Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The history of Mrs. Tilley's best room - or, an escape from fog town

Coming early in The Country of the Pointed Firs, I wondered how Captain Littlepage’s town of fog people related to the “actual” town where the narrator, Sarah, was spending her summer.  At this point in the novel, the townsfolk might as well be made of fog.  She does not know them.  But her visit with the damaged Littlepage turns out to be her initiation.  Her neighbors begin to solidify.  Only poor Littlepage remains trapped in fog town, as we see later in the novel:

… and Captain Littlepage was sitting behind his closed window as I passed by, watching for some one who never came.  I tried to speak to him, but he did not see me.  There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.   (Ch. XVI)

Most of The Country of the Pointed Firs was serialized in four parts in The Atlantic Monthly, but Jewett added a couple of chapters to the finished book, one of which is a response to the narrator’s encounter with Captain Littlepage.  Sarah has progressed so far in her understanding of the town that she is able to make her own friends and do her own visiting, even with as challenging a resident as Elijah Tilley, a widower fisherman: “You felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you in regard to the weather, or a lofty-minded old camel make a remark as you stood respectfully near him under the circus tent” (Ch. XX).

Sarah “often wondered a great deal about the inner life and thought of these self-contained old fisherman.”  It turns out that this one’s inner life is mostly concerned with his dead wife and with housekeeping.  The two subjects are inextricable.  Tilley has “enshrined his wife” in his home, especially  in a “best room” that is preserved intact.  Sarah finds it a “sadder and more empty place than the kitchen,” but perhaps because she is a writer she is able to revive the dead a bit:

I could imagine the great day of certain purchases, the bewildering shops of the next large town, the aspiring anxious woman, the clumsy sea-tanned man in his best clothes, so eager to be pleased, but at ease only when they were safe back in the sailboat again, going down the bay with their precious freight, the hoarded money all spent and nothing to think of but tiller and sail.  I looked at the unworn carpet, the glass vases on the mantelpiece with their prim bunches of bleached swamp grass and dusty marsh rosemary, and I could read the history of Mrs. Tilley's best room from its very beginning.

This is the second mantelpiece decorated with grass in the book.  In the earlier room, the carpet is covered with rugs to protect it from use, but here there is no use.  No one walks in this room.

At the end of the chapter, Sarah tells her friend and landlady Mrs. Todd that she has visited Tilley.  “’I expect you had kind of a dull session; he ain’t the talkin’ kind,’” is her first response, but when she is told that she is wrong, that Tilley was talking, she knows the subject (“’Then ‘t was all about his wife’”), and says that she “’don’t want to go there no more’” because it is too sad.  She misses the wife (“’there ain’t hardly a day I don’t think o’ dear Sarah Tilley’”), but I wonder if it is also too painful to watch Tilley’s struggle to evade the fog town.

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