At this point in my life, I read fiction and non-fiction pretty much equally. I also listen to quite a few books as read on
BBC4 and BBC4Extra. It is such a lovely thing when they all come together.
One of the convenient things about reading is that we can read through an unknown reference without even realizing it was a reference. For us ‘know-it-all’ types there is nothing more satisfying than catching a reference we assume most readers have missed. This alone is a good reason for re-reading books after 20 or so years – of course this is on the assumption that you have learned something in that period of time.
So here is the set-up: I have an abiding interest in the famous Shakespearean actress, Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928). After having spent much too much time listening to me talk about her, my friends are always amazed at how often they come across references to her – someone they previously didn’t know existed. Rarely, even in the age of Wikipedia, do we take the time to look up someone only briefly mentioned in a book. In 1913, she wrote a book on the Russian Ballet. I have always wondered how this subject came to be of such interest to her; something not really covered in her autobiography or the various other biographies I have read.
I just finished reading The Victorian Visitors: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Rupert Christiansen. The first half of the book was pretty slow reading. I was surprised at how much was devoted to the life stories of the visitors: Theodore Gericault, Richard Wagner, Ralph Waldo Emerson - fully half of the book to these three, with precious little about their actual time in
. The last three chapters were about an assortment of spiritualists, the early Australian and England cricket teams, and ballet dancers. This was much more interesting to me as it delved into the changing tastes of Victorian and Edwardian society. It’s always cheering to find that society a century ago was just as susceptible to hype, sham and glamour as we are today. New Zealand
Now I understand. The entire face of ballet in
changed after about 1880 and in 1911 the Ballet Russe arrived in England and completely took it by storm. High society fought to entertain Nijinski, Pavlova, and even Bakst – the stage and costume designer. Even royalty attended the ballet, which until then had been very much a second class entertainment. Ellen Terry, who traveled in the highest literary and artistic circles, would have been as caught up in this as everyone else. And so, as she was pretty much retired from the stage at this point, she wrote the book. London
There were two more enlightening bits. Although I may have heard it before, in the chapter about cricket, the origin of the The Ashes was explained - I won’t spoil it for you, just in case you have any interest. The first teams of natives from
and Australia also visited New Zealand at this point. And so today, while listening to the newest chapter of Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy Sayers) on England BBC4Extra, when Lord Peter begs off a boring chore by saying he was on his way to Lords to see the New Zealanders, I got it. It was more than just a passing reference – it was a fully fleshed out reference to the sporting interest of the times and a perfectly good excuse.
We'll talk more about Ellen Terry at a later date............