Rebecca…as you may not have thought of her before.

In an occasional series of reviews by Stella Backhouse, here is an analysis of Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca, to coincide with the new filmed adaptation out this week.

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It was the shot heard round the literary world. In a doomed attempt to end the torment of their marriage, Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter kills his wife Rebecca with a single bullet, dumps her body out at sea, then pretends she’s drowned. When Alfred Hitchcock came to film Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 masterpiece in 1940, he subtly changed the plot to make the death accidental – romantic heroes are not supposed to be cold-bloodied wife-murderers. Hitchcock needn’t have worried: Maxim didn’t kill Rebecca. He couldn’t have, because Rebecca – at least, the flesh-and-blood Rebecca – was never alive in the first place.

To understand this, we need to approach the book as if we were its first intended audience: British readers of the late 1930s. “How strange” says the second Mrs de Winter (whom I shall henceforward call ‘the Narrator’) “that an article on wood pigeons could so recall the past and make me falter as I read aloud. It was the grey look on his face that made me stop abruptly.” In the 1920s and into the ’30s, that “grey look” was known and dreaded in households throughout the land: it was the look of a man who in the midst of a calm day, was suddenly back on the battlefields of World War One. Despite her legendary beauty, wide circle of friends and regular attendance at innumerable social functions, there are no photos of Rebecca. Even her loyal lieutenant, Mrs Danvers, never shows one. And that’s because Rebecca is not a person. Rebecca is the First World War.

Her welcome to Manderley, as Maxim and the Narrator arrive for the first time at his ancestral mansion, is the blooming rhododendrons: “monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a batallion”, “their crimson faces…one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing…nothing but the slaughterous red”. ‘Slaughter’ is a word that even today, we still reach for when we want to convey the almost casual horror of World War One. This is not the blood of one woman. This is the blood of a generation.

It continues the next day, when the rhododendrons appear in the Morning/Mourning Room, tinting with red the walls around the desk where Rebecca wrote her letters – to the wives and sweethearts of the men who never came home. The room’s ornamental china Cupid, broken beyond repair some time later, is symbolic of love shattered – while the fact it was pushed to the floor by a falling book is a post-modern warning: Rebecca won’t be consigned to books. Rebecca has unfinished business.

Supporting her are war’s two eternal familiars: death and change. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers, “tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…set on a skeleton’s frame” is the slain of the Somme, nightmarishly re-animated. The cousin/lover Favell – vulgar, opportunistic, no respecter of tradition – is the new breed, circling the carcasses of country estates like Manderley as they declined economically after the war. Beyond the big house, poor damaged Ben, uselessly combing the beach for ‘shell’, lives in fear of Rebecca’s threat to send him to the asylum.

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Although it had long been recognised that exposure to trauma could have lasting psychological effects, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were not formally described until 1980, forty-two years after Rebecca was published. One of du Maurier’s most astonishing achievements with the novel is how accurately she portrays a condition that, at the time she was writing, did not yet have an agreed set of diagnostic criteria.

According to the NHS website, PTSD is characterised by a number of different symptoms, including re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares); avoiding reminders of the traumatic event; emotional numbing; irritability and angry outbursts; drug and alcohol misuse. Maxim is a check-list of all of them. The discovery of Rebecca’s body, he tells the Narrator, was “the thing I’ve dreamt about, day after day, night after night”; he fills his mind with the minutiae of county cricket; he struggles to tell the Narrator he loves her; his sister says he “loses his temper once or twice in a year, and when he does – my God – he does lose it”; and though his drinking isn’t excessive, he practically chain-smokes. 

Additionally, the text is bristling with what we now call ‘triggers’ – some widely associated with World War One, some specific to Maxim’s personal hell. People hum tunes to steady their nerves, like the troops as they marched up the line. There are frequent mention of birdsong – so well-remembered by veterans that Sebastian Faulks used it as the title of his own First World War novel of 1993. There are sounds, scents, unease about waste; daydreams about other realities (where the war never happened); the constant obtrusion of the past on the present through the tolling phrase “I can see/hear her/him/them/it now”; and the whispering dread that “when the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress”.

“Rebecca, always Rebecca.” Every room at Manderley: re-decorated by Rebecca. The gardens of Manderley: re-designed by Rebecca. And this festering, claustrophobic conceit of PTSD – you can’t escape it, but you can’t talk about it either – is the heart of Rebecca’s power. It infects everyone. The Narrator can’t talk about it because she is “fearful that some heedless word…should bring that expression back to his eyes again. I began to dread any mention of the sea, for the sea might lead to boats, to accidents, to drowning…” Maxim can’t talk about it because he’s ashamed. The result is despair – an empty marriage where the participants are acting their parts unaccompanied by true feeling, and no end in sight. Echoing Laurence Binyon’s well-known war poem For The Fallen, the Narrator laments that “Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same.”             

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About two-thirds of the way through the book – literally overnight – the Narrator abruptly states that she feels more grown up (“I would never be a child again”); and this paves the way for an improvement in her relationship with Maxim. The catalyst is categorically not sex – du Maurier is careful to keep Maxim out of the bedroom the night before. Instead, it’s the at-first-glance unsuccessful fancy dress ball. Tricked by Mrs Danvers, the Narrator commits the appalling gaffe of appearing in an outfit identical to one worn by Rebecca a few years before. Maxim is majorly triggered, and the Narrator is forced to appear, like her husband, in ordinary evening dress.

Although imperfectly realised (the fireworks, representing the artillery barrage, are unavoidably at the end, rather than the start where they logically should be), the ball is symbolic of battle on the Western Front. “I was going to give orders that all cars should stand by for 5am” says Frank, the protective land agent whose own war-related PTSD – while seemingly less severe than Maxim’s – makes him the only person with whom Maxim can be…well…frank. The Narrator’s descent of the stairs (going over the top) is accompanied by drumming. And in the bleary light of morning “It was as though a blight had fallen on Manderley…One of the gardeners passed me with a barrow full of bits and paper, and litter, and the skins of fruit left on the lawns by the people last night.”

The boundary between Maxim and the Narrator is always fragile. It’s the Narrator who hums the tunes and hears the birdsong. It’s the Narrator who has the possibly recurring nightmare of returning to Manderley that forms the book’s unsettling opening chapter. But after her initiation at the ball/in battle, her identification with Maxim becomes more overt. In some ways it’s a comfort: her new-found empathy will help them face the future. “It would not be I,I,I any longer” she says. “It would be we, it would be us. We would be together.”

But it also opens the door to more troubling possibilities. The most important scene in this respect is the one that recalls the Temptation of Christ as well as foreshadowing the revelation Maxim will shortly make about how he almost killed Rebecca at the cliff near Monte Carlo. Whispering to the Narrator as they stand at the window of Rebecca’s bedroom, Mrs Danvers urges her to jump: “There’s not much for you to live for, is there? Why don’t you jump and have done with it? Then you won’t be unhappy any more.” As the protagonists’ experiences merge, we infer that what Maxim really contemplated at the cliff edge was killing himself.

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In reality, there are two ways of interpreting Maxim’s relationship to the Narrator – one hopeful, the other not so much. The more literal interpretation is that despite hints to the contrary, the Narrator and Maxim are separate people. As their lives move forward, his honesty about the past helps her to understand him better, which in turn enables her to support him through his continuing struggles with mental health. The insight that he was not altogether to blame for Rebecca’s death (read: what happened in the war) means that some degree of healing can occur.

The alternative is that the Narrator is a product of Maxim’s mind. Perhaps she’s based on a sympathetic nurse (on this reading, the quiet hotel where he’s residing in Chapter 2 is almost certainly a sanatorium) around whom he’s constructed a fantasy. His dream is of a wife who understands him. The mutual abandonment of fancy dress at the ball (followed up by telling the truth about Rebecca’s death) is symbolic of a longed-for abandonment of pretence.

If he can’t have this, he wants the war never to have happened.  Some of the book’s imagery – the lilac, the arching trees, the clocks, the afternoon tea – is suggestive of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ by the celebrated war poet Rupert Brooke. Significantly, the poem was written in 1912, two years before war broke out. Maxim would happily suspend himself for ever in 1912. At Manderley, which he loves “before anything else”, this is what he tries to do. He tries to make it his safe place; the haven where he can shut out reality and pretend that all is well.

But the fact is, Manderley cannot keep the world at bay. It’s not safe from the past, but it’s not safe from the present either, and that’s what drives Maxim mad. In the dream sequence, sinister, rampant nature threatens to strangle the life out of the gentle ritual of afternoon tea. A tourist on the cliffs casually opines that “all these big estates will be chopped up in time and bungalows built.” The final straw comes when Rebecca tells him she is pregnant. The book was published in 1938. Another war is on the way.

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So: who is the real Mrs de Winter? If it’s not Rebecca and not the Narrator, there’s only one candidate left: the nameless, faceless woman Maxim identified as Drowned Rebecca, lying entombed like the Unknown Soldier in the family vault. And this is the heartbreaking truth: grief is Maxim’s only life partner. If you’ve stayed with me this far, perhaps you feel it’s a shame to have sucked the romance out of Rebecca – to have robbed it of, on the one hand, its uplifting narrative of ‘troubled-man-redeemed-by-love-of-good-woman’ and on the other, of its darkly exciting Freudian subtext of ‘troubled-man-can’t-cope-with-female-sexuality’. I disagree. Understood this way, Rebecca is an utterly devastating book. It’s also an urgently necessary book.

Twenty years after the Armistice was signed, it shone a light on the hidden suffering of those for whom the war was still a daily reality. Forty years before the doctors got there, it nailed the symptoms of PTSD and recognised it as an agony that endured for years. It acknowledged the toxic effects on families; it told them they were not alone. It made a plea for honesty and getting things into the open. And while some might argue that Maxim is unrepresentative because he’s cushioned by wealth, he could equally be seen as a de-stigmatising figure, affirming that this can happen to anyone. And these are messages that even today, we still need to hear.

Like all good literature, Rebecca can be read on many levels. If you want to enjoy it as Gothic yarn of love and jealousy – if you want to explore it as Freudian psycho-drama – you absolutely can. But alongside that, I think we owe it to Daphne du Maurier to put on record another of her achievements: classic study of PTSD.

[Stella Backhouse is better known locally for her Food Covolution website, highlighting independent food outlets in Coventry. She is a regular volunteer at the Tree House and a great and serious reader.]

Daytime art history at the Tree House Bookshop

monday art lecturesWe have had art lectures at the bookshop pretty much as long as the bookshop has been open (which, as an aside, is an amazing six and a half years!).  Mostly these have been evening lectures, but we are often asked about the possibility of daytime talks.  So this autumn there are art history talks on Monday mornings at 11.

The lecturer is me!  I am an art historian as well as a bookseller, with a PhD from Bristol University and 20 years of lecturing experience.  I still do a bit of professional teaching, but online (for Oxford University), which means I can do it from home in my pyjamas…perfect!  But now that we have the new projection equipment, lectures are even easier at the bookshop.  And even though it means I have to get dressed, it is all good fun.

Sometimes people say they feel daunted, and don’t come because they think it will be too highbrow or because they haven’t looked at paintings before.  But my lectures are informal, friendly, inclusive – suitable for all levels of knowledge, which sounds a tall order, but it isn’t really.

My specialisation is in the art of Northern Europe in the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), but I do a few other things as well, including tracing what I call the Northern Tradition through the Dutch 17th century, German Romanticism in the early 19th century, and into the 20th century, and of course I look at Italian Renaissance and late medieval art too.  This all sounds very grand, but the key is simply taking a painting and looking at it, and that’s what a lecture is for: you can read about art in books and on the internet, you can go to galleries, but a lecture gives you the opportunity to explore and discuss and ask questions and spend time looking closely with a guide and some fellow-explorers.  Paintings – and the labels that go with them – become much less daunting when you do this.

I have mentioned paintings, but my PhD subject was sculpture, which in Germany is an incredible thing in the Renaissance, and prints, which grew out of the development of printed books in the 15th century.  It’s all marvellous!

So if you’re free on a Monday morning, do come along at 11 o’clock – or if you prefer an evening talk, I still do those on Tuesday evenings once or twice a month.  Lectures are £8 on the door, including coffee/tea, and last about an hour plus time for questions.

This coming Monday, 28 October, I’ll be talking about the greatest European painter of the 15th century: Rogier van der Weyden.  A bold claim, but a genuine one!  Why have you heard of Botticelli, who is not as good nor as important/influential, but not of Rogier van der Weyden?  I can tell you that too if you come along.

Victoria (aka Dr Vic, or Doc Tors as some Bristol friends used to call me!)

Film club launch, Friday 25 October – free screening!

There is a lot going on at the bookshop this autumn…to be kept up to date, it’s a good idea to join our mailing list!  I am not the world’s most efficient promoter (ahem…) but the more avenues you follow to find out what’s going on, the less likely you are to miss something!  So if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, do follow the Tree House Bookshop there too, and I will be working extra hard to keep all the different media up to date.

This Friday we are launching our new film club with a free screening of The Philadelphia Story.  We’d love a few more to sign up to the club to pay for the licence!  Our new equipment is working very well, it’s a joy to use – thank you to Mustard Presentations of Coventry for an excellent job! – and the films and lectures we have had so far have elicited very positive responses from the audiences.  So do join us on Friday if you can!  Film starts at 7.30pm.

More soon about other things that will be happening!

Tree House Bookshop Film Club

For the benefit of…

logoFor a long time, I have been wondering about making the Tree House officially a non-profit social enterprise business.  We are a limited company, mainly because that was the easiest thing to do when I first set up the business.  But after five years, I feel I have invested so much of myself in the whole venture that I am struggling with the idea of giving up overall control – that says a lot about me, I know!  It is still a longer-term possibility, but for now I don’t feel ready to change the status.

The principle remains though: we operate as a non-profit.  Any profit we make is ploughed back into the business and given to charity when we can – though we don’t technically make any profit, as I don’t yet earn a wage from running the place, and profit would begin after staff wages were considered.  We are, however, getting there, and the phenomenal support of the local community continues in humbling ways: a long-time supporter has just set up a very generous monthly standing order, which will help us to put in place some ideas that should generate more income in the longer term.  More on that in due course!

One initiative I am going to start from September is a more formal way of giving to charity, and making our non-profit aspirations more transparent.  We will be supporting two charities each month – one national, one local – by a variety of means.

I will be installing a filter coffee machine, and coffee will be available on a donation basis.  Half of what we get from these donations will go to our chosen charities.  (You can have tea as well, just ask!)

Since we started our Tree House Sessions four years ago, we have charged an entry fee – intially £2, now £3, which includes a £2 book voucher and tea or coffee.  From the next THS, on 1 September, we won’t have a charge; we will ask £1 for tea/coffee, and we will raffle a £10 Tree House book voucher each time.

Our book clubs and Nifty Needles will also be donation-based, and half of the donations going to the charities.

There will be other one-off events at times – coffee mornings, raffles, book promotions, etc.

September’s two charities have really been decided for us.  We are joining in with the Macmillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, as we always do, this year on Friday 28 September, so Macmillan will be one of our charities; and Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance have a charity week earlier in September, so they will be our local charity.

So – do come and have a cup of coffee – bring your reusable cup if you want to take it away – and leave a donation.  We’ll be using good coffee, you can drink while you browse, and the aroma should be fab!

I hope we will be able to be both more regular and more generous in our charitable giving, and people will see more clearly that their donated books are creating a place that has all sorts of benefits.

 

And no more shall we part…with your help!

**UPDATE:  GOAL £2300, CURRENT TOTAL £2326 – THANK YOU!**

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The title is a Nick Cave reference, as some of you will recognise…if you don’t, no matter, find the song on youtube and prepare to have your heart broken. But the Tree House can help to heal broken hearts!  (As can the music of Nick Cave, but that’s another story.)  We’ve had a strange year – perhaps every year seems like a struggle, but this last 10-12 months has been particularly tricky.  We always sail close to the edge, and it doesn’t take much to tip our finances into the danger zone.  We had some setbacks in 2016 that have put us behind with our business rates and it’s been impossible to clear that backlog.

But on a day to day basis, things are good.  Book sales are pretty healthy, we now have three book groups that are thriving, our live music events tend to sell out (the money from those goes to the performers, so those don’t bring many funds to us, but as long as we’re breaking even, that’s all that really matters), though we have had to subsidise a couple of them, our open mic Tree House Sessions are lively and wonderful, our craft group is still going strong after three and a half years, and there is such a great core community at the bookshop, with people discovering us all the time.

I feel we really do offer something a bit different to Kenilworth, something that embraces all sorts and ages of people, that promotes the arts at a time when we need their communal and healing powers more than ever.  I struggle with my health, which means I often lack the energy to do as much at and with the bookshop as I would like, but there is a great team of people who help to keep it all going.

Having decided – for health reasons as much as financial ones – that the strain was becoming too great, I decided I had to ask the landlord to find a new tenant for the premises, and that we would close.  A few days after that decision, various things happened to make it seem possible that we could not only stay open but develop in new ways to make the business stronger.  Our landlord at Berkeley House has been incredibly supportive, and so I made another decision – to launch an emergency fundraising campaign, as our backlog of rates and other expenses needs to be paid by the end of March to avoid further difficulty.

The response has been phenomenal.  We raised nearly £1000 on the first day, and in just a few days we have now raised around £1700.  What this shows more than anything is the fantastic level of support there is, a huge desire to see the bookshop continue.  We are not out of the woods yet, but if we can raise another £500 in the next two weeks, we will clear that backlog of debt and be able to continue.  From 1 April, our business rates will be reduced by a very significant amount.  Our wonderful landlords will sponsor us through their business.  We are planning some things that will enhance the bookshop both as a physical space and as a business (still in very early stages, so no details yet!), and we know now how strong the support is.  I genuinely believe that with these changes, the business will be truly sustainable.

If you would like to read about our fundraising campaign, click here – many of you have given in the past, and I don’t expect people to keep giving, but if you could share the campaign, that would be wonderful.  It’s not just the people of Kenilworth and regulars at the bookshop who have raised the money so far – through social media, people far and wide have supported it.  Every £1 helps, and some have given just that, others have given more.  We’ve had the support of our very lovely patron, musician Warren Ellis, and his followers are now retweeting and responding to the campaign.  Here’s a bit of Warren in action – his genius and energy and creativity inspire me every day.

You can donate via the button below, if you feel so inclined, but this post is mostly about sharing what’s been happening and asking you to help us by spreading the word so that we can get the final few hundred pounds that we need before time runs out.  You can, of course, just come and buy books or come to our events!  We have local folk group Romany Pie playing on Friday 24 March, an open mic on Saturday 25 March, a very exciting gig with The Little Unsaid on Thursday 30 March, and I’ll be putting on films and lectures in the next couple of weeks too.  But if you’re local and haven’t bought a book in a while, why not come and buy one – or two! – this week?  Our paperback novels are less than the price of a cup of coffee in most cafés, they are more nourishing, and the enjoyment lasts a lot longer!  They also make great accompaniments to a cup of coffee – today is a sunny spring day, what could be lovelier than sitting in a cafe with a book?  It’s my day off, so I will be doing that in a while.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us, in so many ways.  Thank you to those who have already given to this campaign, and/or have spread the word already.  If you’d like to see us not just survive but increase what we already offer, at a time when small independent high street businesses are closing or moving away, please consider getting us through this hurdle, and I know we can survive and grow if we can clear our debts.

And come and see us soon!

Volunteering

cropped-cropped-treehouse-header.pngThe Tree House was not intended originally to be volunteer-run, but the realities of survival on the high street mean we have had to be.  It does add to the sense of it being a community venture, about people and reading and promoting the arts more than about commerce, but it is also a challenge.  I run the place full time, but have not been able to earn anything since we moved from our old premises.  So I need to find other ways to earn money, if I am to carry on running the Tree House.  This in practical terms means I need a bit more time away from the bookshop.

So I am looking for one or two volunteers who would like a regular commitment and have half a day or a day a week or a fortnight to spare.  We currently have one person who works every other Wednesday morning, and it’s a godsend – if we could find someone to do the afternoon on the days she works, that would be even better!  It would also be good to have Friday afternoons covered, as I have some opportunities to work elsewhere then.  But any days or half days would be welcomed.

You need to be confident of being at the bookshop on your own – though if we have enough suitable applicants, we can pair people up.  You need to be able to engage with customers and keep up to date with what’s happening at the bookshop.  There is always work to be done in terms of tidying and stocking the shelves, but if you have computer work to do or even want to spend some time reading (!) you would be able to do that too.  Some are keener to be physically busy than others – and the main thing is to keep the bookshop open as much as possible and be there for customers.

So if you are interested, do get in touch and we can talk more about it all – what’s involved, what level of availability you have and so on.  Email victoria@treehousebookshop.co.uk or call into the bookshop to arrange a meeting – I can’t always stop and chat then and there, but we can fix a time to discuss things if I am busy.

I am also always looking for evening help – at music events, film nights, etc – so if you are interested in being involved in those, I would love to hear from you too.

Charitable plans

air ambulance

One of the things I am going to do at the bookshop this year is to support a different charity each month.  As a non-profit organisation, our profits would be given to charity…but to be honest, we haven’t made any profit yet!  I hope one day that we will.  But in the meantime, there are things we can do to support charities and make our status a bit more obvious and useful.  I will be choosing a different charity each month, therefore, a mixture of local and national charities, and hope that this makes things more transparent.

This month’s charity (January 2016) is the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.

We will be holding coffee mornings (or more likely, afternoon tea, for reasons stated in my previous blog post!), and will be thinking of other ways to raise funds.

We used to have a ‘blind date with a book’ scheme, which I resurrected at Christmas, and it proved popular.  We wrap books so that you are getting a surprise, so you need to be a little bit adventurous, but we give some basic clues as to the sort of book inside the wrapping.  This will probably be no more than an indication of whether it’s a novel, a history book, a biography, etc.  These will be £1.50, with 50p going to our chosen charity of the month – and there is the added surprise of a voucher or other offer inside.  The amount and nature of the voucher will also be a surprise, some will be more valuable than others!  But I am hoping that the whole thing will be a bit of fun, as well as great for when you don’t know what you want to read, or want a fun present for someone else.  These will be available from Tuesday 5 January.

I will be thinking up other ways of adding to our monthly giving, including specific events, maybe some raffles and things for children to do.  More information as these things develop!

 

In the meantime, we are now back to routine opening hours, which essentially means Tuesday-Saturday, 10am to 5pm.  We will be open on occasional Sundays, and there will also be some Sunday events coming up.  We will be closed on Mondays – so if anyone wants to hire the space during the day on a Monday, do get in touch.  Our rates are £10 an hour.

Tree House to close

tree house windowWell, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here – mainly because we’ve been so busy!   Which makes it all the harder to have to tell you that we will be closing our doors in July.  Things will carry on as normal to the end of June, then we will clear the stock and furniture during July, staying open as long as we can.  This is mainly because I cannot carry on running the business on my own – I have some excellent volunteers who offer regular, brilliant practical help, but the strain of running the business alone and not making enough money to pay myself a wage has taken its toll.

But I would still like to fill you in on the last few weeks, and tell you about our lovely week-long Shakespeare Festival, which despite low numbers for some events was wonderful – two truly excellent talks, Elizabethan dance classes for all ages, fabulous drama workshop for children drawing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and four stunning films, each one very different.  It was particularly lovely to end the festival with Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, as Ken has done so much to refresh our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and his language; on a personal note, it was seeing him in the very same play in the West End in about 1990, opposite Samantha Bond as Beatrice, that showed me how Shakespeare’s extraordinary language could be at once completely natural and sublimely poetic.  The man is a genius.  (Ken, I mean, though obviously Shakespeare is too.)  The night before we had watched Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s incredible retelling of Macbeth transposed to medieval Japan, a film of great beauty as well as power; earlier in the week, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.  The three films together scratch the surface of the universality of Shakespeare’s brilliance (the fourth film was Shakespeare in Love, hugely enjoyable and wittier than I remember, despite having to cope with Gwyneth Paltrow, but the adaptations of the plays were much more rewarding).  Midweek, Thomasin Bailey had explored how even Shakespeare’s seemingly outdated view of women is still something that can illuminate our own thinking about the world we live in today.  This talk – the best attended event of the week – also showed the desire locally for events such as this: a discussion of around 45 minutes followed the talk, with questions and comments from a clearly engaged and knowledgeable audience lapping up the opportunity to have such a discussion.

The wondrous Vicki Mansfield, volunteer extraordinaire and main organiser of the Shakespeare Festival.  She made the dress herself - 20 years ago!
The wondrous Vicki Mansfield, volunteer extraordinaire and main organiser of the Shakespeare Festival. She made the dress herself – 20 years ago!

The following week we had one of my favourite events since the Tree House opened.  Michael Burdett, a composer based in London, had noticed me retweeting his tweets about his Strange Face Project: adventures with a lost Nick Drake recording, and called into the shop one day to chat about the possibility of giving a talk based around the project.  Some of you may have seen the Billy Bragg photograph he lent us, which was displayed in the shop window to advertise the event; only ten people came, but it was a fabulous evening, the combination of Nick Drake’s genius (that word again) and Michael’s warmth, wit and fund of great stories.  It’s a shame there were not three times as many people, but I hope he has a bigger audience when he now takes the talk to the Edinburgh Festival!  The Tree House heard it first.  And we thus followed a week celebrating Warwickshire’s greatest son with a celebration of another Warwickshire genius, the matchless Nick Drake.

Strange Face
Billy Bragg, who finds Nick Drake’s music a little too pastoral but still recognises the talent: ‘The great thing about Nick Drake is that you have to meet him half way. You’ve got to lean in to hear what he’s saying.’

We have also had two fabulous live music events, a couple of days apart – Inlay and Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra were two quite different bands, but united in their folk-based roots and brilliant musicianship.  They were also delightful company, all of them – two wonderful evenings.

We have something happening most evenings, which is partly what makes it unsustainable for me; but our events have been poorly attended, with a couple of exceptions, and that’s a shame – we’ve had some wonderful things at very reasonable ticket prices.

The books have been selling very well, though – we have had, and continue to have, amazingly generous donations from many people, and have some really good stock, which is being appreciated, clearly, by booklovers in and near the town.  The chief purpose of the shop is to promote the importance of books and literature, and we still have plenty of work to do on that front, but the bookshop side of things has been very successful.  Just not enough on its own to pay anything beyond rent, rates and bills, which add up to around £1600 a month.

But the best thing about the Tree House has been the people.  We have a core of regulars who call in frequently for a cup of tea and a chat, or to spend a few hours sorting and shelving books, and who have got to know each other and helped to create a real sense of community.  Others who come in weekly to see what new stock is on the shelves.  Others still who make a one-off visit and express their enjoyment of their visit.  So many people seem to love the place.

So it is sad to reach the point where I have to give up.  I have been thinking it might be possible to continue, but the reality is that with things as they are at the moment, it’s not possible to go on.  I am not a natural businesswoman, and have had some serious personal setbacks in terms of the creative input into the venture, and the combination of these things has ultimately led me to this decision.  I can’t continue indefinitely without some sort of income.  If there is a philanthropist out there who would like to inject some cash (so that we could employ a bookkeeper, for a start!), or anyone who can offer voluntary business expertise (in terms of the financial and legal stuff mostly), we’d love to hear from you by the end of June!

If we really do close, which looks more than likely, I am making plans for ways to continue some of the spirit and achievements of the Tree House without fixed premises.  But I do also need to get my life back!

Will power…or happy birthday to a local hero

I will take a break from Tree House related news to post in honour of William Shakespeare, whose birthday is celebrated today.  We don’t know that he was actually born on this day; we have his baptism date recorded (26 April 1564), and we know that the date of his death was 23 April, and the birth date of 23 April goes back to the 18th century; whether it was given because it also happens to be St George’s day as well as the date of his death seems plausible, but who really cares – today is a day to celebrate the greatest writer in the English language (and surely one of the greatest writers in any language), who is also a local hero – born and bred in Warwickshire, even if he did spend much of his adult life producing plays in London.  Kenilworth shares in the celebrations of its near-neighbour Stratford-upon-Avon in paying homage to this local literary hero.

will

I know a lot of the stories to his plays are a bit silly; this is also true of opera, which has produced some of the most sublime music of all.  In both cases, the stories are a vehicle – in Shakespeare’s case, a vehicle to explore the human condition (he was born in the year that Michelangelo died, into a Renaissance culture obsessed with studying man and his place in the cosmos) and to explore, develop, enjoy, alchemise (it may not be a word but I don’t care!) the English language.  That we still use countless phrases from Shakespeare in everyday speech shows something of the power of this language – it’s beautiful but it’s profoundly meaningful.

Growing up near Stratford, I was lucky to see several plays by the RSC.  I have wonderful memories of a young Patrick Stewart virtually naked as Oberon (not something I’m likely to forget!), to a Titania I can’t remember but whose gossamer cloak filled the stage.  Of Ben Kingsley as Brutus when we were studying Julius Caesar for O Level, and being told to take note of him as he was an actor tipped for stardom (this was 1979 or 80) – I later saw him as Othello too.  Of Derek Jacobi as Prospero in a Tempest that also incluced Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Bob Peck and Michael Maloney in a visually stunning representation.  My one regret is not having seen Kenneth Branagh’s hugely acclaimed performance as Henry V at the age of 23, the part that made his name.  I always love going there, and while they produce plays by other playwrights too (modern as well as Early Modern), it is Shakespeare who still thrills the most.  Lately they have been doing lots of interesting things, including commissioning music from contemporary musicians – Jon Boden has provided music for The Winter’s Tale, Laura Marling for As You Like It, in their most recent productions.  They do a lot with schools and education – Warwick University now has a Masters degree for teachers specifically in teaching Shakespeare.

We should be very, very proud of Shakespeare as a Warwickshire lad (and of that other literary luminary, George Eliot, also Warwickshire-born).  We hear a lot about children forced to read his plays and not understanding them, I sometimes here contemporary actors dismissing him as too difficult to understand, but it just takes a little effort, a little time, a little patience, a little thought and concentration, and the rewards are vast.  He was a genius, despite being a down to earth sort by all accounts, not a saint, not beyond criticism, but the greatest writer this country has produced.  A writer who contained all the world in his plays, however far-fetched the stories sometimes seem, and in his poems, who gave us words to live by and words to think by, who understood humanity completely and had the ability control and create language to express the depths of what it is to be human.

So happy birthday Will.  The Tree House will celebrate his birthday every year, in much more concrete ways than this once we are better established.  Were it not early in the day and me in need of breakfast, I would have peppered this post with Shakespearean phrases, that would have made it all a bit wittier.

My catchphrase as I try to lose some weight is ‘Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…’ – which may seem a trivial way to end a post about this great man, but just shows how his great language encapsulates very ordinary human issues and concerns!

The Tree House needs will power if it is to come to reality, and Will power if it is to be all it truly can be.  He can be our guiding spirit.