My Love Affair with England – Susan Allen Toth

It has been a long week, folks. But here we are, another Tuesday, another cup of coffee.

This week’s book is a bit of a deviation, but not so much as to cause one panic.

Susan Allen Toth’s My Love Affair with England: A Traveler’s Memoir was not, like my last several books, written in the last few years. Or the last decade. We’re talking early 90s, folks.

Why did I put this random travelogue into the reading mix?

I’m going to England for a few weeks in March and, in a burst of theme, bought a grip of novels that were related to areas I was going to be spending time in, as well as this book and a modern history of England which surprised me by being a few hundred pages longer than I expected.

Let’s move on from this tedious backstory.

What is interesting about this particular travelogue is the structure. It’s not exactly a travelogue or, as the subtitle would suggest, a memoir. It’s a weird blend of both without being either.

The classic memoir is a story of short period of one’s life (as opposed to an autobiography, which would be the whole of one’s life) where, theoretically, a personal transformation takes place by the end of the book. A lesson is learned and one pops out the other side, a shiny and new version of the author.

A travelogue is… a log of one’s travels. A day-to-day journal which, for publishing purposes, is generally written in a more entertaining and narrative manner to make it more readable. Thus, it should mostly be in chronological order.

My Love Affair with England has no overarching personal transformation in it as a plot point (I’ll come back to this in a minute, so retain). It’s also not in chronological order. It’s also not… a log of travels. It’s more vaguely themed snippets mashed together. Over the course of decades which, by the very nature of time and maturity, end up referencing personal transformation without making it a central point.

Yet this plotless jumble was still a pleasure to read.

It was a meander through time and experiences. Wandering here, there, coming back around, going back out, coming back again, referencing a previous wander, then through this memory hedge over there, then wander, have tea and biscuits, then pop out these bushes and here’s another story.

It was much like some of the walking paths that were described in the book, if this continued to loop back on themselves. Which some of them probably do.

I’m not really sure what I take from reading it, if we’re being honest with each other. It was pleasant in this disorganization. The jumbledness of it made it, to me, somehow more British. I didn’t learn things I was hoping to learn, but I learned other things. I also believe that if her voice hadn’t been so mellow and charming, but instead more rushed and factual, I would have been annoyed and not made it through the book.

But it worked as a coherent unit of reading. So there you go.

Some quotes for your reading discernment:

“Perhaps no one is as vulnerable to the lure of England’s many-layered past as a young American reader who has grown up under the wide empty skies of the Midwest. To me, the Midwest was almost featureless, compared, for instance, with New England, home of the House of the Seven Gables, or to the myth-ridden Far West. Nothing in Ames seemed historic or even very old. If a building did age, it was eventually renovated beyond recognition or else torn down. If I had known where to stand and how to listen, somewhere in Ames I might have been able to catch an echo from the past of the heavy rumble of wagon wheels on a prairie schooner heading west.”

“Girls from Iowa didn’t stick their thumbs out. They only did that in places like California, where the Beats, Kerouac, and other vaguely unsavory people hung out in smoke-filled coffeehouses and inveighed against society. I know about On the Road. So I was unnerved as well as exhilarated by the idea of casually standing by the side of a highway, waiting for an unknown car to stop and pick me up.”

“It was a large magnificent ballroom, whose drapery and furnishings, though slightly shabby, recalled nights of lavish entertainment and high revelry. I could envision an orchestra, dozens of tables with white linen and sparkling crystal, music, laughter, and swishing long skirts along the polished floor. Here, as James and I stood alone in the empty room, I could at least see Gable and Garbo, Crosby and Astaire, even the Gary Coopers, all of them released from their human frailties. They danced the night away, stopping only for bits of lobster and glasses of champagne, tossing ermine and dinner jackets over the backs of chairs, turning their best profiles towards the ship’s photographer.”

“Among other enlarged travel photos, I keep a bit of the Savoy on our bedroom wall. Just after dessert that first night, I stepped back into the middle of the room and snapped a picture: James, in nearly knotted tie, sitting at the linen-draped table. Silver bowls, crystal glasses, heavy crumpled napkins. My empty green velvet chair. behind out thick windows, the wide gray river. The thin red-and-black ribbon of the Hungerford Foot Bridge, where how and dusty pedestrians–the others, the ones below–are tramping across the Thames.”

“We put our glasses down as I inwardly marveled at a community whose life was so slowly paced, so peaceful, that an event like a badger sighting might cause a panic. James, however, had not acted fast enough. His binoculars remained in view for a few critical moments. The car drove slowly by, its occupants staring curiously at us, and five minutes later, it returned, pulling up discreetly behind us. For some time longer we all sat there, silently, in our cars, gazing at the hillside.”

“Mapperton’s garden lies behind and to the side of the golden-stone Tudor house, in a wedge-shaped valley not obvious from the front. When a visitor has circled the house and crossed its wide green lawn, the garden appears below. With its formal Italianate terraces cut into the soft blurred contours of Dorset pastureland, it is a startling vision. Filled with carved yes, geometrical plantings, long rectangular stone ponds, summerhouses, and cavelike niches in high stone walls, the garden moves in a stately fashion down the valley. Gradually it becomes less formal, then wilder, until it disappears at last into the surrounding hills.”

“When James first drove me into the West Country, he also introduced me to life in English country-house hotels, a worldly romance of its own. For several years, until the falling dollar and rising English inflation turned us elsewhere, we slowly motored down leafy drives toward quietly sumptuous hotels that made us feel as if we’d just arrived as welcome weekend guests of the resident squire.”

“Tonight, it is dark, the stars are hidden, and I think perhaps it may rain. Tired from packing, I sit on a bench and wait for James to finish the walk. No one else passes me. As I look out on the sea, I can glimpse a few lights on the distance coast of Wales. The sky and water gradually blend together in a pale gray-blue mist. It is so peaceful I can sense my chest rise and fall with each breath. I feel I, too, am suspended in the mist.”