Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Isabella Bird Bender in Northampton, MA

Isabella Bird (Unlocking the Archives, www.rgs.org)
 In my readings about Isabella Bird, I occasionally read the biographical material, and very rarely go near the religiously oriented things she wrote early in her career. As the Victorian British woman traveler best known to Americans for her jaunty narrative, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (first published by John Murray, 1879), the travel narratives naturally receive the most attention. Missionary work is hardly considered as exciting and feminist as what Bird was able to accomplish in her travels through Asia late in life. But yesterday, I found myself on a Bird bender. This is what it looked like:
One online book, one hard copy, and one downloaded book all going at the same time. This collision is what enabled me to figure out that Bird had spent two months in Northampton, Massachusetts at a time when elm trees still lined New England streets, Smith College had yet to be founded, and the Jonathan Edwards fracas with his local Congregationalists was still relatively fresh in the collective memory. Well, the narrative about Hawaii was supposed to be my primary reading but I thought it might be interesting to see what Stoddart had to say about this trip. Stoddart's biography holds a special kind of fizz because she was a friend of Bird's. While we know that such relationships do not always bode well for biographical integrity and accuracy (see: Elizabeth Gaskell's biography on Charlotte Brontë for the foremost Victorian example), for this reserved woman Stoddart enables us to see more of the motivations and emotions than were expressed in writing.
   Stoddart writes about Bird's second trip to America, where her interest in religion was explored. Bird's father was a clergyman who had tried to cultivate Sabbatarian tendencies in his parishes, but found English parishioners averse to a complete day of rest. Stoddart's narrative includes a list of places visited, and I found this mysterious reference to a village in Western Massachusetts, where Bird stayed for two months. That's a long time to stay somewhere and not know the place name, I think.
   When looking into The Aspects of Religion, the New England section receives high praise from the daughter of the Sabbatarian minister. She writes glowingly about this idyllic village on a typical Sunday.
I take the loveliest village in that surpassingly fair portion of America. It is a village of 5,000 people, built on a collection of knolls, rising from park-like meadows, through which flow the bright waters of the Connecticut. (60)
That's a sizeable village, which Northampton would have been at this time, and the Connecticut River currently threatens to flood it from time to time. Bird goes on to name some other qualities that help mark the possibility of Northampton being this village:
First Churches of Northampton, UCC/ABC
from their Facebook page
The village itself consists of a collection of lanes shaded by avenues of gigantic weeping elms, and along these lanes are erected detached cottages, enbosomed in roses and vines. It dates from an early period of the seventeenth century, and some of those families are descended from those who landed at Plymouth Rock. There are five churches: two Congregational, one Episcopalian, one Baptist, and one Methodist. (60)
You can see some of these old churches and the lanes today, as they form part of downtown Northampton and Smith College campus. Settlements such as Northampton rose earlier in the colonial period because the Connecticut River allowed settlers to move north from Connecticut and Long Island Sound, so the early seventeenth century settlement period is not far fetched. The number of churches is actually small when we're told that these churches are all packed, from Bird's observation. "All the people are church-goers" (62) she claims, as well as the fact that this is not an unusual village but rather typical of New England.

  Bird's study of American religion is often forgotten, and it marks an interesting aspect of Bird's character. Her religious training and practice are not at all secondary to a better understanding of her character when we look at how missionary influences and Christian outreach marked her early life. The publication of this book, Aspects of Religion, also marks the death of Bird's father, Reverend Edward Bird. When we know that fact, the study seems to be a fitting tribute to a father who wanted his parishioners to have a dedicated day of rest, as Bird praises the New Englanders most of all for their continued adherence to this practice.

No comments: