Hello from Canterbury!
You will notice a different look and email address for “Letters from Anne.” I have migrated my email list over to Substack, which has a much simpler interface. I’ll explain more in my next letter, which I’ll send out soon. (This one was getting way too long, so I decided to break it into two). But the long and short of it is that I’ve decided to focus my energies in the new year on this letter and making it better than ever, rather than siphoning off my time and energy into a blog.
For now, let me explain that as a current subscriber, you don’t have to do anything to keep receiving my updates on what I’m writing, where I’m traveling, and what’s inspiring me. These free emails will come out about once a month.
What’s new is that I’m going to begin offering a premium subscription to those who would like to hear more from me about what it’s really like to ditch your life (and academia) and start over—also what that looks like on the road in Europe. My next letter will be the kind of in-depth, behind-the-Instagram-photos essay you can expect from me every two weeks if you chose to become a paid subscriber. You can see the options by clicking below. (Remember, if you are already a subscriber, you will continue to receive the free version. You don’t need to sign up again.)
I wanted to mention it now so that if you are interested in giving a gift subscription for the holidays, you have the opportunity to do that. (Just click on “Other subscription options” at the bottom of the subscription page.)
Now on to my news . . .
For those of you following me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll know that I’ve left France and have been spending the past six weeksin England. First, I had two weeks in London, then I spent some time visiting friends in Wendover (a London suburb) and in Stratford. I’ve also been hanging out and working in the cathedral towns of Salisbury and Canterbury, while getting in a teeny bit of sightseeing, although not as much as I’d like. (I also had a brief stopover in Rye, where Henry James lived, which I’ll write about in a future essay for premium scubscribers.)
Despite the sometimes-horrid weather in England, I have to say that I’ve fallen in love with it all over again and have been seriously considering returning for an extended stay in 2023.
Here is what I enjoyed most during my stay in London. As Elain Showalter told me, you’ll fall in love with it and never want to leave. My previous visits were brief, but this one gave me the chance to know the city better, and I have to say she’s right (although I couldn’t afford to live right in the city).
For my two-weeek stay, I rented a studio apartment near my favorite place in London, Hampstead Heath, the 800-acre parkland around which you can ramble for hours if you wish, pretending that you’re in the English countryside. I had many a lovely autumn walk, until my back started to complain and I had to cut back.
At the top of the park is Kenwood House, the lavish residence of the Earls of Mansfield. It has an interesting history, including that of Dido Belle, a mixed-race woman and great-niece of the Chief Lord Justice of England, first Earl of Mansfield, who presided over a number of anti-slavery rulings in the late-18th century. There is an interesting film about her called “Belle” (2017) I watched some years ago after first visiting Kenwood. The house itself has an impressive art collection and library as well as a lovely café with a garden terrace. The stunning view of the landscaped surroundings alone make it worth a visit.
Hampstead itself is an adorable village in North London. I first went there in 2012 when I was researching my Constance Fenimore Woolson biography. She lived for a while, as did a slew of other authors, including Daphne DuMaurier (whose blue plaque I stumbled upon on this trip), Dickens, Blake, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, and Katherine Mansfield, to name only a few.
John Keats also lived in Hampstead and in his case, at least, you can go inside the house where he lived. Keats House was his last home on English soil and the house where he fell in love with Fanny Brawne. Here I am trying on an 18th-century bonnet with a portrait of Fanny Brawne in the background. Maybe I could have pulled it off back then, but not with those glasses!
I have to admit that it was Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, about the ill-fated courtship between Keats and Fanny, that drew me there more than his poetry. I found a collection of his poems and his love letters to her in the gift shop, which I just had to get, breaking my vow to not buy any books while I’m traveling.
I have to admit that I’ve bought some other books as well. It’s easy to donate them when I’m finished. There are so many charity shops all over England that are happy to take your books and clothing as you shed them along the way. I’ve also needed virtually a whole new wardrobe in rainy, chilly England, furnished almost entirely by the recycled clothing found at Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, and other charity shops.
While staying in London I made my way one afternoon to The Charles Dickens Museum, housed in one of his many homes, in King’s Cross. His long, secret love affair with the actress Ellen Ternan was mentioned in one of the displays, and I saw in the gift shops that she is subject of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman. I resisted buying it and instead read it on my e-reader. (I have to admitted I eventually petered out before the end, but it’s an interesting attempt to excavate the history of someone who many people, but chiefly Dickens, tried to hide.)
Dickens’s house was also decorated for Christmas, getting me in the proper mood to see “A Christmas Carol” at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford a week later with the friend I was visiting. (She is quite fortunate to live there!) “Carol” is one of my all-time favorite stories. I started reading it more closely when I was working on my Woolson biography. She read it at Christmas every year as a reminder of her childhood.
I also had the opportunity to meet up with some old and new friends while I was in London, like Helen Glew, a history professor at the Univeristy of Westminster, whom I met in 2016 when I was working on my Little Women book. We had a great time catching up over tapas and wine.
I also met up with Krissie West, whom I met through the Louisa May Alcott Society. She’s written two fascinating books—Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child and Reading the Salem Witch Child—and is currently teaching at a school named after Bronson Alcott (by sheer chance!). She’s also a lovely person to hang out with. She took me to see the Sir John Sloan’s Museum, home of the famous 18th-century architect, left as it was when he died in 1837. It showcases his extensive collection of antiquities, art, and furniture, which he collected during his extensive travels. Afterwards Krissie also showed me the most adorable toy store in Covent Garden where she used to take her children, and we finished our outing with lunch in a cozy pub.
I also had a delightful day with Sharon Bylenga, who reached out to me after reading my newsletter about my impending trip. A retired American diplomat who lives outside of London, and a fan of Constance Fenimore Woolson, she offered to show me her two favorite London museums, located in Kennsington. She took me to Leighton House, the astonishingly beautiful home of the artist Frederic Leighton, a famous Victorian artist who was president of the Royal Academy of Arts for 18 years until his death in 1896. He was also a great traveler and his home is full of tiles and other decorative items from the Middle and Far East. (If you go there, make sure you go downstairs and watch the video first. We didn’t discover it until the end.)
Sharon also took me to Sambourne House, home of the Punch illustrator Linley Sambourne. It’s a lovely Victorian home, preserved much as the family left it—a real time capsule.
We finished our excursion with a sumptous afternoon tea at Kensington Place Pavilion. It was a day I will not soon forget!
Some Recommended Reading
In case you’re wondering about those other books I picked up:
On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold was a fun read while I was staying nearby, and I also enjoyed hearing the author interviewed one evening at the Burgh House in Hampstead. The novel is about a quirky journalist passionate about upholding the downward-spiraling standards of “truth” in the internet age. But all goes to hell when she drunkenly fabricates a story to keep her job and it goes viral. To complicate matters, she falls in love with the guy her fake story is about.
Maggie O’Farrell’s After You Left is a gorgeous novel. I loved it but also felt heartbroken after reading it. I didn’t actually buy it. It was on the shelves in the attic studio I was staying in for two weeks. I enjoyed taking it around London with me and reading it on the Underground. I’ll definitely be looking for more O’Farrell.
Pipa Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words is the story of a girl who grows up alongside the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m halfway through and enjoying it but also wanting a deeper emotional pull. So when I saw the next book for 50p at a charity shop, I defected, but now I’m torn between the two books and about to hit the road again. (I’ve made a strict “carry only one book” rule.)
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling caught my eye because of this line on the cover: “An engaging study of love which explores our deepest needs and desires.” I’ve also heard glowing reviews of Howard from Elaine Showalter, so I couldn’t resist.
For now, I’m saying goodbye to England, but I’ll be back. I’m off tomorrow to meet up with my daugther in Paris for Christmas! I’ll take lots of pictures and tell you all about it afterwards.
In the meantime, as I said, another letter is coming shortly, an essay about my life transition and why I decided to ditch the blog and focus on the newsletter. I thought you might enjoy hearing about my attempts to craft a writing life after academia. It’s a fair bit of trial-and-error!
All the best as we reach the shortest day of the year,
(By the way, the sun is setting at 3:30 here in England! Talk about dark days.)
Letters from Anne is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Love all the photos. I'm living vicariously through you on your journey! Thanks for sharing them. If I may offer a title in return for all you've provided, you might like Samantha Silva's Christmas book Mr. Dickens and his Carol. Enjoy Christmas in Paris!
Love the post. Merry Christmas