SARAH ORNE JEWETT -- A VISIT TO HER HOME
A Glimpse of the Noted Maine Author's Charming Personality and Literary Associations -- A Popular Novelette
Sara Orne Jewett's personality had been less before the public than that of almost any other of our American authors who have made contributions to our permanent literature.
In the case of her first long story, The Tory Lover, recently published, the book is like a part of her personality, for the scene is laid in her own native Barvick and circles about and in the beautiful old Colonial house where she was born and where she and her sister live today, as their father and grandfather did before them.
It is not usual for people in our land of change, especially for authors, to live in their birthplace in such pleasant state and keeping.
The Tory Lover was begun before historical fiction came in fashion; put away during a period of mourning when our author worked but little, and resumed just as she saw the wave coming which has dashed so many ephemeral colonial romances upon public attention.
Miss Jewett received me in her house on a bright day, less like October than June, except for the flaming maples and golden elms. "One's house is almost like one's body when it is so much a part of life," she said. "I was born here, and I hope I'll die here -- and" with a smile -- "leave all the chairs in their places!"
They are carved high backed old chairs, that won from her that word, characteristic of sympathy with New England dry humor and exquisite housewifery. Everyone one of the eight great square rooms that give upon the wide hall above and below the carved colonial stairway with its square landing and pulpit window is filled with old mahogany furniture.
FINE OLD WOOD CARVING.
Tradition says that the wood carving in the hall took one man one hundred days to do. Library and drawing room, dining room, breakfast room and the chambers, with their high four posters, each is a more interesting room than the other, in the way of spindle legged and claw footed chairs, tables, desks and settles, and all the beautiful brasses and things of a New England dwelling.
The front of this eighteenth century home, of dormered attic and good porch, is close upon the village street, with all its interesting activity, but at the back one goes down a long stoned walk, past the horse block for the carriage entrance, and through a gateway with quaint balls on the posts into a quiet great garden, with pear and apple trees. A long row of Lombardy poplars beyond that gives a French hint as one sees them across the broad flower beds and down the long alleys.
"This is the broad aisle," said Miss Jewett, walking down one of these alleys past the kitchen garden, where big French carrots made color on the upturned ground, to the big rose garden.
"Here's pansies!" She picked a handful of purple ones. Then we stopped by a brave rose tree, which held three great buds up to the October sun.
Miss Jewett talked of Mrs. Fields' poetry and how close and dear it is to her. She quoted the line:
My altar holds a constant flame,
and was greatly pleased when I told her how Whittier once praised Mrs. Fields' Theocritus to me and said he wished more people knew her Under the Olive.
Miss Jewett talked of her friend's later volume, The Singing Shepherd. When we went into the house again she read aloud from it, the poem called The Traveler, beginning: --
O sorrow: thou that cuttest down the plant
Of this world's promise close to the very root,
Give us, for lo, thou canst! the things we want,
Courage and power above death's mark to shout!"
WHERE NOVEL WAS WRITTEN.
It was in the sunshiny, front corner of the upper hall, beside Miss Jewett's desk, where The Tory Lover was written. On the wide window seat were amaryllis and daphnegedora [daphneodora?], and by the wall some bright tropical flower in scarlet bloom.
On Miss Jewett's secretary were interesting photographs of two old French friends and of a beautiful woman, Miss Elizabeth Howes of Boston. A copy of the Raeburn portrait of Scott behind her pen tray, and a little bronze lion from Venice, were beside a pair of old silver candle sticks, in which the candles were burnt low.
There were two lovely little terra cotta heads, which Miss Jewett brought from Greece. Her desk chair has for cushion a bright colored Greek bag, which she "bought from a peasant off an olive tree."
She has given her readers the dream and the facts. There is French elegance combined with New England simplicity and wholesomeness in all her words and ways. She has great grace of manner, and all the joyous vigor of a life much out of doors. She has three horses in her stable and a boat on the Piscataqua, and has always been fond of all country pleasures.
Her father, Dr. Theodore Jewett, was a physician, a graduate of Bowdoin college, which last summer gave her the degree of doctor of letters. As a little girl she used to drive about all the surrounding country with him, laying the foundations of her intimate knowledge of Maine human nature, all its humor as well as seriousness. There is a great deal of that humor in The Tory Lover in the scene of the major and his toddy in the Haggen's house, which is Miss Jewett's own home.
HAMILTON HOUSE GLORY.
Hamilton House, the chief mansion house in the story, has been taken and made over recently into a duplicate of its former stately splendors by Mrs. George Tyson of Boston and the North Shore, who is making an ideal country place of the home of beautiful Mary Hamilton of the long ago.
The front of the mansion is toward the broad Piscataqua. Boats were its owners' carriages, and the rock landing of the river their entrance of honor to the estate, now blooming again after its desert days.
At Miss Jewett's house there a is quaint wall paper in crimson and pink, which was on a chamber wall when her grandfather bought the place 80 years ago. It is as fresh today as an architect could wish for in a new house built on colonial lines. Lafayette once paid a visit to Mme. Cushing, a relative of Mme. Wallingford, of the novel, in another South Berwick house that figures in the story. Through the falling dusk as I drove to the station from Hamilton House I saw the low picturesque lines of the Hayes house, also an abiding fact in the tale.
The hilltop, which is one of Miss Jewett's favorite walks, hid itself in night; the evening star and the new moon hung themselves up over the reflecting river. In the pleasant house, elm, poplar and fir shaded, and "somewhat back from the village streets," the handsome "old clock on the stair" marked the hastening hour.
On the way back to Boston something that Miss Jewett had told at table at luncheon haunted the dark ways along which the train pleasantly rumbled through Portsmouth and Salem and Lynn. She said that once, last year, when she was at the little town of Nauplia, in Greece, somebody pointed out to her a prison on a small mountain where they kept all the murderers of Greece. When one was to be executed a war ship came into port.
She kept thinking all the time "what if a murderer should come walking down the winding stair, and when a war ship came -- what excitement!"
They always took the murderer to the place where he had committed the murder to execute him. The Greek tragedy in that was evidently of intense interest to Miss Jewett.
The talk at table, where there were guests, was by no means all in the tragic key. It ranged to comedy and to comment. Little tales of travel were told. Miss Jewett has traveled much, from her first European journey in the eighties, when she "ranged from Norway to Rome," to her last year's journey to Constantinople. She has made many a stay in France and England, and one delightful yacht journey with Mrs. Fields and the Aldriches among the West Indies.
"A few months at a time of travel are good," she said, "but it is always good to get home."
HER HOME BY THE SEA.
On another bright October morning Miss Jewett talked of English authors and of foreign lands in the library of what may well be called her seaside home, the house of Mrs. James T. Fields, at Manchester by the Sea. There during the lifetime of the poet-publisher, and through the years since, Miss Jewett has often spent weeks or months of summer and autumn in the happy companionship of that congenial place.
The last time I had seen her there a bright wood fire glowed on the andirons. It was twilight, and opposite Miss Jewett, near the hostess, Mrs. Fields, sat Mr. Warner -- Charles Dudley Warner -- in the firelight glow.
Mrs. Fields' house has always been a centre of attraction during the summer, as her Boston house is in winter, for all that is gentlest and most famous in literary and social life. She is a true woman of letters, of many gifts, the greatest of whose contemporaries have always recognized her as belonging to their high kindred. Lowell and Longfellow, Whittier and Emerson, Dickens and Thackeray, and many another have been her guests in the years that are past. Her Life of Mrs. Stowe is a book for the future as well as the present.
Mr. Fields bought the house at Manchester long ago; fashion has followed after. It is a red house set on a hill, above and not far from the Singing Beach. An English visitor once described it as "like a Swiss chalet perched on top of a rock."
Villa would be a better word than chalet for this red house. It is bright with memories of famous folk besides those who live in it. The sea's sweetness is in the keen, clear air about it, and the scents of pine and fern. Wild rose season lasts late there, and their fragrance is part of the place.
Miss Jewett sat in a high backed chair and talked of some of the London writers of our day. She spoke with enthusiasm of Mrs. Alice Meynell, the poet and essayist, whose first visit to our shores begins with the Pacific coast.
ADMIRES MRS. MEYNELL.
"Mrs. Meynell goes to California before she comes to Boston!" As she said this an appreciative smile lighted Miss Jewett's eyes and moved upon her mouth. The national sweep of the poet's journey, differing from the olden fashion of English authors' American arrivals, pleased her cosmopolitan fancy.
Miss Jewett has one qualification of a good traveler, which, it is to be hoped, Mrs. Meynell has also, if she goes about much -- she can find out all about trains accurately in a big folder time table. I saw her do it when the time came to go, and asked her, doubtingly yet admiringly, if she really could make head or tail of that thing, and if it should be recorded of her in her biography thus: -- "She could interpret a time table!"
"Yes, I can! I insist upon it!" laughed Miss Jewett, and flung out the folder to its full width before her, like a challenging banner, defying all the puzzles of trains and junctions too where depots still survive.
But that was after the talk about Mrs. Meynell and the others was finished. She told how Wilfred Meynell and Alice, his wife, discovered Francis Thompson, the poet; how they, by sympathy and encouragement, raised him from the depths where he had almost disappeared, and gave him, and us all, helpful joy in the poetry that he has written. She spoke of The Hound of Heaven:-- "That was a poem! -- that one we all liked so much."
She was not quite ready, she said, to praise W. B. Yeats as much as some of the London writers do.
"Oh, yes, he has genius, but -- well, to me there is something unreal and fantastatic in Yeats' poetry. Put it beside Mrs. Meynell's -- that shows what I mean. Hers is nearer us, and delicate -- full of distinction. Her essays have the same qualities. I like the volume The Color of Life best, I think. A sonnet of hers -- what is its title? -- is one of the best in English. Renunciation? -- yes, no, Renouncement. I care a great deal for it. That sonnet shines in my sky!
Then, with shining eyes, Miss Jewett repeated some of the lines of Mrs. Meynell:--
RECITED THE POEM.
I must not think of thee, and, tired yet strong,
I shun the thought that lurks in all delight,
The thought of thee -- and in the blue heaven's height,
And in the sweet passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
This breast the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away.
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart!
Miss Jewett did not wish to talk of Mrs. Humphrey Ward or her books. She is too near in intimate association to discuss the author of Eleanor and Helbeck and Marcella. She is her guest when she visits among her many friends in England; and one needs perspective in time to give reminiscences or criticisms of friends who are very close in friendship.
"I can say, though, that I have a great admiration for her beautiful and noble gifts."
"Stephen Phillips?" she went on. "I have read a little of him. I have been waiting until Mrs. Fields and I could read Herod together. But Marpesan I know; it seems to me one of the first of modern poems."
Miss Jewett did not talk of American authors that morning. There are so many, and she knows them all. It would take all the forenoon.
"If I should say that I think Owen Wister has great possibilities, and that he is growing, I should want to say it of the others too," and she smiled.
SEEN AT BOSTON.
There was no visible author present in Mrs. Fields' Boston house on the third of the October mornings. But it was easy to imagine the author of The Tory Lover, giving human interest to her desk and chair in her own special corner of that famous library, where letters and pictures of poets are almost as plentiful as their books. The portrait of Mr. Fields on the wall lent a new meaning to Longfellow's line for Burns:--
Dear guest and ghost!
While we waited for the sun to move up Charles street a little, so that the light should not be too effulgent for a good photograph of Miss Jewett's little desk by the window, Mrs. Fields' pictures and books absorbed me.
The charming portrait of Dickens, painted by Alexander, is lifelike in its place. The best known portrait of Miss Mitford is there, given to her beloved friends. Tennyson's portrait has with it a letter from him to Mr. Fields. A first edition of Bryant is marked, "Very rare. Given to me by Longfellow. J. T. F.
These are only hints of the interest of that room. Yesterdays with Authors are very present todays in that long book-lined room, whose windows at the back look down upon a garden that borders on the tidewater of the Back Bay.
In front is Charles street, once a quiet, tree shaded avenue, where but few old residents linger now in storied houses in these latter days of crowding overhead wires and rushing cars, with business coming nearer on either hand.
No one passing that hospitable portal could suspect what a haunt of the unusual is there concealed. The garden is a deep one, reaching, green and secluded, from the back of the tall house, bright no with the changing colors of the Japanese Ivy, to a sea wall where mount and fall the tides of Emerson's "flowing sea," that "twice each day took Boston in its arms."
At the foot of the garden, beyond a black poplar tree at corner of the wall, the high masts of a New York schooner were reared against the morning sky. It is very unusual for a boat to get in past the bridges from Boston harbor to the Back Bay. An old workman told me, over the outward corner of the garden wall, that they were unloading paving stones.
There was a garden bench close by, of gnarled, knotted wood. I forget just how at this point I contrived to ask the old man who had said he had been at work next door for many years if he had ever seen Charles Dickens sitting on that bench with Mr. Fields.
"I have heard the name spoken," he replied, with a respectful glance at the bench. "I used to know Him!" He jerked a tenderly affectionate thumb toward the house where James Fields had lived. "That was afore he died. They's mostly ladies that seem to be the poets nowadays, mostly ladies! I see them sittin' on the bench sometimes -- mostly ladies!" He turned to his work with a sigh and a smile.
A house boat, occupied by a tenant of the Athletic club, moved across the Venetian view before. The old man who lives on it was sculling his floating residence past the greater and lesser sails of little boats at anchor on the silvery, moving tide.
No wonder the sea is in so many of Miss Jewett's stories, when she lives so much with it when in either of her homes with Mrs. Fields. The Charles street garden has flowers in bloom, and a score of different trees and shrubs, lilacs that must make a May melody of bloom, and all sorts of growing and twining things against the walls.
But, pleasant as it is, it would not hold such an exquisite charm, it would not be unique among city gardens, were it not for the bay. Sometimes at very high tide the waves dash up over the stone work, spraying the gnarled old bench that outranks in Miss Jewett's affection a second garden seat nearer the house.
Yes, the garden's greatest joy is the bay itself, not the made city section that is called by the name, but the living sea-born Back Bay of Boston.
From the Bangor Daily Commercial, December 20, 1901.
Daphneodora: Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia says that the genus Daphne includes species and varieties that are mainly small shrubs with fragrant flowers and brightly colored fruits. Daphne odora (Winter Daphne) is native to Japan and China and popular in the American South. The plant is 4' - 6' tall, with small, rosy flowers in March and April – the most fragrant blooms of all daphnes – and evergreen leaves that are three inches long. As a houseplant in a northern state, the plant probably was smaller. (Research: Nancy Wetzel).
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Available courtesy of Nancy Wetzel.