The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)

I had to read this book several years ago for a literature course and enjoyed it. This second reading increased my enjoyment; one of the good things about knowing the plot is that you can concentrate on the writing and the structure. And, oh my word, this is an exquisitely painted work of art: Isabel is forever framed in doorways and french windows. Even the frustrating bits of the novel are well-judged – the ellipses (like the first 3 years of her marriage), and the ending, when Isabel steps out of the frame and the reader is left with bare canvas. What is she returning to? Surely not to Osmond? Why reject Goodwood (although modern readers might see him as a stalker!)?

I was better placed to appreciate the irony: Isabel’s initial wish to see the world, to experience it, to make the best use of her liberty . . . and to end in the prison of a misjudged marriage. Ralph’s hopes of “putting some wind in her sails” and seeing her soar when he makes her rich . . . only to make her fall prey to Madame Merle’s cruel match-making. Henrietta Stackpole is more perceptive about the impact of wealth on someone as naïve and well-intentioned as Isabel: “Your newly-acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people . . .”

The names: “Caspar Goodwood” is straight out of Pilgrim’s Progress, and “Archer” suggests someone straight and swift.

The complete focus on Isabel – James’s declared aim in his (for me) almost-unreadable preface – is what makes this book so particular. We see her in action, as the subject of other people’s thoughts and conversations and inside her own thoughts and consciousness – particularly in chapter 42, in which nothing happens but tells us everything we need to know about those 3 years.

James rarely uses a simple noun or adjective to describe anyone; it’s quite a shock to hear Ralph describe Osmond quite baldly as a “sterile dilettante”. It’s also rather precious at times: so much is guessed at through glances or tremors in a voice, but I didn’t care. It’s a portrait, not a passport photo.

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The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell (1980)

You may always know what you’re getting with Ruth Rendell – a friendly neighbourhood psychopath in a very recognisable neighbourhood (north London in this case) – but you never know exactly what to expect. Obviously it won’t end well: the well-meaning comes up against the murderous (here a would-be philanthropic accountant meets a tantric hitman). What I really like is the sudden switch in the centre of consciousness. As a well-primed reader, you know that Francesca isn’t what she seems, but the chapter where the point of view suddenly leaves deluded Martin and fixes on her and makes clear her deceit is so skilful. The first intimation the reader has that we are seeing things through Francesca’s eyes is that Martin doesn’t like Francesca’s little daughter – hence nice Martin immediately becomes less sympathetic, and we are prepared to hear Francesca’s voice.

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Ancona this evening

Thanks to the new Frecciarossa timetable, we arrived in Ancona while it was still light.


I was transfixed by the items on display in the station kiosks. Are they intended as gifts for the relatives you are travelling to see? A treat for yourself? It takes me back to the days when a train journey was a major event and you might actually want a memento of Ancona. Travel may broaden the mind (although that’s debatable), but it can also make you blasé . . . and sometimes scoffing.

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Needle-sharp spires, tram wires and autumnal leaves in the sunshine sum up today’s short cycle ride beside the river and lake. Snow-sprinkled mountains in the distance added to the picture. The ride was the unexpected bonus of travelling to Zürich via Paris: it gave us an earlier arrival time than the original route via Brussels and Frankfurt (abandoned because of the closure of the railway line at Rastatt).

The downside was the ride yesterday evening from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. Jamais plus!

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Schoonhoven to the Hook


The water tower at Schoonhoven

Emboldened by my map-reading success so far, I worked out a route for today that involved ferries and cycling through Rotterdam. Astonishingly, everything went smoothly. I caught the ferry from Schoonhoven over the Lek; the second ferry from Kinderdijk to Ridderkerk was unexpected: my map was on too small a scale to show that the route required crossing from the Lek to the Nieuwe Maas. I threaded through Rotterdam like a needle through silk (thanks more to the town planners than my navigational skills) but got cocky in Maassluis and came unstuck in an attempt to avoid the tedium of the long ride beside the Nieuwe Waterweg. DSC_0930Surprisingly, the wind here was more of a help than a hindrance, but there is always a bad smell (refineries?). I discovered that my complacent thought that I could always catch the train to the Hook was misplaced: the railway line is currently closed for conversion to a metro line. On the plus side, starlings get an undisturbed place to perch.

Today’s route took me through Kinderdijk and an interface of old and new Rotterdam:

It’s been a nice little holiday, and I’m pleased to have cycled there and back, despite yesterday’s weather. I’ve been itching to see the Kröller Müller Museum for some years, and I’m fortunate enough to have been able to scratch it. All being well, I shall be back in the Netherlands in November to find out more about Gerrit Rietveld and De Stijl – although, given my lack of interest in Mondrian, I may not get far.

The Netherlands is a pleasure each time: car[e]free cycling, greenery, historic towns and modern interest, culture, the ubiquitous brick, and an affable, tolerant approach to life – embodied by the cloakroom attendant at the Kröller Müller who, when a couple apologised for handing over wet jackets, said casually, “It’s raining”.

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Otterlo to Schoonhoven


The Veerpoort at Schoonhoven

It was still raining this morning. I set off with the preference to cycle all day but prepared to catch a train and do something else if the rain continued. The decision would be made when my socks were sodden and my shoes squelched when I walked. (You become persona non grata in cafés at that point.) It turned out that I didn’t reach that stage, despite getting very wet three times, air-drying out three times, and coming through thunder and lightning south of Utrecht. Thus I find myself in Schoonhoven on the raised banks of the Lek – a river that somehow links to both the Rhine and the Maas. It’s nice to be back on big Dutch waterways; I am considering continuing my homeward journey tomorrow via Rotterdam, despite my record for getting lost there too.


River Lek at Schoonhoven 

The Grebbelinie Museum provided a welcome morning coffee stop again. (Dutch hotel breakfast coffee comes out of a serve-yourself machine and is vile – #firstworldproblems.) Since my first coffee, I have noticed the defensive aspects of this part of the Netherlands (the former United Provinces): the map clearly shows outlines of star-shaped fortresses around Utrecht. The enemy at the time was the French (and, of course, the British on the other side).

Cute animal picture of the day on the bucolic green ride close to the Lek:


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It has been raining all day, so the Kröller-Müller Museum was the perfect destination. (I would have spent even a sunny day there, though.) I arrived shortly after it opened and had the gallery to myself for half an hour, so I was thoroughly smug. So much to see, but at least Helene Kröller-Müller kept her collection coherent, so there was none of that attempt to take in Giotto to Monet in two hours.

Lots of Van Gogh, of course, from his muddy phase to his dazzling phase. He’s not one of my favourite painters, but sometimes I am struck by his colour. Otherwise I find his dark paintings unattractive and his French paintings too irksome to the eye. These I did like:

and of these I go “hmmm”, despite Van Gogh’s sincerity:

I still don’t get Piet Mondrian and his theosophy. His works make nice coasters, is all I think. Theo van Doesburg is more fun. At least the Italian Futurists were communicating something about the changing world:

For pleasure, I always seek out a few landscapes – a form that lends itself to different styles. I have the shamefaced suspicion that it’s just because I imagine travelling through them; I have an urge to photoshop a bike onto Cézanne’s road.

And then back to Henry van de Velde, who deserves a place in his own building. (I’m slightly surprised I liked this, as a cluster of Seurats were enough to put me off pointillism for ever.)


Twilight, oil on canvas, 1889

I poked my nose into the Jean/Hans Arp exhibition (I liked the way his forename and Strasbourg/Straßburg birthplace reflected the flexibility of his art) but I really didn’t have the stamina for any more culture. What I do recall is Arp’s assertion, as an old man, that as an art student he was tired of copying the old masters, the old forms, the old techniques. We know how to behave in front of conventional artworks; how about presenting the viewer with something new that s/he doesn’t know how to react to?

After a restorative ride in the rain to the Jachthuis Sint Hubertus (the home of Helene and Anton Kröller Müller), I was ready to face a Gesamtkunstwerk. It made Hill House look minor. Designed by Hendrik Berlage 1914-20, it’s all brick, inside and out because brick is Dutch. (Shades of the nationalist architectural style of Stockholm’s City Hall.)



Dining room

I went on the guided tour, which took in 5 rooms. It was interesting, but brick – much as I love it for exteriors – doesn’t lend itself to homely interiors. Berlage controlled the design so tightly that the feet of the sideboard in the entrance hall line up perfectly with the tiled floor. DSC_0886He was annoyed when Helene Kröller Müller insisted on a bay window so that she could enjoy the view of the lake. The colour scheme adhered to the colour theory of the time: green and black tiles on the floor for grass and earth; blue and yellow glazed brick on the ceiling for the sky and sun. The style was, supposedly, “English country house”. I guess that was the smoking room then.

Dutch architecture of the Art Nouveau/Jugendstil period always looks quite different from anything French, Belgian or German, and it did occur to me here if it is because of the ubiquitous brick. Its straight lines don’t lend themselves to the whiplash tendrils of Victor Horta. Cycling through Den Haag or Amersfoort, I’ve noticed what looks like Art Nouveau, but it’s particular. I shall put it down to the brick: even when there appear to be curves, they are, in fact, lots of straight lines.

As an aside, Van Gogh is everywhere in Otterlo:


And Otterlo is also the site of the last WWII battle for the liberation of The Netherlands. This links in with the brand new Grebbelinie Museum, where I had a coffee yesterday and was trying to understand what it was all about. The Grebbe Line was established in 1745 to protect the country against invading armies – by flooding it – but it didn’t work in 1940.

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