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Behind the Article: A Further Look at Sir Philip Sidney, Penshurst Place and the Study of the English Renaissance

August 3, 2012 in Behind The Article, English Renaissance, Travel to England

Take a glance ‘behind the article’ as Literary Traveler  speaks with Ann-Maureen Owens, author of our July 16th article, “Rediscovering Sir Philip Sidney at Penshurst Place.”  After reading about Shakespeare’s brilliant and yet largely unexamined contemporary, we couldn’t wait to dig a little deeper into the writer’s history, his family home and what accounts for his absence from academia.

Literary Traveler:  How did you first become interested in Sidney?  What drew you to him?

Ann-Maureen Owens: As an undergraduate in the late 70s, I was introduced to Sidney as a man of action: diplomat, politician, and soldier, maybe even a spy!  He had planned to accompany Francis Drake on an adventurous expedition to America when Elizabeth I required his services in Europe. He was also a patron of other writers and had a finely tuned artistic sense and eloquent writing style but wrote for himself, his family and friends. He packed all this into a short life, Only two of his poems were published before he died, gallantly, at age 32, but he was so well regarded in literary circles so as to be considered “a poet’s poet” and the posthumously published Arcadia, An Apology for Poetry and Astrophel and Stella were held in high regard.

I considered Sidney to be an exciting figure of the English Renaissance, but as the title of my article suggests, I had not paid particular attention to him – Shakespeare dominates our idea of that period now – until a country walk outside London brought me to Penshurst Place.

LT:  What do you think accounts for Sidney’s absence from the majority of college curriculums?

AO:  There are many writers and works vying for inclusion in the current undergraduate curriculum and it may well come down to the preferences of professors or their need to attract students in the postmodern era. My son, Kevin, just completed an English degree that, except for a few foundation courses, concentrated on works of the last two centuries. Another son, David, certainly did not meet Sidney on his English survey course in college.

LT:  If you had to suggest one of his works for an undergraduate English Renaissance literature class, which would you choose?  Tell us a little about your choice.

AO:  The sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella, is my favorite and it is perhaps the most accessible to younger readers. It is an unfulfilled love story about the one that got away, modeled on Sidney’s own experience. It show’s Astrophel’s discovery of what it is like to fall in love with the immediacy of the present tense, and previews the dramatic speech of the Elizabethan stage.

LT: Penshurst Place seems like an incredible site to experience first hand.  Do you think reading Sidney prior to touring the property enhances the experience?

AO:  It is a beautiful place with extensive grounds, well-tended gardens and an amazing house that anyone can enjoy in many different ways. However, it certainly helps to appreciate the history of the writer’s home, which is still owned by the Sidney family, if one is familiar with the man and his work.

LT:  Besides Penshurst Place, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions for literary travelers visiting the London area?

AO:  I have written another piece that is to be published by Literary Traveler about Down House in the village of Downe, Kent, where Charles Darwin wrote most of his scientific books. It is within the London circular M25 and buses run from South Bromley rail station.

I can also recommend the recently refurbished William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, North-east London. Once the childhood home of this writer and artist, it is situated in the grounds of Lloyd Park and can be reached by way of the Victoria Line on the London Underground.

LT:  You are an author of non-fiction children’s books about Canada.  Do you have any books in the works right now?

AO:  Besides a children’s picture book that is currently under consideration by a British publisher, I am working on two at the moment. One is a biography of Frances Ann Hopkins, whose paintings of fur-trading voyageurs are so iconic and the other is about bird science, co-authored with my wildlife biologist son, Luke.

LT:  Would you ever consider writing about Renaissance England?

AO:  Yes, I would, as it was a fascinating time in England, a place close to my heart where I lived for three years and continue to visit my eldest son, Brian, his wife, Abby, and my granddaughter, Ivy.

The Tudors were on the throne, politics revolved around exploration and sea power, and then there were the writers: Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Ben Jonson – who wrote an “Ode to Penshurst Place” – as well as Sidney. Quite a gold mine for a writer interested in history and literature!

LT:  So, on the subject of the chivalrous knights and courtly love, is chivalry dead?

AO:  Not dead just transformed to reflect the realities of our current age. Now it means being kind and courteous to anyone, whether there is a romantic interest involved or not. Romantically, it can be practiced by men and women, and works best as a two-way street. Chivalry occurs when we reject self-centeredness to put another’s comfort and wishes ahead of our own, showing appreciation when someone treats us in this way.

LT:  Beautifully stated. I agree that there is far more to the concept than having doors held open.  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.  I know that our Literary Traveler  readers look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Behind the Article: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Groundling Experience

July 27, 2012 in Behind The Article, Travel to England, William Shakespeare

Globe TheatreTake a peek “behind the article” as Literary Traveler talks with Michael Hartigan, the author of our July 23rd article, “I am Not an Original Groundling.”  We had a few more questions for the writer concerning his love of Shakespeare, his advice for literary travelers taking a jaunt across the pond and his fascination with the Globe Theatre groundling experience.

Literary Traveler: Have you always been an avid Shakespeare devotee?  When did your enthusiasm for his works begin?

Michael Hartigan: When my high school English teacher had our class memorize Marc Antony’s, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech from Julius Caesar, I, unlike most of my classmates, was hooked. I was infatuated by Shakespeare’s devotion to the word and enjoyed peeling away the layers to reveal the complex themes, symbolism and humor laced throughout his works. I took my enthusiasm to college and as an English major, dove head first into the folios. I have Dr. Stephen Lynch, professor at Providence College, to thank for teaching me the finer points of the Bard. It all led to me writing my senior thesis about honor and gender roles in Shakespeare’s works.

LT: As you mention in your article Shakespeare wrote for the people, but other playwrights of the day such as Ben Jonson were not so accepting of the groundlings. Making a derogatory reference to them in one of his plays, Jonson refers to them as offering “popular applause / or foamy praise, that drops from common jaws.”  What do you think accounted for these varying impressions of the groundlings?

MH: I think the groundlings may have been caught up in a little bit of class warfare. Going to the theater was an activity on the wrong side of the Thames, so to speak. Artists need to eat and perhaps some other playwrights of the day knew that they needed to lure in a different, wealthier, more aristocratic audience in order to keep their inkwells full.

LT: Can you share with us any more “behind the scenes Elizabethan gossip” or fun facts about the Globe Theatre that you learned either on your tour or elsewhere?

MH: The tour and our tour guide at the current incarnation of the Globe were both fantastic. Our guide was more than willing to share his extensive knowledge and did it with a flourish that only stage actors possess. One of the more interesting things I remember him mentioning was that Shakespeare himself was a shareholder in the original theater, which actually began its life across the Thames before being moved. And also that the fire that burned down the Globe was reportedly caused by a canon used during production of Henry VIII. I also enjoyed the story about how some of the more upper class patrons were allowed to sit onstage, at the rear.  It didn’t provide for the best view, but perhaps it was necessary to stroke a few egos.

LT: Your wife seems to have taken one for the team by donning the period costume.  If she asked you to reciprocate by dressing in the garb of one of Shakespeare’s characters, which would you choose? Tell us a little bit about your choice.

MH: I’ve always been partial to Iago from Othello, mainly because he is such a complex character. I’d be interested to see the wardrobe choice of an evil mastermind. If not him, it would of course be fun to wear a donkey head a la Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LT: Aside from the Globe Theatre, do you have any suggestions for Literary Travelers visiting London?

MH: It’s hard to go anywhere in London and not experience some historic or literarily significant person, place or thing. Everything is interconnected – someone did something great in one location, his or her portrait is hanging in a museum down the road and the person is buried across the river.

I would recommend a stop at Westminster Abbey (and not just because of Will & Kate). Some of literature’s heavy hitters and history’s great philosophical, musical and scientific minds are buried here. Standing in Poet’s Corner, there truly is a feeling of awe as you’re in the presence of Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, composer George Handel and so many more.

After a long day of running around London, I’d stop in for a pint at Ye Olde Mitre Tavern located in Ely Court. It’s almost hidden down tight alleys and definitely keeps with the traditional British Pub feel. It is on the grounds of what used to be Ely Palace. For the literary traveler, Shakespeare references the location in Richard II and Richard III, via his mentions of the Bishop of Ely and Ely Palace. There are quirky tales about this pub and some of the things in and around it (some legend and some fact).

LT: If you could take a time machine back to sixteenth century England and experience for yourself a play at the Globe Theatre, which play would you choose?  Tell us about your choice.

MH: This is a tough question because I’d be happy seeing any. If I got to choose, I’d probably pick Macbeth. To watch such confident characters unravel onstage, played by the people Shakespeare originally intended, would be incredible. I’ve always been intrigued by how Shakespeare manipulated and exposed the flippancy of gender roles, all while using a totally male cast. It adds layers of complexity to any character, and Lady Macbeth is a perfect example. Besides, any story with conspiracy, murder and witches is something I want to watch.

LT: Given the opportunity, would you want the full groundling experience?

MH: Absolutely. It may not have been the most sanitary of ways to watch a play, but to have front row seats for the cheapest price is something you usually can’t get these days. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in that kind of atmosphere. It would be refreshing and unique to experience it as it was originally intended, with the wall between stage and audience broken down.

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and we agree that lax hygiene is a small price to pay for the up close and personal experience of literary greatness!


Bram Stoker’s Legacy Lives On After Death

April 17, 2012 in Classic Literature, Gothic Literature, Literary News, Pop Culture, Travel to England, travel to Ireland, Vampires in Literature

Birthdays are not an occasion given much significance in vampire lore; it is death that denotes the beginning of a vampire’s immortality.  Therefore, it’s only fitting to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Irish author Bram Stoker, whose characterization of Dracula was the vampire who spawned all others.  Although he died one hundred years ago April 20th, much like Dracula, he lives on.

As nearly everyone knows, there’s no shortage of vampires in pop culture today–from Twilight to True Blood, readers cannot seem to get enough of the undead. Do we have Stoker to thank (or to blame) for the overwhelming popularity of the vampire in literature? Although the myth of the vampire dates back to the 15th century when Vlad the Impaler, son of Dracul, whose reputation for sadistic killings inspired the story, Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is often regarded as the archetypal vampire novel.

Museum exhibits, interdisciplinary conferences and events honoring Stoker’s centenary are being held throughout the year all over the world, including Dublin (where Stoker was born and educated) London and Salt Lake City. Vampire-themed conference topics like “Vampires and/as Science” and “Bram Stoker and Gothic Transformations” will take place at Trinity College and the University of Hull, respectively. Trinity College will also hold a separate Bram Stoker Centenary Conference this summer which focuses on the life and writing of the author, who graduated from the school in 1870.

Fans of the vampire genre and Gothic era can to pay homage to Stoker by taking in the vampire themed cruise, Vamps at Sea.  The Alaskan cruise honoring Dracula and his contemporary fanged bedfellows sails roundtrip from Vancouver this summer.  Special guests on Holland America’s week long voyage include John Edgar Browning, an expert on vampire lore whose forthcoming book focuses on Dracula and vampires in visual culture.  C.J. Ellisson, author of contemporary vampire stories targeted to the over eighteen set, will also be on board.  (The cast of Ellisson’s VV Inn series would make even the palest Twilight vamp blush.)  Another fitting guest rumored to make an appearance is Dacre Stoker, Bram’s great-grandnephew.

At the World Horror Convention, held this past March 31st, the Horror Writers Association also honored Stoker’s memory by giving away the “Bram Stoker Vampire Novel of the Century Award.” Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend beat out Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire for the title.  Upon winning the award, Matheson indicated that he was influenced by Stoker’s novel and its film adaptation.  Of his first experience with Dracula he states that “even as a teenager, the thought occurred to me that if one vampire is scary, what if all the world were full of vampires?”  Now, more than ever, it appears that his question has been answered.  Vampires are inescapable in popular culture, and none more infamous than Stoker’s Dracula.  So on April 20th, sleep until dusk, avoid garlic and raise a glass of red wine to Mr. Stoker.  Although he may have died one hundred years ago, not even a stake to the heart can snuff out his legacy.


Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Dickens

February 7, 2012 in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Travel to England

Looking for a literary adventure to kick off 2012?  February 7th marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.  With celebrations going on around the globe, there is no excuse not to toast to the birth of the literary great.  With a website dedicated to promoting the events far and wide, participating in the celebration is only a click away at

For those looking to take a jaunt across the pond, there is no better way to celebrate than a trip to England, where the coming year is brimming with Dickens related festivities.  From film retrospectives to theatrical adaptations to a plethora of exhibitions, with a handy color-coded events calendar, you can plan your itinerary before you depart.

Looking for fitting accommodations?  Book your stay at The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury, UK, where Dickens’ himself once stayed.  The hotel is hosting a festival the weekend before the author’s birth.  Check in on Friday, February 3rd and you’ll arrive just in time to hear Gerald Dickens, Charles’ great, great grandson, perform his one man show about his famous family member.  On Sunday, February 5th stick around for a day devoted to the film adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was filmed in Shrewsbury.

On February 7th, move the celebration to Portsmouth, UK.  After all, it was in a suburb of Portsmouth that Dickens was born 200 years ago to the day.  Here local celebrations run rampant commemorating the literary giant.  Stay at The Dolphin Hotel in Old Portsmouth and take part in a four course birthday dinner featuring a Dickens themed meal.

Your trip would not be complete without a night or two in London, where The Museum of London is featuring an exhibition titled “Dickens and London.” The first UK exhibit dedicated to the author in over 40 years features art, photographs, a documentary film and an audio-visual exhibit that brings the author and his works to life.  Don’t worry if you are not able to travel in time for the big day, you can wish Dickens a belated birthday up until the exhibit closes on June 10th.

Unable to make it all the way to London?  That is no excuse not to take part in the celebration.  In conjunction with Foyles Book Shop in London, join the Dickens Book Club on Facebook and Twitter.  Read a different Dickens title each month and participate in the discussion electronically.  For those looking for a more tangible experience in the United States, tour Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, MA.  Beginning on February 4th, the tour will focus on Dickens’ friendship with the American poet and revolve around the British author’s visits to the house.  The Morgan Library in New York City is also taking part in the celebration.  The exhibit “Charles Dickens at 200” has been running since September and will end the weekend following the author’s birthday. The exhibit offers a unique opportunity to view the letters and manuscripts of the author.  For those looking to take a literary journey from the comfort of their own laptop or iPhone, you can also access a selection of the exhibits electronically from the library’s website, including a digital facsimile of an original manuscript of A Christmas Carol.

So whether you plan to celebrate at his birthplace, or from the comfort of your own home, make sure to have a fire extinguisher handy as you blow out 200 candles in honor of Dickens’ legacy, which is sure to last at least two hundred years more.

Jane Austen in The New Forest

May 1, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Travel to England

Photo by Janet Halliday

Of all places to find Jane Austen, who would think The New Forest in Hampshire, England?  Writer Janet Halliday cleverly thought of this idea as she was inspired by Austen’s adventures in the nearby village of Beaulieu.  Halliday details the wildlife, plant life and springtime beauty of The New Forest in our latest article.

Literary Traveler: When is the best time to visit The New Forest i.e. spring, autumn?

Janet Halliday: All the seasons have their joys, but my special favourite is late spring/early summer; say May and June. In spring there’s the fresh green foliage, bluebells and primroses; in summer the foals are everywhere and the fabulous honey-scented heather makes the moor areas purple; and in autumn the russets and golds as the trees change colour are lovely. Winter is maybe best avoided, though, as it can be very wet and muddy.

LT: Do you think Austen’s time spent in Beaulieu had an influence on her famous works in any way?

JH: I’m no expert on Austen, but given her powers of observation I’d be surprised if some of the things she experienced on those visits didn’t end up in her works, even if the material isn’t specifically referenced to Beaulieu.

LT: Are you scared of the wild pigs of The New Forest?  We have wild boars in the US and they’re pretty big and terrifying.

JH: No. Just give them a respectfully wide berth – especially if they have piglets – and they’ll ignore you. They aren’t ‘wild pigs’, they’re domestic ones being allowed to forage, but you should adopt the same cautious attitude to them as to any large, untethered animal.

Incidentally you should never, never feed any of the ponies/cows/pigs/donkeys. It encourages them to come close to roads, to pester people, and to be less self-reliant. They are monitored by their owners and by the Verderers (people charged with the management of grazing in the forest) and if conditions mean the animals need extra feed, the owners will provide it.

Please continue onto our latest article, Ponies & Tranquility, Jane Austen’s New Forest.


Behind The Article: Jane Austen in Chawton

April 20, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Travel to England

Jane Austen's House Museum / Photo by Helen Palmer

Jane Austen arouses feelings of the provincial life in England.  The English countryside arouses feelings of home life with quiet villages and quaint cottages.  It is from this connection to English home that Austen wrote her best work.  Today, Jane Austen’s House Museum located in Chawton is open to the public.  Book-lovers of Austen’s great works can explore her humble residence and the place where she labored over characters, plot and setting.  Writer Helen Palmer has been exploring Austen’s House since 2006 as she discusses her deep connection to it in our latest Jane Austen article.  But first, Palmer answers a few extra questions:

Literary Traveler: In the article, you wrote that you’ve made many visits to Austen’s home in Chawton. Was there anything that stood out during your most recent visit?

Helen Palmer: My most recent visit to the house was memorable in that the village lay under several inches of snow, and all the trees were frosted white. This past winter was a particularly long and cold one in England – visiting the house in the big freeze gave me much more of a feeling for the harshness of life in Austen’s time. I could imagine Jane and her sister Cassandra huddled around the open fire to keep warm. Obviously it’s lovely to visit the house in the spring or summer time when everything is in bloom, but I’ve enjoyed seeing it in every season.

LT: Jane Austen continues to inspire us as writers.  Were you surprised to hear Austen was heavily edited?

HP: I was quite surprised – and fascinated to hear that NPR interview with Kathryn Sutherland at Oxford University. Like many people I had always had the image of Jane Austen sitting at her writing table with her quill, turning out perfectly polished prose. Learning that she had trouble with punctuation doesn’t change my appreciation of her as a writer though. The essence of her genius is unchanged.

LT: How does Austen continue to inspire you as a literary writer and travel writer?

HP: I think for me it’s her wit and lightness of touch that continue to inspire, both in writing and in life. It’s her gift for observation of people and their foibles that’s completely timeless.

Please continue reading our latest article: Jane Austen, A Beloved Friend in Chawton.


Wordsworth Lake District House Fire

April 7, 2011 in British literature, Literary Traveler Poetry, National Trust, Travel to England

Dove Cottage, Photo by Sourav Niyogi CCA

April 7th is the birthday of the famous Romantic poet William Wordsworth.  Instead of happy birthday news of the long-deceased writer, we have some bad news.  On March 24, 2011, The Guardian reported: “One of the Lake District homes of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth was severely damaged by fire in the early hours of yesterday morning.”

The house is situated in Grasmere, Cumbria.  The poet lived in the house from 1808 to 1813.  The fire was most likely caused by a faulty electric wire in the roof.  The National Trust owns the property; however, it is not open to the general public.  We wonder about Wordsworth’s reaction beyond the grave, if the fire would have left a scar on his invisible heart.

The good news is two of the poet’s other houses, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, are open to the public, so when traveling to the Lake District, a literary traveler can still get her/his fill of Wordsworth.  As the poet wrote so succinctly in his poem “The Farewell”:

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

William Wordsworth b. April 7, 1770

Please continue reading our archived article entitled Wordsworth’s Lake District.

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