Book for the Bookbag

comments: 40

Lavishness Lately, if I could spend all day every day reading this book I would be a happy girl indeed. Back in January Frances wrote and mentioned it to me, thinking it was something I might like. Not many in the history of my book-recommendation-receiving life have gotten it more right, I daresay. This is The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938–1978. Who they are should probably interest me more, these being their letters, but context hardly seems necessary to appreciate these. In every excerpt there's a moment that feels the way discovering a four-leaf clover feels, that "Oh!" of recognition, delight, and luck over stumbling upon the enchanted patch. Warner was an English writer, Maxwell her editor at The New Yorker. In 1938 they began an intense intercontinental correspondence that lasted forty years and over thirteen-hundred letters.

I'm only thirty pages into the collection even though I've been reading it for several months; it's my lunchtime book, the one I keep in my bookbag and only read in restaurants when I crave that quiet hour out, listening to the clink of silverware and someone's voice on a page. I don't want to bring it into the house because then I'd read it too quickly. Yesterday I giggled myself into a close-quarters little fit at the Panda Express; the couple at the table about eight inches from mine were having an earnest and serious convo about someone's problems at school, and I was alone and sputtering into my sauteed cabbage over the cat:

Poor Niou [Warner's Siamese] has just had his first affair of the heart, and of course it was a tragedy. As a rule he flies from strange men, cursing under his breath, and keeping very low to the ground. Yesterday an electrician came; a grave mackintoshed man, but to Niou all that was romantic and lovely. He gazed at him, he rubbed against him, he lay in an ecstasy on the tool-bag. The electrician felt much the same, and gave him little washers to play with. He said he would have to come again today to finish off properly. Niou who understands everything awaited him in a dreamy transport and practicing his best and most amorous squint. The electrician came, Niou was waiting for him on the window-sill. A paroxysm of stage-fright came over him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

He'll get over it in time; but just now he's dreadfully downcast [Warner to Maxwell, February 1952].

And the lawn:

I am so glad that you and Emmy [Maxwell's wife] have got an electric lawn-mower, and you will love it all the more for the anguish of its arrival. Electricity is so serene, until it goes wrong; and when that happens, there is no half-hearted doubt about it, either, no cosseting or tinkering. One wipes the blue flash from one's eyes and waits like Luther for the Proper Man. It was a far better choice than those motor mowers. England has never been herself since motor mowers came to us. Lawns, that used to be all peace and eating white raspberries on seats painted green, are now disorderly scenes of strife, with mowers, the human part of the mechanism, jolting round the corners or falling off in to the rhododendrons, or — worse — galloping along after the horrible thing with their mouths choked with daisies. We have a nice old-fashioned one, and a little boy called Colin is all the motor it has, and afterwards he goes fishing in our reach of the river [Warner to Maxwell, June 1951].

And love and tapioca:

I do not associate you, ordinarily, with nerves, I suppose because you don't complain, and the two do seem to go together. Speaking of tapioca, since I first read ". . . the lady patronesses and the female orphans, who sat grouped around him, the lady patronesses in the shade and the female orphans in the sun," I have left behind me I don't dare think how many tastes and pleasures, lost a good deal of hair off the top of my head, had a year or two of insomnia, married, been to Europe, paid off a mortgage, and resigned from The New Yorker three times, but that sentence I read, two days ago, with exactly the same rapture as I did the first time. Like so many of your sentences, it is cast in bronze and could last even longer [Maxwell to Warner, May 1952].

Gosh, I love this book. Think what awaits; I have over three hundred pages to go. And I really needn't worry about finishing too soon; by the time I'm done I'm sure I should very much care to read the fiction of each [practicing writerly "voice" for all potential epistolary activity], though I have a sneaking suspicion that each wrote his/her best in letters to the other, their most appreciative and deserving audience. Thank you, Frances, for this recommendation. It's so wonderful. I'm utterly smitten.


I'm going to take note !

There is nothing like a good book recommendation! They are few and far between, yet the best gift ever! Thanks for sharing!

I'm definitely going to have to check into this. Thanks for the recommendation!
God bless :)

Sounds absolutely enchanting!

Sounds absolutely enchanting!

Sounds absolutely enchanting!

This book sounds wonderful. I love to read about older "New Yorker" writers.

Here's another book you might like (if I may be so bold) "Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorker."

Happy Reading!

Maxwell's "So Long, See you Tomorrow" is among my very favorite books. Thanks for letting me know about this one; it sounds delightful!

That sounds wonderful, especially the bit about the amorous squint, which is just too true. I'm adding this to my wishlist and sending that quote to my boyfriend, whose cat is always amorously squinting.

HI... I've been lurking for some time now, and I have a little, totally off-topic question. I went to and printed off the baby blanket pattern... and I was wondering the name of the FONT you used for the title. I love it! I work on a small magazine for my church, and am always on the lookout for cute fonts to use in it. Thanks in advance...

BTW, I do like your blog very much. I saw the article about you in Romantic Homes and I thought, "She's just like me!! English majors who preferred to make stuff!" My husband always says I should have been some sort of art major instead of a Lit and Writing major. Oh, well. I'm having fun now!

~Shannon A.

like blog entries of yore!

i think future generations will giggle themselves silly in restaurants reading the blog entries of ms. alicia paulson.

Heather Bond says: April 11, 2007 at 09:16 AM

I love that book! Like you, I'm reading it a bit at a time. Now I really need another bookbag just to keep William and Sylvia with me on my daily travels. Always a joy to see what's up with you - Happy Spring!

How wonderful! I'm in love just from those little excerpts. Letters just facinate me.

Have you read the letters of John and Abagail Adams? They had the most incredible relationship. She was surely a woman far ahead of her time.

I'm going to look for that book. The paragraph about the cat made me giggle too. It describes our cat and his love for my husband! LOL Thanks for sharing!

i love the england/new york connection, which covers an interesting period of time. i agree with stephanie and giggle when i read your blog in restaurants now.

Love the passage about the cat. I can just picture it scarpering, covered with embarrassment. I fell in love with 84, Charing Cross Road in the way you are smitten with this book. Such a slim little volume but I have read and reread it and loved it over the years until it has become part of me.

I absolutely adore William Maxwell. Ever since I read They Came Like Swallows, I've been a fan. Thanks for the heads-up on the book.
Warmly, f.

Oh that is beautiful!!
I must read that book.

Hee, the cat made me giggle! :O)

Erin alerted me to this post! I recently posted about the same book, which I've read some 3 times. I squee every time.
You would probably also like the Lyttelton/Hart-Davies letters.

I'll have to make note of this book - I love reading letters & personal diaries . I have a book called, "Love Letters Lost" (by Babbette Hines) that I just love. Ms. Hines gathered old letters & vintage photos from flea markets & auctions over the years & published them. There is one letter in there that has to be my fave dated 1939 - it seems he was a newspaper writer (maybe, in Hollywood) and he is "telling this girl off". ..seems she had humiliated him in front of her friends or something. Man, I would love to know who these people were & what happened to their relationship.

I've enjoyed this book, as well. How could one not with a title like that? Besides I'm a great fan of William Maxwell--I have a book of his reviews "The Outermost Dream" and read it every few years.

must. find. this. book. Sounds delectable! Also, LOVE reading in restaurants alone. People always seem confused by it.

I would be happy forever if I had someone sending me letters like those. I love letters like those and I only have a few. I would even be happy forever if I could write someone letters like those. What a lovely book. I love books of letters. My favorite so far, Dear Friend by Lynne Wythey. The letters of Abigail Adams to her beloved John. Heartwrenching, many of them and you see that women are women with so many of the same things on their minds no matter which century they live in. I wonder if someone will be studying these blogs to find out about women to day at some point. I doubt there will be very many letters to look over. Although maybe these are our letters.

And thankyou Alicia for passing on the recommendation, this book sounds wonderful.

You inspire me so much. Your beautiful artisan crafts and your sophisticated taste in literature are a wonderful combination. Your blog is utterly delightful and so much fun to read! Thank you for the book suggestion and so much more!

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at