I am so terribly excited. In early December this year I am to become a grandma!!!! My daughter Elinor and her husband Craig are expecting their first baby. Of course, as soon as I heard the news my thoughts turned to literary associations. If this baby really wants to get off to a good start with its grandmother, it will arrive on 16 December (Jane Austen’s birthday). And I’d love little Jane or little Austen to be given a nice literary name – not that I have any say at all in the matter, but one can always hope.
Being the child of a famous author is not easy. Being the child that a famous author has included in his books is virtually a nightmare. Christopher Robin Milne certainly found it horrific.
His early years were happy ones, but once his father included him and his toys in Now We are Six and Winnie-the-Pooh, the boy was mercilessly teased and lived under a spotlight of media attention. He came to loathe the poem Vespers (“Christopher Robin is saying his prayers …”) because he was so endlessly teased about it, while the lines “Christopher Robin goes hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop …” drove him almost to distraction.
Seventy-five years ago, a book called Child Whispers was published. It was a collection of poems for children, illustrated by the author’s friend, and it set that author on a path to fame. Her name was Enid Blyton and this year is her 120th birthday, on 11 August. She went on to become one of the world’s best-selling writers, her books (of which she wrote about 600) translated into over 90 languages, and films and merchandise galore made from her stories. Five on a Treasure Island, her first book in the Famous Five series, was published in 1942, while The Secret Seven came out in 1949.
I recently visited the fabulous new Seamus Heaney Homeplace in the village of Bellaghy in Ireland. There, along with all my tour group, I absolutely fell in love with Heaney. He was a stunning poet and an incredibly nice man. The new centre is superb – interactive and informative, it brings his works alive for the visitor. In the village is a wonderful new statue, depicting a man digging peat. It is an illustration of one of Heaney’s most famous poems:
Digging by Seamus Heaney
“I have lost a treasure”, wrote Cassandra Austen on the death of her sister Jane. The literary world too lost one of its brightest treasures when Jane Austen died on 18 July, 1817, aged only 41. Around the world those who love her six novels will mourn her loss and celebrate her legacy.
There is plenty happening in the Jane Austen world this July – a new statue is going up in Basingstoke (the first statue of her ever created), Jane Austen’s face will appear on the £10 banknote and on the £2 coin (making her the first person ever, apart from a reigning monarch, to appear on an English coin and banknote simultaneously), public benches shaped like half-opened books and adorned with Austenian scenes have been erected around Hampshire, her words will appear in public places when it rains (in a project called ‘Rain Jane’), exhibitions will be staged around England on her life and fiction, and there will be dances, costume parades, guided walks, talks, new Jane Austen merchandise, and more. Jane Austen societies in the UK, USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, the Czech Republic, Italy and Pakistan will celebrate Jane Austen’s extraordinary literary legacy.
I was very honoured last month to be awarded an Order of Australia Medal for Services to Literature. I share this award with all of you who attend my talks, come on my tours, and read this newsletter. It was such a thrill to receive it. And on top of that I was also last month made a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW. This is primarily a scientific body, but they are extending into the arts and I was lucky enough to be chosen as a Fellow.
“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love … Jane Austen”
July is an extremely important month in the literary world. On 18th July it will be 200 years since Jane Austen died, at the tragically early age of 41, in Winchester. She left us a legacy of six completed novels, two unfinished ones, some juvenilia, letters and a few poems and other small pieces. The world will be marking this important anniversary in many ways. There will be exhibitions, talks, dances, guided walks, conferences, afternoon teas, trivia nights, and events hosted by Jane Austen societies in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Czech Republic, England, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, North America, Pakistan, Scotland, Singapore and Spain.
Is there a word in the English language that is the opposite of ‘green-fingered’? If so, I’d love to know what it is? If not, there should be, because it describes what I am – very good at killing plants.
But while I might be useless at growing things, I do love a nice garden, and I also like to read about gardens. Recently, in preparation for giving a talk on Frances Hodgson Burnett, I re-read The Secret Garden. I’d forgotten just what a lovely novel it is. Published in 1911, the novel became an instant best-seller. It tells of two psychologically damaged children who find happiness and purpose when they restore an old garden. It was said that you could actually learn to prune roses from its pages.
Killed at the Ford by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
HE is dead, the beautiful youth,
The heart of honor, the tongue of truth,—
He, the life and light of us all,
Whose voice was blithe as a bugle call,
Whom all eyes followed with one consent,
The cheer of whose laugh, and whose pleasant word,
Hushed all murmurs of discontent.
Do you often laugh over books? I mean a real belly-laugh, with tears in your eyes?
Humour is a very individual thing. A friend recently lent me a book which he told me he’d nearly died laughing over. For me the book failed to even raise a smile. Another friend adores Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and says it never fails to make her laugh out loud. I quite like it, but have never laughed over it. I do laugh over E.F. Benson’s fabulous novel Secret Lives, Bill Bryson can usually have me chuckling happily, and some of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels have made me literally ache with laughter (these books are not worthy literature – in fact, they are rather foolish books, but they do make me laugh).
Twenty years ago, on 26 June 1997, a novel for children was published without any great fanfare. It was the first in a planned series of books featuring a boy with wizarding powers called Harry Potter. Ten years later the 7th book in the series was published and by that time there cannot have been many people in the world who had not heard of the boy, the books and the author, J.K. Rowling.
Have you come across an American novelist called Charlie Lovett? He’s a writer, teacher and playwright and his books have been on the New York Times bestseller list.
I really loved his mystery novel First Impressions about a girl called Sophie who works in the antiquarian book business and gets drawn into a mystery that connects her to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. It was so cleverly written. I also loved The Lost Book of the Grail which is set in Barchester, a fictional county dreamed up by Anthony Trollope.
Alan Titchmarsh is best known as a gardener and TV presenter, and for being regularly voted one of the world’s sexiest men, but he is also a writer. He has written many gardening books, and some fiction. I enjoyed his light but rather charming novel Rosie (2004).
On 17th June it will be Australian poet and short story writer Henry Lawson’s 150th birthday. There will be parties, exhibitions and talks in Sydney and Grenfell to honour this anniversary. The best way I can mark this date is by discussing a Henry Lawson poem.