Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bethany Bibb, London: A Literary Trek through England

Back in high school, I read a short story called “The Celestial Omnibus” about a boy who discovered a sort of literary heaven filled with all his favorite mythological and storybook heroes. The author was someone named E.M. Forster. Little did I know then that in college I would be studying novels by E.M. Forster and other Bloomsbury Group writers in London and discovering an equally incredible literary wonderland in England. I didn’t run into my favorite characters, but I did come as close to the authors who created them as possible.

The literary explorations began in the classroom at Regents College where Professors Mark Matheson and Vince Pecora took our study abroad class on a whirlwind tour of Great Britain’s history and culture between the World Wars, setting the stage for the novels and other works we’d be reading. Of course, it’s not enough to read about these things; you have to experience them. So during that first week, we took to the streets of London. If ever an encyclopedia of useful information and entertaining anecdotes zipped through London in a suit and tie, it was David Brady, our guide and guest lecturer. On this particular walking tour, David Brady took us to see Bloomsbury Square where many of the authors we were studying lived.

Plaque marks where the Bloomsbury Group live

But the walking tour was just the beginning. That same week, we went on a class outing to Cambridge. Think you’ve seen a college town? Not until you’ve been to Cambridge! (Oh yes, and Oxford, too.) While there, we visited Newnham College, the only women’s college in town and Virginia Woolf’s alma mater. All of the colleges in Cambridge were stunning, but I thought Newnham was the most beautiful. Some said it looked too girly, but I didn’t care – I would have studied there in a heartbeat!

Newnham College from the back

Finally, we stopped at the University of Cambridge Library to see an exhibition on the most famous book in English literature – the King James Bible. It was fascinating to see the development of this version down through various earlier translations and learn the stories of the men who risked and even lost their lives to translate the Bible into English so it could be read by the common people.

King James Bible exhibition poster

This exhibition was just a small taste of what lay in store at the British Library. Here we got to see more original manuscripts ranging from Shakespeare’s folios to Beatles’ songs. Jane Austen’s writing desk displaying one of her notebooks, the last chapter of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s own handwriting, the Magna Carta, and the Lindisfarne Gospels were the most memorable for me.

Soon afterward, we visited Oxford and explored what it had to offer. Aside from the impressive architecture and historical sites, Oxford’s literary connections will be a surefire winner with classic fantasy lovers. It’s a humble-looking establishment; but The Eagle and Child pub where most of us lunched was the meeting place and frequent writing haunt of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

When classes were over for the week and we were let loose to enjoy our free time, I pursued more literary adventures straight into the English hills. All the artwork, photos, and film footage of the Lake District had conspired against me. I had fallen in love with that breathtaking countryside and was determined to see some of it if it was the last thing I did in England. I decided on a guided tour, hopped on a train, rendezvoused with the guide and other tour group members, and set off for the beautiful green hills and shining lakes of Cumbria. My destination was Hill Top Farm, Lake District home of Beatrix Potter – author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and other such stories.

Hill Top was just as quaint and homey as I imagined it would be. The small farmhouse was furnished as it had been while Beatrix lived there. Several of her books lay open around the rooms to show where she had sketched her own clock or staircase for the illustrations. Outside the house, small vegetable and flower gardens were flourishing. And for those hoping for a glimpse of Peter Rabbit’s descendants, there was a long enclosed lawn dotted with little rabbits nibbling on the grasses. The farm was surrounded with some of the lushest hills and pastureland you could ever find. It was easy to see how the landscape inspired Beatrix Potter not only to sketch and write but also to preserve more than 4,000 acres of the countryside through conservation efforts.

Nearby countryside and Hill Top Farm

The study abroad was quickly coming to a close as the fifth week began, but more literary explorations were in store. Early in the week, Professor Mark Matheson led us on a William Blake walking tour. We started with the church where he was baptized, hunted down place for where his birthplace used to be, and ended at Bunhill Fields where he and his wife were buried. No one knows the exact spot, but a memorial marker indicates he lies nearby. Not far from Blake’s stone, Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) and John Bunyan (author of Pilgrims Progress) are buried.

John Bunyun's Monument and Markers for Daniel Defore (left) and William Blake (right).

On the last day of our Bloomsbury Group class, our professors took us to Virginia Woolf’s house. After having read two novels and several essays by her, visiting the house called Monk’s Head was the perfect way to end the study. The house was quite small with no room of one’s own to write in, but Woolf had her own writing shed in the garden; and the surrounding English garden seemed the perfect setting for a writer’s retreat. We prowled around the house and gardens for a while, then took the coach down to pay our respects at the River Ouse where Woolf drowned in 1941.

Monk's house, Virginia Woolf's home

The London study abroad was one of the most rewarding experiences an English major could have. All these outings and discussions brought the literature to life and gave me a deeper appreciation for the unfamiliar readings and the classics I already enjoyed. There’s nothing like getting close to your favorite authors by visiting their homes or admiring the landscapes they loved and wrote about to gain fresh insights about their work. From paying tribute to authors at the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey to watching a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, there were plenty of opportunities to explore England’s treasure trove of literary geniuses and experience the literature for yourself – and I am thankful for every one of them!

Shakespeare's Globe

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