The Elizabeth Bishop House


Going into the kitchen at night is like… going into someone’s room where they lie asleep in the dark after a long day. The kitchen had been washed and scrubbed so hard; there were still echoes of the tin dishes rattling around in it, soft as the cat purring under the stove. The kitchen seemed to blink its eyes as I put down the lamp again on the table. I hated to disturb the black iron tea kettle, settled so peacefully on the warmth of the black iron stove, but I lifted it carefully and filled the glass three quarters full of hot water.

Readers of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose will recognize this description of the kitchen of her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, the home of her beloved maternal grandparents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer. Made magical but familiar in her poem “Sestina,” this kitchen was the place where the poet took her first steps, and also learned to read and write, which is detailed in her memoir “Primer Class.” Additionally, Great Village is the principal setting of two autobiographical short stories, “Gwendolyn,” and “In the Village.”

Situated in the heart of the village, the little white clapboard house is the first of “three loved houses” that Bishop lost and recorded in her poem “One Art.” She returned to this home throughout her life, in person and on the page, long after the deaths of her grandparents and mother.

Given this abiding connection, it is not surprising that Bishop’s childhood home has been a site of pilgrimage for her friends and fans, and the many biographers, scholars and critics who have written about her. Residents of Great Village became aware of such visitors in the early 1980s. Then they tended to be Bishop’s friends (James Merrill, Jane Shore, Lloyd Schwartz). By the 1990s, as scholarship on Bishop intensified, her first biographers arrived (Brett Millier, Peter Brazeau, Gary Fountain). By the turn of the millennium, increasingly, these pilgrims included a remarkably wide range of artists, as well as “average readers.”

My first visit to this house was in 1991. At that time, its resident was an elderly woman named Hazel Bowers, widow of Norman Bowers, who was the step-son of Grace Bulmer Bowers, Bishop’s favourite maternal aunt. Hazel was well aware of Elizabeth Bishop’s connection to her home. When Hazel died in 1996 at the age of 92, her home went up for sale and was quickly bought by Paul Tingley. He appeared at the AGM of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia that year, joined the society and sat on the board for several years. He welcomed visitors who often knocked on the door unannounced, and was a careful and generous custodian.

As life has it, after eight years, he reluctantly decided to sell the house. In 2004, a small group of fans––myself included––came together and purchased it. Our mission was three-fold: 1. to preserve and maintain the house; 2. to spend time there ourselves; and 3. to share it with our friends, fellow artists and Bishop fans. This house had only ever been a place where people lived their lives, and we wanted to continue this practice; that is, we did not want to turn the house into a shrine.

Quickly, the Elizabeth Bishop House, as we called it, evolved into an artist retreat. Our modus operandi was low key; people learned about it only by word of mouth. Over the years, dozens of artists from all over the world (writers, film-makers, painters, photographers, musicians) stayed in the house, and I’ve lost count of how many people dropped by for an afternoon visit.

The retreat operated for a decade. It was an amazing experience to welcome so many artists and Bishop fans to Great Village. But as life has it, we have, equally reluctantly, decided to sell the house. We are proceeding carefully as we want to find the right person(s) who will love and care for this house as we have. It may become, once again, a private home, or it might continue as a retreat. We are open to many possibilities.

You can see the listing for the Elizabeth Bishop House at this link:

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