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“I’m that person who finds the purchase of a sponge-cake to be delightful.” I’m quoting Shawna Lemay, whose novel Everything Affects Everyone I wrote about last Friday. I enjoyed the novel so much that I’ve been reading more of her work, including some of her poems, and a splendid essay I remembered from a few years ago, called “The Sponge-Cake Model of Friendship.”

“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on June 17, 1808.

Shawna says, “I find it diverting to know what my friends had for breakfast, where they hope to holiday, that they enjoyed a scone with plum jam, a piece of chocolate cake, or sour cherry pie, or that they purchased a new scarf. Friendship is in the details, I’ve discovered.” She writes of Jane and Cassandra that “The two sisters were often enough separated, and it’s the writing of sponge-cakes to each other that comforts, that makes each feel less alone.”

She considers other types of friendship before returning to “the Jane and Cassandra model,” which is “one of mutual interestedness,” and concluding that this is her “only requirement in friendship.”

You can find details about Shawna’s other books on her website. I remember that I loved her novel Rumi and the Red Handbag (and not just because Jane Austen’s line about sponge-cakes makes an appearance in the book, or because it includes a character who follows the careers of stars who’ve appeared in movie adaptations of Austen’s novels: “I want to see if they go on being anything like the characters they portrayed. … I keep lists on them, she said,—see, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Jeremy Northam, Hugh Grant, Jonny Lee Miller, especially him. Really, I’d like to make a movie with just them and scratch the heroines, you know? A movie about their lives after Austen, a documentary.”)

I also recommend Shawna’s collection of short essays entitled The Flower Can Always Be Changing—the title is a quotation from Virginia Woolf—and I’m a long-time fan of her blog, Transactions with Beauty.

Letters and FaceTime calls have been a comfort to my sister Bethie and me during the years that she and her family have lived on the other side of the Atlantic. I’m pretty sure she’d agree with me that, to borrow Shawna’s words, “the simple daily pleasure of just delighting in each other’s ordinary lives is and has been magnificently sustaining.” We often send photos of our children, or trees and flowers, or the books we’re reading.

Or cake! My daughter likes to make and decorate cakes: one of last year’s creations was a Ron Weasley cake for one of her younger cousins; this year she’s been hired to design an Anne of Green Gables cake for one of our friends. Bethie has (in my opinion) perfected the art of making gluten-free birthday cakes, including carrot cake with cream cheese icing and ginger cake with a chocolate glaze and sprinkles. She and I also exchange books. Or other small presents—this week, for example, I sent her a Squishmallow avocado. Not nearly as elegant as an Austenian sponge-cake, but still a source of amusement and comfort for both of us. (As it happens, the label says the avocado’s name is “Austin,” though that isn’t why I bought it.)

After I wrote earlier this month about how much I loved Heidi L.M. Jacobs’s novel Molly of the Mall, and about my plan to read L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill in May, Bethie decided to order copies of both novels, and when they arrived, she sent me a photo with this note: “Inspired by the way you photograph books on top of lovely scarves, I have artfully arranged these on top of this pile of unfolded laundry : )”

Bethie and I have also corresponded recently about the news that Ann Napolitano’s new novel, Hello Beautiful, has been chosen for Oprah’s book club, and about an essay Napolitano wrote for the New York Times a few years ago, in which she talks about letters she’s written to her future self. “I wrote the first letter when I was 14,” she says, “and I stole the idea from a novel.” I bet many of you will know which novel she’s talking about.

In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs, Emily Starr writes a letter on May 19th, 19 – :

This is my birthday. I am fourteen years old today. I wrote a letter “From myself at fourteen to myself at twenty-four,” and sealed it up and put it away in my cupboard, to be opened on my twenty-fourth birthday. I made some predictions in it. I wonder if they will come to pass when I open it.

Napolitano says, “the idea of the letter delighted me. It was a grand gesture, yet of the kind an introverted kid could make alone, with no one noticing. I described the current state of my life and listed my hopes and dreams for myself 10 years later.”

Were any of you inspired to do something similar after reading Emily Climbs? I was. I wrote, “To 19 from 9. Have you written your great book yet?” My goal at the time was to write and publish my first book within the next few years, following in the footsteps of Gordon Korman, who wrote This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall when he was 12, and signed a contract to publish it with Scholastic when he was 13.

That was a lot of pressure for a nine-year-old to put on her future self! Fortunately, that letter also said, “Please be kind 19. Love 9.” I hope my nine-year-old self would be pleased to know that I’ve published five books in the three decades since I turned 19. (I don’t know whether she’d think they’re “great” or not.)

Bethie also wrote a letter to her future self—and I don’t think either of us knew the other had done this until we started talking about Ann Napolitano’s essay.

When I was searching for the photos I took at the Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth, to include in last week’s blog post, I also came across a couple of photos of the Bookmark plaque for Shields’s novel The Republic of Love, which my family and I visited on that same trip to Winnipeg in 2016. (Actually, it was a drive from Halifax to Vancouver and home again, with a stop in Winnipeg on the way out west. The post featuring photos from that road trip across Canada and back through the United States continues to be one of the most popular on my blog.)

For the past eight or nine years, I’ve been volunteering with Project Bookmark Canada, to help choose passages from fiction and poetry set in specific places, which can be marked with a Bookmark plaque. Most of the time, other kinds of plaques commemorate sites where real events happened. What I love about Bookmark plaques is that they mark sites where the things that “happened” are in the imagination of the writer, and then of the reader.

Our local Nova Scotia Reading Circle for Project Bookmark has organized events in Halifax to celebrate the unveiling of a Bookmark in Port Hastings, NS, for Alistair MacLeod’s extraordinary novel No Great Mischief (which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001), and for the unveiling of a Bookmark plaque in Cavendish, PEI, for L.M. Montgomery’s poem “The Gable Window.”

I stopped to take pictures of lupines when I was on my way to the unveiling of the Bookmark for “The Gable Window” in June of 2018.

I took another picture of the Montgomery Bookmark in October of 2019, when I was in PEI for a wedding.

I was delighted to visit the Bookmark for The Republic of Love, which is at “the bus shelter at River and Osborne” where Shields’s heroine Fay sometimes “wait[s] anonymously” and sometimes “run[s] into any number of acquaintances.” In Winnipeg, “You were always running into someone you’ve gone to school with or someone whose uncle worked with someone else’s father. The tentacles of connection were long, complex, and full of the bitter or amusing ironies that characterize blood families.” While some find the connections oppressive, “Fay again and again is reassured and comforted to be part of a knowable network.”

(I have to confess here that I haven’t yet visited the No Great Mischief Bookmark, even though I love that novel and the Bookmark is in my own province. Someday!)

I want to add a few more things to this week’s scrapbook. First, a link to a CBC Radio documentary about the recent celebration of Mi’kmaq Poet Laureate Rita Joe at the Halifax Central Library and the Millbrook Cultural Centre, organized by the Afterwords Literary Festival and hosted by Mercedes Peters. I attended the event at the Central Library last month, and I enjoyed the readings and music, which were by Tiffany Morris, Danica Roache, and Raymond Sewell.

Rita Joe writes in her autobiography, Song of Rita Joe, that “I have said again and again that our history would be different if it had been expressed by us.” She tells her readers that “Being strangers in our own land is a sad story, but, if we can speak, we may turn this story around.”

I loved hearing Raymond Sewell speak in the documentary about how his father, “a respected elder in the area, was always telling us ‘Rita Joe said we’re from the land of the dreamers, we’re a dreaming people, be creative.’ We were all dreaming at home, there was an endless supply of art supplies at home, so some people were drawing, some people were making music in the basement. My father always had instruments around, my mother always had instruments around that we could play. We’ve always had a need to carry on stories.”

Rita Joe was the 2023 honouree for Nova Scotia Heritage Day, and if you’d like to read more about her life and her poetry, you can find out more in this blog post from Halifax Public Libraries.

Next, I want to tell you about this lovely survey of marginalia over the years, by Jillian Hess: “Marginalia: 5 Ways to Write in Your Books.” She gives examples from 1300 to 2022, including the symbols used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, comments both positive and negative recorded by medieval readers (“Thys ys a Good Boke Amen”; “Whoever translated these Gospels, did a very poor job”), and photos of conversations among different readers.

Do you write in your books? I do. I could write more on this topic, but maybe I’ll save it for another day.

I also want to include a few of Brenda Barry’s photos, this time from Margaretsville, Nova Scotia—the wharf and lighthouse, a chickadee, and Isle Haute—sent to me by her sister Sandra, who writes that the lighthouse reminds her of the one in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Seascape.” Sandra says the lighthouse in the poem is “severe,” while “the one in Margaretsville seems more cheerful,” but Bishop’s “description echoes this one.”

… a skeletal lighthouse standing there

in black and white clerical dress,

who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.

He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,

that that is why the shallow water is so warm,

and he knows that heaven is not like this.

I’m grateful to Sandra and Brenda for the wonderful letters and photos (sponge-cakes!!) they send, and for giving me permission to share these images with you here.

An exhibition entitled “My dear Cassandra…” opened earlier this week at Jane Austen’s House Museum, and it includes a recently acquired letter from Jane to Cassandra, dated October 27-28, 1798. Jane begins by saying, “Your letter was a most agreable surprize to me to day, & I have taken a long sheet of paper to shew my Gratitude.” She speaks of her mother’s illness and her new role in managing the household:

I am very grand indeed; I had the dignity of dropping out my mother’s Laudanum last night, I carry about the keys of the Wine & Closet; & twice since I began this letter, have had orders to give in the Kitchen: Our dinner was very good yesterday, & the Chicken boiled perfectly tender; therefore I shall not be obliged to dismiss Nanny on that account.

This is also the letter in which she tells Cassandra the news that “Mrs Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright,” and makes the uncharitable and now infamous remark that “I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

“Newly Acquired Austen Letter on Display”

“Rare early letter from  Jane Austen to her sister will go on public display”

I’ll end with a recent photo of the view from the café on the top floor of our beloved Halifax Central Library, and a photo of snowdrops in yesterday afternoon’s snow.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

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