Virginia Barton

Commonplace book for passions


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Catholic Herald, 14 September 1990


Do you keep a commonplace book? Every worthwhile heroine of Victorian literature recorded great thoughts, scraps of poetry, the sentiments of friends; and illustrated the volume with gently shaded landscapes and pencil portraits. The book was kept handy for perusal by great aunts, or offered shyly to a suitor for his comments.

Those girls had time on their hands. Hedged about by restrictions we consider ludicrous today, they filled their day with sketching, the practice of musical instruments and excruciating needlework. You have only to look at their clothes to see why.

Yes, I have a commonplace book, several actually. My extravagance where new notebooks is concerned is legendary. The fresh blank pages! The shiny covers!

I rediscovered a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, carefully copied out in a pristine “accounts” book (obviously intended for serious sums), which captures another of my passions. It is called The Stone and here are the first few lines:


The stone is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly with pebbly meaning . . .


Apply those words to your memento of the Berlin Wall, or to my little roller from Mount Tumbledown, and I think you will agree the poem is worthy of any common-place book.




Stately homes

There is an impressive heap of stones not far from Banbury in Oxfordshire. The very human curiosity for poking about in other people’s houses can be satisfactorily assuaged by a visit to Broughton Castle.

The tourist board can tell you better than I how many millions of us, and our foreign friends, visit the stately homes of England every year. This benign pastime, which harms no-one, educates, amuses, and helps keep our grander homes in good nick, is a happy way of spending a summer’s afternoon.

Broughton (pronounced “Brorton”) is a glorious example of an unspoilt Tudor mansion; an embellishment of an earlier fourteenth century manor house, most of which can be seen within the later “shell.” It is not really a castle, but is set within a broad moat surrounded by parkland.

The Fiennes family, who still live there, were (regrettably, in my book) Parliamentarians and took part in the nearby battle of Edgehill. Broughton was attacked, besieged and taken by the Royalists – the nearest it came to being a castle in the true sense.

Visitors may see the Council Chamber up among the roof leads where the local Roundheads plotted. The best view of the delicious formal garden may also be seen from this vantage point. Probably thanks to a down-turn in family fortunes, this lovely house escaped being done-up by the Victorians.


Personal touch

The success of a country house, from the tourist’s point of view, depends I think on whether one can imagine living in it oneself. There must be a personal touch. Broughton comes within the scope of one’s imagination; one can people it, bring it swiftly to life in any century.

The present Lord and Lady Saye and Sele have lavished immense personal care on their home, indeed devoted their lives to it.

It’s not a burden I would care to shoulder and I bowled back to my Victorian terrace profoundly relieved I don’t have to cope with rot or beetle, antique guttering or damp chimney-breasts.


Chapel view

There is a rare example of a fourteenth century private chapel at Broughton. This may be viewed from Queen Anne’s Room through a hagloscope, a grand word for a squint. The chapel is austere, very high, and light. The fixed altar stone and the faded floor tiles are original.

Close by the castle is the parish church of St. Mary, which dates almost entirely from the 14th century. Sir John de Broughton lies here in splendid painted effigy, flat on his back in full armour, with a tiny angel guarding his stone pillow. That famous Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, who had an eye for real estate, bought the medieval manor house from Sir John in 1377.

If these delights are not sufficient temptation to visit Broughton, let me add that there is an excellent shop (selling inter alia plants from the gardens), a tea room, and conveniences flanked by a whopping head of Minerva – or maybe Athena.


House style

By a happy coincidence I caught a glimpse of Susannah Fiennes, painter, daughter of the house. This young artist had set up her easel on the further side of the moat and was painting a view.

I say coincidence because I have every intention of going to her exhibition at the Cadogan Contemporary in Draycott Avenue, London.

No gently shaded landscapes these, to judge by the brochure. She exhibits with Louis de la Hay and perhaps I shall find a bargain view of beautiful Broughton.


Bookery Nook

No-one has asked for an arty book yet in Bookery Nook corner. But here are three new requests to add to the Sheila Kaye-Smith titles advertised last month. (Do keep looking for those by the way, Willows Forge, Anglo-Catholicism, Songs Early and Late).

This month we’re trying to find The Anchorhold (Sands and Co, London) by Enid Dennis, published in the twenties.

A reader in Wales is looking for The Cedar of Lebanon by Paul Daker. No publisher or year I’m afraid, but the book is about St. Charbal Makhlouf, who was canonised as recently as 1977, so perhaps the book is still around.

Another reader wants the letters of St. Thomas More to Margaret Roper; Dame Bede Foord’s book Conscience Decides (1971) should fit the bill. Perhaps Stanbrook Abbey has a spare copy for sale?

The need for A Journalist’s Odyssey has been satisfied, though most readers were loath to part with their copies and offered to lend rather than sell!

The Nook threatens to expand into a full-scale parlour which is very pleasing. Let me know, c/o the CH if you have any of the requests you are willing to sell, or wish to advertise your own bookish desires.


Go east

By the time you read this I hope to be trogging round one of the 40 churches of Vilnius. If not, you will know the reason why in October’s Chronicle. It will be a trip fraught with emotion and passionate curiosity.

I shall not vandalise the cathedral in search of a stoney memento, but dozens of new notebooks will be necessary to hold the great thoughts and sentiments.

Iki pasimatymo – as they say in Lithuania. So long.



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