I’ve always been drawn to botanical illustrations because of my love of the natural world and the thought of the time and care it took to make those illustrations. Yesterday, as I grabbed a bunch of books to set on top of a project I was gluing so it would dry flat, I noticed on the top of the pile, the book, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. I bought this book a long time ago and almost forgot I had it. I began looking through it and once again remembered why I liked it so much.
It’s a nature journal of a year in the life of Edith Holden, the year 1906, and in addition to her illustrations and observations, poetry is on almost every page. I think I would have liked this woman! She was slightly unusual for her time – she attended art school, had drawings published in several books, didn’t marry until she was around 40, and had no children. Like many of her time, she died at what we would consider a young age, 49, but not from illness – she drowned in the Thames River while gathering buds from chestnut trees.
Off and on throughout the day, I thought of what life would have been like for a woman in 1906. The world was certainly smaller in many ways. Without technology, she would mostly have known and concentrated on life around her. So much of our time is spent on the phone, texting, reading articles and news online, on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, and reading and answering e-mails. Maybe she spent time writing letters and reading the responses, and the letters were probably several pages long, not the page, or at the most, two, I manage to write when I do write a letter. Obviously she had a lot of time to spend outdoors, and the majority of her time was probably spent drawing. She had to be an introvert!
There are things I would have liked about daily life back then – fewer distractions, the slowness of the pace, the importance of the here and now (for one thing, people didn’t live as long, so maybe each day seemed more important, and when you didn’t know what was going on around the world, your attention would be more on where you were). There are things I like about the present time – being connected to people around the world and having more knowledge about the way the world, our minds, and our bodies work. There is still a lot we don’t know, but I think there is less superstition and fear than there used to be (or maybe the things we fear now are just different!). For them, I suppose it didn’t seem like they lived in simpler times because the times before them were the simpler times.
I felt a connection to this woman from long ago. Did she, like me, feel wistful when hearing the call of the dove, the owl, and the crow, almost like they were a call from another world we once knew? Did she, like me, almost feel moved to tears by the lilac and the lily of the valley when they appeared in the spring? What would she have thought if she had known that her words and drawings would have an effect on someone over a hundred years later? What effect, if any, will my life have on people in a hundred years? Well, I know that we all have an influence on those around us, and we all affect our environment. We can’t all be artists who create drawings and paintings that people will see centuries later, and we will probably never know all the ways we affect our world. The effect we have on today is what matters, and, while I think we should be conscious that we are having an effect, our key influence comes from simply expressing our true nature, the person we were created to be. I definitely think that is what Edith did!
From her journal in the month of October:
O God of mountains, stars, and boundless spaces!
O God of freedom and of joyous hearts!
When thy face looketh forth from all men’s faces,
There will be room enough in crowded marts.
Brood thou around me, and the noise is o’er,
Thy universe my closet with shut door.