Saturday, February 08, 2014


Sarum. Edward Rutherfurd. What a book. What a tome. No doubt it took Rutherfurd less time to write these almost nine hundred pages than it took me to read them. (Actually, it took him three and a half years to write it.)
When I think back on my days with Sarum, I remember opening that heavy book every evening in bed and carefully balancing it for some time of reading. Often, I would sigh as I got the book into place. Sigh because of the long journey with the story and the story of stories, and the characters and the relationships of the characters throughout its 10,000 year scope. But then, as I began my reading ritual that always enabled me to fall asleep easily when the book was closed, the sigh faded, and I became absorbed in the story. 
And now that the story is done, I wander almost aimlessly lost in body and soul. Isn't that how it is when you finish an absorbing book? Its stories follow you around like a shadow throughout the day until your next new story begins. 

I'll tell you how this book ended up on my shelves. Back in late 2011 or early 2012, we began to plan a trip to the United Kingdom. If I can, I always like to read something ahead of time about wherever we travel. And about this time, a long-distance friend had recorded that she had read New York by Edward Rutherfurd. Inquisitive as I am about other people's reads, I looked it up, being unfamiliar with the author. I wasn't interested at all in reading about New York, but he had written two that caught my eye: Sarum and London. Just perfect timing for our trip! I ordered nice, used hardback copies of these and began Sarum first. 
I was teaching at the time and couldn't hold my eyes open long at all at bedtime, but I did manage to get a third of the way through the book. I liked it. I learned. The characters intrigued me. But I knew I would not be able to finish it before the trip. And since I was dragging through it anyway, I decided to lay it down for a while. That "while" lasted almost three years until I determined to pick it back up in early January. I was surprised at the progress I made this time, especially since I am not a really fast reader. But I am persistent. And besides, now that I'm not teaching, I can read as long as I want at night.

In many ways, I'm saddened that I did not finish this before our trip in 2012 because we were there. We were right there. At least I had read, before the trip, the part about the perceived building of Stonehenge because we marveled at it and one of the outcrop areas in southwest Wales from which those bluestones were taken and dragged almost two hundred miles.
Bluestone cairns in Pembrokeshire, Wales

 The land between Stonehenge and Salisbury

Stonehenge is such a beautiful site. 
Peaceful. Still.
Silent except for murmurs from visitors and caws from the ravens who like to sit on the stones.

 We entered the Close in Salisbury through St. John's Gate. 

 I'm so glad I took a gazillion pictures and that some of them were of the models. Now I can look back at them and understand more of the building descriptions in the book.

The cloister was always described as a place of quiet walk in Sarum. It is beautiful, but it wasn't too quiet on our visit with the multitude of people.

Rutherfurd has a way of introducing many new characters with each new time period but all of these people have attachments, usually relatives, from the previous period. Even so, Rutherfurd draws you in through his writing to make you want to know these new people. The ancestry tree in the beginning of the book helped to keep them all straight, for the most part. 

I'll never brush over a last name of "Mason" again without remembering all the Masons in the book. Or Shockleys. Or Forests. And I looked up more medieval English vocabulary dealing with taxes and landholding than I'll ever remember or recognize again . . . escheat, scutge, tallage, virgate.

Throughout the many years described in building the cathedral, Rutherfurd helped me to have a better understanding and appreciation of its construction, and particularly, of the carvings. 

Someone described Rutherfurd using his characters more as "placeholders in history" to build the historical context. Yes, he does. But he does it so effectively. His narrative might tend to get long, maybe even border on tedious at times, but by doing so, he drops his reader right in the middle of the stone dust from cathedral carvings. I like a book which makes me part of the story, even when I'm laying in my bed five thousand, five hundred, or fifty years later than the depicted event. At one place in the narrative, Rutherfurd describes political life in medieval Europe, and by doing so, really describes how the book is written: 
. . . the kingdom and provinces of Europe in which the merchants operated remained related to each other by family ties. the ties were endless. They crossed the continent like huge and intricate spiders' webs; and the shifting family ambitions and alliances of the rulers frequently overrode all considerations of peace, prosperity, or even common sense.
 Some new vocabulary and phrases to me:
hirsute = hairy
vexillology = the study of flags
schnorer = one who wheedles others into supplying his wants
 torpor = the state of dullness in body and spirit
"Plenty of wealth but no money"
"He had not met the term before" as describing a new word
"He crossed the sky of England's history like a meteor."

On Rutherfurd's website is an interview with him in which he garnered even more of my respect:
[M]y books contain both fiction and non-fiction. I think they're an easy way to learn history. But above all, I try to tell gripping stories that move along with pace. It's the storyline that excites me, the art of telling a tale. . . . I believe I've some ability to absorb complex information and retell it in a compelling way. I'd like to think I might have made a good schoolteacher.

. . .The books also popularize history; and I believe that a knowledge of history is one of the most important things any citizen can possess. 
 Before I ever begin reading a book, I have a habit of reading the back cover first, any end acknowledgements, and then the jacket flaps. I'm sure I did that months ago when I first began the book but had long sense forgotten. And when I end a long book, I repeat the process ending at the front cover. This time I paused and smiled as I read the jacket flap information about Edward Rutherfurd. He was born and raised in Sarum. Well, now, how appropriate! No wonder he could write with such description. And he wrote the book in 1987, just a couple of years after the ending date of the narrative which concentrates on raising funds to stabilize the cathedral spire, the tallest in the United Kingdom. The work on the spire began in 1986 just as described in the book. Nothing is said whether or not this book helped provide some funding for restoration. The timing, though, was perfect.

On an almost sidenote, I was reading The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (Bond) during part of this time. Watts lived in and around Southampton, but I'd not bothered to look this up on the map. I finished this book the same day I finished Sarum, otherwise I'm not sure my small mind would have made the connection, but toward the end of Watts, there was mention of New Forest which I recognized from Sarum. At once, I checked, and yes, New Forest is the short distance between Salisbury and Southampton. My inner being jumps with delight when connections like this are made. 

At some point in the future, I plan to embark on Rutherford's London. And I'm sure I'll need to return to England when it's done and visit anew and again all these places which have made such vivid impressions on me. 


Carol in Oregon said...

That sounds simply delicious! I would LOVE to go back to England, to see all the places we had no time to visit before. Wales, for one. The Lake District. Bath. London.

It sure is fun dreaming!

James.Gorden@HolidayFans said...

amazing, fantastic photo stream. i have never seen stonehenge with my real eyes, i wish i see it soon.. it's so still and so beautiful