The mother in the story is going mad, and the sign of her madness is a scream in the bedroom. The sound or its echo escapes from the house, and hangs over the village, forever. “Flick the lightning rod on top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it.”
I’m standing in the front room of the house in Nova Scotia where this autobiographical tale first stirred, years before it was born on the page. Across the road is the white church with its high steeple. These things were seen every day, a century ago, by Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet who wrote the story, called In the Village. It appeared in The New Yorker in 1953, decades after her last summer with her grandparents in the hamlet of Great Village, in what is now called the Elizabeth Bishop House.
In a few months, it may be called something else, or nothing at all. The house is up for sale (for $130,000), after a decade as a retreat for writers, artists and Bishop scholars. The nine people who bought it in 2004 for its associations with the renowned poet, and who covered much of its upkeep out of their own pockets, have reached the end of their stewardship.
“We’re not stopping this because there’s no demand,” says Sandra Barry, one of the co-owners, and author of Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s ‘Home-Made’ Poet. “We had one of our busiest summers this year, and 80 per cent of the people were first-timers.”
Great Village is a good place to ponder the mystique of houses that have been homes for notable writers. Bishop lived here for only a couple of years as a child, visited periodically thereafter, and spent much of her adult life in Brazil and the United States. But for many who have studied her writings, including her many poems about Nova Scotia, the old two-storey building in Great Village is the Bishop house.
“It was central to Bishop’s sense of herself,” Barry says. “It appears in her work, but the more important thing is that it symbolically establishes her foundation, for looking at all other houses and homes, and at the world.”
People have been making pilgrimages here, Barry says, almost since Bishop died in 1979. Their periodic knocking at the door alerted the previous owner to the house’s place in the geography of literature. He had it registered provincially as a historical site in 1997. The gardens were damaged during a flash flood in September, but the house was not – contrary to some local reports.
The interior is furnished and decorated as it might have been when Bishop lived here as a child; photos of extended family hang on the walls. A guest book in the front room records the signatures of visiting writers, including those of Johanna Skibsrud, who wrote part of her Giller Award-winning book The Sentimentalists here, and Irish writer Colm Toibin, who came for a day.
“There was very little time when there wasn’t anybody here,” Barry says. “Virtually every writer has said to me: ‘I’ve been able to write here in a way that I haven’t anywhere else.’”
Some writers’ houses become museums, such as the Lucy Maud Montgomery Manse in Uxbridge, Ont., and La Maison Gabrielle-Roy in St. Boniface, Man. The Bishop House is one of those that have attempted the more complex mission of trying to perpetuate, through new writing activity, whatever it is that persists in a building where a famous writer has lived or worked.
Typically, the houses are rundown, and sometimes crudely altered. Novelist Joy Kogawa’s childhood bungalow in Vancouver had been sliced into rental flats and was facing demolition when a campaign began 10 years ago to save it as a place for writers to work.
“We don’t need to restore the house to its 1930s look to achieve that,” says Ann-Marie Metten, executive director of the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society. “But people expect to see what Joy described in her novel, Obasan. You want to kind of carry on that reverence for place and meaning.”
The Land Conservancy of British Columbia bought the house in 2006 for $686,000, intending to restore and endow it as a writers’ centre owned by the not-for-profit society. The plan was thrown into doubt when the Land Conservancy filed for bankruptcy protection last year, and began trying to sell properties, including a West Vancouver house designed and lived in by artist B.C. Binning. That might have paved the way for a sale of the Kogawa house, but a deal for the Binning property was stopped in B.C. Supreme Court in January.
“That spurred the Land Conservancy to come up with some better solutions,” Metten says. “We’re feeling optimistic, after almost two years of intense uncertainty, and are prepared to take title and move forward.” The house is still awaiting full conversion back from rental units, though writers have been coming to stay and work there since 2009.
Another campaign, to save the A-frame cottage that poet Al Purdy built from found materials near Ameliasburgh, Ont., attracted a blaze of publicity from A-list writers and more than $325,000 in donations over the past six years. The cottage is now mostly renovated, but still has no solid financial footing, says Jean Baird, the Vancouver publishing consultant who runs it.
“It’s a scramble, it really, really is,” she says. When Katherine Leyton arrived as the first writer-in-residence in July, Baird says, “we were $13,000 in the hole.” She now has the resources to continue at least till spring.
Like the Kogawa House, and the well-established Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, the Purdy A-frame pays a stipend to visiting writers: $2,500 a month. But the competitive Canada Council matching grants that those other places sometimes get for writers in residence aren’t available for stays of less than two months, and many of Baird’s 50 applications for 2016 are for shorter terms.
Baird is committed to keeping the cottage much as it was before Purdy died in 2000. “It’s like Al’s still here,” she says. “If he came into the kitchen, he’d know where to find the can opener.” An extra bit of Purdy mojo came to light last year, when workers found a poem stuck in a wall.
Only a couple of minor items at the Bishop House belonged to the poet, but the place feels like more than just an old country house. Its stillness has a special intensity. Sandra Barry says she and the other co-owners are open to any proposal to keep that available to writers, under new ownership. Any other buyer would have to prepare for more door-knocking by Bishop fans.Report Typo/Error