Welcome to day 21 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Here’s a thing you may find hidden in a largish garden: a hermitage, and a hermit. Or perhaps you are your garden’s own hermit.
I first came across the idea of a hermit-in-residence in Martha Grimes’ crime fiction series featuring Superintendent Richard Jury and his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant (Lord Ardry). I was reminded of it today, reading Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden (2017), a little non-fiction work of horticultural memoir, a sort of elongated essay really, loosely constructed and sharply written, on the history, literature, and metaphorical aspects of gardens. And yes, garden hermits were a real thing in England, primarily, for about a hundred years in the 18th and 19th century (see below for more on that).
Melrose Plant conceives the idea of installing a hermit in Grave Maurice (2002), 18th in the Jury series. He, with the help of friends, hires Mr. Bramwell as hermit-in-residence for his estate, Ardry End, and by the end of the book regrets his choice and “transfers” him, via a convoluted scheme, to a friend’s shop.
He begins by announcing to his abominable Aunt Agatha,
‘I’m also thinking of hiring a hermit for that hermitage out there — yonder.’ He loved this word.
‘Are you talking about that old broken-down stone thing? Hire a hermit, indeed!’
‘That’s what people did in the nineteenth century. It was fashionable to have a hermit on one’s grounds. I believe the Romantics went in for it. … Hermits got to be collectors’ items.’
‘I can tell you this: if a hermit comes, I go.’
Melrose studied the ceiling.
This was exactly the response he hoped for.
An ad is placed in the local newspaper and Plant’s friends Marshall Trueblood and Diane Demorney interview hermit applicants; however, “people willing to hire out as ornamental hermits were not too thick on the ground,” so they end up with the complainy Mr. Bramwell. Trueblood comments about some of the hermit applicants:
‘[T]he one who wanted to know what newspaper he’d be getting was a definite no. I mean, I don’t think a person who reads the Times is to be trusted as a hermit, do you? And the one who wanted to know what pubs were in the area, same thing. Got rid of that lot in a quick hurry. Then there were demands for days off, nights off, even half days and early closings. Well, “you’re not going to be running a hermit shop,” I told them. “You’re not going to be selling bloody hermit souvenirs.” … I immediately stepped on anyone who asked what the duties were. Quite amazing some of them. You’d almost think … that they’d never seen a hermit before.’
What’s interesting about this passage in Grimes’ book is its similarity to a passage Lively quotes in her book, from Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” (1993). Mr. Noakes, the gardener in “Arcadia,” is improving Sidley Park, an estate, along the lines of Uvedale Price, a proponent of the picturesque;
one of the requirements of his proposed improvement … is the construction of a hermitage, to be occupied by a hermit. Lady Croom supposes that he will supply the hermit, and when he admits that he does not have one to hand, she is aghast [which, incidentally, is the name of Melrose Plant’s goat]:
Lady Croom: ‘Not one? I am speechless.’
Noakes: ‘I am sure a hermit could be found. One could advertise.’
Lady Croom: ‘Advertise?’
Noakes: ‘In the newspapers.’
Lady Croom: ‘But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.’
Plant’s inaugural hermit, Mr. Bramwell, turns up “with two suitcases and a chip on his shoulder as if his last stint as a hermit had left him with a bad taste in his mouth.” His hermit’s den is “a substantial grotto, made of stones, tree limbs and moss, surprisingly warm and snug in winter, though Bramwell was constantly complaining about the lack of heat and light and had been since his arrival several days ago.”
Agatha’s reaction is all Plant’s hoped for. She screams on sighting Bramwell outside, and Melrose looks out in time “to see the unkempt hair of Mr. Bramwell disappearing from view. Well, about time he earned his pike, or whatever hermits scratched around to get. Melrose could hardly contain himself, seeing Agatha’s reaction, which was even more than he could have hoped for had there been rehearsals. …
‘Oh, come on, Agatha. It’s only the hermit. … Don’t you remember the book I was reading the other day? We were talking about ornamental hermits’ — this was better than he’d expected for now she was gathering up her things (and his, if that little jade horse was any proof) — ‘ornamental hermits were a lot like ornamental shrubs –‘”
But his joy is not to last.
‘This ‘ere milk’s gone off, mate,’ said Bramwell to Melrose, raising the jug from the breakfast tray [that the cook] Martha had fixed for him.
This person was being waited on hand and foot. Melrose ignored the milk and said, ‘Mr. Bramwell, you really aren’t suited to the hermit life.’
‘I coulda tol’ you that from the beginnin’. But t’pay’s good.'”
The ornamental hermit idea returns in Vertigo 42 (2014), #23 in the series, when Plant hires a Mr. Blodgett for the role:
The first person Richard Jury saw as he got out of his car the following morning was Mr. Blodgett, Melrose Plant’s hermit-in-residence. On the far side of the grand grounds of Ardry End sat what Melrose Plant insisted upon was a hermitage. Melrose had seen a similar structure, stone and wattle, in the pages of Country Life. In an ad for an ostentatious and overpriced property, a large, eighteenth-century-style house, was this little stone structure on the grounds.
In the real stone-and-wattle eighteenth century, all the best people had hermits, Melrose had read somewhere, although he was vague on details. But he wanted one expressly for the purpose of the hermit’s moving about, looking wild-eyed and a little dangerous, popping up at windows when his aunt Agatha was inside wolfing down cream teas and sherry. He meant to scare her off. …
In the distance, Mr. Blodgett was waving him over.
Jury returned the wave and made the longish trek to where Mr. Blodgett stood beside his hermitage.
Originally Mr. Blodgett had worn a beard and long hair and an unkempt look befitting a hermit. Of late, he had cut both hair and beard and generally smartened himself up. And Jury saw that the hermitage itself had been smartened up, for it appeared to have a new extension. Closer, he could see it was a screen-enclosed room, a sort of sunporch.
‘My Florida room, Mr. Jury,’ announced Mr. Blodgett. ‘Built ‘er on me own, I did. Come in, come in, look around.’ Mr. Blodgett held wide a screen door. …
Jury wondered where in heaven’s name he would have come by the patio furniture, two chairs and a lounge grouped about a glass-topped table. The cushions bore a pattern of coconut palms.
Mr. Blodgett, who is brought soufflés and other elegant foods by the butler, Ruthven, would also like electricity and TV in his hermitage, to watch Manchester United play, but, as he’s well aware, “‘I don’t think Lord Ardry’d look too kindly on electric in the ‘ermitage. Well, you can see his point —
“Jury merely smiled and thought, No, I don’t see his point. Anyone who would engage a hermit in the first place would be able to entertain any wacky idea.”
In fact, a hermitage and hermit were a thing, though always apparently a bit of a novelty, in 18th-century England (and Scotland and Ireland to some extent). Atlas Obscura details the fad:
While some gardeners might now throw in a gnome statue among their flowers and shrubberies, back in the 18th century wealthy estate owners were hiring real people to dress as druids, grow their hair long, and not wash for years. These hired hermits would lodge in shacks, caves, and other hermitages constructed in a rustic manner in rambling gardens. … It might seem like a whimsical garden feature, but in fact it was all about that most celebrated of Georgian England emotions: melancholy. Introspection and a somberness of spirit were prized among the elite, and the roles they asked their hermits to play embodied this
One advertisement for one, in 1797, read “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.”
Robin Lane Fox, writing about hermits in the Financial Times in Feb. 2014, in “Why a hermit can be the perfect garden ornament,” references Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play, which evidently led to a revival of the practice. Fox reports that the Staffordshire Council in 2002 advertised for a hermit to live for a September weekend in a historic grotto at Shugborough, for £600; Painshill Park in Surrey hired one in 2004, who “grew his hair long in preparation” but “arrived dressed as a Buddhist monk;” and in 2005, the London Zoo hosted 8 volunteer hermits, wearing not much, “to live on Bear Mountain like any other mammal” for a weekend.
Featured photo is a hobbit house or gnome home in the conservatory at Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Va.