In 1995, Anna Quindlen made her first trip to London, England. The result is a short (my copy is 162p.) travelogue in which she rhapsodises about the many works of literature that feature London. At least, that’s the idea. What we get instead is Quindlen’s listing of the many books she read that take place in England, quotes from other books that take up entire pages, and no small amount of Anglophilia. I am of English heritage myself, and I found myself occasionally feeling actually kind of uncomfortable at the way she spoke about England. It was almost like a sense of Orientalism, as if she were fetishizing English culture.
One quote from the book that left me feeling particularly cold:
“In the way that the Dutch are blunt and businesslike, the Italians warm and gregarious, and the French high-handed, the men and women of London seem to be by nature reserved. In nineteenth-century novels this is frequently portrayed as a division of class – the wealthy are reserved out of snobbery, the lower classes outgoing and therefore democratic – but in actual modern life the sense of standing apart from strangers seems to span social and economic class. Perhaps it reflects a kind of triumph: Londoners, after all, have prevailed, prevailed over epidemics and economic downturns, foreign enemies and pesky tourists. They need not stoop to empty pleasantry. This reserve is even reflected in the most recognizable of English architecture, the terrace house. Those long graceful rows of identical buildings, standing foursquare to the street, give nothing away about the lives inside except, perhaps, that on some cosmetic level they are lives well lived. They hold their peace.
I, on the other hand, do not. I am an almost pathologically extroverted person even by United States standards – the operative cliché in America is ‘she never met a stranger’ – and in London, more than any place on Earth, it seemed to me that this would be akin to having a particularly glaring birth defect.” (p.54)
The next few pages feature her explaining why it took her so long to go to England, despite her love for it – fear of being disappointed, of finding the truth not nearly as wonderful as the literature.
I think that describes me and this book. The truth was not nearly as inviting as the premise.