"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "In the Village" in The New Yorker

There are still a few people in Nova Scotia who knew Elizabeth Bishop, principal among them is her first cousin, Phyllis Sutherland. Being fifteen years younger than Bishop, Phyllis’s own first memory of her cousin is seeing a teenager doing cartwheels in the driveway of Elmcroft (the Bowers’s family home), something which deeply impressed the little girl. The bulk of Phyllis’s memories connect to a time much later in their lives, when Bishop began visiting Nova Scotia in the 1970s, after having lived for over fifteen years in Brazil (though in the interim, hundreds of letters passed between them and Phyllis’s mother, Grace Bulmer Bowers).

The members of MacLachlan family of Great Village also had strong memories of Elizabeth Bishop, and several members of that family were resident in the village until quite recently. Donald and Alberta MacLachlan were close friends with William and Elizabeth Bulmer, Bishop’s paternal grandparents. One of their oldest daughters, Margaret Motley, was a good friend of Gertrude, Bishop’s mother. Muir MacLachlan, one of the younger sons, was Bishop’s exact contemporary and her classmate in Grade Primary in the Great Village School. Muir and his wife Helen later took over his father’s general store in Great Village and Bishop remembered visiting him there in the 1940s and 1970s. A younger daughter, Donalda, born a couple of years after Bishop, has her own very early memory of seeing little Elizabeth take the cow to pasture, passing by the MacLachlan family home.

Muir features in Bishop’s late memoir “Primer Class,” about going to school in Great Village in 1916-1917. Donald and Alberta feature in “In the Village,” Bishop’s masterpiece of memory about the year of her mother’s breakdown. In that piece the MacLachlans are referred to as “MacLean.” Bishop always had a reason for changing or modifying a name (often more than one reason). In this instance, my theory is the change was made because she never mastered the spelling of MacLachlan (I have come across several variants of it in her letters). Like Bulmer (Boomer, Bulmore, Bullmer, etc.), MacLachlan did legitimately have several spellings, but I think Bishop opted for the simpler “MacLean” as being safe and close enough.

“In the Village” first appeared in The New Yorker in the 19 December 1953 issue. With its rigour about “facts” – its (im)famous fact checking department – I find it interesting that “MacLean” made it through. Perhaps when the complete Elizabeth Bishop/New Yorker correspondence comes out next year (edited by Joelle Biele), there might be some indication whether “MacLean” was ever questioned.

When I first started researching and writing about Elizabeth Bishop, I had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting Margaret Motley, Muir MacLachlan and Donalda Nelson. I remember on one occasion sitting in the wonderful old MacLachlan family home talking with them about Bishop, the Bulmers, their own parents and what Great Village was like during their childhood.

It was a deep loss to Great Village when Margaret and Muir died. I continued to visit Donalda, who lived across the road from her family home, in the lovely old house which had once belonged to the Great Village postmaster Angus Johnson. Recently, Donalda moved to nearby Truro.

I have many wonderful memories of drinking tea with Donalda in her cosy kitchen, talking about music, art, history and Great Village. During one of those visits she told me about one time when Margaret was living in New York City and she opened up an issue of The New Yorker and saw “In the Village.” Recognizing its provenance immediately, she mailed a copy of the issue to her parents. It may very well have been the first way anyone in Great Village saw this story. Bishop was living in Brazil at the time, and while she unfailingly sent signed copies of her books to Aunt Grace and Phyllis, she rarely managed to send the magazines or journals in which her poems appeared.

It was the first time I had heard this story, and you can imagine how interested I was. Donalda got up and went off into another room. A moment later she returned holding the very issue of The New Yorker that Margaret had sent! I nearly fainted. I opened it up and found “In the Village,” and laughed when I saw the cartoon on the opening page, it has a parrot nattering at a television. As I leafed through this treasure, Donalda gently asked, “Would you like to have it?” I nearly fainted again! “Yes,” I said, as calmly as I could manage, “thank you so much.”

What intrigues me about this story is the trajectory: Elizabeth Bishop sits in her Brazilian studio in early 1953 writing “In the Village,” the story about her childhood in Great Village in 1916-1917. She sends it to New York City where it is published in December that year. Margaret Motley of Great Village is living in New York City and opens The New Yorker (perhaps she bought it off the newsstand or perhaps she was a subscriber) and reads the story. She knows it must go back to Great Village. When it arrives it is likely the first moment when Bishop’s vivid memories are tangibly returned to her childhood home. The MacLachlans and Donalda save the issue, treasure it, and decades later, it reappears and is passed on to me. What are the odds? Whatever the odds are, I am most grateful to Donalda for her stewardship not only of this resonate object, but also of her family’s memories of and connections to Elizabeth Bishop.

Cover of the 19 December 1953 The New Yorker.

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