If you are a fan of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels you will know just what the words ‘rose madder’ evoke.
I must confess that I used to be a real literature snob. Only the latest or best in fiction was good enough for me. Working in a good Sydney bookshop during my university years was probably to blame.
But all that changed when I moved to Moscow and found my literary pretensions were very much an indulgent concept. Boy did I miss books. And I was far from bookstores and even libraries.
I can still recall with a bit of embarrassment how I used to go to friends’ apartments for dinner and positively throw myself at their shelves. New fiction was more precious than a balanced diet. And I always carried a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in my rucksack for my weekly trips on travel stories. I can’t tell you how many times I read that one over the six years. I associate it with ghastly ten hour delays in distant airports, endless train journeys, and a minor plane crash in Kazakhstan; so can’t quite bring myself to read it for pleasure any more. I’m actually more of a Persuasion person, but I never had a copy in Russia.
English language newspapers were also a treat. (Even when I worked for one.) Week or ten-day old Guardian newspapers could be bought for very little money at a kiosk just round the corner from the Lubyanka prison in central Moscow. And I can tell you that I read them cover to cover. Even the weather forecasts and financial pages.
In my second rented and furnished apartment I found some English language books which had been (curiously) published in Russia.
I have no idea why anyone would choose EF Benson’s 1930s novels as improving literature. I like to think that it was a ruse on the part of the publishers to subvert and delight. They would certainly remind the comrades just how decadent the West was in England in the inter war years.
Finding the complete Mapp and Lucia series saved my leisure time. And launched me on a happy hunting ground of novels set in the 1930s. Mitford, Benson. I devoured the lot. And I still have a soft spot for Miss Mapp. It was a marvellous diversion from living in the Soviet Union which was disintegrating none too prettily around us.
So what has that to do with sedums? I’m getting there (I’ve had a whisky). This sedum Autumn Joy (Herbstfreude) is flowering like mad all over my terrace bank. I’ve taken cuttings without fail for three years now and they are bulking out brilliantly.
Perfect for flower arranging too. No one misses out with this plant.
And their colour, to me is exactly the shade of rose madder which Benson described in the Miss Mapp novel. Not as a flower, but the fabric which the spinster of the first set of Tilling, Miss Mapp dyed for her tea party frock one autumn. She found it fetching and flounced over to Mr Wise’s afternoon tea party thinking to make a dramatic entrance. Only to find that her rival of the town, Mrs Godiva Plaistow, had dyed her frock in the very same hue.
I’m not selling it to you, I can tell. But it is piercing and witty and very diverting.
But seeing this wonderful drought tolerant plant turn from its summer green to this incredible rose over the course of ten days each autumn reminds me it’s time to read my Benson again.
And I will. I just have to finish doing this in the evenings, and get back to my books.
21st September 2016 @ 8:01 am
Just so lovely! And the flowers and the view…
It’s so interesting how Russia comes back into play as we get older. I think I told you I was writing Moscow memories for my Writing Group in MA, Adam has a whole slide show he did for the cruises and now also here in AK.
Also, the hunt for new fiction! Yes! The first time my parents came to Moscow, my dad brought me 10 books! It was so out of character, thus I remember it so well. He went to a bookstore and said my daughter is a reader in Moscow and what do you recommend. Such a wonderful memory, and the books were good!
Did you ever meet Amy Corcoran–Reuters producer –she and I were all about the books! She literally would go straight to the bookcase when I had just returned from the states–to see if she approved! She was a great source!
Late night memories in Alaska!
21st September 2016 @ 8:22 am
I knew I was not alone! Thank you for these memories Celia, I’m patiently waiting for the fruits of your Writing Group work. Sadly, I didn’t know Amy. But obviously a Fellow Traveller. And reader. One of the hardest things about your endless shifting about must be what to take when you move address. Have you an edited selection in AK? I bet there is Mitford by your side. xxx
21st September 2016 @ 12:01 pm
Lindy! I knew of your love for those books but I had no idea their discovery happened by chance in Alaska! What a great column combining your love and knowledge of plants and books. I adore Sedum and have never thought of using it for an arrangement but that may be because our garden is tiny and Steve would have my head if I chopped his precious flowers! For book sourcing in Moscow, nothing makes me feel how we lived in a different (pre-Amazon) era than my arrangement at Dot at Burlington Books in NYC, who had my credit card and permission to just now and then ship some books she thought I (and then we) would like. I think that’s how we got A Wreath for the Enemy, among others…. Celia – you guys live in Alaska???
21st September 2016 @ 12:59 pm
Dot from Burlington Books. What a wonderful woman. I wish I had here in my life back in the Moscow days. It is tricky to have the space for Flowers for the House. Maybe I need to come by and visit and see where we can hide your cutting patch.