Thursday, 26 April 2012

Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight

The irrelevant image of Smeaton's Eddystone Lighthouse
(nowhere near the Isle of Wight) used as the frontispiece

I just ran into a curiosity while skimming Isle of Wight literature: Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight (Emma MacAllan, General Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union and Church Book Society, New York, 1859, Internet Archive storiesdescripti00macaiala).

The book is dedicated ...
To the Children of the Church of America,
These simple Stories
are affectionately inscribed
... and comprises a set of six rather slight tales of religiously instructive excursions around the southern Isle of Wight.

Most, catering to the young American readership, have some US angle such as US visitors or ex-pats. The storylines really aren't worth writing home about, and didactic religious works aren't to the modern taste anyway. But they do contain pleasant and geographically accurate evocations of the landscape, particularly around the hamlet of Luccombe and the village of Bonchurch (in the stories they're "L—" and "B—", but they're easily identified by scenery).

The lead story, Easter Garlands, concerns Agnes and Robert Landon, children who prefer to spend Easter exploring the glades of the Luccombe undercliff rather than attending Easter services - but Agnes's chance meeting with the kindly Miss Howard in Bonchurch churchyard leads to them attending Confirmation.

The Little Zoophyte Gatherers concerns the Melville family, American visitors staying at Blackgang. The daughter Grace visits the chine, the "aluminous chalybeate spring" and the beach, meeting some local children to whom she proselytizes as they collect sea anemones. One child, "little Grace Wilson", collapses and later dies of congenital heart disease, but her family are comforted by Grace's kind attention.

The Children of St Catherine's Chantry concerns the return to the village of "C—" (Chale) of "a clergyman of the American church" who was born in the Isle of Wight. He is impressed by the piety and courage of a group of children he finds sheltering from a storm in "St Catherine's Chantry" (the tower of St Catherine's Oratory). Moved by sympathy - they're also homesick for their birthplace - he arranges before leaving to send them a commemorative Church Service book.

Sand Drawings concerns the middle-class Herbert family of "Whitethorn Lodge", somewhere in the western Isle of Wight (it's described as being within walking distance of both Mottistone and Alum Bay). Some of the family visit Alum Bay and get into making sand paintings and sand bottles. They encourage local children to do likewise, and their collective industry funds the establishment of a juvenile library.

A Moorland Ramble concerns an early morning walk by the recovering invalid narrator (an ex-pat American) from "B—" up to the summit of the downs above Ventnor. Tired and lost, she is helped by a kindly family, discussing hymns and the unity of the English and American church with their young son, who guides her homeward.

The final story, A Parish Festival, is set on 25th January 1858, the marriage day of the Princess Royal. The narrator, "an elderly maiden lady" and another American ex-pat, is living at "H—" (I can't work out where this is) and has a pleasant day visiting an invalid child, taking an American visitor to Carisbrooke Castle and Newport, and then joining festivities at a local school.

The Hermit, Benjamin Zobel - colour-adjusted

I was particularly interested in Sand Drawings, which is essentially describing the 19th century vogue for "marmotinto" (aka "marmortinto" - literally, "painted marble"): paintings made by gluing coloured sand to a board with gum arabic. As the Wikipedia article explains, its initial popularity took off in the late 1700s via the work of Benjamin Zobel (a friend of the artist George Morland), but the use of the vari-coloured sands from Alum Bay revived it in the 1800s Isle of Wight. There are still a few exponents, notably Brian Pike (see Brian Pike Sandpaintings and Fine Art America).

I haven't been able to find out anything about Emma MacAllan, the author of Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight. The catalogues show she also wrote, for the same publisher: Ivah and Llugwy: A Tale of North Wales (1861); The Cottagers of Penmaen-Maur: A Christmas Story (1863), Tales for the Whitsun Season (1864) and The Miner's Hut (1864). But the person behind them is a mystery, and I can't even work out how much, if any, direct acquaintance she had with the Isle of Wight; the locations could easily have been researched from the abundant 19th century travelogues of the area.

- Ray

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