30 April 2011


Locus Focus: Take Fifty!

It is the last Saturday of April, and I feel that I might as well close the month with the "Places of Prayer" theme. The forty days of Lent may be over for the year, but the fifty days of Easter have just begun!

Remember that next Saturday's theme--because no one objected is--May at the Movies! Drop the books for a week (if you can--LOL!) and think of a film with an unforgettable setting. I'm going to give myself an extra challenge by looking for a movie that isn't based on a book; but since cinema is rivaled only by a vivid imagination in bringing great places in literature to life, I also welcome any book-to-movie contributions.

Come on! Don't be shy! Link up those posts!

St. Peter's Basilica
What Katy Did Next
by Susan Coolidge

. . . over a sea as smooth as glass, the Marco Polo slipped among the coasts past which the ships of Ulysses sailed in those legendary days which wear so charmed a light to our modern eyes . . .

About eleven, a dim-drawn bubble appeared on the horizon, which the captain assured them was the dome of St. Peter's, nearly thirty miles distant. This was one of the "moments" which Clover had been fond of speculating about; and Katy, contrasting the real with the imaginary moment, could not help smiling. Neither she nor Clover had ever supposed that her glimpse of the great dome was to be so little impressive.

On and on they went until the air-hung bubble disappeared . . .
I must start by saying that I find the above cover absolutely hysterical. What Katy Did Next came out in 1886, but here we have Katy in the bobbed hair of the 1920s, with a cloche hat and stylish traveling suit to match! While I don't think the text was "updated" to make the fashions and expressions more "modern," I have a feeling that Katy and her traveling companions' reactions to the sights of the Old World wouldn't have been out of place in the twentieth century . . . or even in our twenty-first.

These travelers from New England aren't very impressed by Europe. They find the weather awful, the people incomprehensible, the traditions backward, and even the most highly-anticipated sights anti-climactic. Which isn't to say that they are bad travelers--the sort who make you wonder why they bothered to visit your country if they were just going to compare everything unfavourably to their own homes--for they are, on the whole, quite willing to give Europe a chance. But that they are disappointed in what they see is still partly their own fault.

A friend of mine has reflected on the "cultural whiplash" that comes when we (post-)moderns read the classics: can those especially immersed in the "hook-up culture" of today be expected to understand the romance in Mr. Darcy's slow wooing of Elizabeth Bennet, and willingness to leave her in peace forever, should her answer still be no--or the reason Jane Eyre's leaving Mr. Rochester was more loving, for both of them, than her staying with him could have ever been? If our reading of books which are still familiar tropes to us has been so impaired, what more the appreciation of cultures, traditions and art which our upbringing has not properly prepared us for?

And that is what happened to Katy, who, despite having studied for the tour before she even left America, finds herself still unable to see beyond her idea of what Europe should be.

I find this perfectly illustrated in her "encounter" with the famed done of St. Peter's Basilica.

Now, there are two ways to view this dome: from the outside and from the inside . . .

I trust you note the difference?

But through a combination of circumstance and symbolism that was probably unconscious on Coolidge's part, Katy never gets to the inside of this great church. And isn't the sad thing that the whole point of the dome is to stand under it and look up at it--which one can only do from the inside?

I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about another set of travelers unimpressed by another famous sight from another part of the world: for it is paradoxically about the exact same thing.

I delicately suggested to those who were disappointed in the Sphinx that it was just as possible that the Sphinx was disappointed in them. The Sphinx has seen Julius Caesar; it has very probably seen St. Francis, when he brought his flaming charity to Egypt; it has certainly looked, in the first high days of the revolutionary victories, on the face of the young Napoleon. Is it not barely possible, I hinted to my friends and fellow-tourists, that after these experiences, it might be a little depressed at the sight of you and me?

-- from The New Jerusalem, an account of Chesterton's travels in the Middle East

While I am in theoretical agrement that both reading and travel can improve the mind--and indeed, completely change a person--my own experiences have shown me that the mind's "improvability" factor plays a huge part in this as well. Reading and travel are not as much about new ideas and new places as they are about new eyes.

Now it's your turn!
Leave the link to your Locus Focus post in the linky
and take some time to check out and comment on those of others.
I can't wait to read what everyone has to say! =D

Image Sources: a) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, b) Dome of St. Peter's Basilia 1, c) Dome of St. Peter's Basilia 2, d) Sphinx


Kate said...

Oh dear...I'm woefully off topic this week, and not only off topic but also Off Topic as my post is about literary places as opposed to place in literature! I'm so sorry - it's been so long since I've contributed that I just wanted to be a part of it!

Kate said...

Oh - oh - I love this post! (And maybe I'm not so entirely off-topic after all! :) I was recently thinking about the book/musical The Light in the Piazza, which sounds vaguely similar to this - Americans abroad. And it's also very close to a discussion Partner Dear and I have recently had about contemporary art, thanks to the Pompidou Centre - it can be difficult to understand or appreciate something about which you have no basis of knowledge - but at the same time, sometimes lacking that base knowledge gives one a better, almost purer reaction to a piece of art (or architecture, as here). I LOVE the Chesterton quote. Love love love it. Definitely sometime to keep in mind when next travelling.

Enbrethiliel said...


You are certainly not off topic, my dear Kate! (You're also always welcome!) There's only one day a month when people have to care about the theme. I just stretch it out for several weeks because I think of so many great possibilities and want to write about them all! =P

And to think that I wondered whether or not to include the Chesterton quote. ;-) It's one of my favourites as well--and something good to point out to people who think that being unimpressed by the great wonders of the world, of history or of literature makes them "cool." I also had it in mind yesterday when it seemed that a lot of people who weren't very interested in England's Royal Wedding were taking an unusual amount of trouble to make sure we knew they weren't interested.

Kate said...

Ha! Good analogy. I was also one of those people, insomuch as I only have a certain amount of interest in the wedding of two strangers, outside of the sartorial angle (which I was all about.) But I love the Chesterton quote - glad you included it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ooops! Didn't mean to hit too close to home there. ;-) I'm glad you liked the quote--and I wish you success in finding What Katy Did. It's not the best Katy book, in my opinion; but travelogues have their own fascination.

Birdie said...

Hi there! Sorry I'm late! Hopefully it's a case of better late than never.
I'm trying to get my life back in order.

I love this post about the Basilica. I've never been, but I really really want to.

Also, I'll add with everyone else that the Chesterton quote is wonderful!

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Birdie! =) It's great to see you.

Why am I not surprised that the Chesterton quote simply upstaged everything else in this post? ;-)

Off to check your own Locus Focus now . . .

Lesa said...

Oh, I just love learning about vintage reads and I've never heard of this one. That cover is funny!

I didn't watch or have any interest in the wedding but didn't tell a soul until now. No snooty blase comments from me.

That is a great quote. I always like Twain's travel quotes and I bet he would have liked that one.

I've had similar musings lately about people who go out of their way to make sure everyone knows they don't care for a particular type of music ect rather than just appreciating it for what it is. People can be so odd.

Enbrethiliel said...


Had there been more choices, I would have picked a different cover! I'm glad it all worked out, though. =)