Bath Festival had a brilliant line up this year, but sadly I had other commitments for a large portion of May so I was only able to go last weekend to catch Sarah Perry’s Change Maker talk in the wonderfully Gothic Masonic Arms. It seemed fitting that her talk was in a darkened room with thick oak panelling and velvet drapes along the stage. I almost felt as if I was sitting in a room from one of her atmospheric books.
The talk was focused on the friendships that have fascinated Perry and resonate because of the deep and significant friendships that stand out in her novels, particularly The Essex Serpent. Through letters, Perry showed how affectionate and demonstrative these relationships were. Up until this point I had rather wrongly assumed that feelings were kept tightly under wraps in the 19th century, that to openly show affection would have been considered unseemly but now I wonder whether that’s more true of contemporary friendship. In the letters between Arthur Hallam and William Gladstone, they often reference their yearning for each other. Its hard to imagine texting someone with a similar message. ‘I miss you’ comes close, but doesn’t quite convey the urge you get to see your closest friends.
After all, there’s seems to be much more of a distinction now between friendship and love. We love our partners but we like are friends. Perry’s talk made me wonder whether that’s necessarily true. Maybe we love them both equally but in a different way.
Perry describe friendship as an ornate glass bowl. The bowl has been made by the breath of the glassblower, and although that breath is gone, something permanent and tangible has been created by the ephemera. It’s a beautiful and fitting analogy, because friendships can seem temporary. You move jobs, move cities, you grow apart but we are monuments to our past friendships. They shape us, they influence our ideas, introduce us to our favourite bands or show us a new way of looking at the world. Sometimes they pave the way to new friendships and when they are cut short, they are not easily forgotten.
It was such an engaging and thought-provoking talk, and having met Sarah briefly afterwards for the book signing I can confirm she is brilliant. Can someone commission her to do a series of lectures on Victorian customs and friendships, please?