Organizing the cottage library

Prior to leaving home for our trip to Sissinghurst, I read something online about how the library in the Priest’s House where we were staying was full of good things to read. I almost decided to do something really risky and only take one book for the plane with the thought of reading whatever I found in the house when we got there. I thought better of that and ended up taking along four books.  This was probably a good thing as there wasn’t much on the shelves in the cottage that I wanted to read. Mind you, if I had run out of books there were definitely one or two that would have held me over, and maybe even surprised me. But there wasn’t anything enticing enough to make me put down any of the four I brought along with me. (I won’t even remind you of the fact that a 100 meters away at the plant shop near the car park there was a charity bookstall that had plenty that would have interested me.)

When I first saw the shelves, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books jumped out like a sore thumb and automatically made me think that everything there was crap. It was only through the magic of alphabetization that I realized the situation wasn’t as dire as it seemed. It reminded me of the time at the DC central library when I couldn’t find a particular Trollope among the six or so shelves of his work. But after putting all of his novels in alpha order (and weeding out the Joanna Trollopes), like gorillas emerging from the mist (how’s that for a simile?), I discovered not one, but six, copies of the book I was looking for.

BEFORE: In general, an unattractive mess. Everything scrambled a million ways to Sunday.
It was those Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels at the top that made me assume, in a very visceral way, that everything would be crap. Follow that up with guide books and it seemed like a total bust.
Obviously, if you look closely, there might be one of two things you might enjoy picking up, but my expectations had been way too high for what I would find.
And so it begins. Part of the disappointment is that at least half of these were non-fiction, which can be pretty boring to organize if you aren’t interested in the subject matter. Plus, aside from the Sissinghurst/Vita/Harold angle, there wasn’t a critical mass of any given subject area other than guide books. But I’m not Dewey, and wasn’t about to start decimalizing things.
I had planned on reading this one, but exploring the garden for a week turned out to be a much less passive activity than I anticipated. But I did end up reading two and half of my own.
My interest in this vintage title was only stoked by…
…the inscription inside. Do we think Miles left it here in 1978? Probably not, they weren’t renting the house out then. I wonder where Miles is today?
Could have been a contender.
I love that this was there but since I have read it twice, listened to it once, and seen the movie twice, I decided to skip it.
This could have been really bad or really good.
It had a touch of the self-published vibe to it. Maybe it is an undiscovered office gem like two of my favorites: Joshua Ferris And Then We Came to the End or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.
And the AFTER. Visually it seems much more interesting now.
Notice I put the Reader’s Digests down off on their own. The other things that look like RDs were actually five of Nevil Shute’s novels. I easily could have gotten lost in them had I had more time. Notice the neat stacks of Sissinghurst/Vita/Harold stuff at the top. Thought I would make it easier on future guest to find it all. And what this photo doesn’t show are the two books I left behind. Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head and Richmal Crompton’s A Family Portrait.
I tried to group the non-fiction in a rational way, but it was such a jumble there really wasn’t much I could do.

 

Oh the scones I’ve known

Some American “scones” may be delicious in their own way, but they aren’t scones. Now that we’ve got that clear, let’s move on.

Scone + clotted cream + strawberry jam.

I had at least one a day. The scones they made at the restaurant across from the gift shop were seriously good. I had one or two there, but more often than not we would get them to go so we could sit out in “our” garden. This would mean that I was eating them at 5:30 pm most evenings, but hey, when the sun doesn’t disappear until almost 10, why not?

Absolutely perfect. If I do say so myself.
At the cafe for this cuppa. I should say that I’m not much of a tea drinker, but when accompanying a scone, it kind of hits the spot.
At 5:30 each night, after everyone else is gone, the living room door opens out onto the White Garden, we emerge, and it’s time for (late) afternoon tea.
Our table in the White Garden. After a few days John preferred beer and crisps over scones and tea.
One evening this little guy came to visit.
At the end of the trip, the scones in the BA business class lounge were pretty awful. The scone itself might have been okay, but the industrial strength strawberry jam was almost entirely without taste. Interestingly, the scone BA gave us on the plane was delicious.
Not my last scone of the trip, but I couldn’t leave you with that substandard BA scone.

The most perfect room in England

I’m a big fan of rooms that are frozen in time, especially if they feature papers, or maps, or books, or push pins, or typewriters (Cabinet War Room anyone…). When you add Vita Sackville-West to this equation, and factor in the idyllic setting at Sissinghurst and the fact that her study is up in a tower, the whole concept starts to reach a ridiculous level of perfection. A room frozen in 1962, chock full of books, art, and a cozy chaise-longue.

During our week-long stay at Sissinghurst I visited Vita’s study in the tower on three separate occasions. Happily, each time I went it was late enough in the day that no other visitor was blocking the view and no one was waiting to see the view so I could stare to my heart’s content. Since you can’t actually walk into the room, my only regret is that I didn’t have binoculars to get a better look at the titles on the shelves. But I did stand there, probably with my mouth open, fantasizing about the space being mine. I would have settled for a couple of hours inside to browse the shelves and take a closer look at everything.

Bottom line is that it is the perfect room for me. I will let the pictures speak for themselves, with one exception. They keep the curtains drawn to preserve the books, art, and textiles, but the room has large banks of windows on both sides of the tower, which would make it a very light room–and one with cross breezes.

Without being able to go into the room, it is hard to take a good picture through the metal gate . This is the best I could do. To the left, up against the wall where the door is is Vita’s desk. To the right is the chaise-longue, and directly ahead is what I call the book cove.
There is not an element of this room that I don’t love.
Vita’s study is behind the large bank of windows on the lowest level, just above the gate that goes under it.
Imagine those curtains open, light and breeze streaming in, laying on the chaise reading a book (or napping).
I was particularly taken by the print in the middle and the painting above it.
Never have I coveted a space more.
Scroll down further for a professional photo of the book cove, which is much taller than this photo would suggest.
The desk, which is immediately to the left of the door, and very hard to photograph through the grill.
I love the rack next to the desk for reference books, things I’m working on at the moment…
Perfect clutter.
The chair in the foreground gives you an idea of the relationship of the desk to the rest of the room.
Anything there you want to read? Makes me question my current weeding policy. Maybe I need to go back to keeping everything.
Vita bought the blue ceramics on a trip to Persia. She gave one piece of it to Virginia Woolf–whose photo sits prominently on Vita’s desk.
This is a fantastic book. It has amazing photos of the study (and other rooms of Vita’s) that show all the things I didn’t have access to.
A much better look at the book alcove from the Strachey book.