Travel and books, two of my favourite things. Maybe that is why I like a book with a strong sense of place. Whilst we were in the Netherlands we saw lots of paintings that had inspired books and visited places familiar from novels. Just in time for World Book Day, here is my selection of Books to Read in the Netherlands listed in the order of when we met them in our journey.
BOOKS TO READ IN THE NETHERLANDS
Fresh off the ferry we headed to The Hague and the Mauritshuis to see the real life Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius and star of Donna Tartt’s hefty novel. In the book thirteen year old Theo Decker is caught up in a bombing in New York and ends up with The Goldfinch in his hands. Possession of the painting affects the rest of his life and we follow him in New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. Seeing the tiny painting that was the centre of such a long novel was a treat.
The Mauritshuis has proved a fruitful hunting ground for the modern novelist in search of inspiration. Tracey Chevalier imagined the story of the girl who looks out at us from Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’. The Mauritshuis is stuffed full of wonderful paintings that all hint at marvellous stories. I quite like the idea of a novel based on a group of novelists visiting the gallery in search of inspiration and the stories that they come up with. Maybe I should write it myself?
When I was a child a Dutch lady came to stay at our house for an extended period. She bought with her Genever or Dutch Gin for my parents, a blue and white tin of hopes which are coffee flavoured boiled sweets and a copy of ‘The Cow who fell in the Canal’ for the children. I loved this book. It is the tale of a cow who is bored with just eating grass and craves adventure, one day she falls into the canal and floats down stream to the local market town, based on Alkmaar, where she wreaks havoc. More than anything I wanted to visit the Netherlands and see where Hendrika, the cow, lived. The book was the reason that the first holiday I took without my parents was to Holland!
Technically ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ is not based in the Netherlands at all but in Germany, but in my mind it is Dutch and so it is included here! ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ is a spy story set (and written) in the years before the First World War. Carruthers, a minor civil servant in the Foreign Office is invited on a last minute yachting holiday off the North German shore. They sail in the shifting sands of the German Frisian Islands and persued by spies and trying to puzzle out the meaning of mysterious events. The book has a strong sense of place and was one of the big reasons why I was so keen to visit the Frisian Islands.
Art galleries in the Netherlands are full of depictions of what is known as The Golden Age, a time in the seventeenth century when wealth flowed into Amsterdam via the Dutch East India company. ‘The Miniaturist’ is set in this glittering, exciting period. We follow 18 year old Nella as she arrives from the country to marry a prosperous merchant. Many mysterious things happen, most mysterious of all is when her new husband presents her with a dolls house that is the image of her own house. Jessie Burton drew her inspiration for the story from seeing the collection of doll houses on show at the Rijksmuseum.
Anne Frank was a schoolgirl in Amsterdam during the Second World War, she was also Jewish. Her family went into hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family were betrayed and ended up being taken to concentration camps. Anne died in Bergen Belsen, her father was the only member of the family to survive. Anne kept a diary during these years, amazingly it survived and was published in 1947. The story is harrowing, you can visit the house where Anne and her family hid. I read this as a teenager and firmly believe that all teenagers should be aware of the story to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
This is one of the books that I read during our Dutch holiday. ‘The Words in my Hand’ is another book set in the seventeenth century, this time it is the tale of Helena a maid who is desperate to learn how to read when women of her class didn’t do such a thing. She works in the house of a bookseller and a mysterious ‘Monsieur’ comes to stay. He turns out to be the philosopher Renee Descartes, many twists and turns follow to a satisfying ending. It was the perfect book to read as we travelled south from Amsterdam. I loved this book and it was one of the best books that I read in 2017.
Once any holiday is booked I head to Daunt Books to browse the relevant country section in search of reading inspiration. How could I not pick up a book entitled ‘Why the Dutch are Different’ when heading to the Netherlands! Ben Coates got stuck in a snowy Dutch airport on the way back to the UK, he rang a girl that he had met travelling and went to stay with her and never really made it back to the UK. He is now married and living in the Netherlands. In the book he looks at not only the the history and geography of the country but also the quirks and customs. If you are heading to Holland make sure that you have a copy to hand.
TULIPS, TULIPS EVERYWHERE!
Tulips are everywhere in the Netherlands. We even tried some tulip vodka on our food tour of Amsterdam. There is also a whole slew of books about them, here are the three that I have enjoyed most.
‘The Black Tulip’ is yet another novel set in seventeenth century Holland, but this one was written in the nineteenth century. Fans of The Three Musketeers will be familiar with the derring-do of Dumas novels. ‘The Black Tulip’ is no exception, it tells the tale Cornelius van Baerle a tulip grower intent on breeding the first black tulip. Things don’t run smoothly and a tale of love, jealousy and obsession unfolds against the background of tulipmania.
Anna Pavord’s Tulip book is fact not fiction, she tells us the story of the tulip from a wild flower to the present day. Who would have thought that a plant could have such an interesting biography. Tulip mania occured during the Dutch Golden Age. Contract prices for certain varieties of tulip bulb spiralled to dizzying heights and then collapsed spectrally in 1637 leaving lots of people out of pocket. Anna Pavord gives us the background to how this happened and how the tulip continues to be one of our favourite cut flowers.
My third tulip book is ‘Tulip Fever’ once again set with the background of tulip mania, Deborah Moggach weaves in Golden Age painting too. Cornelius Sandvoort (was every tulip obsessed man called Cornelius?) and his wife Sophia are desperate for children. Cornelius arranges to have her portrait painted by a young painter and sparks begin to fly. Deborah Moggach had me up way into the small hours of night turning the pages to finish the book, a thrilling page turner.
BOOKS THAT INSPIRED THE JOURNEY
Going abroad was not something that we did as children, my travelling was done in books. Many of those books have inspired real life journeys these two sent me over the sea to the Netherlands.
Arthur Ransome’s books feature children sailing, often in East Anglia. As an East Anglian child I loved his books and longed to be allowed out sailing on the Broads without adult company. It never happened and one of the reasons given was ‘We didn’t mean to go to Sea’. The Swallows are staying at Pin Mill (where we also stayed as children) just up the River Orwell from Felixstowe and Harwich. Our heroes are given permission to sail provided they don’t venture beyond the Beach End bouy at the end of the Estuary. Fog desends and one way and another they end up in the Netherlands. It was thrilling as a child to think that you just sail a little bit further on you could end up abroad.
In 1933 the teenage Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from the mouth the Rhine to the mouth of the Danube. He didn’t write up his account of the journey until 1977 when ‘A Time of Gifts’ was published, followed swiftly be ‘Between Woods and Water’ the final instalment ‘The Broken Road’ was not published until after his death in 2011. Once again this book was an inspiration to travel. I have lived on the Rhine and travelled up and down its banks on many occasions and recently we cruised and cycled along the Danube. The Dutch part of book starts at the Hook of Holland, where many of my own continental adventures have begun, and weaves through the Rhine delta to the German border. This series of books is among the best travel writing that I have read, if you haven’t discovered Patrick Leigh Fermor yet make sure his books are on your birthday wish list!
I hope you like my rundown of books to read in the Netherlands. Do you like to read books inspired by where you visit or do books prompt you to travel?
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