Summer Homes of Women who Write
No writer of the day leads a more thorough out-door life, nor one which is so fully reflected in her books, than Sarah Orne Jewett. Yet hers is a life in no sense removed from people, passing her winters at that centre of literary and social life and interests -- Mrs. James T. Fields's, Charles Street, Boston -- where she meets and mingles freely with Boston's most exclusive society. But with the first stirrings of spring in the air she is off for South Berwick, Maine, where until well into October she revels to the fullest possible extent in the delights of the out-of-doors. Her summer residence is no mere lodging place, but a veritable home, teeming with tender, loving memories and associations; one of those stately , substantial Colonial mansions -- with great spacious rooms, wide halls, easy stairways and huge tiled fireplaces -- that attracts and holds attention by its sedate dignity.
It stands close to the street, opposite what the villagers call "the block," amid shrubbery and giant trees that shield and closely environ it on all sides. A cheery, generous hall, rich in beautifully hand carved panels and cornices, with a massive door at each end, extends through the centre of the house. Lying on either side are two large square rooms, while at one side a quaint, highly polished stairway, with broad low steps, leads by right-angled turns to the floor above where there is another hall and six more rooms, with an immense garret pierced by pretty dormers over all. Every room is set forth with the most fascinating, old-fashioned mahogany furniture --high-backed chairs, spindle-legged escritoires, broad easy sofas, last century bedsteads with white canopies, cabinets of rare china, gilded mirrors, and hosts of relics and curios, over which lovers of the antique go into ecstasies if they find but one specimen such as these with which this "great brown house" its filled to overflowing.
This homestead, with its wealth of treasure, came to Miss Jewett at the death of her surgeon father. It was an old structure -- dating back somewhere into the early part of the last century -- long before her grandfather, some 70 years ago, secured possession of it; and it remains today essentially unchanged, Miss Jewett watching over and lovingly maintaining everything just as it was when this seafaring ancestor was alive, and it is her earnest desire to leave it intact when she passes into the unknown.
Within these time-honored walls Miss Jewett was born and at the age of 14 sent "Lucy Garron's Lovers" -- the story which gave the author her first taste of fame-on its career into the world; here also the most and best of her later creations, including "Deephaven," "A Country Doctor," "A Marsh Island" and "The Country of the Pointed Firs" were wrought.
Her study -- at once the most interesting as well as the least pretentious of the many hansomely appointed apartments the house affords -- is in the upper hall with a deep-seated window looking down upon the tree-shaded street. It is a cosey nook, free from everything that savors of the workshop. No litter of proofs, no piles of manuscripts, no heaps of reference books, nothing, in fact, that represents the usual stock-in-trade of the modern writer being visible; simply a chair, a table, a tidily kept desk, a small bookcase and flowers and pictures in great profusion. Here among the birds and branches she writes, invariably in the morning, though time of day, with the exception of evenings, is of no material difference to her.
Miss Jewett makes writing a pleasure rather than a business; never exacting from herself any accounting of time, and never feeling conscience-stricken -- as are so many in these days of grinding -- if at the end of each working day she has not blackened a certain number of sheets. Only when she has something which she considers well worth the saying is the pen and paper brought into play; oftentimes weeks, even months, elapsing before this feeling possesses her. She observes no more method in preparing, than in performing her work; simply letting the matter absorbed resolve itself easily and naturally into the desired shape, when without a note, or sign of guiding synopsis, she, with the greatest ease and rapidity, brings it to the light of words.
So well does she know what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, that she often writes as many as 10,000 words at a sitting. This pace, however, is rarely sustained; usually, when an extended story is under way, she writes anywhere from 2000 to 4000 words a day, say possibly five days a week.
The later hours of the day are surrendered variously to sitting quietly about the house or grounds, to rowing, to walking or driving about the countryside; for Miss Jewett is an ardent lover of the open air and its exhilarations. Her relish and capacity for pleasure and recreation, as those who read her stories well know, being of that sort which with many is so deep and abiding. No mere observer or well-wisher is she, but a hearty, enthusiastic participant in everything that is wholesome. Walking -- not long, tiresome jaunts, but easy, leisurely strolls -- has always been a favorite pastime, though driving possesses the greater fascination for her, taking long delightsome drives almost daily among the sweet-smelling pine woods surrounding her home. She is an excellent oarswoman, handling a boat with perfect ease in either salt or fresh water, and her oar knows every reach of the Piscataqua River. Flowers are another source of great pleasure to her, their cultivation forming one of the most enjoyable parts of her summer outing.
This is selected from a piece that includes descriptions of the homes of Kate Douglas Wiggin, Amelia F. Barr, Elizabeth Phelps Ward, and Mrs. Burton Harrison. It appeared in New England Home Magazine, a supplement of the Boston Sunday Journal, June 30, 1901. It is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME.
That the various journalistic "interview" essays from 1895-1901 share a number of the same errors, "facts" and quotations, suggests that they probably fed on each other, making it difficult to tell which, if any, were based on an actual interview.
This piece fairly clearly was compiled from other materials, many of them erroneous. For example: "Jenny Garrow's Lovers" was published in January, 1868, when Jewett was 18. This is one of the errors that shows up in several purported "interview" pieces. This piece also has several errors about the Jewett house, including its date, ownership history and some aspects of the interior description.
These pieces may be especially interesting because of what they reveal about how their authors wished to imagine a woman writer they had not actually met and to think about the setting in which she wrote.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.