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

Friday, April 30, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- "The War was on." -- Part One

One of the most important aspects about Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood in Great Village was: “The War was on,” that is, the first eight years of her life occurred concurrently with the lead up to, outbreak, progression and conclusion of World War I. This global catastrophe deeply affected her and her maternal family in many ways. The Bulmers did not lose any sons in the trenches in France, but they knew all the young men from Great Village who enlisted, served and died, overseas. Decades later, Bishop described herself to Anne Stevenson as a “late-late post-World War I poet.”

In 1999, I was asked to contribute an essay to a special Bishop issue of War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities (Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1999). I created a chronology weaving together the events of Bishop’s family’s life with concurrent events of the War, both abroad and on the home front. This juxtaposition reveals a great deal about the complexity of Bishop’s experiences in Nova Scotia in the 1910s, during the most impressionable time of her life, experiences that had a life-long impact on her world view and artistic practice.

As is the way with us all these days, I searched on the internet and, of course, WLA has a website (www.wlajournal.com). In its “Archives” I saw the cover of the issue, which was done by Kathleen Carlton Johnson, based on the cenotaph in Great Village; but the content has not yet been digitized. I decided to excerpt my chronology and offer it here. So much more can be said, and I did say more in the essay; but simply making a list of some events provides powerful evidence of the interconnectedness of public and private realms -- so it was for Elizabeth Bishop living in Great Village, N.S., as war raged in Europe.

The chronology is long, so I will present it in two parts. Part One goes from 1905 to August 1914, the outbreak of the war. This time-line encompasses the marriage of Bishop’s parents, her birth and first three years of life. Part Two goes from 1915 to 1919, which encompasses Bishop’s principle childhood years in Great Village. The works I cite are listed at the end of Part Two. Since writing the essay, more facts about this time in Elizabeth Bishop’s life came to light, some of which have been included.


Chronology: Elizabeth Bishop and World War I

1905-1908 - Incidents in the Balkans and Morocco cause tensions between Germany/Austria and France/Russia/Britain.

22 June 1908 - William Bishop of Worcester, MA, and Gertrude Bulmer of Great Village, N.S., marry in New York; honeymoon in Jamaica and Panama. Bishop wrote Stevenson, “My father had married a poor country girl.” (23 March 1964)

1911 - Second Moroccan crisis. Tensions in Europe increase.

8 February 1911 - Elizabeth Bishop born in Worcester, MA.

13 October 1911 - William dies.

14 April 1912 - Titanic strikes iceberg and sinks. This disaster had no direct bearing on the War, but the ship’s designation as “unsinkable” symbolizes the optimism and arrogance of Europe and North America “still under the tranquil inertias of half a century of peace.” (Wells, 853) Bishop’s family was not involved in the disaster, but it “strongly affected” her maternal uncle, Arthur Bulmer, and through him Bishop, “When I was left alone in the parlor...I could scarcely wait to take out the Titanic books...and look at the terrifying pictures one more time.” (Collected Prose, 245-6)

1912-1913 - Gertrude and Elizabeth travel between Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. Gertrude, in deep mourning, is emotionally stable but restless. Elizabeth’s earliest memories are of learning to walk in her maternal grandmother’s kitchen in Great Village and riding with her mother in a swan boat in the Boston Public Gardens. A swan bites Gertrude’s gloved hand; Bishop told Spires, “The finger was split. Well, I was thrilled to death!” (126).

A “fragile equilibrium of European statecraft” keeps the lid on the “point beyond which none of them could see.” (Stokesbury, 21)

February 1914 - Gertrude appoints her father-in-law, John Wilson Bishop, Sr., conservator of her estate.

Spring 1914 - Gertrude has a breakdown and is hospitalized for about three months in a private sanatorium in Norwood, MA. Elizabeth is cared for by maternal aunts, Maude Shepherdson and Grace Bulmer, who live in Revere and Boston, respectively.

May 1914 - John Wilson Bishop, Sr., petitions court to be appointed legal guardian of Elizabeth Bishop. Gertrude consents.

18 June 1914 - Final account for estate of William Thomas Bishop (Elizabeth Bishop’s father) is rendered. The consequence of all these probate, estate and guardianship actions is to increase tensions between Gertrude and her in-laws concerning custody of Elizabeth.

25-26 June 1914 - Great Salem Fire. Gertrude and Elizabeth, together in Marblehead, witness the blaze across Salem Harbor. Gertrude assists refugees fleeing the burning “Witch City.” “A Drunkard” records Bishop’s memories of this event.

28 June 1914 - Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo.

30 July 1914 - Russia mobilizes.

1 August 1914 - Germany declares war on Austria and begins invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium.

4 August 1914 - Britain declares war on Germany. “When Great Britain is at war, Canada is at war” (Craig, 50). Canadian mobilization begins immediately. The First Contingent leaves for England in October 1914 (Mathieson, 3). Canadians no less than the other Allies believe the war will be over by Christmas and “march off to the great adventure.” (Stokesbury, 34)

Fall 1914 and winter 1915 - Gertrude making plans to return to Nova Scotia with Elizabeth.

Harold Spencer in full Highland Brigade regalia, circa 1916. He did not survive the War.

No comments:

Post a Comment