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

Monday, July 26, 2021

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 151: Life in the Village, 1947, Grace to Elizabeth 2

Grace’s letter continued to offer memories of Gertrude’s time as a teacher, “She [Gertrude] was teaching at Valley Road, a God forsaken place in Cum[berland] Co[unty] & she boarded with Aunt Hannah, Father’s sister, 3 miles from her school.” 

Aunt Hannah was Hannah Lee Bulmer Brenton Eaton, who was born 21 June 1837 in Williamsdale, N.S. She married Thomas Brenton in 1861 and then John W. Eaton in 1891. She was the third oldest child in the family, that is, one of William Bulmer’s older sisters. 

Even today, Valley Road is an extremely isolated area, the closest town is Oxford, N.S. I was in that area only once, taken there by Phyllis Sutherland (Grace’s daughter). It felt like we drove and drove for a long time through deep woods with few houses. One can only imagine what it was like at the turn of the twentieth century, before automobiles. 

Grace continued: “It was through the woods & I guess it was a lonesome walk, so she got the little dog King for company.” In “Homesickness” this male dog is transformed into Juno, “a big hound bitch, her coat just a few shades darker than the earth of the road.” (EAP 188) A female dog was not pure fiction, as Grace continued to explain in the letter: “Art had two [of] them ‘King’ the little black fellow & Queen* a little light bull dog.” These pets had their own story, “You probably remember Maud telling about them, how they would sit on each side of the organ & howl when she played.” 

The Bulmers always had dogs and cats and there were favourites during Bishop’s time in Great Village in the 1910s. King and Queen did not survive to Bishop’s time, as Grace reported in the letter: “Some dirty son of a so-so poisoned them.” 

Before leaving this part of the story, Grace observed, “I really don’t know much about that place,” meaning Valley Road. Travelling to those ancestral places was not something the Bulmers did often. Gertrude taught there for a couple of terms.

Grace had stronger memories of Gertrude teaching at Economy Point, which was her next job. For all readers of EB’s poetry, this place is iconic from “The Moose”: “Lower, Middle, Upper” Economy. There is also an Economy Point and Economy Falls. This cluster of Economies is to the northwest of Great Village along the road that runs through to Parrsboro. 

Grace gave an account of her memory of one particular event during Gertrude’s time there: “That was the year Mary was born [1900] & your mother took me down for a visit to ease the situation at home. We had a maid from Eastville at the time and I had been sleeping with her. Anyway after I had been there a few days, your mother discerned I was good & lousy. She got them in her long hair & I was kind enough to give them to nearly every one in the school.”

(Gertrude Bulmer, circa 1900,

standing in front of the Hill house

in Great Village, N.S. Ruth Hill was Gertrude's

best friend during girlhood. AUA)

Grace then recalled that “the next term she went to Mira in C[ape] B[reton] where she only stayed part of the term.” I was most interested to read this sentence. I knew Gertrude had taught briefly in Cape Breton, at a school where the children only spoke Gaelic. But I didn’t know the location. Mira is on the west side of the island and in the Gaelic heart of the region. 

Grace closes this part of her letter with a dose of encouragement for her niece: “I am glad you are going to write about N.S. Some of the old folks I remember are so original, they should be in a book. I would love to tell you all I know about them. I always wanted to write stories like [Joseph Crosby] Lincoln** wrote about Cape Cod. G.V. people are just as funny.” Bishop would likely have written her G.V. stories regardless, but how lovely that she had Grace’s urging. 

Grace then shifts gears towards urging Bishop to visit and tempting to do so by telling her more about home. More in the next post. 

Click here to see Post 150.


*Arthur and Mabel Bulmer, like so many others in Nova Scotia in the late 1890s were strong anglophiles. Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia” shows that the family hung elaborate chromographs of the royal family on their walls. So, it wasn’t surprising that their dogs were monikered with such regal names. 

**With her keen interest in and time spent at Cape Cod, Bishop undoubtedly knew exactly who Grace was referring to. More about Joseph Crosby Lincoln can be found by clicking here.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 150: Life in the Village, 1947, Grace to Elizabeth 1

When I began to write about Bishop’s letters to her aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers, I did an initial, short backgroundpost about these letters, in which I discussed the fact that no letters from Grace to her niece appear to survive (at least I had never come across any). The fate of Grace’s many letters to Bishop is unknown, and will likely remain so. That they are missing is a sad reality in Bishop’s voluminous correspondence. Grace might not have been an important literary figure (such as Moore, Lowell or her New Yorker editors), but she was a central person in Bishop’s life and their correspondence meant a great deal to the poet.

Recently, to my utter surprise, Bishop scholar and editor Jonathan Ellis sent me a photocopy of an undated letter that Grace wrote to Bishop, which he found at Vassar College in Special Collections (Bishop Papers). I never knew it was there, but am thrilled that Jonathan located it. He tells me that it is the only such document that Vassar holds. As surprised and pleased as I was that something of this side of their decades-long correspondence exists, reading it made me all the sadder that the rest of that side is gone. From this one short letter, Grace’s epistolary knack is clearly evident. Besides, the letter also holds information that is directly relevant to something Bishop was working on at the time she received it.

Though undated, the letter was written sometime in early 1947, not long before Bishop’s trip to and stay in Nova Scotia in July/August of that year. This letter refers to Bishop’s trip to Nova Scotia the previous year (1946), also in July/August, so dating it can be done with certainty (though the precise day it was written, sent, received is not possible, just an approximation: late spring or early summer).

What is also important about this letter is that it was written before the bulk of the existing Bishop correspondence to her aunt, which in Vassar’s holdings begins in 1950. This letter was written to Bishop before she moved to Brazil. It means that their correspondence began earlier than what Vassar’s holdings indicate. What happened to Bishop’s correspondence to Grace before 1950 is another a mystery. I had thought their communication from this time was likely spotty, understandably increasing when Bishop ended up in Brazil. However, the letter from Grace suggests to me that they corresponded regularly, perhaps from the time Bishop went to Vassar.

Grace’s letter begins “Great Village. Thurs. Dear Elizabeth: -- Rec’d your letter & should have answered before….” (emphasis added) So, Grace had, indeed, received a letter from her niece, and no idle epistle, as will be seen when I begin to write about this communication directly.

It has been a long time since I last posted about Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace. I am hoping to return to that pleasant project, and this letter from Grace to Bishop may be the spur I need.

Grace explained the delay in her response by noting: “I wanted to talk to Art [Uncle Arthur Bulmer] before I wrote you, as he was the one who went over to see your mother[,] he and [Bertram] Knight-Eaton*[,] & took the dog along.” Bishop would have known very well who Knight-Eaton was.

This consultation was important because Bishop’s letter asked Grace about the time when her mother was a teacher. The reason for her interest at this time in her mother’s life was because she wanted to write about it. The Bishop Papers at Vassar contain two files for an unfinished poem and a story, both titled “Homesickness.” They were attempts to write about what her mother experienced when she was a young schoolteacher in Nova Scotia in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke-Box, editor Alice Quinn includes a draft of the poem (86-88) and part of the story (188-90). She places the poem in the section for 1937-1950. In the extensive note about these documents, Quinn dates both pieces 1948-1950 (294). She marshals strong circumstantial evidence for this dating. This letter from Grace actually extends this general date range.

In the story, Bishop changed the people who went to see Gertrude from her brother and his friend to her father, sister and brother. Bishop changed their surname (though she chose one that also belonged to Great Village). These slight alterations were meant to fictionalize, ever so lightly, the historical facts, and to distance the story slightly from herself.

Bishop never came close to finishing “Homesickness” (poem or story: the poem is very fragmentary, the story had a solid start but was then abandoned). Bishop began writing them during tumultuous years of her life, which included a stint as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (1949-1950) and a visit to Sable Island (1951), a trip that helped prompt her to set off in November 1951 for South America. The subject of her mother remained active in her mind, however, and when she settled in Brazil she returned to it and the result was “In the Village.”

I am going to continue to share Grace’s letter in the manner I have written about Bishop’s letters to her aunt. There is much of interest and importance in this rare surviving communication by Grace; I feel it is vital that it should be noted in the context of Bishop’s letters to her aunt.

In the next post, Grace will give more of an account, based on her memories, of Gertrude’s time teaching, and of the dog who was transported to help her feel less lonely.

Click here to see Post 149.


*Bertram Knight-Eaton was a painter from England who lived for some years in Colchester County, N.S. He was a good friend of George W. Hutchinson, Bishop’s great-uncle. He came to Nova Scotia with Hutchinson in May 1896 and both taught painting that year in Great Village. Hutchinson returned to England in December, but Knight-Eaton remained in Nova Scotia and set up a studio in Truro. He became a well-known landscape painter. Maude Bulmer took painting lessons from him, as did many people in Great Village. For several years, Knight-Eaton was a fixture in the columns of the Truro Daily News:


Mr. Knight Eaton has just opened his Art Studio in one of the rooms over Blanchard, Bentley & Co.'s, Inglis St., where he will be most happy to meet any persons who may wish to inspect his work any time during Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday of each week, and will be pleased to give all information concerning classes, etc. Truro Daily News, 1 March 1896, p.5. 

(Painting Class in Great Village, circa 1898. Bertram Knight-Eaton

on far right. Maude Bulmer on far left.)