One of the things I enjoy about Frances Rolleston is the delight she took in the beauty of the natural world, especially in the mountains and lakes of England's Lake's District where she lived her last sixteen years. January 3, 1849 she wrote:
"Oh that you could see the lake glassed over, but scarcely less transparent. . . . Today is our first fog, which hangs in canopies on the mountains, veils Blencathra utterly, festoons Skiddaw, curls all over Helvellyn, cuts off Scawfell, and leaves the Grisedale range just as usual, fills up the vale to Penrith and Bassenthwaite, but leaves the lake and church-yard quite clear—why? I wonder."
Frances was both a painter and a poet, which is so obvious from this description.
In January 1864, Frances Rolleston was doubting if she would ever again be well enough to write, but by February 5th she was enjoying renewed health—although this was to be the last winter of her life. She wrote to a friend about her pleasure at finding herself again able to paint, and she told the story of how for years the money earned from her paintings paid her part in the use of a small pony who pulled her little cart around the Lake District.
Frances became quite fond of this "gentlest of ponies . . . who draws the fairy gig, and looks like a fairy steed in it.” Even with a group, Shelty was strong enough to go eighteen miles two days in a row. Before Frances gained the use of Shelty, the pony had already had a long life of hard work and hard living,
Readers will enjoy the chapter about Shelty in Frances Rolleston: British Lady, Scholar and Writer of Mazzaroth.
When you need to get something done, who you know is, and has always been, important. Here's an example from FR's letter dated June 8th, 1847 at Bowness, Windermere in the Lake District:
"How much depends on seemingly trifling circumstances. Here am I in consequence of our decision that summer evening when I came to you so late to advise me whether to go to Hadley or Blackheath. At Blackheath I made acquaintance with Mrs. F___, of Grasmere Lake; through her I got my nephew ____ the curacy of Coniston Lake, and through that I thought of coming here myself. I have found an old Scarborough friend here already, and suppose, as usual, I shall know every body."
By her eighties, Frances had lost all her old friends. The void was partially filled by Mr. Joseph Dallow, a young minister who came almost every day to read Hebrew Bible with her. He was dedicated to the needs of the country people and carried the gospel to places almost inaccessible.
On this day 1861, Frances wrote,
Last Sunday Mr. Dallow, expected home, did not come, and a simple Christian young man did the best he could for the people.* To-day Mr. Dallow has been here, and I found he had done what you and I would have anticipated,—in a poor neighborhood in Kendal a child rushed out of a cottage enveloped in flames and screaming 'Mammy!' he saved its life, rolling it on the ground, but burnt his own hand so badly that he could not travel. The pain, he says, has been dreadful, but no worse effects, and he thanks God he saved its life, and goes back tomorrow to evangelize the people, whose hearts no doubt are touched by his kindness.
What stands out to me in this account is that Frances makes no declaration of Mr. Dallow's heroism. What he did she or her correspondent could have "anticipated" just because that was the kind of person he was. It is daily behavior that shows true character.
*That is, filling in at the chapel where Mr. Dallow preached.
July 24, 1849
Frances Rolleston had been living in Keswick of the Lakes District for a year. Already she knew the names of all the mountains. Even some long time residents asked her for information. She wrote in this letter that she amused herself by talking to tourists, telling them not only the names of the mountains, but the stories associated with them as well.
One such story was that of the mountaineer Mary Green. Mary at age seventy-seven had never been in a church nor heard the name of Christ except as a curse. But at this advanced age she began to think that she had heard of having a soul. The missionary from Keswick was able to lead her to faith in Christ, and she died soon after, happy.
IN 1859 Frances published a book called Lights and Shadows on the Sunny Side of Skiddaw. It is a guide to the Lakes District, written in verse—one I would like to have. A copy is in the British Library, but want to find one I can buy. I saw one when I was in England in 2002(?), and if I had known how hard it was to find one later, I would have bought it then.
While in Malvern, just before her relocation to Keswick, FR made the acquaintance of two sisters, Bessie and Caroline Dent. They found their interests so similar and the sisters were so taken with FR's theory of the constellations, that they were instant close friends. These interests included poetry, painting, and the Scriptures.
Since FR was older than they, the sisters began to call her "Aunt," and she was delighted by this new relationship. So many of her friends had already died that at times she felt bereft.
The women sent their sketches, paintings and poetry to one another, sometimes just to share it and sometimes seeking advice. This excerpt from a letter demonstrates their mutual affection.
To the Misses Dent. Keswick, January 17th, 1849.
I think I ought to write an epitaph "on two fair sisters smothered in sonnets," by a cruel aunt, as bad as an uncle, vide Babes in the Wood—for lo! here are more that would be written, it's no use resisting, when the thought has rolled in my brain the destined time, out it will come. And of most of these the first idea was spoken to you, on the scenery viewed together.
September 16, 1858
"MY DEAREST CARY,
"_____ _____ wants materials for a speech, or something about Dunmail Raise. I had an old unﬁnished sonnet on it, sketched, with the view on the spot, so I hunted it up, and the crabbed task I have had to ﬁnish it has almost disgusted me with sonnet writing. Cramming one’s thoughts in that measure is like a carpet bag that won't shut . . . ."
FR referred to herself as a Anglo-Saxon enthusiast, which is why she would have visited Dunmail Raise and started a piece of poetry about it. Dunmail Raise is a pass on the Keswick-Kendal road which in AD 945 was the scene of a bloody battle between the King of Cumbria and the Saxon King Edmund First and Malcolm, King of Scots.
Stories of heroism moved FR; she was always a Romanticist. Trying to cram her romantic thoughts into the sonnet form would certainly have left her feeling cramped—and crabby.
August 9, 1847
FR wrote to her friend the Rev. Irons that the first lines of poetry she ever felt were those from John Milton's "Il Penseroso":
And may at last my weary eye
Find out the peaceful hermitage.
She misquoted—eye rather than age--but the lines haunted her and became a prayer. She was weary of homelessness. Then she came to the Lakes District, to Bowness, to a home "strangely fulfilling my visioned dwelling."
She describes it: "A lonely stone-walled house with ivy and creepers, standing in a hollow half way up a rocky hill, the garden with starting-out rocks and bursting springs, all run wild, but capable of great beauty, 'wooded Winandermere the river-lake' from my bedroom window, and from the garden top the splendid amphitheatre of mountains. . . slate floors and stairs, beams for ceilings, walls near three feet thick, of rough stone outside. All very hermit-like."
FR began bringing in moss for the window sills long before she realized she was completing the "mossy cell," image of the poem. The last ten lines of "Il Penseroso" go thus:
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live. (lines 168-76)
How fitting these lines for one who so loved the natural world—the stars, the herbs—and who felt within herself the melancholy poetic spirit.
July 26, 1847
FR has been in the Lakes District now for a month. "Depend on it," she writes to Rev. Irons, "the mountains have waked a new chord in my lyre." She is finally seeing real mountains after years of copying those in other paintings, and she decides that no painting can come up to the colours as they truly are.
So far she has climbed only one, the minor one at the head of the lake. That day "all was purple splendour with waves of silver clouds forming and breaking over the summits. . . . The continual action of the clouds on the hues and forms of the mountains no painting can even attempt, nor had I imagined; you look in amazed delight, and it is gone, and another form, as beautiful, is coming."
"I study them hourly," she says, and her diligence has earned her the reputation of knowing the names and forms of the mountains better than the natives. Already tourists go to her for advice.
She encloses a couple lithographs in her letter to Rev. Irons and makes a pen-and-ink sketch on the page. "This No. 2 is but a tame view of the mountains as you see them from below. Here you see the two grand ones, Langdale Pikes, besides. . . . From this house a good road leads to a rocky hill, considerably higher than that above the church, called Brant Fell, ranges of rock like castle walls in ruin crown it; mountain air, heath and thyme, a few sheep, and deep mossy turf; not very steep, and perfectly safe everywhere; I rejoice to be so near; I send all tourists there."
At this point FR does not know if she will make this area her permanent home, but within months she has decided. This is where she lives her last sixteen years.
June 5, 1847
FR arrived in the English Lakes District for the first time. At last she laid eyes on real mountains. She had admired them in paintings and copied paintings of them, but had never seen them.
"The vision of my youth is before me, at length I have seen the mountains, and the reality is even far beyond the pictures I have often copied and oftener admired. The forms, the colour, are equally beyond the reach of art; poetry and imagination had gone nearer, in Wordsworth's Excursion I had seen them far better."
On this first visit, FR stayed at Bowness. The next spring she moved to Keswick, where she remained for the last 15 years of her life.
The photo above is of Derwent Water next to Keswick taken on my trip this past April.