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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 2

The when and why of Bishop’s childhood
Bishop spent formative years in her grandparent’s house in Great Village. By her own account, she learned to walk there. (Spires, “The Art of Poetry,” 126) She learned to read and write there, and underwent her first formal pedagogical experience in the nearby village school (read her memoir “Primer Class”). In this house, she witnessed the disappearance of her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who went into the Nova Scotia Hospital in June 1916 and never came out.
Gertrude and Elizabeth with Mabel Boomer, circa 1916
(Photo credit: unknown)
Although she had visited this house with her mother before 1915 (perhaps even in utero), Bishop lived there continuously from April 1915 to October 1917, at which time her paternal grandparents took her from Great Village back to Worcester, Massachusetts (read her memoir “The Country Mouse”). Bishop lived with her paternal grandparents until May 1918, at which time the Bishops took their seriously ill granddaughter to live with her maternal Aunt Maude Shepherdson (her mother’s older sister) in Revere, Massachusetts. Bishop remained with Maude until she was old enough to go to boarding school in the late 1920s. In the summer of 1919, Bishop was brought back to Nova Scotia by another maternal aunt, Grace Bulmer. From this point onward, throughout the 1920s, Bishop spent long summer vacations in the house (read her memoir “Gwendolyn”).

In December 1929–January 1930, Bishop spent Christmas with her grandparents. It was her last visit for the next sixteen years. Her beloved Pa died in February 1930. Gammie died in April 1931. Bishop entered Vassar College and her gaze turned towards the wider world. Although she did not return to this house again until 1946, and she needed to go far away from it and Great Village and Nova Scotia, Bishop carried her memories and ideas of this time and place — of this house — wherever she went.
Bishop with Betsey, Great Village, circa 1916
(Photo credit: Acadia University Archives)
In 1946 Bishop returned to Nova Scotia and visited Great Village, visited this house (read her poem “The Moose”). She returned in 1947 and 1951 to visit Cape Breton (read her poem “Cape Breton”) and Sable Island, respectively — both places deeply significant to her maternal family. Then Bishop went to Brazil and ended up living there for the next fifteen or so years. Brazil was a place that reminded her of Great Village, at least the rural parts of Brazil, and she wrote some of her best known and loved poems and stories about her childhood in its tropical climate.

A curious thing: the eighteenth century house she bought and restored in Ouro Prêto, which she named “Casa Mariana,” structurally echoes her Great Village home in many ways. “Casa Mariana” is grander, but for anyone who has visited it (I had this privilege in 1999) and the Great Village house, the parallels are remarkable. As Bishop worked to restore this house, she told Robert Lowell that she was “recreating a sort of de luxe [sic] Nova Scotia” and she was her own grandmother. (Travisano, Words in Air, 676)
Casa Mariana, 1999 (Photo credit: unknown)
The genesis of the pilgrimage
One of the first things Bishop did when she returned to Boston in 1970, where she lived for the rest of her life, was to go back to Nova Scotia, Great Village, and the house. She made nearly yearly visits to Nova Scotia during the 1970s, and frequently ended up at the house with her beloved Aunt Grace and her cousin Phyllis Sutherland. Bishop’s last visit to Nova Scotia was in May 1979, to receive an honorary degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax. Sadly, she did not go to the house at that time. She died six months later.
Phyllis and Grace, Great Village, circa early 1940s
(Photo credit: Acadia University Archives)
As I reached this point in this chronology, it dawned on me for the first time ever (and I have been pondering Bishop’s connection to Nova Scotia for over twenty years) that Elizabeth Bishop herself was the first person to make a pilgrimage to this house. Nearly twenty-five years after her last visit (1946), Bishop returned to pay homage to the life she had known there (read “Poem”).

The pilgrims increase
At the time of Bishop’s death, there were still many residents in Great Village who had known Bishop’s maternal family, who had known Bishop herself. Some of them even knew that she was a poet who had received many honours. But these people mostly regarded her as simply a member of the Bulmer-Bowers family: Grace’s niece, Phyllis’s cousin. Even so, some residents quickly became aware that strangers were turning up in the village looking for the places and people connected to Bishop. Meredith and Robert Layton, for example, who ran Layton’s Store, which sits right next to the house, were in the path of many of these pilgrims.

Initially, in the early 1980s, the people who appeared were Bishop’s friends and acquaintances: James Merrill, Lloyd Schwartz, Jane Shore, J.D. McClatchy, Alfred Corn, and so on. Some of them signed the guestbook at Layton’s Store. As scholarship on Bishop began to take hold in the mid- to late 1980s, academics began to arrive (Peter Brazeau, Gary Fountain, Victoria Harrison, Brett Millier, and others). Lisa Brower, from Vassar College, appeared quite early in search of Bishop’s family letters, which were in Phyllis Sutherland’s possession. A large cache of family letters was purchased in the late 1980s and reside with thousands of other Bishop letters in Special Collections at Vassar. (http://specialcollections.vassar.edu/collections/findingaids/b/bishop_elizabeth.html)

Bishop’s childhood home stayed in the immediate extended family until the mid-1990s. The person who lived in the house during this first pulse of Bishop pilgrims was Hazel Bowers (the widow of Norman Bowers, Grace Bulmer Bowers’s step-son). Hazel was well aware of Elizabeth Bishop and her connection to the house. She knew Bishop. I have heard stories of people knocking on the door out of the blue and Hazel, a formidable retired school teacher and principal, inviting them in for tea.

My first visit to the house was early fall 1991. I knocked on the front door. Hazel answered and invited me in as far as the front parlour. I was shy and did not want to intrude too much, so I stayed only briefly. It was clear, Hazel had “been there, done that” with many others. This visit to Great Village occurred after a lengthy first meeting with Phyllis Sutherland. It was with Phyllis that I made visits to the house over the next couple of years.
Left to right seated: Bud Bowers, Lois Bowers, Phyllis Sutherland,
with Brazilian Bishop scholar Maria Lucia Martins, one of the many pilgrims
who visited the house and Bishop's maternal family.
(Photo by Sandra Barry)

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