PLEASANT DAY WITH MISS JEWETT
How the New England Authoress Lives in Quaint Old Berwick Town.
HER HOUSE AND HER HORSES.
An Ideal Summer Life Down on the Coast of Maine -- Her Stories and Novels and How They Are Written.
The train did not stop at South Berwick. It was inconsiderate enough to go plunging on to Salmon Falls. And then there was the river to cross and a hill to climb, while the sky darkened with a Summer gale and the grass bent and the great trees creaked and snapped and the scudding clouds, gray with rain swept low over the darkening landscape.
There was a little country store perched high on a flight of steps above the roadway, and its owner, who had a flock of dark-eyed, dark-haired, pink-frocked midgets about him, spoke more French than English, as befitted one who had to do with the Canadian mill-hands in the factories along the river.
"Miss Sarah Jewett?" he repeated in reply to an inquiry; "everybody for miles around knows Miss Sarah. You keep straight up this street till you've passed two churches, then you'll come to 'the block' and opposite the block is a great brown house. That's Miss Jewett's; you can't miss it, but anybody in the village can tell you."
WHERE SHE LIVES.
The rain came down in mad torrents. Above the splash and the dash of it sounded the jar of the river falls and the groanings of the trees that arched the village street as one drenched wanderer pushed forward through a world that had turned of a sudden to water and came half-blinded to "the block," and to the great brown house, hidden among ancient trees, which shelters one of New England's soundest, sweetest and most wholesome writers, and which is in itself of no inconsiderable interest, dating back as it does to the first half of the last century, and standing as one of the best examples of the best of the old colonial architecture.
The tall trees that bordered the walk drooped black and heavy with rain, but the face of the woman who stood in the broad paneled hall with its great doors at each end was cheery enough to make up for any imaginable lack of sunshine.
Did you ever know a writer who was like her books or who told you unconsciously in ten minutes how she wrote them? If you have felt the truth to New England life, that is yet not too bold, but has imagination to lighten it; the fidelity to details that is saved from harsh literalness by sentiment and a touch of humor; the philosophy that is at once keen and true and kindly; the outlook upon life that is far-seeing and yet smiles; if, in a word, you have had any perception of the woman beyond the ink in Miss Jewett's stories you will miss the usual disappointment that comes with the close view of a celebrity, if ever fortune takes you to old Berwick and the great brown house with its long past and its present of greater moment still.
There is a word that means much to me. It is "wholesome." Morbid art, morbid literature, morbid thought sprout like quick-growing, quick-dying fungi at the feverish end of this busy century. But it is the simple, the honest which lives, and somehow it sweeps away, like a breath of sea air, all doubts of their survival to see this slim little woman in her gardening dress, fresh from among her flowers, happy in her Summer life in her quaint country home.
I wonder if there is another such house in New England. I have seen many stately mansions that go back to the days before the Revolution -- one in particular where General Gage was quartered in old Danvers, a town which is linked by witch threads to Berwick, and one with gambrel roof upon which a good dame and her cronies climbed to be out of reach of husbandly authority while they drank tea forbidden to patriots until the tax was removed. But I have never seen a living place at once so modern and so reminiscent of 1730 or days younger still.
In its great rooms, filled with old mahogany and warmed by huge tiled fireplaces, it would be easy to forget that the gundalows, with their high pecked sails like great birds' wings, do not yet sail down the river from the landing wharves in fleets of tens and twenties to Portsmouth, with their loads of pine planks and boards to be exchanged for West India rum, tobacco and molasses, or for Russian iron, duck and cordage, or for such priceless old glass and silver and china as came from unknown ports and now peeps out wonderingly upon nineteenth century - or shall one almost begin to say twentieth century -- cushions and pictures and bric-a-brac from their deep-set cupboards and shelves.
"I found these things here," Miss Jewett says, "and I hope to leave them when I go into the unknown." If one had one's choice of ancestors it would be impossible to pick out better than those who chose the elaborate cornices, all carved by hand with infinite pains, and the high paneling of the parlors, and the broad window sills and the flowered wall paper, still bright and fresh, though of a pattern on which Marie Antoinette might have set the seal of her approval when she fitted up the little Trianon.
City people who have a passion for the antique hunt a year and a day and rejoice the rest of their lives if they discover at a curio dealer's [dealers] or in their Summer wanderings one such high-backed chair or broad old sofa as those of which the Jewett house is full. Such a sideboard as that in the dining room, such spindle-legged escritoires [escritories], such cabinets holding such a power of china -- figures and cups and vases; carvings and corals and sea shells; minerals and strange things from the South seas -- they could not discover if they bent all their energies to the toil.
It seems as if one had no right to say so much about a house which is a home. And yet New England has few like this, and it is a part of her brave old history. There are few such broad, high halls arched and paneled; few such wide stairways with carved and polished railings, few such quaint gilded mirrors and antique portraits and last century bedsteads with white canopies. The old days and the new come together in spirit and blood so harmoniously that time seems to have run on without thought of a break and the Now is just the natural, rightful development of the Then.
I wanted to ask Miss Jewett some questions that might have been rude. In "Deephaven" she tells of a particularly interesting carpet in whose great figures Kate Lancaster used to play keep house with her dolls, and if one of them chanced to fall outside the boundary stripe it was immediately put to bed with a cold. I wondered if that were not the carpet in her dining room. She told me without my asking and, I hope, because she saw that my interest in the noble house was unfeigned, that the place had belonged to her people for seventy years, and that, before the time of her surgeon father, her sea-faring grandfather had brought home many of the curios. Before the grandfather's time the mansion was an old one and there are traces of French elegance as well as colonial solidity in its finishings.
FLOWERS AND HORSES.
Behind the house is a big old-fashioned garden, and every room is sweet with posies. There is a stable, too, for Miss Jewett loves her horses and drives almost daily over the green hills, now bright with goldenrod, of the beautiful coast of Maine. She is an oarswoman as well, and her boat knows every reach of the river and all its quiet sunlit coves. Hers is a life close to nature and yet not apart from people, for she spends her Winters in Boston. It would be hard to plan one's years on lines more nearly ideal, hard to see how one could get a better chance of growth and development and strong, true work -- such work as Miss Jewett is doing. There is rest, there is peace, there is time to think, and the sincerity and serenity of it all comes out in her novels.
I had not meant to make this an interview, for one does not print questions and answers when a woman takes you into her home. But perhaps Miss Jewett will let me say that she attends to her correspondence in the morning and writes usually in the afternoon. I think she said she was in a sense a fitful worker. That is, she may write 8000 or 10,000 words in a day, but she never keeps up that pace for very long. Many of her magazine sketches have been written at a sitting; some have been retouched, perhaps almost rewritten afterward; others have gone to the printer with scarcely the change of a word. When she has a long story on hand she writes from 2000 to 4000 words a day, five days in the week, possibly. A novel finished, there comes the growing and the gaining time. For months, maybe, she reads and rides and rows till she has something more so well worth saying that pen and paper must come into play again.
HER STUDY FAVORITES.
Miss Jewett's "den" is the most delightful I have ever seen. It is in the upper hall, with a wide window looking down upon the tree-shaded village street. A desk strewn with papers is on one side and on the other a case of books and a table. Pictures, flowers and books are everywhere. The room set apart for the library is one of the four great square ones downstairs. But the books overflow it. They lie upon the sofas and have shelves in the bedrooms. It is the house of a woman who studies. Scott particularly. For she doesn't believe with Howells that the art of novel-writing has grown a so much finer thing since the great romancer's day that we have nothing to learn from him. "The busier I get," she said, "the more time I make to read the 'Waverley' novels."
"And of the more modern writers?"
"What would you say if I asked you that question?"
"That it depended on the mood."
"What other answer can you expect from me? One can nearly always read Stevenson and the Scotch children; but one book is for one day's thinking and another for another's."
Miss Jewett spoke with the warmest appreciation of the books of Miss Mary E. Wilkins, whose work is like and yet so unlike her own. Both have written lovingly and truthfully of the simple, country life of New England; but where one is photographic, the sentences of the other are shot with the colors of the imagination. "I read Miss Wilkins' first stories," she said, "and wondered that the public did not recognize sooner that a new genius had arisen."
"Of your own books, which do you like best?"
"They are a pretty large family now," and she smiled. "There are always personal reasons, you know, and associations that my influence one's judgment. I don't think I have a favorite. In some ways I like "A Country Doctor" best, and yet I believe "A Marsh Island" is a better story."
I am not quoting Miss Jewett verbatim, and that I try to quote her at all she must forgive me.
AN EARLY BEGINNING.
Not many writers have felt the scribbling instinct so young. "Lucy Garrou's Lovers" was written and printed when its author was somewhere about 14. Before she was 20 Miss Jewett had seen her signature in the "Atlantic Monthly" and other magazines, but as she counts things now her serious work did not begin until some time after then. What the future may bring she is chary about saying, but with the best years of her life ahead the best work is still to come from a woman young in years and younger in spirit and vitality.
It is worth a day's journey down into Maine to sit in one of those big, cool old rooms, with the rain dashing against the windows and tossing the lilac branches about wildly, and to hear such earnest, common sense as one gets from few women. Of course, we talked about the new woman. Miss Jewett isn't at all worried about her. She believes in the natural evolution of things. The world progresses just about as fast as the mass can be leavened wholesomely. There are not so many isolated women in advance of their day now as a generation ago, but the average woman has moved a long distance forward. That there is room for the women in the professions nobody any longer questions. What more is to come is a matter for growth and time.
We talked about Whittier. Whittier knew Berwick and used to come there in his younger days to Friends' Quarterly Meeting. So when he had grown old and shrank from strangers Miss Jewett used to tell him about people and places, unforgotten but from which his life had drifted him away.
The lilac bushes splashed water on me as I went down the flagged walk to the street, but the sun was red in the west as the train pulled out of the station. And so I shall remember the river falls, the sound of the factory bells, the beating of the storm, the dark green of the country hills, and, above all, the strong, reviving personality of the slender, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who looked out on a wet world so cheerily as she stood again in the doorway in her simple Summer dress to bid me good-by.
South Berwick is a beautiful old country town, with the tidewater of the Atlantic pulsing twice a day up to its decaying wharves, but it has nothing else of so much importance to the world outside as its woman writer, Sarah Orne Jewett.
Philadelphia Press. -- Sunday, August 18, 1895. There are three journalistic pieces at this site that make use of the same material. This one appears to be the original. This essay shares a number of the same errors, "facts" and quotations with the others. Another piece based heavily upon this one appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin the following September, and yet another was printed twice in 1901, in the Kennebec Journal and in the Boston Herald.
This text is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME. Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items you would like annotated, please contact the site manager.
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"Jenny Garrow's Lovers" was published in January, 1868, when Jewett was 18.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.