I recently returned from a trip to Europe to visit my eldest daughter, who is working in London for six months. We met up in Paris, and after some days there and in Belgium, we crossed the Channel to England and finished our sojourn by visiting a plethora of literary sites. People who know me realize that I am a Jane Austen aficionado (aficionada?) and understand that a trip to her native land, and a walk through her very environs, is like a heroin hit to me: once is not enough, and I suspect I’ll anxiously pursue more of All Things Jane until I die.
The literary trail began in Paris, with a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the bookstore-cum-refuge for ex-pat Americans. Hemingway hung out there when he was writing in Paris with the Lost Generation. There, I found his short book, A Moveable Feast, and devoured it like a box of truffles. Each small chapter, savored, melted deliciously, bringing the reader almost unto tears. Indulging, I remembered how formative Hemingway was when I first began writing in earnest (no pun intended), how important the declarative sentence, the dearth of adjectives, the use of the appositive was to him, and how that shows up in my work, when I’m on it. How he says we must always endeavor to write the one true thing in our stories.
We walked the Left Bank boulevards and hopped trains to Flanders, into Belgium, slipped on cobblestones, supped on bread and cheese and wine; climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur and savored the silence in St. Sulpice; strolled among the tombs in the city of the dead called Pere Lachaise, a cemetery housing Moliere, Chopin, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Heloise and Abelard, so many more with stories to tell.
We left behind the City of Lights, and arrived in London in time for Shakespeare’s birthday, and though thwarted in our efforts to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we ate birthday cake in a pub called Shakespeare’s Head. We strolled in Hyde Park near the statue of Peter Pan, taxied through Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill, where Pongo and Missus had their Twilight Bark, and passed Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross railroad station, where a luggage cart sits frozen halfway through the wall, caught in its magic, left behind by one of Harry Potter’s mates.
No matter where you go in England, there’s something or someone literary, whether it’s Dickens or Bronte or Woolf or Pepys. A walk through the National Portrait Gallery was like flipping through an old yearbook – there he is! There she is! I gazed on their faces, some of which I’d never seen before. Who knew Byron was such a fop? That Mary Shelley was so demure, Wordsworth so dour or Keats so tragic? I didn’t, and yet I did know, from sitting in their words, like soaking in a tub with the most delightful essences and bubbles to surround me.
And there, in a case like a precious jewel, was the one known portrait of Jane Austen, a sketch and watercolor done by her not-very-adept sister, looking like a child’s scribble, or my big toe. Flat, lifeless, sour and awkward, the little icon gazes into the distance over my left shoulder, her neck impossible crooked, her arms crossed and fading from sight. Was this my Jane? My hilarious, observant, wicked Jane? Alas for all of us, the pathetic miniature is all we have.
There is a quote that hangs on my bulletin board, a handwritten index card faded from sunlight: “Although sometimes I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining, I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.” So saith the sage John Steinbeck.
I took along notebooks and wrote poem after poem along the way of my travels, grasping for an image that wasn’t a European cliché, a snippet from the known world, and tried hopelessly to capture in some rare new form. The mot juste. The one true thing.
But I look over what I wrote and think my words are no closer to capturing the light than Austen’s portraitist.
Advice to Aspiring Writers: Read. More. Books.