August 30, 2010

Janet Goes to Chicken Farm

In an amusing moment of synchronicity, while I was waiting with my husband for our meal to arrive at the local Cracker Barrel, my eyes lighted upon an old book propped up on a fake mantel. It was there not to be actually read I found out by noticing hardened glue on the bottom pages where it was affixed to the mantel piece. It was, rather, an attempt at maintaining the hallmark Cracker Barrel nineteenth century rustic look. Just for show though it may have been the 1908 book’s title, Peggy Goes to Spinster Farm was so intriguing that I pried it loose and took it back to our table to read it (It didn’t really take much prying, the glue was not really adhered properly anyway). What caught my eye was Helen Winslow’s opening line, “Everyone should be alone for a year, not to find himself, but to discover the storm at the center of one’s being.” (I am paraphrasing here)

I asked my husband, a devoted English Professor to read a few pages and give me an evaluation. I cannot quote him exactly because I have forgotten the verbatim commentary but it went something like “It is merely a Victorian piece of lightweight fluff literature.” Naturally that just made me want to read it even more in order to judge for myself. Fortunately I found the book on line and began reading the adventures of Peggy and her Aunt Janet. They were Boston ladies of means who decided that they were weary of city life with its many social commitments of the kind the author tells us through her characters, seem to beleaguer women. What these women’s groups were or the nature of their obligations remained obscure. But I was intrigued and amused because the women were leaving Boston behind along with what was described somewhat obliquely as academic and art careers. Having just taken myself and my art business off of social networking sites I felt a sudden kinship with these pioneering ladies. The relationship of the women is purportedly one of blood but it seems reminiscent of the “Boston Marriage.”

There seems to be very little known about this book and its author and I cannot ascertain how much is fiction and how much is autobiography. Stylistically it is, as my husband says, somewhat lightweight, yet reading it in small snippets of time away from my easel has been fun. The prose is not as magical as another author who may have overlapped Helen Winslow’s time, Sarah Orne Jewett, yet it still has some of Jewett’s charm and love of nature. The book chronicles the women’s slow release from Boston society and their discovery of good health by abandoning corsets and taking long walks in the country. There are minute descriptions of the colonial farm house they purchase for their new lives as chicken farmers - with latches in place of “the modern invention of doorknobs.” The hens themselves are described in anthropomorphic details which are entertaining in their silliness.

While perhaps not being great literature, this little book is still a small gem of social history. And its modest writing is the perfect antidote to present day gloomy news and tea party ranters. I may comment on such things later but for now I’m being chicken with the media.
The acrylic painting at the top of the page is my quirky interpretation of a self-actualized chicken. It was painted from an old folk paper cut in my collection.

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