Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Book Review: “London: A Spiritual History” by Edoardo Albert

I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.London A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert

London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.

Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.

Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.

I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!

Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal mystery fiction

Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Book Review: “Paul: a Biography” by Tom Wright

This is a thorough, vivid and enlightening book about Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as St Paul.Paul a Biography by Tom Wright Tom Wright opens up for us the amazing personality of Paul: formidable, intellectual, resilient, passionate, determined, lyrical, energetic and utterly committed – a former Pharisee and a zealous Jew.

At the age of 23, Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. And what we often fail to realise is that after his period of blindness, he went off to Arabia for a couple of years to reflect. Then he spent about 2 weeks with Jesus’ disciple Peter. And after that he returned to his hometown Tarsus for ten years during which we know nothing of him.

It was only then that he began his extraordinary mission of travelling throughout the Mediterranean world, teaching and arguing and persuading first Jews, then Gentiles, that Israel’s God had fulfilled the Jews’ greatest hope, and come to the world as a crucified Messiah – a message many Jews found utterly abhorrent.

Reading this book made me reflect once again how much Christendom owes to Paul. I remember from my schooldays how my imagination was caught by the story of Paul and the riot of the silversmiths – when Paul showed up in town and started to draw people away from their belief in the cult of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians – thus causing uproar among the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on the cult.

As we read this biography we see before us a man powerful in intellect and vision, often vulnerable, who suffers from depression and comes very close to being broken in spirit, yet remains inspired in his actions and in his writing. In those letters, he encompasses his over-arching vision of Christ’s supremacy whilst fully acknowledging the reality of our individual lives and experience in this world.

Many of the passages Tom Wright quotes from Paul are his very greatest; and the strength and power of Paul’s words captivate you – words which have given comfort and strength and courage and renewal of faith to millions over the centuries since they were first dictated to the long-suffering scribe in that prison. The psychological astuteness of Paul’s great paradoxes shine out: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness and When I am weak, then I am strong. And Wright makes the point that throughout Paul’s journeys and his incredibly demanding series of lectures and talks, his imprisonments and his floggings, the one thing that cannot be eclipsed is his deep inner coherence.

Throughout his narrative, Tom Wright insists on the fact that the story of the Christian faith is not and never can be a story cut loose from the story of Israel. Towards the end of the book, when we reach Paul’s arrival in Rome, Wright refers to “the end of the world” which, to the Jews of the time, meant the destruction of the Temple (which was carried out by Rome in AD70).

Paul knew, better perhaps than any of his contemporaries, what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Jesus-followers would say that God had finally cut off those Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted to something called ‘Judaism’. Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile colleagues of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus would be in no doubt at all. All this had happened because of the false prophet Jesus and his wicked followers, especially Paul who had led Israel astray.

I feel this is a very cogent summary of what, sadly, did indeed happen. But then Tom Wright goes on to examine the reasons for Paul’s ultimate success – firstly from a theological point of view, then humanly speaking, and then from the impact of his letters. Humanly speaking, Paul’s success may be partially accounted for by his phenomenal energy, his blunt, upfront way of telling it as he sees it, no matter who is confronting him. Also, there is his vulnerability: he loved people and they loved him.

Finally – there are his letters: small, bright, challenging documents. Within them, he draws upon all the philosophies and worldviews around him, sharply aware of and encompassing not simply religion or theology but also politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy. And his letters cover so many moods and situations. They take our arm and whisper a word of encouragement when we face a new task, they warn us of snakes in the grass, they unveil again and again the faithful, powerful love of the creator God. And all this with 70 or 80 pages of text to his name in the Bible. He succeeded, says Wright, far beyond the other great letter-writers of antiquity such as Cicero and Seneca.

Wright points out that many of the acknowledged great moments in church history – Augustine, Luther, Barth – have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. His legacy has continually generated fresh dividends.

The Stoics, the Epicureans and the Middle Platonists had serious, articulate and in many ways attractive spokespeople… but Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the one God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.

Finally, as we reach the end of this book, with Paul under house-arrest in Rome, ready to confront Caesar, knowing that he will before too long face death at the hands of the tyrant, Wright makes a chilling observation:

we have seen the electronic revolution produce a global situation just as dramatically new, in its way, as the one the first-century world had experienced with the rise of Rome.

I think we would do well to reflect upon this, and also consider how long the power and  might of the Roman Empire lasted – until it fell.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Book Review: “The Making of Us” by Sheridan Voysey

Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached  a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.

The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey

 The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s  also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.

I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.

During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!

Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK.  I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.

I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe.  During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.

Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:

  • who we know
  • our possessions
  • our status
  • our dreams and ambitions
  • our job titles.

Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?

These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.

In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is:

Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”

And the most challenging question:

Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?

At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.

He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.

I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.

I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Book Review: Out of the Forest by Gregory P. Smith

Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith with Craig HendersonOut of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on  alcohol).

This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.

Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)

And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.

Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.

Heaven on Earth: The Joy of A Capella Harmony Singing with The B Naturals

What is the greatest musical instrument of all?

I believe it is the human voice.

Nothing compares to the joy of a capella harmony singing – in perfect pitch, of course, and under the tuition of an inspirational musical director… or how about four musical directors, one for each voice part?

Recently I  took part in an Abba singing workshop led by the B Naturals, a fantastic A Cappella quartet.

The B Naturals - Abba Workshop in Leamington Spa 3 Nov 2018
The B Naturals – Abba Workshop in Leamington Spa 3 Nov 2018

We all gathered in a church hall in Leamington Spa and the group members, each taking on the task of training a different part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – taught us four gorgeous Abba songs: Does Your Mother Know, Eagle, Name of the Game and SOS. When you sing Abba songs you realise how complex they are, and also how discerning and often very moving the lyrics are, relating to so many different life experiences.

The four workshop leaders – Nick Petts, Guy Wilson, Dave King and Jon Conway –  worked together, interweaving with each other as they taught the parts. What a joy it was, along with a great sense of accomplishment,  as we mastered the rich harmonies, and sang the songs all the way through.

As a singer who belongs to two very different local choirs – a traditional choir and a community choir – I have often marvelled at the precious gift of music in our lives. The experience of singing in harmony with others is pure joy and one of the nearest things to heaven I can possibly imagine.

This high spiritual quality of music was recognised by JRR Tolkien in his book The Silmarillion. This book sets out Tolkien’s created world, which grew with him throughout his life: the ancient drama to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back. And it opens with The Music of the Ainur. He begins: There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar: and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought… propounding to them themes of music: and they sang before him, and he was glad….

Quite apart from the immense resources of classical choral music sung by traditional choirs, there is a vast repertoire of music suitable for arrangement for A Cappella Quartets and community choirs, and so many gifted composers and musicians who have created glorious music for us – the music of the Beach Boys, of Abba, of the Beatles among many, along with a wealth of songs of different types and genres from around the planet.

In the midst of a world where there is so much disharmony, tragedy and grief, let us uphold and celebrate one of the greatest and most spiritual gifts of all – joyous and uplifting music.

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.

SHAKESPEARE'S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
SHAKESPEARE’S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of  creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

A Creative Way To Grow, to Journey Through Our Lives and to Be Replanted in Eden

Dandelions. They are strong and beautiful. DandelionFlower

 

They grow even in thin, dry, tough places.

 

They have a deep root system.Dandelion seeding

dying dandelion

And when they die they give their seeds so other dandelions can grow.

Recently I was at a Creative Arts day at Christ Church, Orpington in Kent, which centred around the theme of Growth and was called Creative Encounters with a Creative God. The day was organised by Liesel Stanbridge, musician/composer and music leader at Christ Church. During the day she introduced us to her lovely song: “Replanted in Eden.”

At the centre of the day was this beautiful song “Grow” by Francis, accompanied by a video of stills of dandelions at every stage of their life journey, death, and dispersal of seeds.

During the day there were several creative workshops to choose from including pottery, jewellery, meditation, drumming, poetry, harvest arrangements, dancing with flags, and creative writing, to mention only a few  All of these carried the theme of Growth.

At the end of the day I feel sure that all of us brought something away with us which would have enabled us to see our life journeys afresh: something to think about, something to learn from and something to open up our true identities. I attended the Pottery class led by Caroline Bailey, in which we pressed leaves and scallop shells into clay, whilst listening to poetry, prayers and meditations; a moving and uplifting experience.  Also I attended a workshop on CS Lewis: Image and Imagination and was inspired by the wisdom and discernment of that great writer.

I led the Creative Writing workshop in the afternoon. Here is the description of my workshop:

Classic story structure: the very heart of story-tellingMany of us have a favourite story of all time. Story is a deep and powerful part of our lives from infancy. But did you know that behind every story that thrills our hearts, lies classic story structure? It is to be found in all great stories and myths, and it encompasses the mythic journey of the hero. Suspense author SC Skillman will share the secrets of classic story structure and then lead a creative writing session where you’ll be able to draw upon your own life, and find classic story structure emerging from your own experiences. Come and be inspired to turn your own life experiences into fiction – whether that be short stories or novels for children or adults.

In fact for the writing exercise I used Story Cubes, and each table of participants used the images on the 9 sides of the story cubes to create a story of their own based on the principles of classic story structure. Much hilarity resulted as the groups shared their story lines which were a wild and free mix of genres!

I find it awesome to see the innate creativity of people in the way they respond to story, (even among those who might initially claim a lack of ideas or imagination). And I was moved and delighted to hear and see what the story cubes awaken in people who trust and engage with the process.

All in all, this was a day in whch I believe that all of us present must surely have experienced for ourselves the miracle and wonder of growth.

 

 

 

 

Stoneleigh Abbey: A Setting to Inspire Jane Austen for Her Novels

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

Certainly, among novelists living and working in the centuries following Shakespeare’s outpourings of genius, it can most truly be said of Jane Austen that if anything she wrote be error and upon her proved, then she certainly never wrote at all. Elegant interior Stoneleigh AbbeyFor Jane Austen observed not only manners, attitudes, words and behaviours in her own society and social class, but she saw into the hearts of everyone she wrote about. Her subject matter took for its outward form a restricted world of elegance, wealth and privilege; but in its essence her focus was simply universal truth.

For her settings and character names, she took her inspiration from her own life, and the places she visited. One of these was Stoneleigh Abbey, situated between Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, near the village of Stoneleigh.

Stoneleigh abbey seen from the other side of the river AvonAs you turn off the B4115 from Leamington Spa, and drive in between the Grecian Lodges, and make your way along the avenue between the tall, symmetrical, evenly spaced rows of trees, you become immediately aware that you are in a setting of precision and elegance. Cross the rusticated stone bridge, and you will see ahead of you on the right the mellow stonework of the fourteenth century gatehouse.

Passing through the gatehouse you emerge onto a winding path beside  flower beds, and ahead of you arises an imposing, silver stone building surmounted with ornamental balustrades.

This is Stoneleigh Abbey, which occupies land granted to a group of Cistercian monks by Henry II in 1154.

The monks longed for a peaceful, tranquil piece of land and they certainly found it here beside the River Avon. Building commenced in April 1156 and the rhythm of the Daily Office continued here undisturbed over four hundred years for the white monks. But with the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there came Henry VIII’s agents, evicting the abbot and monks, dispersing them and confiscating lead and major timbers from the property for the royal treasury.

View of Stoneleigh Abbey from across the River Avon.jpgFor twenty five years the property remained a roofless ruin until it was sold to Sir Rowland Hill and Sir Thomas Leigh. Subsequently, it was to remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries, whose first move was to build an Elizabethan manor from the ruins, while later generations built around the cloisters. By the seventeenth century it was a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion.

Jane Austen’s connection with Stoneleigh Abbey was via her mother Cassandra Leigh Austen’s relationship to the Leigh family. In 1806, following the death of Mary Leigh, the direct line of descent from the first Thomas Leigh came to an end and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey passed to the successors of Thomas’s eldest son Rowland. Thus, Cassandra’s distant cousin Sir Thomas Leigh found himself the new owner, and he visited in 1806 with Jane Austen, her sister, and her mother.

During the few days of the visit, Jane Austen’s sharp observational skills were fully employed. Names and life histories of family members, details of conversations at the dinner table, and perfect descriptions of rooms and chapel, have all been discerned in her novels.

Elegant interior Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgAs you tour the grand rooms here today, you will observe that they are not  faded by age; but that they look exactly as they would have done in 1806. That is a consequence of a series of major reversals of fortune for the property, similar to the case of Compton Verney.  Following the disappearance of the family wealth, swallowed up in debts, the house went through a sad period of degradation. Then in 1960 a disastrous fire severely damaged the West wing. Most of the furniture and paintings were rescued, but the house was forced to close. In subsequent decades, it fell into further disrepair. In 1996 ownership of the house and estate was transferred from Lord Leigh to Stoneleigh Abbey Limited. Stoneleigh Abbey was saved from becoming a ruin.

Subsequently the Abbey underwent a massive restoration project in which close attention was paid to the integrity of the original. I visited the Abbey during its period of restoration and enjoyed a guided tour under the direction of a conservation expert, thereby gaining some insights into the methods by which the restorers ensured the materials, colours and furnishings were as authentic as they possibly could be.

Admired so much by Jane Austen's mother - interior at Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgNow, the ordered beauty of the Georgian interiors will fill you with a deep sense of pleasure and calm. These are much more appealing to my eye than the very busy interiors favoured in other historical periods: an abundance of flambuoyant rich gold frames and decorative work on already very ornate walls, along with rich and elaborate furniture, combines to assault the visitor with an overload of visual stimuli. But as we walk from room to room here, I appreciate their shape and proportions even more when complemented by the arrangement of the paintings, the three-dimensional plasterwork and the subtle colours of the wall coverings. The library with its mahogany panelling is one of my favourite rooms; I would love to retreat there for several days to immerse myself in the books, among which are the poetry books of former owner and friend of Lord Byron, Chandos Leigh.

Along with her mother and sister, Jane Austen would have greatly admired the aspect and proportions of the rooms, their decor and furnishings; but she would also have dedicated a finely-tuned ear to the conversations that took place within them. Nothing would have escaped her, especially not the words and behaviour of those who moved through these rooms. She would have silently accomplished what Lizzy Bennett does out loud, to the annoyance of Mr Darcy; that is, sketching their characters.

Interior, Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgI feel sure, too, that Jane Austen would have been only too aware of the wisdom of keeping this keen scrutiny to herself; for Lizzy Bennett’s voiced observations certainly alerted Mr Darcy to the fact that he was the subject of shrewd examination, much to his discomfort.

Just like several of her own heroines, Jane Austen would have been discerning the vices, quirks, and follies of her fellow dinner guests. She would be noting wit, or lack thereof; manners, and attitudes; and always what these revealed  of the hearts within.

Jane Austen’s visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, King Edward VI School,  Stratford-upon-Avon: Strong Discipline, Repetition and Learning by Rote That Nurtured a Great Poet

A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.

Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Romeo and Juliet

  

Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.

Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.

Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.

Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?

We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is  used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.

And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?

Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?

These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

How to get there:

King Edward VI School

Church Street

Stratford-upon-Avon

CV37 6HB

 

Find out more:

Shakespearesschoolroom.org