Sandra Barry tours us through the Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia
“For some reason or other I always felt that the parlor belonged to me. Although close upon the village street, so that your face, as you looked through the square window panes, was on a level with and only a few feet away from the face of a passerby, it seemed much more secluded than any other place in the house… and in our parlor was the one place where I could think about the village people and my own family as if from a distance. Sometimes, especially in the winter, I used to go in there and sit in a rocking chair just behind the window curtains and look out at the lace-covered view they gave me, like any curious old lady.”
These words, written by Elizabeth Bishop, provide a glimpse of her connection to her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Even late in her life, Bishop vividly recalled the old farmhouse that influenced and affected not only her personal but also her artistic development.
2011 is the centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop—the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of half a dozen poetry collections, as well as prose and translations. Last week marked the 32nd year since her death. A year of events and celebrations has marked Bishop’s strong and abiding connection to Nove Scotia. Many of these events have centred around her childhood home in Great Village, a site of pilgrimage for Bishop fans for the past thirty years. Since 2004, this home, where she lived with her maternal grandparents, has been owned by a group of Bishop admirers, who purchased it in order to preserve and maintain it. This group shares the house with artists of all disciplines.
According to the History of Great Village, part of the Elizabeth Bishop House originally stood on Mount Pleasant (Scrabble Hill), along the road to Cumberland County. Elizabeth Bishop was told that it had been “an old wayside inn of ‘ill repute’ that my grandfather had moved to the village—about 200 years old.” Exactly when the move occurred is not known, but William Bulmer, Bishop’s maternal grandfather, bought the house on its current site in 1874 from Hibbert McLellan. William Bulmer was a tanner and he had already bought his tannery, which was located across the road. William and his wife Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer raised their family in this house, living there until they died in 1930 and 1931 respectively. The house was then purchased by Norman and Hazel Bowers. In 1996 Hazel Bowers died, well into her nineties. The house was then purchased by Paul Tingley, who had it designated a Provincial Heritage Property in 1998. In November 2004, a group of Nova Scotians and Americans bought the house.
The time Elizabeth Bishop spent in this house during the 1910s and 1920s, during her childhood and adolescence, was profoundly artistically formative. This house was the site of one of her greatest sorrows: the breakdown of her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who was hospitalized for the last eighteen years of her life. Yet this house was also the centre of a childhood universe filled with myriad sensory experiences, which imprinted on Bishop’s precocious mind. She wrote poems, stories and memoirs set in this house, about her maternal family, and about the people and sites in the village that surrounded this one place she felt was “home,” with all the complex connotations that idea holds.
Sandra Barry is a poet, independent scholar and freelance editor. She is co-founder and past President of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and co-owner of the Elizabeth Bishop House, has published and edited several works on Bishop, and is co-artistic director of the year-long Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival that has been taking place throughout Nova Scotia this year. For more information about the Elizabeth Bishop House, contact Sandra Barry.
Kathleen Flanagan is a photographer and educator. Flanagan’s poster featuring Elizabeth Bishop House is reproduced here by permission, and is available for $20 through kathleenflanagan.ca.