Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

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Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’

In ‘Shirley’ (1849), Charlotte Bronte describes a Mr Yorke who is devoid of imagination and empathy.  Chapter Four begins: “A Yorkshire gentleman he was, par excellence, in every point.” (1), which in itself perhaps shows a lack of imagination on Bronte’s part in choosing his name!

Apparently Mr Yorke lacks the “organ of Veneration” and can’t look up to anybody, even God. “He believed in God and heaven; but his God and heaven were those of a man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack.” (2). She then goes on to list so many other inadequacies of his personality that one starts to think ‘Why should I care about this character at all?’ There are several pages of Brontë telling us about Mr Yorke rather than showing us what he’s like, acceptable in a novel written in the 1840s but which wouldn’t get past an editor today. But this does allow her to speak about the importance of the imagination as a “gift of the mind” and the error of those who dismiss it:

“…who cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute – akin to weakness – perhaps partaking of frenzy – a disease rather than a gift of the mind?”

It’s very easy for me as a writer at the beginning of the twenty first century to look back to the beginning of the nineteenth and to imagine that it was a period when writers and those living by the products of their imagination were in a privileged position compared to my own time.  What would it be like to be an artist or poet in the Romantic era, or a novelist in the glory days of the Brontës, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot?

But this section of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ makes me think that it was just as hard then to be taken seriously if one took the imagination seriously and viewed it as an essential of life. She states that probably all people think the imagination is more of a disadvantage in life or even more like a “disease”, unless you actually possess it. Those who think they have strong imaginations speak very differently about it:

“To hear them speak you would imagine that their hearts would be cold if that elixir did not flow about them; that their eyes would be dim if that flame did not refine their vision; that they would be lonely if this strange companion abandoned them. You would suppose that it imparted some glad hope to spring, some fine charm to summer, some tranquil joy to autumn, some consolation to winter, which you do not feel.” (3)

Here Brontë seems to be claiming some sort of aristocracy of the Imaginative, and is depicting how the claims of the Imaginative can look like a superiority complex to others.  She gives Mr Yorke’s view: “An illusion, of course; but the fanatics cling to their dream, and would not give it up for gold.” (4).  Mr Yorke, we are told, did not consider a poetic imagination a necessity of life.  He could “tolerate” the results of it as works of art in the form of a good picture or music, but could not tolerate all the talk of the struggles of a quiet poet, who “might have lived despised, and died scorned, under the eyes of Hiram Yorke.” (5).

Bronte then gives a fascinating description of the character of the imaginative artist, “the true poet”, who has to somehow survive the fact that “there are many Hiram Yorkes in this world”:

“… it is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, had often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold, careless side to them – he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgement on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than consoled with.”

Perhaps Charlotte realises she is getting a bit carried away here and so comes back with: “These, however, are not Mr Yorke’s reflections; and it is with Mr Yorke we have at present to do.” (6).

Charlotte Brontë

But perhaps these words do stand as a rebuke to all those who mainly emphasise the outward “bleakness” of the Brontës’ lives and don’t look further into these glowing recesses of inner creativity and hope.  Bronte’s own images for the imagination here – comparing it to an elixir, a flame, a refiner of vision, an imparter of hope and charm, joy and consolation, bliss, a festal brightness and cherishing glow that can make all things bright and genial – these images inspire our imaginations too. And we are convinced by her conviction that true imagination is utterly necessary for tenderness and awe and veneration to exist in us, even for a truer appreciation of God and heaven. Who wouldn’t want more of imagination by her definition, this “strange companion” ?

 

To enjoy more of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination in the form of her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’, you can read my latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ which intertwines a contemporary murder mystery with the experience of a reading group studying her great classic.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy this at Amazon UK:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

Or at Amazon US:

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478345205&sr=1-1&keywords=jeanette+sears

 

 

NOTES

(1) Charlotte Brontë, ‘Shirley’, Penguin Classics edition, London, 1994, p44.

(2) ibid., p45.

(3) ibid., p46.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid., p47.

(6) ibid.


Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

In my novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, Emma-Jane Austin visits the birthplace of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë in Thornton, West Yorkshire.  She is really keen to take photos for an exhibition at her place of work, Bromley House Library.  But it is also the weekend of Mother’s Day.  And the other members of her reading group, the Rotic Club, are keen to see Thornton too, since it is 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Brontë in 1816 and they are studying her masterpiece ‘Jane Eyre’ together.  So a quiet contemplative solo trip turns into a more social pilgrimage and a celebration for Emma’s mother and grandmothers who swell the numbers – and the fun!

Their journey begins at Nottingham train station with a disagreement over changes to the architecture of the victorian building

Nottingham train station

eg. have the lovely old art nouveau features been sufficiently enhanced in the recent refurbishment?

Art nouveau detail on station gates

Fortunately the train is on time and on the way to Bradford the women share some of the Brontë memorabilia and objects of interest to begin their study day.  A taxi takes them through thick snow to Thornton and their rented cottage on Market Street, the same street where the younger Brontës were born.

Brontë birthplace plaque

You can see more at www.bronte-country.com/thornton.html .  But the highlight was having lunch at ‘Emily’s’, the lovely bistro that is now situated in the Brontës’ former home,

‘Emily’s’ bistro and Brontë birthplace

‘Emily’s’ bistro, Thornton

and that still has the original fireplace and some of the furniture from their time.  You can see this, plus a map of a walking tour of Thornton called ‘Brontëland’, at www.delucaboutique.co.uk/about-us3.html.

‘Emily’s’

Fireplace at ‘Emily’s’

Over their meal, the women compare photos of Charlotte B from various biographies.  Of course there is the portrait of the three sisters by Branwell

Brontë sisters

and the photo on the cover of Lyndall Gordon’s excellent biography.

At ‘Emily’s’ cafe the women also enjoy looking at drawings of the Brontë family growing up as imagined by Joan Hassall in ‘The Brontë Story’ by Margaret Lane.

Margaret Lane’s biography of the Brontës

They also hand round a copy of ‘Charlotte in Love’ by Brian Wilks and have quite a lot to say about Charlotte’s own romance and marriage.

Charlotte’s love life by Brian Wilks

This means that they are not just delighted at being in the Brontës’ birthplace but also wonder about a trip to Haworth Parsonage together, where the sisters and their brother grew up and practised their art.  The parsonage has become a place of pilgrimage for Brontë fans even more than Thornton, and Emma’s mother and grandmothers have some surprises for the younger women in the form of catalogues and guidebooks from their own visits to Haworth in the 1980s.  One of Emma’s grandmas has a 1967 guide to Haworth bought there in 1981.

1980s guide

And Emma’s mother produces a booklet called ‘Sixty Treasures’ from 1988, which shows 60 items kept at the Parsonage.  The women exclaim over the photos of everyday household items and artistic materials used by the family, and particularly Charlotte’s tiny dress and boots and her wedding veil.

1980s guide

Rosanna, one of Emma’s reading group, gives them some very useful web addresses for keeping up with Brontë news and fandom, such as www.eyreguide.awardspace.co.uk and www.bronteblog.blogspot.com and www.bronteparsonage.blogspot.co.uk .

She also shows a picture of her favourite painting of the character Jane Eyre by Sigismond De Ivanowski from 1907.

Jane Eyre by De Ivanowski

One of Emma’s closest friends, Nattie, talks about reading the famous novel by Jean Rhys which imagines life for Rochester with his wife before they come to England and Bertha Mason descends into madness.  Nattie has also enjoyed the Persephone edition of Frances Towers’ collection of short stories ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ from 1949.

Tea with Mr Rochester

The Persephone books are plain grey on the outside but all have beautiful endpapers inside and matching bookmarks that fit in with the era of the story.

Persephone pattern

To everyone’s amazement, even Emma’s grandmother ‘Grambo’, who has been less than enthusiastic about the trip and its theme so far, produces a memento from a visit to the Brontës’ home from many years before – an old toffee tin!

1980s souvenir tin

She had even filled it again with toffees for their journey home!  The tin is rather lovely – very Puginesque – with victorian photos of the main Brontë sites on each side.

Side of tin

The only member of Emma’s reading group who cannot be with them on the trip is Maria, the German teacher.  Instead she sends them something of interest to read that is referred to in ‘Jane Eyre’ and comes from her own culture.  This is an extract from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Die Rauber’ or ‘The Robbers’ from 1782.  Not everyone appreciates having to read this!  (You can find it at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6782 )

Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’

Instead Emma suggests they read ‘Henry Brocken: his Travels and Adventures’ by Walter de la Mare from 1904, a fascinating story imagining visiting fictional characters as if they were real – for example Henry Brocken goes to see Rochester and Jane and their dog Pilot in their small house in a dark wood after their marriage.  (You can read this at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15432 )

This shows that re-imagining the characters from ‘Jane Eyre’ and writing new stories about them is nothing new.  My own novel, ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ is in this category in a sense, as Emma-Jane Austin not only discusses Charlotte Brontë’s characters with her friends and family but feels she is meeting with them again in some form in her own life as she struggles to solve a murder mystery.  I am sure the Brontës would be amazed, and hopefully gratified, to know that we have still felt compelled to revisit their novels and even their birthplaces and homes in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can read all about Emma-Jane and her friends in ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ as an ebook on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears


Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

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Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

The main character in my novel Murder and Mr Rochester works at Bromley House Library in the centre of Nottingham. Although Emma-Jane Austin is fictional, the library most definitely is not. It is a Regency gem on Angel Row, next to the Council House and the main Market Square. 2016 has been the library’s 200th birthday.

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Here are some photos so you can appreciate more fully the beauty of the building where E-J is privileged to work, and also see the setting for the terrible crime that takes place there in the story.  (There are some hints here to help you solve the murder too!)

In Murder and Mr Rochester I mention that many people do not even know of the library’s existence. All you can see at first is a mysterious doorway in between the usual sort of city centre shops.  The entrance sits discretely between Barnardo’s and a newsagent’s. But if you ignore the traffic, erase the shops and look up you can begin to imagine the size and grandeur of the house itself.

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Once inside, you are in a hallway that leads either to the back of the house

Doorway to garden

Doorway to garden

and a walled garden

View of garden from upstairs window

View of garden from upstairs window

or up the stairs to the main desk and reading room.

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Of course, the most intriguing feature that strikes you as you enter the main part of the library is the spiral staircase.

Spiral staircase from side

Spiral staircase from side

It was not part of the original structure of the house when it was built for George Smith of the famous banking family in 1752 but was added along with the gallery.

Gallery above main reading room

Gallery above main reading room

Let’s follow Emma-Jane on her journey on that terrible afternoon of the (fictional) murder in the Library…

She is in the George Green Room sorting out books for the library’s Charlotte Brontë exhibition. (The room is named after the Nottingham mill owner and pioneering mathematician.)

Door of George Green Room

Door of George Green Room

After switching off the lights, she walks towards the gallery that runs around the main reading room.

Left hand side of gallery

Left hand side of gallery

She turns to the right and walks along the middle section of the gallery,

View of right hand side of gallery

View of right hand side of gallery

but then witnesses the ghastly ‘accident’ on the stairs to her left.

View of stairs from right side of gallery

View of stairs from right side of gallery

Here is a close-up of the brown wooden stairs (the colour is significant!)

Wooden stairs

Wooden stairs

and the stone hearth around the fireplace. (The modern radiators in the library are necessary to control the heat and humidity more accurately than a gas or real fire.)

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

There is a gap between the bottom of the spiral staircase and the fireplace that will be of significance…

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Here is the longcase clock that chimes loudly early one morning and scares Emma-Jane when she is in the library on her own, trying to solve the mystery.

Longcase clock

Longcase clock

Bromley House Library really did have a display of Charlotte Brontë’s books in the Spring of 2016 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, which is featured in the novel.

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

And for the 200th birthday of the library itself in April 2016, which in the story Emma-Jane is looking forward to, the real librarians held a birthday party in regency costume!

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

You can be a member of the library even if you don’t live in Nottingham – a ‘Country Member’ pays half the usual subscription fee.

Do have a look at the Bromley House website at www.bromleyhouse.com. It has more photos and some short films that really give you a feel of the place. There are many more beautiful rooms, old and new, to explore.

No wonder Emma-Jane Austin in my story feels very lucky to work there – apart from the murder, of course!

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy Murder and Mr Rochester by Jeanette Sears on Kindle at www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com.


Emma-Jane Austin and The Tunnel

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Tunnel

In my novel Murder and Mr Rochester, the heroine Emma-Jane Austin discovers a shortcut in the centre of Nottingham called ‘The Tunnel’.  It is one of the most interesting architectural features of Nottingham but is now largely hidden from view.

Access to hidden Tunnel

Access to hidden Tunnel

It is tends to just be called The Tunnel, or if one wishes to be more helpful and accurate, The Park Tunnel.

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

It echoes the days when Victorian engineers were blasting great big holes through anything that stood in the way of modern transport. This time it was in 1855 and was a way to gain a shortcut from Derby Road in the centre of Nottingham through to the new residential Park Estate owned by the fifth Duke of Newcastle.

It provides another fascinating revelation of the huge area of sandstone rock and caves that form the foundation of the centre of the city.

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

The Dukes of Newcastle were no strangers to this geological formation as their castle stood on the highest section of sandstone which was pockmarked with entrances to strange tunnels and caves beneath.

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

The job of designing the man-made tunnel and much of the new estate was given to the fifth Duke’s surveyor, Thomas Chambers Hine (1813-1899).

Thomas Chambers Hine

Thomas Chambers Hine

He also designed the layout of the roads and many of the magnificent houses, as well as having approval of other intended house plans in order to maintain the estate’s architectural integrity. Unfortunately the Tunnel was obsolete almost as soon as it was built. The gradient was slightly too difficult for horse-drawn carriages. Also other roads were built at around the same time that meant the Tunnel was no longer necessary.

Steps in central part of Tunnel

Steps in central part of Tunnel

But it remains an eccentric and hidden part of Nottingham’s history. And, despite electric lighting and an opening for natural light in the middle,

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

it can still be scary at night, as Emma-Jane Austin finds out in my murder mystery novel Murder and Mr Rochester.  Not a place where you want to bump into strangers in the dark…

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s home!

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Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s Home!

The heroine of my murder mystery, Emma-Jane Austin, gets to live in her dream house. It is the beautiful Regency building that she has loved since childhood, that she used to call the Big Doll’s House. And you can see why.

Regency House

Regency House

It is a perfect example of a Regency style house right in the middle of Nottingham city centre, Grade II listed and standing at Canning Circus since 1820 on the outer perimeter of the very grand Park Estate.  This was land that used to be owned by the mega-wealthy Dukes of Newcastle when it was indeed just grassy parkland for the Dukes’ deer. Now called the ‘Beverly Hills of Nottingham’, the area is full of stunning Regency and Neo-Gothic homes in a gated community (although, fortunately for the rest of us, most of the gates are left open so we can explore).

Welcome to Park Estate

Welcome to Park Estate

One of the unusual things about the Park Estate is that it still has gas lighting.

Gas light on Park Estate

Gas light on Park Estate

Until 2015, a man in a vintage car used to light the lamps each evening, but now it is done automatically by an electronic trigger in each lamp.

Gas lamp on Park estate

Gas lamp on Park estate

But every two weeks or so a man has to come and reset the automatic triggers – not quite as romantic, but great that they are still gas lamps as in their Victorian heyday.

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

The light they give is whiter and paler than modern neon lights and doesn’t radiate as far, which does mean the Park can look rather Dickensian and creepy at night – though ideal for murder mysteries!

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

I too loved this house when I was a child, which I could see out of the bus window on the way into town each week.

Regency house at Canning Circus

Regency house at Canning Circus

Even though it was a dirty cream colour then and looked rather run down, it still stood out from the grottier modern buildings around it on a historic street called The Ropewalk. Now the house is a cool pale green with gold relief work on the plaster angels and wreath on the central pediment and is divided into flats. I have given Emma-Jane a room at the top on the left hand side at the back of the building.

Back of Regency House from road below

Back of Regency House from road below

Below her room is a large stone-flagged terrace above two garages where she and her flatmates can sit outside in sunny weather.

Patio

Patio

From her bedroom window she can see across the Park to Nottingham Castle on its sandstone rock.

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

In my novel the flat covers the top three floors on the right of the building and is owned by Penelope Galthorpe-Brown, who owns several florist shops throughout the Midlands. Another tenant is Jennifer Wright who owns a restaurant in town and is a successful chocolatier.

Top flat

Top flat

The flat provides a beautiful and cosy backdrop for the meetings of Emma-Jane’s reading group, especially as this architectural gem contains many of its original features, including a functioning fireplace in the main drawing room. In ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ they are of course studying Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ together.

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

In future books they will be delving into the works of Jane Austen, for which this stunning Regency house will be even more appropriate. But of course the novel is not just about women reading classic romantic novels together. The fact that Emma-Jane’s house was also next to a (very small) police station (before it closed in April 2016) is going to become somewhat appropriate as well…

Canning Circus police station

Canning Circus police station

Police station sign

Police station sign


The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

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The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!

Glassware

Glassware

But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

NOTES

1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.