But, when I come across the term ‘romantic’ I turn back. (I know the reason for this: it lies with the epigraph to Possession, which was my favourite book for many years.)
So I was intrigued by Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns when Nathalie recommended it.
Although that was just a bonus because I added it to my list of 2011 Must-Reads, which, you can see, meant it was no longer optional, even if the ‘modern’ elements outweighed the ‘romantic’ ones.
But the push-pull dilemma dissolved as soon as I had my hands on a copy of this book. It’s just lovely.
Unlike so many books of its kind, there are enough pictures. With the exception of the index and notes sections, there is an image every page (or two pages).
And, yet, despite the plethora of images and the high-quality paper on which they are reproduced, the book is not too heavy to carry with you. It is heavier than many, but it does not cross my ‘impossible’ line.
And that’s a good thing, really, because it is the perfect book to take with you to read in a cafe, or on a journey.
After you read a couple of pages, and study the image that accompanies that segment of the text, you can stare in the direction of the espresso machine, hearing the rush of change in its workings, or you can gaze out the window of the train, forever trying to capture the bit of landscape that just whipped past.
It’s the kind of book that offers both studiousness and a sense of wonder. These might seem to be conflicting responses, but I don’t think that’s true.
And, even if it were, it would suit this work, which considers all the different ways in which people imagined themselves and the spaces they inhabited (or had overlooked) in a vastly chaotic setting, the 1930s and 1940s in England.
“Romantic Moderns investigates one of the richest periods in the arts of this country, and it traces the extraordinary network of personal and cultural encounters from which a modern English renaissance grew.”
That’s a scholarly bit for you. And here are some not-so-scholarly bits. Which include some of my favourite parts:
– a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End that illustrates the way in which we depend on the things in our houses to hold meaning
– chat about The Lawn Road Flats designed by Wells Coates, in which Agatha Christie lived for a time, which would hold a single vase but weren’t intended to house anything else decorative
– the entire section, which is separated from the numbered chapters, titled “A Break for Refreshments”, which includes a quote from Tristram Shandy about cabbages, chat about Virginia Woolf’s food writing, and descriptive quotes from Evelyn Waugh about feasting (the companion “break” is titled “An Hour in the Garden”)
– a focus on the relationship(s) between seemingly divergent forms, for instance Peter Warlock’s 1926 study The English Ayre, which focussed on early songs, alongside his substantive work on the modern composer, Arnold Schoenberg
– the soldier’s annotations in his copy of Other Men’s Flowers (1944) during wartime, later sent to Field-Marshall Wavell, after the death of the soldier in Normandy
– talk of Henry Moore’s first sight of Stonehenge, by night, in 1921, when one could still wander among the stones alone after dark
– references to “big house” novels and stories by all sorts, from Green to Waugh to Bowen to duMaurier to Woolf (Between the Acts), with lots of luverly pictures
The spine of the library copy of this book seems to betray that sort of reading that Alexandra Harris’ work inspires; it does not seem to have been read by many people (the pages are remarkably clean) but the binding is, nonetheless, rather loose; it seems to have been laid open for long periods by readers who have taken their time with the prose and images herein.
If you’re interested in art and literature of the 1930s and 1940s in England, you, too, will want to dwell on these pages.
And thanks, Nathalie: I finished this last year, but it took me ages to corral my notes.