Reading with Rose: Defoe’s Crusoe

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The Wonderful Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

We have a special treat to explore in this month’s Reading with Rose: Robinson Crusoe. Considered by some to be the first modern novel [1], Daniel Defoe’s isolation epic is a touchstone of childhood reading the world over. That was certainly the case in New England in 1809, as evidenced by this month’s special book from Rose’s library. This object is special not only for its physicality, but perhaps even more so for its home: the Nichols House Museum’s archives. This book, part of Rose’s collection left to the museum at our matriarch’s behest, is so precious that it must be housed in our archives in order to ensure its preservation.

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Interior of Robinson Crusoe.
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Child’s primer, 1806.

This edition of Robinson Crusoe looks very similar to children’s primary schoolbooks of the early nineteenth-century. We can compare this edition of Crusoe to one of those schoolbooks–called primers–thanks to their shared ownership. Both of these books belonged to Charles Nichols.

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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his schoolbook.
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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Charles Nichols (1808-1885) was Rose’s great-uncle; Arthur Howard Nichols’ uncle. Both of these books are dated within the first few years of Charles’ life, lending to the probability that they were used to teach him literacy. Coincidentally, Robinson Crusoe could have done more than merely teach Charles to read.

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Charles Nichols, n.d.

After working as a painter and furniture maker, and in daguerreotype galleries, Charles gave up his work and devoted his life to the study of religion and became a missionary. While Robinson Crusoe is today remembered as an adventure story, Daniel Defoe imbued his classic with his own fervent religious sentiments–a fact which can be said about most of his works.

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Daniel Defoe, from a 1900 edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) was not merely an expert at writing fictional adventures–he lived them, too. When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, Defoe was fifty-nine. In the years between Defoe’s birth and the birth of his legendary literary figure, the author had been involved in numerous altercations with the law. Defoe was a known dissenter, which would have earned him a reputation even without his writing religious pamphlets arguing for religious freedom. He knew the dangers of writing such works, which were confirmed when the anonymous author of the pamphlets was caught. Defoe was arrested for seditious libel, put in the pillory and subsequently imprisoned for his writings. Upon his release, he was endlessly threatened with arrests, and eventually became a “master spy” for the government. Continuing his writing career, Defoe authored novels, conduct books, and geographical books; he also raised corn and bred cattle. Defoe’s final years were full of debts and debt-collectors. He died in 1731. [2]

While Charles Nichols did not spend decades marooned on an island, he did write down his inner most thoughts. Nichols kept a diary from 1861-1878; he wrote about his thoughts on the Civil War, his religious sentiments, and his daily activities. Today, this diary lives next to his schoolbook edition of Robinson Crusoe–which may have inspired many of his own adventures.

Notes

[1] Allen, Walter Ernest. Six Great Novelists. H. Hamilton, 1955.

[2] Paula R. Backscheider, ‘Defoe, Daniel (1660?–1731)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008.

 

By Victoria Johnson

Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

“Unvegetative Ornaments”

 

In the late seventeenth century, garden statues, obelisks, dials, and other ‘unvegetative’ ornaments seemed to take the place of flowers. [1]

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Illustrations from Rose Standish Nichols’ first book “English Pleasure Gardens”

Rose Standish Nichols was a landscape architect by trade. She designed dozens of gardens on large plots of land, including her parents’ estate in Cornish, New Hampshire, but she never had much of a garden at her home at 55 Mount Vernon Street.

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The Nichols family garden in Cornish, New Hampshire

In her article, How to Make a Small Garden she classifies a “small” garden as one that “covers from about 1200 to 2500 square feet of ground.”[2] Since her Beacon Hill garden is little more than a stretch of grass that frames her brick walkway, she needed to be creative when bringing her passion for gardens home.  Her house is richly furnished with floral and horticultural imagery, from tapestries, to prints, to small needlework pictures. However, it is an object in the entrance of her home that references the style and scale of gardens she loved to visit and design.


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A nearly life-size sandstone statue of a young woman adorned with an empire revival dress and a brimmed hat stands in the portico between the house’s two front doors. The statue is English and dates to the 19th century but Rose understood the history of outdoor sculpture dating back much further. In her first book, English Pleasure Gardens, published in 1902, she explores garden design dating back to the classic tradition of ancient Italy and Greece to modern English gardens (at this point “modern gardens” refers to late 19th century). Rose suggests that some of the most successful gardens are those that blend a range of styles.

In some of the best modern English gardens there is a combination of classic statuary, Renaissance fountains, French perspectives, Dutch topiary work and flowers from all over the world. But in such a garden, when there is breadth given to the masses of colour and a proper regard to scale and proportion, the effect is not always incongruous.[3]

While Rose was not displaying “classic statuary,” she placed her statue in the portico, which not only referenced the outdoors, but also connected it to classic architecture, as the entry hall is the only part of the Federal townhouse that was designed in the Greek Revival style.

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The statue in the portico

Throughout her garden design and scholarship Rose suggested that outdoor sculpture was at its best in the Baroque period in Italy. She even utilized Baroque Italian figurative statues in one of her Illinois garden commissions.

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Garden designed by Rose Nichols in Lake Forest, Illinois

In her 1925 article, Rhythm and Punctuation in Design, she argued that when the original foliage of Baroque gardens has faded, there is still beauty in the skeleton of the garden’s architecture and ornamentation,

Badly kept up as are many of these 17th and 18th century gardens they might have appealed to us less in their palmy days than in their present decadence. Still, however, walls, balustrades, fountains, and statuary of stone, mellowed by age, pattern an ancient pleasuance. And even if the former flowers have disappeared, clipped laurels, oleanders and potted orange trees accent the parapets and the parterre. Here poets will again and again find inspiration and garden-lovers delight. [4]

This sentiment suggests that even without a full, lush garden behind them, the sculptures that are associated with pleasure grounds can still inspire a “garden-lover” like Rose.

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The walkway at 55 Mount Vernon Street in 1959, with the statue showing through the portico window

 

[1] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Gardens of the Stuarts.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 163.

[2] Nichols, Rose Standish. “How to Make a Small Garden.” House Beautiful 1912: 88.

[3] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Modern Gardens.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 252.

[4]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Rhythm and Punctuation in Design.” Horticulture Feb. 1925: 49.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist