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


  1. You remind me of the London I hardly notice now. A truly delightful post.

  2. Thank you for this post! It was lovely. I feel just the same way, longing for England...

  3. A post every anglophile like me would vouch for. Lovely narration of natural emotions & feelings associated with doing one loves.

  4. Your sentiments are so true. In the States, we tend to tear anything down more than 20 years old and rebuild. In England, you can stand on a sidewalk and KNOW there are stories hundreds years old beneath your feet. Truly delightful.

  5. I nodded all the way through reading this essay. Thank you for transporting me to the place I, too, belong. And thank you for leading me to this wonderful blogspot. I might be here for a while...

  6. After reading this,if I want to make my reservations and fly back over the pond again.

  7. Oh, you make me SO homesick...I worked in London for 13 years, ln Westminster, in Oxford Circus, then Moorgate and finally Chelsea. I still dream of the forays into history - I used to wander round the old churches and alleys, buy my veg in the markets, drank in the pubs with my work collegues.

    I am hoping to visit this year - my kids would like to see it all, and my family are circled around London which makes it very convenient. Only been back once in 11 years though, so very overdue...

  8. I am a California gal who was lucky enough to spend one week in the mid-lands. The only part of London I saw was the airport tarmac. One week in the mid-lands wasn't enough and I long for when I can go back and see it all. As short as it was, I still get homesick for it.

  9. What a delightful blog post. You expressed what so many writers of history feel about Britain, no matter where we happened to be born or what our connection to the country might be.

  10. I was born and grew up in London back in the 30's, after WWII (1951) my father decided he'd had enough and so we packed up and moved to Australia. Being a Cockney I've always regarded London as my home even after more than 60 years in Australia. I've retained my English nationality ( I'm English not British). In 2005 I returned to London, and it was very sad. The London that I knew and loved was no more, Great St Helens where I worked was an empty shell, the building where I'd first worked, destroyed by an IRA bomb many years ago. I shall never return, but I shall keep my memories of the real London and the real Londoners.

  11. I have lived in England most of my life. When I left it for 13 years I missed it so much, it pained me. I'm so happy I am here in this green and pleasant land :)

  12. I emphatically do not long for England’s past and nor do I look to London as a window into that past. I worked there for a few years and lived there for a few months and can say that London is not and never was England, but was always apart from it. London was the seat of power, and too often it was an usurping power; a power that sought the order of keeping the people in order, of imposing duties, both financial and martial, without a share of power: the past was unjust, based on institutionalised inequality by sex, race, and social class, and a disease-ridden, brutal and god awful place.

    However, the past is the window into our present and the glazing of that glass is the primal landscape and our working landscape, and yes, the older buildings of our towns and cities, but rather than prying for the few remaining parts of the London Wall or the city’s old churches, I’d rather be among the English landscape where the reminders are so much stronger. I grew up on the edge of Tunbridge Wells, divided between town and a country of dairy pasture, oak and beech woods, sandstone, clays and streams and particularly an orchard of Kentish cob-nut trees. That is my England, and though I was not born to it, being from Durham originally, that orchard especially is the place I hearken to. I am of this land in a way no white or black American can ever be of their colonised land, and the windows into my country’s past are also my windows into where I come from.

    But in truth, I am not an historical novelist. My novel, Acts of the Servant, is set in a created past, one that never existed and which, in our universe, never could exist, but much of its story is the same, being a tale of power and abuse of power and responsibility and the cost that responsibility brings and in the magic that pervades my novel there is a lingering of the woods and streams and rocks of the Kentish Weald and the cob-nut orchard where I spent happy childhood hours.

    The past, imagined or not, inspires me, but it is the comfort of the present that gives me the means to create.

  13. I feel the same way about England. I'm always drawn to her history, and wish I could visit more often. My ancestors come from Wales and Cornwall, so I suppose I long for my own history.


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