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

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.)

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