I grew up in Texas and spent my teens reading nineteenth-century novels and running several sweaty miles a day. I then found myself at Texas A&M University pursuing a degree in journalism that, though I liked the investigative work, did not meet some vague emotional need nurtured by all those novels. So I got a second degree in English but felt I didn’t possess enough patience and authority for the daily grind of school teaching. While getting a master’s degree, I became convinced I was set for a brilliant academic career. After all, I could apply those investigative skills toward learning about old manuscripts and, of much greater interest, the love lives of poets.
I received a second master’s degree at the University of Virginia but was told that some members of the faculty considered me “too high energy for the teaching profession”. Two professors, however, were so delighted with my textual criticism – I remember the elation of finding out that Mark Akenside used a lower-case “i” for the first-person singular in the manuscript of his eighteen-century poem, The Pleasures of the Imagination – that they encouraged me to try another university for her doctorate. By way of encouragement, I got saddled with compiling a bibliography of the 1200 published poems of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-38).
So, though bound for City University of New York, I took a detour to London that summer to spend seven weeks mainly in the British Library. One evening in a Greenwich church during a performance of Handel’s Jeptha, I made eye contact with a member of the choir, and he became my husband for the next several years. I returned to CUNY long enough to decide to write a biography of Letitia Landon for my dissertation – a decision that, in terms of launching the academic career, turned out to be mistaken. I was now a newlywed in London, knowing almost no one and stuck in the British Library with a ridiculous amount of research to do. The highlight of my life was trips to the theatre, and I began to wonder if those weird classes on modern drama I had taken back in Texas had been my first exposure to something a little more exciting than nineteenth-century poetry.
A longer-lasting escape from scholarly isolation then presented itself in the form of pregnancy. I gave birth to twin girls, and, although I eventually finished the dissertation and published some articles, I remained in a variable state of semi-distraction from my work until my daughters were twelve years old and my knees were damaged from too much running and dog walking. Then I had to face that I didn’t want an academic career after all. Yet along the way, I had made some unexpected discoveries about Miss Landon, namely that the poet managed to have three illegitimate children in the 1820s while maintaining a high profile on the London literary scene. Moreover, some of Landon’s love poems had proven surprisingly racy.
In 2011 I put the life of Landon aside temporarily to follow what, over the last few years, had become a favourite occupation: researching and giving her own brand of theatre talks that mix biography, social controversy and literary study. Since 2009, my training ground had been the wonderful Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City, where I interviewed directors, hosted Q&A’s and lectured on over thirty plays. In 2011, Lucy Bailey agreed to let me talk on Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth at The Print Room in Notting Hill, and since then I have spoken on a large number of The Print Room’s productions as well as introduced the theatre’s Poetry Evenings. I have also given talks at Southwark Playhouse, the Arcola Theatre and Riverside Studios and at several primary and secondary schools as part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival. (If eleven-year-old boys start to lose attention, I tell them about bear-baiting in gory detail.) I joined the team at Jermyn Street Theatre as the Education and Development Officer in the summer of 2013. I have since hosted a number of post-show Q&A sessions and given pre-show talks on Friends Nights and to school groups. I long to do more of this work by arrangement, to individuals as well as large groups.
Not satisfied that I knew enough about the attractions of Jermyn Street and wanting to strengthen the theatre’s connections with the business community, I began doing some research into the street’s past, its buildings and its celebrities, and in April 2014 I started giving a tour called The Jermyn Street Experience. This leisurely St. James’s walk includes a visit to the oldest cheese shop in the UK, the oldest perfumer in the UK and the oldest shoe store. There are the art galleries, the famous church and then there are all those gentlemen’s shirts to admire for which Jermyn Street is famous. I gives these tours on Friday afternoons.
I think Beau Brummell’s statue from the other end of Jermyn Street must somehow have been calling to me to give both these tours and the Savile Row Tours I began in January 2015. For my work on Letitia Landon and her 1820s London world had taught me about Brummell’s cult of the dandy and the great efforts some men then made to present a dazzling appearance. Landon openly admired these men and envied their attracting power. I just know that I can’t learn enough about beautiful menswear then and now and the people who have made it and the men who could afford to wear it. The fact that I am now expected to advise my new husband on sartorial matters deepens the obligation to keep current with the thousand quests for excellence pursued in the Golden Square Mile of Menswear.
The next tour, launched in early 2017, pursues a different kind of luxury: that of the auction house and art galleries. St. James’s offers an unparalleled landscape of such treasure troves, and I am hoping to explore them in all their glory and encourage others to come along with me.
It has taken a while for me to find this strange mixture of occupations, but I take heart from the words of film director Mike Nichols: “There’s nothing better than discovering, to your own astonishment, what you’re meant to do. It’s like falling in love.”