Alan and I won’t make it to Stratford this April – there’s too much going on – but I enjoyed re-reading this post from 2 years ago.
This weekend Alan and I went on our annual pilgrimage to Stratford, to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, playwright, poet, and the man who brought us together when we both worked with the Friends of Shakespeare’s Globe in the 1990s. It’s always an emotional one for us, and this time I kept on being struck by how far I’ve come in a year. I’ve made a point of not marking too many anniversaries, because frankly the sooner things like chemotherapy are forgotten, the better: but this is a different kind of anniversary, so I went with the flow. It was all good. I remembered how last year I wore a big hat because I had no hair: this year, I wore a little feathery confection.
You’ll also notice that this year I also took the one spare chin whereas last year there were at least four. Last year my backside was so big from all that chemotherapy-neutralising custard and chocolate milk that it practically had to have its own bedroom; this year, I’m the size I was before my dance with cancer began. Last year, I struggled to get through the festivities and collapsed in a heap afterwards. This year, I kept up, and even managed a couple of glasses of wine and a boat trip in the evening.
And on the way home today, we went to Stoneleigh Abbey near Stratford. It’s a beautiful place in its own right -
- but its claim to fame is that Jane Austen spent some time there. She was part of the Leigh family, who owned the property, and drew much of the inspiration from her novels from the place. I’m not an expert on Jane Austen, but I know the novels well enough to be thrilled by the connections. Jane Austen used the house as the model for Sotherton Court, seat of the nice-but-dim Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park, but there is evidence of the influence of Stoneleigh in her other novels too. It was a lovely place to spend time, but for me the most striking part of all was walking into the chapel and reading the description of it from Mansfield Park – Austen fans may remember Fanny complaining to Edmund of its plainness – and seeing the red velvet cushions, described in the novel, still there, as they were when Jane Austen visited. So the cushions I saw today were the cushions that Jane Austen saw were the cushions that she put into a book were the cushions that millions of readers, over the centuries, around the world, have read about and imagined, just for a second.
The power of story is a great power. Shakespeare takes us through courts and countryside, enriching our imaginations and finding a truthful way to express so much of what we are. (Can you imagine a time when the phrase “the mind’s eye” did not exist? Or suffering fools, or bating breath, or taking cold comfort, or being in a pickle…). But what I took from this weekend is how the writing of the small things can echo down the years. Cushions, horse-chestnut trees, almshouses, lakes… all thought of differently now because of the way Jane Austen saw and used them then.
We aren’t all Jane Austen. We aren’t all novelists, or even writers. But we should still find ways to tell our tales. All of us. We should find our voices. We should share our experiences. We should talk to the person next to us in the waiting room at the oncology clinic; we should ask the nurse sitting with us what s/he has learned from her work. Because in doing so, we shape the world we live in, now and forever. What is in your story?
And, if you fancy a bit more Stratford, last year’s post is here.