Tag Archives: Teaching

Shakespeare Simplified

The Shakespeare400 happenings were in full swing yesterday, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death: April 23 is always a big Shakespeare day because it is the accepted date of his birth and the actual date of his death, and in this particular year yesterday was even BIGGER in Shakespeare world, on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps even around the Anglophone world. I was thinking about Shakespeare and how I wanted to mark this moment with a post, and there were just too many possibilities: too many historical and cultural sources, too many interesting words and characters, too many deifying moments in centuries past. So I decided to get more personal and focus on my own introduction to Shakespeare, in the form of a classic text titled Tales from Shakespeare first published in 1807 and never out of print thereafter. The Tales was the work of a pair of London siblings, Charles and Mary Lamb, who managed to produce abridged and modernized tales of Shakespeare’s plays despite family tragedy and between bouts of the latter’s insanity (Mary had actually injured her father and murdered her mother a decade earlier while Charles was out of the house; she was released to his care but he kept a straitjacket within easy reach). Charles abridged the tragedies into plain modern prose, and Mary the comedies (!!!); they collaborated on the preface. The first edition, with illustrations taken from copper-plate engravings by William Blake, appeared in 1807 under only his name.

Tales from Shakespeare 1807

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Tales from Shakespeare 1960s AYLI cropped

William (and Mary) Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare for the Use of Young Persons, with illustrations based on the copper-plate engravings of William Blake (1807), Folger Shakespeare Library; My edition of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, with illustrations by Karel Svolinsky.  Middlesex: Paul Hamlyn (1968).

I use Shakespeare quite a bit in class to illustrate certain aspects of Elizabethan and Jacobean life, and while I will quote his words directly to my students I must admit that I still consult my childhood version of the Tales to figure out exactly what I want to quote from.  Or to remind myself: this book gave me a frame of reference to which I can tap into pretty easily, and which I have “filled in” over the years by reading the source plays. I’m sure this is what the Lambs intended, and I’m grateful to them. I also enjoyed learning about the publishing history of their book over a few hours yesterday: obviously I could have spent many more. Following Blake’s example, a succession of illustrated editions issued over the period from about 1860 to 1940 seem to have ensured the continued popularity of the Tales, which eventually became Lamb’s Tales (like my 1960s edition, above). The most accomplished illustrators of their eras embellished glorious editions: Sir John Gilbert in 1866, Arthur Rackham in 1899 and 1909, Louis Monziès in 1908, Walter Paget and Norman Price in 1910, Louis Rhead in 1918, Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott in 1922, D. C. Eyles in 1934. And then of course there were also mountains of not-so-glorious (in imagery) editions produced “for use in school”: how can we possibly measure the impact of this essential epitome of Shakespeare?

Tales Cover Collage

Tales Rackham Collage

Tales from Shakespeare Paget Collage

Tales from Shakespeare Rhead 1918

Tales from Shakespeare Green 1922

Tales from Shakespeare Puffin

A very poorly proofread Gilbert edition from 1882 and the Boydell Gallery edition from 1900; Title page and illustration from a 1909 Rackham edition; Illustration and front and back matter from 1910 Paget edition; Louis Rhead illustration, 1918; Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott frontispiece, 1922; variant Puffin Classics editions (with an introduction by Judi Dench).


Artistic Nationalism

I started this blog to indulge in the discovery (and rediscovery) of Salem’s history, but also American history, which I haven’t really studied in any depth since high school. And I’ve completely forgotten what I learned then, or before, because it was the same old narrative, year after year, Plymouth to Ford’s Theater again and again and again. Past politics. So boring–I hated history by the time I went away to college and was determined to avoid it by majoring in something that was almost completely contrary to my interests and talents: economics. But my time abroad, along with the few history courses I allowed myself to take, convinced me that it was only American history that was boring, so I went on to get my Ph.D. in European history and become a history professor, which is quite simply the best job ever. Of course now I know that American history is not boring (though it is short), because I’ve uncovered more of its layers, including that which is most interesting to me: its culture. My American history curriculum starts with creativity and ends with events, and so I tend to fall down a rabbit hole when I encounter an amazing database like the Index of American Design, a project that commissioned Depression-era artists to produce nearly 18,000 watercolor renderings of traditional American arts and crafts made before 1900 under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The project encompassed 34 states, regional exhibitions of the renderings, and the creation of a permanent inventory of reference materials with which one can rediscover American material culture again and again and again–as accessed today through the portal of the National Gallery of Art.

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Robert Pohle, “Sheaf of Wheat” Shop Sign, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paper, Index of American Design

Index renderings are photographic in their simplicity and detail: the artists are documenting and creating at the same time. Like all WPA initiatives, the Index was first and foremost a way to put unemployed people, in this case artists, to work, but like several FAP projects, the goal of archiving all forms of American culture seems to be just as important. The artists of the Index of American Design, just like the architects of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), used their own artistry to capture and preserve American artistry, as a form and expression of artistic nationalism. Their meticulous drawings of shop signs, andirons, cabinets, dolls and dresses, showcased in a series of national exhibitions, enabled an anxious American audience to discover (or rediscover) its own cultural identity, through very familiar forms.

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Margaret Knapp, Silver Teapot, American, active c. 1935, 1934, graphite on paper, Index of American Design

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Lillian Causey, Quilt, applique, American, active c. 1935, Index of American Design

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Bessie Forman, Dress, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design

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Bessie Forman, Man’s Hat, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design

There are several Salem items in the Index (of course), including some very primitive wooden dolls, a cartouche, and a very characteristic chair. I’m biased, I know, but I think more Salem items should have been included–and wondering if the democratization goals of the Index worked against seats of “high” culture?

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Beverly Chichester, Salem Dolls, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paperboard, Index of American Design

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Alfred H. Smith, Cartouche from Salem Gate, American, active c. 1935, c. 1939, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design

 

A few posters of WPA/FAP/IAD exhibitions held in 1937-38:

IAD Collage


The Fount of Penmanship

I don’t usually subscribe to those specially-designated days–you know, Boston Cream Pie Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day–preferring the old saints’ days of yore with all of their associated traditions and folklore, but I am acknowledging National Handwriting Day today simply because I like the written word almost as much as I like the printed one, and scripts almost as much as fonts. And I fear penmanship might be on its way out. This Day was established by an entity with a vested interest, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, all the more reason to ignore it, but they chose John Hancock’s birthday as the day and I welcome any occasion to acknowledge Mr.Hancock, one of my favorite founding fathers. I learned a lot about penmanship pedagogy a few years ago when I fell in love with a calligraphic cat and plunged myself into the world of nineteenth-century American writing manuals, but now I think the seventeenth century is a more important era in the development of writing instruction, at least in England. Influenced and inspired by continental influences like Jan van den Velde’s 1605 book, Spieghel der Schrifkonste (Mirror of the Art of Writing), English writing became penmanship, separated from “orthography” or grammar, segregated into a variety of hands and scripts, standardized through the dissemination of a succession of manuals and “copy books”. All those Victorian flourishes and calligraphic creations? Old news.

Mirror of the Art of Writing after 1620 met

Mirror of the Art of Writing 1605

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Above: writing samples from the early seventeenth century: a 1620 pen-in-hand engraving after Jan van den Velde, c. 1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a page from van den Velde’s influential Mirror of the Art of Writing, c. 1605; and title page of Martin Billingsley’s  The Pen’s Excellencie, or The Secretaries Delight (1618).

Below: in the later seventeenth century, it was all about “Colonel” John Ayres, master of a writing school in St. Paul’s Churchyard “at the sign of the hand and pen” in London, and the author of a series of copy books published in many editions between 1680 and 1700, including The Accomplish’d Clerk or Accurate Pen-man and The New A-La-Mode Secretarie or Practical Pen-Man (both 1682-83).

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John Dee, Renaissance Man

The first ten or so years of my teaching career I would bring up John Dee (1527-1609) in one of my classes–he’s relevant to most of them really, whether it’s English history, or Atlantic history, or my courses on the early modern witch trials or the Scientific Revolution–and my students would look perplexed:  who? Once I told them a bit about the “Arch-Conjurer of England” they definitely wanted to know more, but they had no prior knowledge. That all changed about a decade ago when the first book in Michael Scott’s adolescent novel series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel was published, which features John Dee as a central character (Joan of Arc, Machiavelli and Shakespeare also show up as the series unfolds): now I’ve got a generation of students who know all about John Dee, or at least they think they do: in any case, the stage has been set.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Anonymous English Artist, John Dee, c. 1594. Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For me, Dee represents one of the last generations of men who could pursue “magic” and “science” at the same time: his life’s work represents just how blurry the line was between these two endeavors in the sixteenth century. He’s also a great example of the multi-faceted Renaissance Man, or at least an English example thereof. It’s really difficult to confine Dee’s interests and activities to a short blog post, but I’ll try: he was first and foremost a mathematician, but this foundational field drew him into so many others: astrology, astronomy, alchemy, geography, cartography, linguistics, cryptography, optics. He started out his professional life, while still in his teens, as an academic, but clearly sought to be a courtier, and enjoyed a close relationship with Elizabeth I, who at one point called him “hyr philosopher”. This connection gave him security, prestige, and influence, which he used to advocate for a stronger imperial policy for England; indeed he is generally credited with coining the term “British Empire”. It must have enriched him too, as he spent considerable money (and time) amassing a huge library which he installed at his primary residence at Mortlake, just outside London. He was an avid manuscript-hunter, pursuing and collecting all written knowledge on “high” (learned) magic, predominately alchemy and cabalism. But written, human knowledge was never enough for Dee: he came to believe that all of his questions could be answered only by beings of a higher order: angels. His pursuit of communion with the angels ultimately drove him down a path that threatened both his livelihood and his reputation, as a Renaissance magus practicing learned, “white” magic had to be very careful not to cross the line into the “black” arts of divination and necromancy in this age of intensive witch-hunting. Dee died a natural death, but lost his fortune, and his complex character was reduced to that of Prospero and Dr. Faustus by his contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlow.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian View of Dee as Conjurer: Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth, c. 1880,Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Apparently the skulls in the original painting were painted over at some point!

Modern scholars (as well as authors of adolescent fiction) love Dee and have restored much of his complexity, but it is a difficult task to reconcile the scientist and the spirtualist. And now there is a new exhibition of materials (and instruments) from his own library at the Royal College of Physicians Museum in London: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dee to “speak for himself”: the RCP website states that: “Our exhibition explores Dee through his personal library. On display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.” I’m bringing students in my Tudor-Stuart class over to London during spring break this year, and this is on my itinerary–I think we can build on Nicholas Flamel a bit.

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John Dee’s own illustration of a page of the complete works of Cicero. (‘Opera,’ published Paris, 1539–1540) (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase);  A horoscope chart scribbled in the lower margin of Claudius Ptolemy’s Quadriparti, Venice, 1519 (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase); another great Dee doodle of three bearded faces in the margin of a treatise on alchemy (Arnaldus de Villanova, ‘Opera,’ published Venice, 1527) (© Royal College of Physicians / Mike Fear). You can see more items from the exhibition here.


This Time with Dignity

Exciting history news today, and no, history news is not a contradiction in terms. A century-old theory about the execution site of the victims of the 1692 Witch Trials has been verified through a combination of historical, archaeological, and geological analysis by my Salem State colleague Emerson Baker and his fellow members of  The Gallows Hill Project, which includes SSU Geology Professor Emeritus Peter Sablock and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, as well as local museum professionals, scholars, and writers. Following the assertions of local historian Sidney Perley over a century ago, the team supplemented eyewitness testimonies and material evidence with “ground-penetrating radar and high-tech photography” to verify that the actual Gallows (a sturdy tree or trees) was not located at the apex of the rocky hill in the northwestern corner of Salem known as Gallows or Witch Hill from time immemorial, but considerably below and closer to the main route out-of-town (Boston Street) in a rocky copse of trees called Proctor’s Ledge. It has also been confirmed that there are no human remains on the site, verifying various tales of the recovery of the victims’ bodies by family members under cover of darkness. You can read more about the participants and the process here and here.

Salem Atlas 1897 State Library of MA

Salem Witches PC SSU

The long-assumed execution site, “Witch Square” on the top of Gallows Hill, and the newly-verified site, on Solomon Stevens’ property below, on the 1897 Salem Atlas, State Library of Massachusetts; a “Ye Salem Witches on Gallows Hill” postcard from the 1910s, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Proctor’s Ledge is a terrible place, appearing cursed by its tragic history, both in the seventeenth century and the twentieth, when it was the wellspring of the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Currently it is a wooded and trashed wasteland behind a Walgreen’s parking lot on busy Boston Street, fortunately purchased and preserved by the City of Salem in the 1930s as “Witch Memorial Land” but essentially left untouched while commercial and residential developments grew up around it.

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The verification of the execution site is exciting to me, both professionally and personally. I’ve done a lot of work on the late medieval era and the Black Death, and this is a field in which collaborations between history and science have been profoundly revealing–and interesting. I’m not such an innocent that I believe that history is always about the pursuit of the truth, but if and when it is, science can help us open the “black box”. Personally, this announcement has also renewed my hope that we–the City of Salem–can acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials in a dignified and historical way: not as a lesson about tolerance today but simply and respectfully as a tragedy for the individuals who lost their lives in the past, and not as an event to exploit, but rather as an episode to solemnize. I’ve been rather depressed since Halloween: the images of people trashing the downtown Salem Witch Trials Memorial and adjacent Old Burying Point, combined with the lack of any meaningful response by city officials to whom I appealed to make it stop, have left me soul-searching about why I would want to live in a place that has such little respect for the dead. Frankly, I still don’t have much confidence in the City Council, but Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s pledge that “Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today in a largely residential neighborhood” is hopeful. At the very least, the neighbors and relatively distant location from downtown– combined with the site’s rather chilly atmosphere–should deter the transformation of Proctor’s Ledge into another Witch City prop.

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The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.


History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

History by HBO 5

Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

HBO History Collage 2

HBO History Collage 1

Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

Books for my Winter Break

Late December and January is a key reading time for me: I’ve been teaching a lot in the summers over the past few years and I can seldom read much during the semester, so the next three weeks or so are really crucial to my instinct and ability to consume information for both work and pleasure. I compile a list all year long and this week I start working through it. Often I will read a book a day, but if a particular text doesn’t really capture my attention I will set it aside for later–usually bedtime–and pick up a new one. I want to be absorbed in what I am reading, and if I’m not–if the book is too dry or too abstract or too much of a choppy reference work–I will still finish it, but incrementally. Consequently there’s quite a stack of books beside my bed at this time of year. Only occasionally do I delve into fiction: I wish I could read more stories because their ability to absorb is potentially greater than nonfiction works, but I don’t really care for contemporary characterizations and historical novels often annoy me. That leaves the classics, and I really should put more on my list–something besides Austen and Poe and the usual suspects. But this is what I have for this year.

Books Revolution Cover

Books Rescuing Eden Cover

Books Invention Cover

Books Empire of Cotton Cover

Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen is definitely a reference work but I saw the companion exhibition at the Boston Public Library and the maps are endlessly interesting and I want them for myself! Plus, this is a work in which the narrative is based on the maps rather than using maps as mere illustrations of the narrative. Another “pick-up” book, but one that I know I will pick up often, is Caroline Seebohm’s Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, with photographs by Curtice Taylor. Andrea Wulf writes accessible books about the history of science and horticulture: The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (a rather ambitious title) is her latest. I’ve got to get back in my world history game, and commodity history does that better than anything, so Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. A Global History is on my list.

Books Collage

Books to refresh my courses: I’m sure I will enjoy them, but I also need to read them, as I’ve got an undergraduate Tudor-Stuart course to teach next semester and a graduate Elizabethan course in the summer. Two books by Peter Elmer–I’ve always been interested in Valentine Greatrakes, if only for his name.

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Strange Business Cover

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NEWLY DISCOVERED FAIRY TALES!!! I don’t think I need to say any more about this book’s appeal. I love books about the art MARKET, so these two look very interesting to me–I’ve already started James Hamilton’s Strange Business and it has hooked me. I really like books about art thefts and forgeries too–please forward suggestions if you have them. And finally, below, a Bloomsbury-ish trio: one of the few novels I did read in this past year was Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister about the complicated relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in the midst of the Bloomsbury set. It made me curious about these interesting and rather self-indulgent people, who were so amazingly fluid in terms of sexuality, morals, and creative expression: are they worth more of my time? (Dorothy Parker is said to have quipped, “Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles”) I think so, for now, so I’m going to start with Jane Dunn’s Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. A Very Close Conspiracy and then move on to several books by Vanessa’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson: Among the Bohemians. Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 and  (with her father Quentin Bell) Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden.

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