Victorian garden ramble

My novel characters often take a ramble when life gets too much for them. Victorians particularly loved their gardens, but any movement in the fresh air calmed their heart rate and lowered their blood pressure. It’s the same for us today. In fact, it’s all the more possible since the pandemic allows more people than ever to work from home.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending a few glorious hours outside in the gardens of the Stevens-Coolidge House in Andover, Massachusetts. Though built in 1914, both the house and gardens had elements that harked back to earlier times. These reminded me of the Victorian era when Daniel Anthony and his wife Annie furnished a beautiful home in Leavenworth, KS.

Author Jeanne Gehret at Stevens-Coolidge House

Botanical and historical delight

During our July visit, the rambling perennial garden was in full bloom. The garden view from the home’s morning room made me nostalgic for times when I’ve relaxed with a book and lemonade outside.

I was particularly interested in the serpentine wall in the above photo where I’m enjoying the shade. This wall commemorates one of the owners’ ancestors Thomas Jefferson, who built a similar one at the University of Virginia. Besides its beauty, it’s notable because it is only one brick wide, as you can see in this photo of the wall’s top.

Top of serpentine wall

I do a lot of research into Victorian culture, architecture, and fashion for my historical novels about the Anthonys of Kansas. I’ve seen pictures of the lovely plantings around their Leavenworth home. And I’ve read newspaper accounts of them picnicking in their yard, swinging in the hammock. While the serpentine wall isn’t a hallmark of that era (1837-1901) I did find a beautiful Victorian home in Knoxville, Tennessee that has a similar wall. It’s not surprising, really, because many Victorians were avid gardeners.

Here’s a peek at more details of Westwood in Knoxville.

What can we learn from the garden-obsessed Victorians?

The Victorians, and even people before Thomas Jefferson, knew the value of gardens to calm and restore us. They knew that observing the patterns of nature reminds us of whatever is stable and reliable in our lives. As a grandmother, I’ve seen several educational bandwagons sweep through our schools. Even so, I have confidence in teachers who suss out what’s best for individual children, regardless of trendy teaching practices. The presence of mature trees reminds us that desired social changes really can blossom over time. An hour in the woods removes us from people who expose us to dangerous viruses or toxic thoughts. These things never alter.

Like us, the Victorians experienced a period of tremendous social adjustment. Their contemporaries were debating reforms such as the antislavery movement and women’s rights. Industrialization was causing pollution and prompting those who could afford it to move out of cities, at least for the summer. They endured the Mexican War and the American Civil War. The sewing machine, telephone, and electric lights changed home life.  Cholera struck, and so did economic downturns such as the one in 1837 that bankrupted Daniel Anthony, father of suffragist Susan B. Anthony and her brother Daniel. As a result, neither sibling could complete their schooling. Despite this traumatic event, both went on to score big social reforms.

Take a page from the Victorians: spend some time in the shade of a tree or even in the moonlight. Listen to the wind and marvel at nature’s many forms. Breathe.

Three Fun Ways to Learn About Historical People

Historical people are fun to research–if you know how. It’s one thing to look them up on the census or visit their graves. Even reading about them in a biography gives only a one-dimensional view of them. It’s another thing altogether to get a sense of their manner of speaking, temperament, and habits.

Historical research since 1992

For 30 years, I’ve had a great time learning about historical people who lived 150 years ago–Susan B. Anthony, her brother Daniel, and his wife Annie. Though I’ve never met them, I have a strong sense of what interested them, where they spent time, and what kept them up at night.

Woman removing book from bookcase
My personal library contains many books on the Anthony family

A couple of times I’ve been especially satisfied when I’ve created a fictional interest and later found out it really did characterize them. This happened as I was writing about Annie in my first book when I portrayed her as loving to sing. After it was published, I found evidence that her family owned one of the first pianos on Martha’s Vineyard and that she performed songs at soirees with her friends.

Three of my favorite techniques

Watch this space for my upcoming three-part series on how to research historical people. In it, I’ll cover some of my favorite techniques, including:

  • Walking in their footsteps–I’ve visited the home where Susan and Daniel were born, Susan’s adult home, and the house that Daniel and Annie built. More than that, though, I’ve walked the halls and lingered in the front yards of their many friends and acquaintances.
  • Making a timeline–I’ll show you portions of my Anthony timeline ranging from the late 1700s to 1930. It contains historical events of general interest (i.e. the Civil War) as well as new technologies, births, deaths, and other items of particular interest to the Anthony family
  • Using newspapers of their time and place–Because Daniel and Susan were both well-known, it’s easy to find new stories about them. In addition, Daniel published the Leavenworth Times in Kansas, which he vowed to make the most radical newspaper in town. Wait till I share snippets of some articles by and about him!