40 Days of Book Praise, Day 11

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 11, The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

pursuit of love

The English country gentry are a delight as entertainment, as testified by the millions who enjoy the upstairs/downstairs antics at Downton Abbey. Long before the fictional Crawleys were a Masterpiece hit, their heir-to-the-estate problems were embodied by the real-life Mitfords. These six sisters made the bickerings of Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil look like holding hands and singing Kumbaya. The Mitford girls were Nancy (a novelist); Jessica (a communist): Debo (a duchess); Diana (a fascist); Pamela (a chicken breeder); and Unity (who befriended Hitler and then shot herself the day England declared war on Germany). There was one Mitford son, Thomas. Like many other promising young heirs of his generation, Tom was killed in the Second World War.

Nancy, the oldest, used her family’s eccentricities and charms as fodder for her stories. Her most well-known creation are Lord & Lady Radlett and their wild and crazy family. Despite their differing beliefs, the Mitford sisters had a few things in common–loyalty to England, irrational affection for dogs, and an idealized view of love–and the made-up Radlett girls reflected those feelings. These two short novels are often published together because both detail the primary pursuit of the Radlett daughters—to meet a suitable man and bind with him into a bearable marriage. This was, at that time, no less of a challenge than it is in 2015. The two heroines, Linda Radlett and her cousin Polly Hampton, may be beautiful and privileged, but they are no less dreamy-eyed, terrified, and unlucky about love as their more modern counterparts.

Why is The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate a good read for women? First, Nancy Mitford was a brilliant comic writer. The stories poke affectionate fun at the affectations of lords and ladies, but it’s also honest in admiring certain elements of their world. When war comes, each person on the estate is expected to do their bit to save England. When rationing comes, they endure together. When scandal comes—and oh boy, does it—they hold up their heads because, after all, they are the Crawleys. I mean, the Mitfords. I mean, the Radletts. Whatever the name, they are a family and, with Nancy Mitford’s witty and clever pen, the girls’ pursuit of suitable husbands are heartfelt. Who, after all—titled or untitled—does not want to be happy in love?

Postcard from Writing Camp, 2

A funny thing happened at the end of my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts: my car would not start.

 Was this a message?

“Please stay with us, Ramona! Two weeks was not nearly long enough. Oh, sure, you accomplished the specific goals you set—with two days to spare—but think of the goals you could reach if you had two more weeks! And the wonderful social time you chose to enjoy: The Valentine’s Day reading with the pink marshmallow snowballs! The Open Studios afternoon when the visual artists blew you away! The snow day and the horses wearing their adorable plaid blankets! The delicious meals that you didn’t have to cook or serve or clean up! The generous Fellows who shared their work, respected your schedule, and offered their friendship! The party with the stories about the deer head and the handcuffs and the Mason jar of real moonshi–”

 Uh, anyway. I heard the message. Sadly, this time, I couldn’t heed it.

Last Sunday night, a group of us watched the Season 2 ending episode of Downton Abbey in the VCCA library/TV room. It was great fun to hash and guess what Season 3 would bring. It will be a long wait until Season 3 will be broadcast, but it is in the works and it will finally come and it will be worth the months of anticipation.

That’s how I feel about leaving the residency. It was wonderful, I will return, and it will wonderful again.

I could take the Downton Abbey analogy a step farther and compare being Upstairs to being a Fellow. We didn’t have our every whim catered to, but daily needs were taken care of efficiently and unobtrusively.

A lot of artists come and go. You can be social, go to meals in the dining rooms and linger, participate in after-dinner performances or runs to the dollar cinema in Amherst. You can ramble around the grounds, pat the horses or be adopted by a cow (Hi, Wendy!)  Or you can spend all day and night – literally, since there are beds in the studios – focusing on your work. You can talk about your work, if you want to. You can give a performance or showing, or not. Your choice.

If you consider the activities in my imaginary “please stay!” message,  it sounds like a vacation. It was, in some ways, but very much a working vacation. I hit my studio diligently every morning after breakfast. I opened The Ark’s skylights, fired up the Christmas lights, sat at my desk, and got to work. Some days I free wrote like a madwoman; one day I hammered out 14 pages. The next day, I cut it back to 8 pages, then down to 2½, but such is free writing. Some days I paced around or stared out at the cows while letting my thoughts brew.

No one disturbed me, called me, knocked on my door. No one interrupted my creative process. The Ark was sacred, and I was able to immerse.

The time flew. Each day felt a minute long.

This is the value of a private work studio. It’s a mind game as much as physical. The studios are for work. One works in the studio. My Internet connection was sporadic, so I gave up trying to go online from my studio unless I needed to do research. If I needed a nap, I took one in the bed five feet away from my desk. When I woke up, my desk was staring at me. Beckoning.

I’ll sum it up this way: Every time I walked through the door of The Ark, I was walking into my story.

I never left the grounds, which explains the dead battery. Next time, I’ll go for longer and plan an excursion or two. I don’t know if I’ll get The Ark again. I’d be happy to, but I’d be just as happy to write my name in the door frame or on the wall of some other studio.

 My thanks go out to the VCCA, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation for awarding me the fellowship that funded this residency, and most of all, my fellow Fellows and friends there. I hope we meet again.