The Woven Word II

Version 2

shirtsleeves, old tweed and a sketchbook for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce


a reclining pose and summer dress for turbulent Southern afternoons in The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner


a nightgown, shawl, and wild look for lusty midnight wanderings over the moor in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


a fisherman’s sweater, hat, and old cigar while keeping watch for the White Whale in Moby Dick by Herman Melville


a blue shawl and longing gaze for One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


war paint and wild leaves for The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Books to Know Me By


I like the idea of a list of books that have meant so much to you that someone could read them all and understand something of who you were and who you are in a way mere words or explanations cannot convey. Which books have shaped you? A few of mine, in a vaguely chronological order and a by no means exhaustive list, as follows:

Dracula by Bram Stoker – I first read Dracula when I was six, and, as I remember, I was incredibly drawn to it even before then. I particularly liked the doomed Lucy, and the titular character, whom my young heart found hopelessly romantic. Peculiar, perhaps, for a six year old, but there it is.

Snow White, by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett – as an illustrator, Angela Barrett has no equal. Her images are sophisticated, complex, and astoundingly beautiful. They do not shy away from what is dark and haunting in tales, but even the darkest images are illuminated with the light of a glowing candle or cottage. This is the one book I keep with me no matter where I go, and I still look at it at least once a month.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales – the real ones, in which little boys are turned into deer and hunted down by dogs, toes are cut off and glass shoes fill with blood, and children are cast out into the wild by their parents. Grim, to be sure, but ever-hopeful, in a funny sort of way.

Everything by Edgar Allen Poe, but particularly The Fall of the House of Usher, which we listened to on tape on many a road trip. It still remains a favourite, and I re-read it just this week – my passion for literature about apparently sentient structures is unparalleled (see Gormenghast, below).

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman – written as the diary of a young medieval girl, this book never ceases to move me. It’s funny and clever and pensive, richly imagined and full of character. I re-read it every year.

Harry Potter – no doubt on such a list for a whole generation. I’m not sure I can quite convey or quantify the impact growing up along side these books had on my childhood. It’s not the magic that got me, but the simple moments – the daily life, he quiet glow of the common room and the majesty of the great hall, the classes and exams, the romances and friendships.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – although, to be fair, only really the first part set in Oxford, which is heady and youthful and captures some aspect of the magic to be found there.

Lolita by Nabokov – quite simply the cleverest book ever written in the English language, darkly humorous, hectic and absurd.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner – the crowning glory of all that is Southern Gothic, and profoundly impactful to a sixteen-year-old discovering stream of consciousness for the first time.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake – it seems somehow wrong to even call this a book. It is the most weird, wonderful, creative, bizarre, beautiful story ever written. I can hardly even describe it because there is absolutely nothing else like it. It’s more like a place you become very lost in – at times frightening and sinister, at times sweet and lovely, always haunting and always astounding.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – my mother read this every summer, and now my sister and I read it every summer. It is subtle and moving, encapsulating everything that is a childhood summer, from excitement and potential, to fear and melancholy, to love of all kinds and a very real, scintillating magic.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – peculiar, wonderful, and the perfect Christmas story.

Moby Dick – I think the first few pages are the very finest beginning to any book I’ve ever read, but I even, for whatever reason, enjoy the long, academic chapters about the mechanics of whaling.

Which books have shaped you?

Literature, Oxford

Ode to a Library

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

As part of my ongoing autumnal nostalgia, I’ve been dwelling in particularly vivid memories of Oxford libraries, and none more so than the Old Bodleian. I spent the better part of my Oxford time in the Upper Reading Room, looking out over the Radcliffe Camera while reflecting over The Exeter Book of Old English poems, or cloistered in a glowing corner of Duke Humphrey’s writing about Sea Voyages in ancient literature. I remember piles of dusty volumes, and the way the blue Camera dome looked in every light. I remember watching mist roll over the Exeter College gardens and Radcliffe square, and the particular echo of footsteps up the lonely, turning stairway. I remember looking out over the library as the sky turned deep blue in evening and the windows glowed golden, gazing at the spires dusted in snow, and wandering beneath the vaults of the Divinity Schools. I remember the smell and texture of vellum, the feeling of drawing my coat close against the cold inside, the way the shadows gathered between book stacks as night fell early in winter, and how every corner seemed to hold some secret enchantment, and every moment within was transformed into the beautiful, mysterious realm of the fairy tale.

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England


The Woven Word

dressing not so much for the weather as for the novel

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin, vintage slip, the reading woman

a vintage slip and languid pose for Delta of Venus by Anais Nin

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Christy Dawn Dress, fig jam, the reading woman

an innocent dress and jar of homemade jam belie dark family secrets in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Alice and Olivia brocade skirt, Calypso St Barth blue velvet slippers, the reading woman

a luxurious brocade skirt and blue velvet slippers seduce Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, blue twenties gown, the reading woman

a blue silk evening gown for a wild house party in the Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, John Patrick Organic gold slip, the reading woman

a golden slip suitably decadent for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Christy Dawn Dress, the reading woman,

a nostalgic summer dress for A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Toast UK tweed, Brooksbrothers cashmere, Barolo wine, the reading woman

cashmere, tweed, and a bottle of old Barolo for an Oxford afternoon in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, CP Shades, American Apparel, the reading woman

a white tennis dress and daisy for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, France, Summer,

a French sailor’s sweater and shorts for a Province Summer in Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford, CP Shades chemise, the reading woman

a white chemise for stolen moments in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford

Middlemarch by George Eliot, Christy Dawn Winslet Dress, the reading woman

a modest blue dress for Middlemarch by George Eliot

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Toast UK wool pencil skirt, Equipment silk blouse, the reading woman

a silk blouse and steal grey pencil skirt for the railway cars of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, CP Shades slip, the reading woman

a nude slip for Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Hold Still by Sally Mann

Hold Still by Sally Mann

do you ever find life imitating art?

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Literature, Review

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Dark, impossibly creative, epic, horrific, beautiful – Peake weaves a world and characters out of something beyond the capability of dreams and nightmares, so complex and unique are they in their looks, language and actions. The book is more about the vast Gormenghast castle itself than the people in it. The structure is alive and breathing, vivid and haunting from its loftiest towers into its darkest shadows. The atmosphere surrounds you and seeps into your heart and mind. The book is one that you inhabit rather than read. It is remarkably compelling in its terror, and never more so than in the strange character of Steerpike, the grim and bloodily ambitious kitchen boy who seemingly embodies Gormenghast, seeks to control it, and very nearly destroys it. Although you shudder at the destruction he brings, you want him to succeed if only to keep him present in the narrative, if only to linger a little longer in the book’s shady corners.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Literature, Review

Dark Forests and Castles in Winter: ‘Snow White’ by Josephine Poole and Angela Barrett

Snow White by Josephine Poole and Angela Barrett

I keep one book with me no matter where I move. I read it perhaps once a month, and have ever since early childhood. Its illustrations are so intricate that even now I find new details. I feel as though I have inhabited its dark forests, looming castle and glowing cottage in the glen. It set the tone for my childhood, which was one of mystery and imagination, solitude and an abiding affection for place. The book is ‘Snow White’, written by Josephine Poole and illustrated by the incomparable Angela Barrett. It captures all the eerie wonder of those fairytales that kindle the imagination, that stir the heart with the endurance and tenderness of their characters, even while chilling you with evocations of dark, thorny woods on moonless nights.

Snow White by Josephine Poole and Angela Barrett