In Home Life

So, here it is: the new website; those of you who saw the old one will realise at least one fundamental reason why I changed it. I think we can all agree that my previous effort had the technological flare of a wedged gerbil’s wheel and a distressing tendency to cut photographs off at the head. Otherwise it was fine.

So this website is partly my effort to wobble, cautiously, a little further into the 21st century. I ‘took a break’ from blogging over the summer, partly because it was clear to me that I would be focusing on the renovation of Pittleworth as  my husband, children and I (to say nothing of the dog) move into the main body of the house. Over the summer, there were moments when I feared that this house might cost me my sanity; I felt that we were living in an unholy combination of a rubbish dump, a mausoleum and a building site. I couldn’t make blog posts interesting or funny, it was too raw (and with the chimney trying to come down, the pipes coming up and no proper cooker, I barely had time). I decided to put blogging on hold and come back to it when, I hope, I felt there was a story to tell about the renovation and life here that wouldn’t include too much moaning. Bluntly, living here makes me insanely lucky and for a few months this year, I didn’t feel so lucky. I do now, I want to share it.

I have been overwhelmed by the interest that so many of you showed in Pittleworth, both on Instagram and on my blog. I had worried at first that people might laugh (in the wrong way) at the bits of the house that were shabby: the peeling paint on the windows and the sun-spotted carpets. I hope that on this website, I can repay some of that interest with more exploration of the house’s history and some of its more interesting quirks.

Obviously this website is more than a blog, it is also to share a new venture: Literary Lunches. Literary Lunches arose out of the things that I want to do with my precious spare time (things that felt like something of a mirage in the last year or so). I want to read, I want to discuss what I read, I like good food and, yes, I like to feel a little spoiled and I like to take time to appreciate this house. I reckon I am not alone.

I also know that, as we get older, the time for long blissful sessions curled up on the bed (my reading nest of choice) with a book, is increasingly curtailed. So I’ve always felt that, if I was going to get involved in any courses or reading groups, I didn’t want Reading Lists. Reading time, for me, is too precious to be faced with ten books: three marvellous, five fine and two awful.

When I taught for a term as a postgraduate on the wonderful ‘Victorian Bestsellers’ course at the University of Southampton, I remember thinking that the poacher had truly turned gamekeeper. I remembered seminars as undergraduate and (less frequently!) graduate when I simply hadn’t done my homework. I was very busy, you understand. Perhaps you know the drill in such classes? It’s mad bull stuff: keep your head down, avoid eye-contact with the tutor, no moves to draw attention — and leave with a vague sadness that actually that sounded quite interesting, if only you’d read it …

I was determined not to let the un-briefed (shall we say), slip through my net as a teacher. I learned how to structure seminars so that discussion and ideas could arise from the material we looked at in class and, frankly, it worked.

And why, I wondered a few months ago, shouldn’t it work among people who were motivated to spend a few hours one day, discussing literature but who hadn’t got numberless hours in a week to devote to books that someone else had chosen for them? I want to create an atmosphere that that is interesting: stretching but also fun and cosy. I hated school first-time round and have no interest in recreating it (though I suppose I could always boil up some mince for eight hours — the dog will be thrilled — and stick some chewing gum under the table if anyone really insists).

My loathing of school also informed my approach to our first day. I asked a friend what we should do for lunch, she suggested quiche. Leaving aside the fact that I have a violent and bigoted loathing of quiche, we take good food seriously at Pittleworth (and don’t worry. Behind the scenes is the unflappable T: I will not be attempting to discuss Jane Austen from a cloud of steam whilst draining new potatoes). I hope we can keep the food seasonal and local, where possible, and interesting. The River Test being practically within hopping distance, we can rely on a plentiful supply of smoked trout for a start but if we rely too much on the garden, there might be a hard sell on rosemary at present! We shall (I hope) see. Anyway, for the first lunch we had slow-toasted lamb with mint and pomegranate (yes, I know pomegranate isn’t local but it is gorgeous and a nod to our murals) and apple crumble, amongst other things, and there wasn’t a lot left: my Eldest had words and the twins and the Newfie looked at me.

Pittleworth’s first literary lunch was so much more fun than I had dared hope. Not all of my volunteers knew each other but there was a terrific atmosphere, lots of animated discussion and lots of laughter. Time flew (cliché, I know). There was some talk of doing it again some time …

So why did I call this venture A Manor of Readings? What did I mean by it?

I wanted the name to evoke a house full of four generations-worth of books. I want it to suggest a house which we can all fill with ideas about the houses in books and the books in houses. I wanted it to suggest a place where we could read from novels while giving ourselves a tiny taste of the way things used to be done In houses like this (enough to make us feel nostalgic: not enough to worry about which knife to eat fish with and which fork to give it a hysterectomy with). Nostalgia is often fun but I also want to see what ideas discussing country houses in a country house atmosphere throws up. You never know, amongst all this literary and historical tradition, we might find something new …

And, in the words of Noel Coward:

The stately homes of England
Tho’ rather on the blink
Provide a lot of reasons
For what we do and think

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  • Virginia C. Jones

    Lovely posts, and so interesting. I would love to attend a literary luncheon particularly one in which REBECCA (or any Daphne du Maurier) will be discussed because it is one of my all time favorite books. I also love Anna Buchan, and John Buchan (THIRTY NINE STEPS), Thornton W Burgess (from my youth — a long time ago), Angela Thirkell, virtually any of the Golden Age British mystery writers, some of the Gothic fiction writers such as Mary Stewart or Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken (hope I got those right), Susan Pleydell, the novels from Grey Ladies Press, Elspeth Huxley, WEST WITH THE WIND, THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS, Mary Wesley, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, Eric Newby, Sarah Orne Jewett’s THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS about Maine, Jamaica Kincaid’s books about Antigua, Edith Wharton, Helen MacInnes, etc.
    I would love to know where Pittleworth Manor is because I have friends who live on the NW edge of the New Forest and I’ve actually spent some time with them on sail boats on the Beaulieu River where they used to keep their boat. I suspect that you are between the River and Southampton. I’ve enjoyed visits in that area so much, but, alas, no longer fly if I can help it so hard to get there from New England!

    I would subscribe to your blog if I could figure out how to do it.

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