By Michael Dirda
June 1, 2012
In Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, a provincial hotel owner mingles one evening with his guests:
“Remlinger had on the brown felt fedora he often wore, and one of his expensive Boston tweed suits that made him stand out strangely in the bar. His reading glasses were hung around his neck. He was wearing a bright red tie, and the tweed trousers were pushed down in the tops of his leather boots. I didn’t know this at the time, but later I understood he was dressed like an English duke or baron who’d been out walking his estate and come in for a whiskey.”
Like many Americans, I suffer from a mild case of Anglophilia, currently in higher gear than usual due to this week’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year jubilee. Since adolescence, I’ve frequently wondered, in the deepest chambers of my heart, whether my name might one day simply appear on her majesty’s birthday honours list, pricked down for a knighthood or an OBE. And why not? I certainly spend enough time daydreaming about wax cotton jackets from Barbour, Harrods picnic hampers, box seats at the Grand National and the Henley Regatta, and pub lunches of shepherd’s pie and bitters, not to overlook pheasant hunting near Balmoral with my trusty Purdey shotgun, rainy Saturday afternoons at the Tate studying the Turners, cold evenings spent sipping single-malt Scotch whiskey, long autumn tramps through the Lake District or along the fells, and, of course, riotous weekends at Oxford or Chatsworth with Evelyn, Cyril, Paddy, and all the Mitford sisters (even Jessica). To me at least, it really does seem a crying shame that I never attended university at Cambridge or Edinburgh. As P. G. Wodehouse once said of Lord Ickenham, even now I retain the bright enthusiasms and the fresh, unspoiled mental outlook of a slightly inebriated undergraduate.
For the most part, though, my actual Anglophilia is restricted to a couple of Harris Tweed sport coats, some Turnbull & Asser dress shirts, and a Burberry raincoat—all of them acquired at Amvets Value Village. Sometimes I do watch aging VHS tapes of British television’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, less to guess the identity of the murderer than to look at the wonderful clothes and the idyllic Cotswoldian village of St. Mary Mead. My wife tells me I should check out Downton Abbey, but I gather that series might be almost too intense for my temperate nature.
In truth, my Anglophilia is fundamentally bookish: I yearn for one of those country house libraries, lined on three walls with mahogany bookshelves, their serried splendor interrupted only by enough space to display, above the fireplace, a pair of crossed swords or sculling oars and perhaps a portrait of some great English worthy. The fourth wall would, of course, open onto my gardens, designed and kept up by Christopher Lloyd, with the help of Robin Lane Fox, who would also be sure that there were occasional Roman antiquities—statues of nymphs and cupidons—along the graveled walks. The fountain itself—did I mention the fountain?—would center on a sculptural group showing Triton blowing his wreathed horn, while various bare-breasted Nereids drape themselves in mute adoration around and across his rippling thighs.
But back to the library. The floor would be dark-stained wood, adorned with Persian carpets. Leather armchairs would butt up against the fender of the huge fireplace. On the long library table one would naturally find, neatly stacked, the current newspapers (The Guardian, Le Monde), old issues of Horizon, the Times Literary Supplement and Country Life, and a selection of literary and cultural periodicals from around the world. If I peer closely at the table through the haze—those applewood logs for the fire must have been wet—I can just make out several copies of The American Scholar.
I’ve never been quite sure whether to have an old wireless in one corner, or whether that properly belongs in the music room, along with my treasured vinyl LPs. Occasionally I do think about adding a Victorian card table for rubbers of bridge in the evening with my neighbors Doctor Hesselius, old Jorkens, and Brigadier Ffellowes (ret.). They’ve had some unusual experiences and each is always good for a story or two. There would definitely be a worn leather Chesterfield sofa, its back covered with a quilt (perhaps a tartan? decisions, decisions) and its armrests cushioned with a half-dozen pillows embroidered with scenes from Greek mythology. Here, I would recline and read my books.
What books, you ask? Ah, now there I don’t have to imagine. I may actually live in a pokey little brick colonial, its outside wood trim much in need of fresh paint, with an embarrassingly dilapidated kitchen, two bathrooms that were new about 1940, and closets designed by elves to hold no more than two shirts and a belt. But my library would fit right into my daydream. In fact, that’s probably the only place it would fit, given that most of it now resides in boxes in the basement or locked away in a rented storage unit. I long ago ran out of bookshelf space and so, like a museum with its art, simply rotate my books from the boxes to the shelves and back again. Not that I enjoy doing this. Which is why I daydream about the baronial splendor of that country house library. It would gladden my aging heart to actually see all my books—most of them serious-looking hardbacks—arranged and displayed in substantial bookcases. And without being double-shelved.
But enough of this idle reverie. It’s time to get on with the day. First, I need to go over the field accounts with my new gamekeeper, a highly energetic chap by the name of Mellors. Can’t imagine why old Chatterley let him go.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.