How old do you have to be to have a mid-life crisis? I’d always thought it was the kind of thing that hit in the 40s, but at 37 I’ve given into the compulsion to say goodbye to the day job – for a few months anyway – and immerse myself in writing. So does that mean that my mid-life crisis has come early? Or is another one going to hit in a few years?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that even the modest step of asking for six months of unpaid leave once felt like a Very Big Deal. Sitting here now, almost six months in – and with the luxury of the two months extra I was granted a couple of weeks ago ahead of me – I wonder why I sweated over it so much. The truth is, though, it’s not easy to break out of a routine, even if it’s a routine you’re not enjoying very much. Routine is safe; and I like safe.
So I needed a bit of a kick. There were a lot of things that helped, various events that put on their football boots and gave me their own little nudges up the derrière. There was the sight of lots of former colleagues biting the bullet, taking voluntary redundancy and packing up their desks to pursue opportunities they’d had in the backs of their minds for years; there was the moment when I realised that the big 4-0 really was coming for me very quickly, so I’d better start getting used to the idea; and there was that weekend alone on Lundy when I started to realise what it might be like to have every day free to write whatever I wanted (albeit not looking out over the glorious view of cliffs and sea that I was treated to there).
But there was also one Victorian lady who made me believe that it really was possible to do something different and exciting with your life, even if you didn’t start out that way. And I think it was she who gave me that last, decisive kick.
If you’ve ever visited Kew Gardens, you may have come across the Marianne North Gallery, tucked into the greenery at the eastern edge, just along from the folly of the Ruined Arch.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of walking through that crisp white portico for the first time, opening the inner double doors, and entering what somehow contrived to be a cross between an old library, a colonial tea room and an Amazonian rainforest all at once.
Every inch of the walls of that wonderful building are covered in Marianne North’s paintings of her travels across the world, each with the same gold mount and dark wood frame, each painting jostling up against its neighbour, creating such a riot of colour and activity it’s difficult to work out where to look first. It’s worth taking a deep breath and choosing a spot to start, though, because as soon as you do, you find yourself in an exotic world of faraway places, tropical plants and fascinating people, all seen through the eyes of someone who, even in these days when air travel has shrunk the world, qualifies as a bona fide explorer.
At the rear of a gallery is a small room with photos and a film about Marianne’s life. She was born into a family of considerable means and connections: her father was an MP, and family friends included Edward Lear and the Director of Kew himself, Sir William Hooker. Her mother died when Marianne was 25, and she became mistress of the household, around the same time devoting herself to the painting of flowers. She travelled extensively in Europe with her father and sisters, but when her sisters married and her father lost his parliamentary seat, Marianne and her father ventured further, wintering in Egypt and trekking through Syria.
So far, not a story with which I could identify much. But then came the good bit: when her father died, a 39-year old Marianne packed up her bags and – at a time when a woman travelling alone was an oddity – spent the next 16 years crossing the globe, documenting what she called “plants in their homes” in beautiful, evocative watercolours. She travelled from the United States to Singapore, from Jamaica to Borneo, Nepal to the Seychelles, Australia to Mexico, Fiji to India. There was not a continent across which she did not travel extensively, and the walls of the Marianne North Gallery – which she designed and paid for as a permanent home for her 800 or so paintings – bear testimony down the decades to the wonderful sights she saw.
Marianne had been very close to her father. His death could have seen her closet herself away in a quiet, English village, occasionally getting out her paintbrushes to record the purple gown of a foxglove, or the springtime celebration of the daffodil. And there would have been nothing wrong with that. Instead, she took her courage in both hands and set off on a series of adventures that only came to an end with her own failing health, recording them in a series of paintings that, a century later, still have the power to delight and absorb.
Arty types might be sniffy about the quality – even one of the contributors to A Vision of Eden, the book which brings together a collection of Marianne’s paintings and her memoirs, described her as merely “reasonably talented” – but it’s impossible to look at one of Marianne’s pictures without feeling as though you are yourself part of the scenery. You can almost hear the tropical birdsong and the singing of the cicadas; you can feel the jungle heat or the crisp air of the mountains; you can travel the world within the four walls of that little gallery. What a legacy to leave behind!
So this is my thank you to Marianne; because when you’ve got a role model like that to look up to, asking for six months off work doesn’t seem like quite that much of a big deal after all.