Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

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Historic Buildings of Coventry, CT

Fellow museum guide, interpreter, and teacher Dan Sterner travels all throughout Connecticut photographing the thousands of 18th and 19th century buildings that remain in our 163 towns. He posts the pictures with descriptions and historical information on his web site, town by town. Dan recently put up some pages about what’s to be found in Coventry, which was founded in 1712 and still has more than 400 old places, many in fine condition,  along its roads and byways. He generously agreed to permit me to link up to that page here on You’re History. I’m including the Coventry index here, but there’s a complete index of all the places he’s visited on Historic Buildings of Connecticut .

Thanks, Dan, great work!

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Buildings Index

Boston Turnpike
12 Brigham’s Tavern (1778)
1064 Nathaniel Root House (1809)
1630 Coventry Grange Hall (1834)
1746 Second Congregational Church (1847)
1747 Loomis-Pomeroy House (1833)
1804 Pomeroy Tavern (1801)

Bread & Milk Street
21 Jacob Wilson Tavern (1735)

Main Street
1129 Capron-Philips House (1864)
1134 Booth & Dimock Memorial Library (1913)
1141 Former Methodist Church (1867)
1171 First Congregational Church (1849)
1195 Coventry Visitors’ Center (1876)
1220 Bidwell Hotel (1822)
2011 Daniel Rust House (1731)

North River Road
290 John Turner House (1814)
941 Charles Hanover House (1825)

South Street
2187 Elias Sprague House (1821)
2299 Nathan Hale Homestead (1776)
2382 Strong-Porter House (1730)

Esther Williams Meacham: The Redeemed Captive


On the bitter cold night of Feb. 29, 1704, the little town of Deerfield, MA, an English outpost on the western fringes of the Bay Colony, once again found itself in the cross-hairs of the imperial feud being waged between France and Great Britain for the dominance of the North American continent. The armed conflicts of the 18th century between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements that stretched into Canada were fought with the support of Native American allies.

In 1704, Mohawk Indians, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, allied with the French settlers in Canada, attacked the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 50 of the very young and old and kidnapping 112 more. They then marched the prisoners to Canada, killing 20 more women and several children along the way as acts of mercy, including the wife and infant son of John Williams, a Puritan minister and a prize hostage. While he and his surviving sons were ultimately released, his daughter, Eunice, who was seven at the time of her capture, remained with her captors, converted to Catholicism, and at the age of 16 married an Indian, with whose people she chose to spend the rest of her life. A fuller account of Eunice’s saga can be found here:

Raid

The opinions expressed in the linked article are not necessarily my own.

The gravestone pictured above is located in the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT, and it marks the burial site of the sister of Eunice Williams. Esther Williams Meacham was one of the Deerfield captives who was released and returned to her life among the Puritans. Esther married a minister and relocated from Mass. to Connecticut, and local accounts tell of Eunice’s infrequent visits to her sister’s household, during which she refused to stay inside the house, preferring to pitch her own shelter on the village green.

Esther Meacham’s gravestone contains a summary of her ordeal among the Mohawk:

Here lies what was Mortal of

Mrs. Esther Meacham ye Pru

dent Pious & virtuous

Consort of ye Revd Joseph

Meacham she was ye Daugh

of ye Venerable John Will

iams of Deerfield & was

Carried Capture to Canada

with her Father & his Family

was wonderfully preserved

& Redeemed & lived an

Eminent Example of what

was amiable in a wife a

Mother a Friend & a Christian

Slept in Jesus March 12th

1751 in ye 60th Year of her Age.

Esther’s marker was carved by a local Coventry craftsman, Gershom Bartlett. Follow up to Eunice’s story:
link

 

 

Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.

It’s Halloween again: The Real Ghost of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale is remembered today as the 21 year old volunteer spy who was hanged in New York by the British in 1776. I often used to wonder how someone facing imminent death could come up with such last words as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” After I joined the staff at the Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry, CT, where Nathan was born and grew up, I learned that, while a student at Yale, Hale studied ancient cultures and may have acted in the play “Cato”, by Joseph Addison, which is all about dying for one’s country. Nathan’s words were probably a quote or a paraphrase from that play, which would have been instantly recognized by any educated man, English or American. When Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death”, he was quoting from the same play.

Nathan was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City, the exact site of which is unknown to this day. While there are numerous little anecdotes about Hale family ghosts, I’ve never heard any about Nathan himself. But there is a kind of ghost or shade of him that can be easily seen by anyone on the 2nd floor of his family’s home. This is the story.

Nathan was not the only Hale son to die as a result of the War for Independence. Five of his 7 brothers also fought with the army, and his older brother Joseph, who was fortunate enough to return home and father 3 daughters, died several years later. Joseph had been a prisoner of war for a time, held captive in one of the infamous British prison ships anchored off New Jersey. Prisoners who survived often suffered lingering illnesses of various types, and it’s believed that Joseph brought consumption (tuberculosis) home, a disease that was notoriously contagious, and that killed him and, as the years passed, the greater part of the Hale family.

After Joseph’s early death, his widow came to live with her husband’s family at Hale Homestead, staying with her 3 little girls until her remarriage. At that time, for reasons unknown, one of the daughters, Rebecca, remained behind in Coventry. She grew up on the farm, leaving only at the time of her marriage around 1800. By the time she returned once more to Coventry, she was getting on in years. She left a letter telling an intriguing story from her childhood. Rebecca wrote that, on the back of her chamber door was a “shadow portrait” of her by-then famous Uncle Nathan. When she visited the house, now owned by strangers, she looked for the image, but, to her great disappointment, it had been painted over. Rebecca’s letter describes her disappointment and her belief that it was gone forever.

Some 70 years later, the man who restored the house to its 18th century style was shown Rebecca’s letter. Immediately he started hunting for this mysterious image, and when he had the paint removed from the door, (Rebecca described its location), a silhouette etched into the wood in pencil came to light.

It seems strange to modern thinking that someone would draw on a door this way, but it actually seems to have been customary among English families. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about a mother who took her son’s silhouette upon a wal, before he left for war.

But is this really a likeness of Nathan Hale? Who knows – you can draw your own conclusion. But I’m pretty positive that it’s either his likeness or one of his brothers’. At any rate, every time I show the mystery man to visitors, I feel Nate’s presence, at least in spirit.

Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

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History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.