28 September, 2022

LitStack Rec: Un-Natural Hermits

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, by Gordon Campbell

You may not know it, but those winsome garden gnomes decorating the neighbor’s (or your own) lawn, have a distinguished parentage. And in Gordon Campbell’s latest book, he draws a clear line of descent. In a fascinating history that blends religion, philosophy, folklore, and English gardens, the humble garden gnome is traced back to Imperial Rome, descended by way of the druid, the mystic in the hermitage, and an eighteenth century fad that actually saw the “leasing” of willing individuals (for terms of seven years most often), to live as a hermit in a suitably stark habitation on the property. This highly popular, but happily short lived fashion required the contracted hermit to live in specially constructed faux monastery—a variety of the in-vogue “follies” built on estates at that time. The hermits for hire also agreed not to shave, cut hair or fingernails, and even speak for the contractual period, all in order to suitably represent the idea of the inwardly reflective hermit in touch with both God and nature. On some estates, the hermits-in-residence would often be on call during parties, a kind of reminder amidst the gaiety of life’s more somber facets. Here’s an excerpt from one agreement of the time:

…that if he lived under all these restrictions till the end of his term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas; but on breach of any one of them, or if he quitted his place any time previous to that term, the while was to be forfeited, and all his loss of time remediless.

Campbell lays out a clear and fascinating history, covering the ancient origins, its apex in Georgian England, and the “afterlife” of this longstanding fascination. A Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, Campbell has written numerous books on literature, art, history and biography. He has a sharp and readable style, and doesn’t miss a chance for the wry observation, or the opportunity to find connections in more recent cultural ideas—in symbolically low points such as Disney’s Snow White, and high points, like Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The book contains wonderful illustrations of period art, as well as recent of photos of extant hermitages and follies. Campbell’s book shows how the hermit in the garden, an idea sprung from religious beliefs, eventually became secularized, and is fascinating to follow.

—Lauren Alwan