Thursday, 10 September 2009

A delightful new acquaintance

Searching our library catalogue for the next Cornflower book group read, I failed to find what I was looking for, but spotted Elizabeth Jenkins' memoir, The View from Downshire Hill. Well, I thought . . . why not have a little background about this author, who is completely new to me. It arrived this week and at bedtime last night I picked it up for a quick browse. I reluctantly stopped reading two delightful hours later. Elizabeth Jenkins is witty, but self-deprecating, with the occasional touch of asperity (as in her comments on the designer, Erno Goldfinger, whose views on London’s elegant Georgian houses she rightly disapproved of.

Here she is, early on, talking about her brief time as a pupil at the Modern School, Letchworth:
By this time it was felt at home that I was not really benefiting by the school’s advantages, so I was taken away at the end of my second term. This was not the last of my contacts with [the headmistress] Miss Cartwright, however. When my first novel was published she very kindly wrote to me, congratulating me on getting my work published and adding that she was sure I would not write for ‘self-glorification’. I replied as politely as I was able, but her letter raised a curious point: how does one write for ‘self-glorification’? If I knew, I would be at it all the time. I dare say many of us would.
Her book is not an autobiography, but a collection of reminiscences and observations about things, and people, from her life that she regards as being of interest. On leaving Newnham College Cambridge (where she once invited Edith Sitwell to be a speaker and wanted to ask her to wear all of her distinctive wardrobe) she moved to Bloomsbury, where she was taken up, and then rather painfully dropped, by the Woolfs, took tea with the Stracheys, and worked on her first novel and her biography of Lady Caroline Lamb in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

Her interest in London’s Georgian architecture is evident from the outset: during the war she worked first at 1 Montague Place, next to the British Museum, where she enjoyed exploring rooms left unused; later she worked for the famous translator of Japanese poetry, Arthur Waley at the Ministry of Information in what is now the University of London's Senate House. By this time her father had bought her a house at Downshire Hill, where she lived until old age and infirmity necessitated the move to a flat. Like Denis Severs later at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfield, she furnished her house as well as she could afford, replacing the Edwardian furniture her father originally provided with late Georgian, as early Georgian to match the house with its elegant Gothic-arched window panes (you can just see them on the book's cover), was beyond her means.

Elizabeth Jenkins is a delightful writer, her prose elegant yet conversational and her comments on her own writing shrewd and insightful. I am very pleased to have made her acquaintance. My copy of The Tortoise and the Hare awaits my return from London.


  1. This sounds charming - although I don't know anything about architecture. Still enjoyable from a standpoint of total ignorance on that front?

  2. Not a writer I've ever come across. But you're right about memoirs like this, they are really compulsive. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that we are looking through the window into someone else's life and just seeing the really interesting bits.

  3. Cornflower, yes, it bodes well for our next book.

    Jenny, absolutely, you don't need to know anything about it, you can just enjoy the writing.

    TT, I think she is going to prove a perceptive and interesting novelist, too.

  4. What novels did she write, Geraniumcat? I haven't heard of her. The biography sounds delightful, though!

  5. A new writer for me. The way you describe this memoir makes me want to start there.

  6. Until I read the end of your post, I was going to offer to send you my copy of The Tortoise and the Hare. But I see you have one. I loved the cover. I was sure I'd love the book, but I didn't, and didn't finish it.:<(

  7. Susan, I don't know much about her novels, as most of them are out of print.

    Thomas, it's a very good place to start!

    Nan, what a disappointment for you! I hope that I shall like it, having built it up so in my mind. I shall report shortly!

  8. Thank you for the information about Downshire Hill. Sorry I didn't share your enthusiasm for the novel!

  9. A delightful new acquintance is exactly right. I read this recently too and it was lovely to gain insight in the writer without the distraction of too much personal information that might detract when I finally read The Tortoise and The Hare.