The Literary London course is offered at the Mount. Taught by professors Drew Shannon and Jim Bodle, a group of students from a variety of years and majors discover the history and facets of the city of London, England through literature over a spring semester. The class culminates in a two-week long trip to London in May, where the students can experience the literary scenes and history they have studied carefully, and bring the authors’ words to life.
Here are some highlights of the students’ literature – destination adventures from the 2018 trip:
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles – Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis is a coastal town a few hours southwest of London. It was also the home of author John Fowles, and the setting of his 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a postmodern satirical take on the Victorian age. One of the protagonists, Sarah, is first seen standing at the end of the Cobb, a long stone pier in the town’s harbor, said to be waiting for her French Lieutenant to return. Lyme Regis is also known as the “Jurassic Coast” for its abundance of fossils buried beneath the cliffs which visitors and archeologists alike can unearth. The students explored the historic town with the opportunity to go fossil-hunting, after viewing the English Channel from the spot where Sarah would have stood.
Sir Christopher Wren by Lena Milman – St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Mary le Bow, and St. Dunstan in the East
If you’ve ever admired one of England’s many historic churches, you can likely give credit to Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Along with his careers in astronomy, mathematics, and physics, he was one of England’s most renowned architects. Wren designed 53 London churches as well as several secular buildings. The students visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of his most famous works, and attended the Anglican service of Choral Evensong. In addition, we/the students passed the churches of St. Mary le Bow, and St. Dunstan in the East, which was destroyed by the Blitz and remade into a garden.
Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris – Monk’s House and a conversation with Cecil and Jean Woolf
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an author, social activist, and one of the pioneers of the modernist movement. Her works include To the Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the inspiration for Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which became a film starring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman as Woolf. Monk’s House, located in Rodmell, was one of the last residences of Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf. There, the students walked to the bank of the River Ooze, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself at the age of 59.The students were also given a tour of several of her residences throughout her life by Jean Woolf, the wife of Leonard Woolf’s last surviving nephew, Cecil. After the tour, the students were brought back to the couple’s home, and treated to a visit with Cecil about his memories of both his uncle, and Virginia Woolf herself.
The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury by David Gadd – Charleston
“Bloomsbury” is a common nickname for a group of reactionary artists, writers, and intellectuals who altered the social landscape primarily in the 1920s, 30’s, and 40’s, so called because of one of their early hubs/residences located in Bloomsbury Square, London. Members included economist John Maynard Keynes, artist Duncan Grant, and author Virginia Woolf. An estate called “Charleston”, located in Sussex, London, was a later residence, home to Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, Vanessa’s three children, and a number of guests. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were both prolific artists, and beyond canvases, they also painted Charleston top to bottom. The house is now the property of England’s National Trust, and the students were given a tour of the property, with every hand-painted door, wall, table, bed frame, plate, lampshade, etc.
Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning – Knole
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was a poet, author, and famous gardener in the early-mid 20th century. She was born and raised at Knole, a property dating back to the 15th century, given by Queen Elizabeth I to her cousin Thomas Sackville, who managed to keep the house in the family for generations. The students roamed the 1,000 acre property, which now belongs to the National Trust. Deer and other wildlife inhabit the grounds, and the building is often speculated to be a calendar house – 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and 12 entrances.
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville West and the Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven – Sissinghurst
As a woman, Vita Sackville-West was not legally allowed to inherit Knole. In 1930, she and her husband Harold Nicholson purchased the property of Sissinghurst Castle, previously used as a prison for French sailors in the Seven Years War, a poor house, and a residence for farm workers. The estate was rundown, but Vita, with the help of her husband, restored it and turned it into a world-famous garden. The students witnessed Vita’s artistic endeavors such as the Rose Garden, the White Garden, the Moat Walk, the Orchard, and her writing room at the top of a tower.
London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd – Everywhere!
Finally, throughout the semester, the students read Peter Ackroyd’s massive novel on the history and culture of London, titled based on the idea that London resembles a living, breathing entity. It covers everything from the Romans, to Shakespeare, to the tube. The students also visited sites such as Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the National Gallery, the Globe Theater, and many, many museums. Nearly every destination can be traced back to a chapter in London: The Biography.