Under the Princess Plant

This is the view from our living room window. The purple flowers grow on a bush called a princess plant. It looks more like a tree, but you realize it’s a bush because sometimes it will get too high for its support system and topple over. Like everything in our yard, it’s incredibly hardy, and prolific.  (Note added a day or so later:  Were I to write a story about a princess, I’d want her to be like this plant.  Gets up when she topples over, hardy, prolific, looks good in purple.  I’d like my sons to be that way too.)

There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time and money on their yards (which they then call a garden), but we are not one of them. We just let our yard do what it does and get somebody to lop things off every once in a while. One of the most wonderful things about living in the Bay Area is that the sorts of things that grow here like weeds are astonishingly lovely: bougainvillea (that’s what’s on the header of my blog), star jasmine, Meyer lemons. It’s a sort of Garden of Eden, the snakes being things like traffic, the high cost of living and the occasional earthquake.

The photo reminds me that I never really sit in our living room and read, although it’s a very comfortable place to do that. (My six year old son plays under this window every day of the year. He has a complex game of action figures going on at all times and he talks to himself. It’s soothing to hear him at work, like listening to a stream.)

I used to read on the train to work (I read War and Peace on my commute, and Anna Karenina, and tons of Dickens and Thackery and Trollope and Anne Tyler and things I don’t even remember now.) But then I started to use that time to write and I never really did make a consistent reading time to replace the one I’d given over to writing.

It’s wonderfully clear from reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries that she had a time (I think it was the evening) set aside just for reading. She treated it as a necessary part of the writing life, in part because she made money writing reviews, but also because she just liked to read. I like that about her.

I know it’s a digression, but Woolf’s diaries also made me realize that the only reason she can be such an icon in America, a writer virtually a saint, is because we don’t really have the same sense of class the English do. She had her blind spots about class, and the diary entries about the women who helped in her house are exemplars of the huge divide between the upper and lower classes in England. It’s tragic in a way that such a perceptive writer wasn’t able to see the people who worked for her as real people, but instead wrote about them as types, unpleasant types.

The diaries are, nevertheless, a wonderful inspiration for creating a life where writing is not only possible, but really pleasurable. That’s one of my hopes for this week, to get a little more reading done — to finish Barchester Towers and start Suite Francaise. And to write, of course.

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12 thoughts on “Under the Princess Plant

  1. Hello bloglily,
    Wonderful picture and interesting thoughts!
    As regards Woolfe, I wonder what will be said of the likes of us (should we ever be considered amongst the ranks of someone so great) and the ideas we accepted at face value and failed to question!
    I say this not in any way to challenege your post because I tend to agree with you but more because the post got me thinking!
    Eoin

  2. Hello Eoin, Yes, you’re so right to point out that we too have blind spots, things we’ve inherited from our upbringing — they’re just different from Woolf’s. I don’t have any idea what mine are, but my guess is that in about three years, when my twins turn 14, they’ll be happy to tell me.

    Shuana — I see you have a fabulous new job. Congratulations and have fun getting settled in there! As you say, that sort of thing is temporary, and you’ll get back to the reading and writing when it’s time.

  3. Reading on the train is great. But, well, the train has left my life (see http://www.edwinek.com/?id=111). I don’t like fixed schedules, so reserving a fixed reading hour wouldn’t work either, but I do have to read. At bedtime, when I haven’t read for at least half an hour, I feel like the day was incomplete. So I often push bed time forward for a while and read. Less sleep, more reading, not a bad deal.

  4. I used to read on the train too, but there will not be a 2-hour commute in my life while my baby-o is young. I used to love that 2-hour commute…

    I didn’t realise Virginia Woolf had such a high status as a writer in America. In UK I find she has an “and also” status. When I went to the Orchard in Cambridge they gave a list of writers who had been there and tacked on the end: “and also Virginia Woolf”. At university we learnt about writers such as James Joyce “and also Virginia Woolf”. That irritates me. I think her non-fiction is very important and just because she was female shouldn’t count against her. But I’ve never much liked her fiction, maybe because of the class thing – Mrs Dalloway faffing on about her flowers – it’s difficult to relate to.

  5. Every day I take the slow Caterham train to get to work, in stead of the fast one that does the trip in half the time. This half an hour of slow morning travel is perfect for both reading and writing.

  6. I have really had a difficult time since graduate school finding the time to read. I always, always read before bed but sometimes I’m so tired I don’t get much done. I’ve made the decision to spend more time reading and really value that time. There are too many books in this world that I want to read! This week I promised myself, no matter what, I’d finish War and Remembrance. 800 pages, 7 days – I think it can be done!

  7. What a lovely window! I love flowers–it would be nice to see them every time you look out the window! What you write about Woolf is really interesting. I am just starting to get into her writing and want to know about her as a writer and woman as well.

  8. Bougainvillea are prolific in my hometown in South Africa, too, so every time I look at your masthead I’m reminded of home.

    Since we share our bedroom with a baby, and my day time is very full with the lives of small people, I have taken to reading in the bath! Late at night, when the house is quiet, I get to drift off to other worlds.

    I’m also reading Suite Francaise at the moment, and I’m just loving it. I’m finding it so witty and approachable. I love the way it’s arranged, with short chapters dedicated to different characters: it’s a style I’d like to emulate.

  9. Hello all you readers — in the bath, on a train, in bed — all good places to indulge in one of our favorite activities! Sorry, that was headed in a lascivious direction, but I’ve reigned myself in.

    Ingrid, I love it that you take the longer train so you can read. It’s such a smart thing to do!! And Edwin, I dream of making fixed schedules, but I’m just not that sort of person either.

    Helen and Danielle, I don’t really know what Woolf’s status is in England, but I do know that in the English departments of many American universities she is highly regarded. And her face is on many a Barnes & Noble bookbag and coffee mug. I think she stands for the Woman Writer, for the reclaiming of women’s work, and for making space for women who wish to write. None of which is a bad thing at all. What I do know is that I very much like her writing on writing — and her essays on books, and although I do see what you mean about the faffing on about flowers, Helen, I think Mrs. Dalloway and To the LIghthouse are lovely pieces of writing. The diaries and letters are well worth reading, Danielle — I think she must have known she was writing for an audience of future readers, and the self she creates in these diary and letter pieces is fun at times, always interesting, and sometimes terribly sad.

  10. When I mentioned Mrs Dalloway, I meant she annoyed me because she was fussing on about flower *arrangements* not flowers themselves. I do think the lovely flowers across your window look beautiful, Bloglily, and I’ve been taking lots of photos of flowers myself this hot British summer. After I wrote the comment about Mrs Dalloway I thought: “Whoops, I hope that didn’t come across as rude and miserable!”

    Unfortunately I was just not able to get into Mrs Dalloway or To The Lighthouse. I wanted to like them but on some level they did not resonate with me. I’ve often wondered why I can like Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction so much but her fiction leaves me cold. I ought to try another book by her and see if I can work it out. I like what you said about her writing for an audience of future readers.

  11. Hey Helen — No, no, I didn’t think that was rude or miserable at all! I love hearing how books strike other people; it’s one of the things that’s so great about literary conversations. I have a good friend who has exactly the same reaction to Woolf as you — it just doesn’t reach her. It’s an ineffable thing, how that works and a fortunate one. If everyone liked the same thing, there wouldn’t be so many books in the bookstores. Hope it’s cooling down for you & Kiko. xxoo, BL

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