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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.

Great Nonfiction: Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills

4.0 out of 5 stars Dispelling old myths

There are times in every nation’s history that serve as turning points, and the 1863 dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery is one of America’s, largely due to the influence of Abraham Lincoln’s 256 word speech. Garry Wills puts paid to the notion that Lincoln dashed something off on the train ride to Gettysburg, painstakingly tracing the cultural, literary, historic, and philosophical underpinnings to one of the world’s oratory masterpieces. Wills also analyzes the surviving five drafts of the speech that were written in the President’s own hand, concluding that the one given to Alexander Bliss is most likely the one from which Lincoln spoke. He also attempts to pinpoint the location of the dais within the cemetery, which was not, as the Park Service contended, at the site of the Soldiers’ Monument.

Readers searching for information about Lincoln’s activities on that fateful day will find little of interest in this slim volume, but for those interested in the best known address in American history, Lincoln at Gettysburg fills the bill.

Historical Fiction: The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse (CMH, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1700’s, most Americans relied upon linen for their everyday textile needs; cotton had to be imported and was costly enough to be considered a luxury fabric. By 1830, however, the invention of an efficient cotton gin and the emergence of Southern cotton plantations led to a reversal in that state of affairs. But what if an efficient flax gin had been invented first?

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a historical coming-of-age tale built around that question, set in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ella Kenyon is an unusual young woman, one who feels more at home in the woods than the town. Her beloved grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, has helped her develop an unusual talent for engineering, and together they design a machine that can extract linen fibers from the plant. When her grandfather dies suddenly, Ella is determined to perfect and patent their flax gin. The Clever Mill Horse is the tale of her struggle to achieve that goal. On her long journey to Washington City, she must face countless obstacles, among them forest fires, horse thieves, accidents and illness, and unscrupulous lawyers. Before her journey ends, Ella will discover the truth about who she really is and why.

Ms. Lew-Smith fills her story with vibrant characters, vivid descriptions, and realistic dialog, She is skilled at evoking a sense of time and place. Does Ella achieve her mission? Yes and no. Now that so many things in her young life have changed, in what direction will she head?

This book, the first in a promised series, is suitable for adults and young adults alike.

Monday Morning Poem: The Pumpkin

excerpt from The Pumpkin, by John  Greenleaf Whittier

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

It’s a Mystery: A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch

In this sixth entry in the Charles Lenox series, many changes have occurred in his life. For one thing, Charles is now a member of the House of Commons, and finds himself flooded with the demands of his new position. Perhaps more importantly, he and wife Lady Jane are now the parents of Sophie, with whom Charles is charmingly besotted. When chosen to give the opening speech to the Parliament, he decides that this great honor deserves his full attention, and to escape the distractions of London, he takes his family to visit his uncle, who lives in the countryside. But the quiet village of Plumbley will soon besiege Charles with distractions of a different sort, of the type that lead to murder.

Death in the Small Hours is a very mannerly novel, rich with the conventions of upper class Victorian society. The mystery itself is tightly constructed and multi -layered, and Charles is delighted to have the chance to flex his investigative muscles once more.There are plenty of suspects, but little hard evidence, and it isn’t until his uncle is kidnapped that the various threads start to come together in a surprising fashion.

Charles himself is somewhat prissy, in a Poirot-ish sort of way, and Lady Jane is a model Victorian wife and mother. All of the characters, in fact, could have been invented by Agatha Christy herself, such typically English types are they. As a result, the story comes across more as drawing room performance than sharp edged suspense.

Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.