Saturday, November 24, 2012

Falling in love with England and its history

by Stephanie Cowell

A part of the old London wall
It began when I was very young; I felt I did not belong in New York City where I was born but somewhere across the sea in that land called England. But what was England to me? Any place
for which we long is formed from fragments which mysteriously arrive and become part of us.

My first sense of England was literature, of course: Sara Crewe in A Little Princess and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden in beautifully illustrated editions. I read them until the words almost wore away. I was Sara coming from her attic to be discovered at last to be the little girl everyone had been looking for. I was Mary exploring the deserted rooms of the manor house on the moors. In my early teens it was the poetry (all of Shakespeare) and the great Victorian novels. I told myself, “That is where I belong; that is where I must be.” England had formed in my mind as the place where I could find my true self.

I painted a picture of “this earth, this realm, this England,” as Shakespeare calls it. It was a mixture of lovers running over the moors, a beautiful young queen, London attics, hot milky tea and servants always on hand to make it, and a great mysterious line of kings described as “the Unready” or “the Confessor” and queens who always looked ready to have their portraits painted and who each possessed a far more glamorous wardrobe than that within my schoolgirl closet; tombstones, ancient churches, an orderly way or being and doing things. (I was looking for the orderly; I passed by Henry VIII and his disorderly coterie of marriages. I am glad others felt differently! What would we do without Anne Boleyn?)

Temple Bar, City of London
And so I saved and saved and finally went to England and the England I expected was waiting for me. I walked all over London. I visited the Tower on an overcast day when it was not crowded and was properly awed by the tiny rooms and thick walls. Still, the heart of my England was literature not royalty even though I love the stability and ceremony of a monarch, a world in which everyone had their place. I looked for writers: the new Globe had not been built, but I walked where Shakespeare had walked and found the old streets he had known: Cheapside, Love Lane. I visited Dickens’ House. I found and touched what was left of the London City Walls.

I went to Haworth and walked in the parlor where Charlotte Bronte had walked with her sisters. I climbed about the moors and heard the wind wuthering. I went to Oxford where my great heroes had studied and heard the choirboys sing in the little cathedral as they had done for hundreds of years. I longed for medieval houses, for London fog, for wonderful names of villages. (I shall not forget my first bus ride to Yorkshire and passing the signs for the town of Giggleswick.)

I was looking for something that I felt had been waiting for me. I believe it was.

My husband has come with me as I visited the places I love. When we stand in the old city though he sees the tall financial buildings and I see the long-gone half-timbered houses. Upon taking a tour bus I became increasingly emotional at every sight and when we finally passed Temple Bar where Fleet Street, City of London, becomes the Strand, Westminster, and where the City of London traditionally erected a barrier to regulate trade into the city (and traditionally the Lord Mayor of London must meet and allow entry to the monarch), I burst into a flood of tears. My husband was patient, comforting and bewildered; he has often repeated this story to friends of how his wife could cry because someone walked a street in London three hundred years ago.

All of us who write on this blog or read it are English or have longed for England so intensely that we have made it a major part of our creative and emotional lives. Its present and past are rooted in us in a way we cannot fully explain; it calls to each of us in a slightly different way. How has it called you and for what reasons?

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
-- Richard II (Shakespeare)

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is