance with those of a John le Carré thriller’ New York Times

‘His narrative power, strength of characterisation and superb plots, plus the ability to convey the atmosphere of the period quite brilliantly, make him compelling reading’ Books

I’ve been adding to my Goddard collection for years and was recently delighted to find several tucked away in a National Trust property bookstall, with an honesty box next to them. Pearls indeed. OK, OK, OK, I know that authors should blaze a trail for writers everywhere receiving a just reward for their labour. Of course they should! But I really couldn’t resist these. And the money did go to a worthy cause. I hope Robert Goddard would be somewhat mollified by this tribute to him.

I’ve never met him but there’s a fascinating interview with him on //www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTAXug1lJBE&feature=related
in which he explains why he writes as he does. And he interviews as well as he writes. Enjoy!

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