Being American: Why I Don’t Understand English Culture & Am a Heroine in a Middlebrow Novel

Spotting this plaque at 52 Doughty Street made me feel I was in England.

Spotting this plaque at 52 Doughty Street made me feel I was in England.

You are an Anglophile.  You have read Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Jane Austen’s Emma, Dickens’s Bleak House, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and E. M. Forster’s Howards End so many times that they are  your culture.  If you lived in England, if you were much younger, you might possibly be Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest, or, more likely, the freelance indexer heroine of Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.

If  you do not travel to England, you do not understand the culture.  If you do travel to England, you do not understand the culture. As an Anglophile who believes the English are the best writers in the world, I was very excited about my brief trip to London. I loved the Dickens Museum, but it gave me less sense of Dickens than you might think.  Oddly enough, spotting a plaque on a house where Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby lived a few doors away was more thrilling.  Dickens, Brittain, Holtby, and God knows who else lived on Doughty Street!

I’ve always fancied myself the heroine of a classic, but I’m not.  I absolutely belong in a middlebrow novel.  And so in London I found myself feeling like Louise Bickford, the heroine of Monica Dickens’s underrated novel, The Winds of Heaven (free at The Internet Archive).

monica dickens 1 the winds of heavenLouise Bickford does not belong in London any more than I do.  As I walked around the city,  looking in shop windows and sitting down in coffee shops and restaurants, I had a vivid sense of her outsiderness.  Louise, a 57-year-old widow, is shunted from one daughter’s house to the next.  The highlight of visiting her daughter in London consists of meeting a stranger in a tearoom, Gordon, an extremely fat man who sells furniture but turns out to be a kindred spirit: he writes her favorite mysteries under s pseudonym. The chat with Gordon inspires her to make a bid for independence.  And if this includes an improvisational period living in a chilly caravan, so be it.

My trip to London had an improvisational feeling.  The hotel hall was crammed with suitcases, because tourists could not check in till 3. I  spent a bracing first night in jeans and several sweaters, because I did not recognize the Tall White Thing as a radiator. Then there was the night I did laundry…all night.  I started at 4 p.m., but the dryer was still twirling at 6 and 7.  “Keep checking,” they said at the desk.  At 8 the laundry room was locked till morning, and the cycle was still twirling.

London, like New York, is very international, and I spoke most often to tourists and people in service jobs (who are from all different countries).  I felt at home in museums and bookstores, which are like museums and bookstores everywhere.

I had a sense of visiting the London of Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters. and Zadie Smith’s NW.  I should read more contemporary fiction before I travel again, I thought.

And I should make more literary travels to Haworth and Thomas Hardy country and all the rest.

Why didn’t I go out for tea?  I chose coffee shops.

Meanwhile, here is a quote from The Winds of Heaven, when Louise goes to Lyons:

It was that hour in mid-afternoon when those who are on the early lunch and tea break come forth among the exhausted shoppers to get themselves a bite of something to keep them going until five-thirty.  When she had stood in line and paid for her cake and cup of tea, Louise could not at first see anywhere to put down her tin tray.  Being a Londoner, she did not mind holding a tray laden with unlikely food for the hour of day, and women stacking dirty dishes and wiping off tables with damp cloths.

8 thoughts on “Being American: Why I Don’t Understand English Culture & Am a Heroine in a Middlebrow Novel

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your posts from and about your trip to London, but I agree that getting out and about might have had more literary interest. Still…. When I read English novels and the characters go to Harrod’s or meet in a London park, I see those places in my mind.

    • Oh, it does help! Now that I have seen Trafalgar Square, it’s amazing how much it turns up in English novels. And all those lovely green spaces. But I didn’t go to Harrod’s. Next time.

  2. Lovely post. I am from England and I too can feel a little out of place in London it has that peculiar quality about it where everyone is so anonymous, it’s not a feeling I get in other UK cities.
    I loved The Winds of Heaven too.

    • It is such a beauridul city, and I thoroughly enjoyed being there. I loved the squares, green spaces, and the architecture, but one is somehow always happy to get home. I should realize that London is not all of the UK; perhaps that’s like thinking New York is all of the U.S. (New Yorkers sometimes thiink that.:))

      I love Monica Dickens.

  3. I guess the London you visited is not the London you might expect from your middlebrow reading! You can still find bits that feel like you’ve just read about them in Virginia Woolf but they take a bit of finding – and you have to kind of ignore all the people around you too! I guess you might need to make more than one trip to get the real feel of old London!

  4. I truly hoped to “feel” Charles Dickens’s London, though I must admit I didn’t take the Dickens walking tour. Actually, what I DID feel was the London of middlebrow novels, where place is somehow flexible. I could imagine H. G. Wells and Elziabeth von Arnim walking around. Those brick and stone buildings couldn’t have changed THAT much. ? But I failed to feel any sembalnce whatsoever of the Bright Young Things. I should have gone to Oxford, etc., too? Well, I can only do a little!

  5. At home nowhere and at home everywhere, with the accent on the first is a common feeling.
    Paul Fussell open his book on travel writing connecting the word travel to travail and certainly Trollope experienced it — he says how startlingly meals, sleeping and creature comforts begin to dominate your daily life — getting these things which where you live are all set up as much as you are able to suit your convenience.

    Stael said she was so lonely; Sand said the joys of it came at unexpected moments. When I traveled to Europe alone and stayed in two cities and returned to Leeds, Jim asked me as a first question, “Did you enjoy yourself?” to which I replied, “what do you expect of me? I went. Is not that enough?

    What makes us feel comfortable is deep knowing from living in a place and having it embedded in memories. Novels and travel books never quite describe the actual experience of being in a place because that depends so on the consciousness of the person doing it.

    Take a look round you: people also travel in pairs. They have a friend they travel with. Many a travel book uses the “I” most of the time and then suddenly there’s someone else there and you realize it’s been “we” all the time. Tour groups are set up to provide companionship too.

    Now I want to read Monica Dickens’s The Winds of Heaven. I’ve not gotten into a good women’s novel in a while. I don’t like to read whole novels on the Net so I’ll buy it.

  6. Ellen, yes, travel requires a lot of organization, and the simple getting from one place to another takes a lot of energy. I’m a perfect candidate for a smart phone with a GPS,. Isn’t East on the right? I would think as I looked at my map. But alas only sometimes. “Look at the sun,” my husband emailed me. “Then figure it out.” The sun? Am I an orienteer?

    Just as you told Jim, “what do you expect of me? I went. Is not that enough?”, I told my husband, “Most of it is just about showing up.”

    Traveling with another person makes everything lighter. There are many books by women traveling alone; Mary Morris wrote some remarkable ones. I should read one now that I have done it and see how others do.

    Monica Dickens is really wonderful. I very much enjoy her books.

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