Islanded in a Pandemic

In the life of each of us . . . there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

                                                      Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The above quote is from my favorite book – which I have written about before – The Country of the Pointed Firs.  I try and read this book every summer.  The quote has never really struck me before until now.  In light of COVID-19, it sat with me and I read it several times over.  It is in reference to Joanna Todd – a young woman who banishes herself to live alone on a thirty-acre desolate island that is sleeping not far from the shore of the coast of Maine near the fictional Dunnet Landing.

Jewett wrote several books of short stories that were published before this Firs and I like to think that Maria may have read at least one of them since these first stories were published starting at least a decade before Maria’s death.  Jewett spoke of nature in a way that Maria would have appreciated.  While Maria was an astronomer and mathematician, she was also a naturalist as I have noted before, and daily nature walks were a part of her life.  She noted what was blooming, the challenges of an insect she came across, and she even named wild animals that lived around the Vassar College Observatory.

But in light of where we all find ourselves right now – and over the past four months or so – it’s a prison to some extent.  Even those who revel in being alone find themselves struggling – not all for there are some who find being completely alone and away from people a positive thing for whatever reason they have.  For example, some children have detested “zoom school” while others have reveled in it and found it a new avenue for better learning than what they found in the classroom – alone, focused, quiet, or what-have-you.  The pandemic has, to some extent, made hermits of us, recluses.  For some, they feel as if they are in a cell bound by the four walls of their home – even if they can go out into a yard or down the street to briefly buy groceries.  The whole “stay at home” has made them feel isolated, compressed, shackled, claustrophobic.  It has left us alone in some cases with our feelings and emotions – more deeply than when one is running from place to place.  Everyone has a different feeling but the idea of a prison, a cell, being remote, being “islanded” has become more apparent or more of a feeling for many.


Visiting the Historic Home of Sarah Orne Jewett

The Country of the Pointed Firs is my favorite book. Written by Sarah Orne Jewett in 1896, it details the life of a village along the Maine coast. For many years I wanted to visit her home, now a historic house museum owned by Historic New England. Because she is the author of my favorite book and such a strong female presence in the 19th century as Maria Mitchell was, I felt it was a place I needed to see.

I like to think that a young Sarah, born just two years after Maria’s comet discovery, was inspired by Maria when she was a young girl. She was certainly encouraged by her father to be a strong, educated, and independent woman – similar to the support Maria received from her father, William.

After being disappointed last year in my attempt to visit the Jewett home, this year I contacted the site manager, Peggy Wishart, directly to ask if she would be willing to provide me with a private tour – and she was! The house is very close to its original condition and about two years ago Historic New England acquired Jewett’s desk – the one on which she wrote her books. It sits in front of the window in the upstairs hall looking over the street and center of South Berwick, Maine just as it did in Sarah’s day.

My interest is also keen on this desk area as it reminds me of the small study William built for his children – most often used by Maria. The small landing turned closet study has a built in desk and drawer and two shelves and most importantly a window that faces south and looks over the street – just as Sarah’s does. From there, Maria could see people as they made their way up and down the street, be warmed by the southern sun, and work on her “Juvenile Inquirer” on a Saturday morning away from the hubbub of her numerous siblings.