Poet Tom Bailey's wife takes us
Editor's Note: Portsmouth poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich died in 1907 and a year later his family home became one of the country's first house museums scrupulously restored to an earlier time in history. Mrs. Aldrich (as she preferred to be called) was introduced to her husband by actor Edwin Booth, brother of the actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth. This tour of the Aldrich Museum, the author's boyhood home in Portsmouth, NH and now part of Strawbery Bank Museum, was published in 1911. We have included early postcards of the house for those who wish to take a virtual tour. Mr.s. Aldrich published her own interesting and chatty social history of life with the famous author of "Story of a Bad Boy" in 1920. Her stories include comments on Mark Twain, Edwin Booth, Bret Harte, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Browing, William Dean Howells, James McNeal Whistler and others. Although Aldrich's fame has grown dimmer than his contemporaries, his 1869 novel is still seen as a turningpoint in juvenile fiction. Despite the dozens of photos in her book and the official TBA biography, neither contains a single image of Mrs. Aldrich. - JDR
THE HOUSE WHERE THE BAD BOY LIVED
THIS HOUSE is now the Aldrich Memorial Museum. Money for its purchase was raised by popular subscription, and through the piety and devotion of the poet's family its interior has been restored with the utmost fidelity. There today the visitor may gaze in the very mirror that reflected Tom Bailey's blithe features, or turn the pages of the books that entranced him on rainy afternoons. In the quaint Colonial garden may be found every flower mentioned in his poetry, while in the fireproof room that has been erected may be seen his priceless collection of autograph manuscripts, first editions, and literary relics. A visit here will better acquaint the reader with the background of the poet's youth than many pages of biographical rhetoric.
It is more than forty-three years ago [Editor's Note: Written in 1911] that Thomas Bailey Aldrich laid down his pen after writing the final words, "So ends the Story of a Bad Boy." There are few purely story books that have had quite the unique experience of this one. Mr. Ferris Greenslet, in his Life of Mr. Aldrich, says : "In the forty years that have gone by since then, it has had a constant yearly sale that would be regarded as excellent for a new book. It has become, in short, judged by the most tangible and valid of possible tests, a classic. " Happily for the writer, the book possesses a dual quality -- a book for children, a story for grown-ups. I remember Mr. W. W. Story saying to Mr. Aldrich that "the book was always on a table at the head of his bed, and he had beguiled many hours with that inimitable story on the nights when he could not sleep." Many other men whose hair was gray have also said that in the charm of those pages their own lost youth returned to gladden them.
It was in the summer of 1869 that Mr. Aldrich wrote the story that was told to him -- told to him, by the Nutter House itself. The happy days of his boyhood spoke to him from every timber of that old home. There was not an inch in the house or a spot in the garden that did not have its story to tell. "It all came to me out of the past, the light and life of the Nutter House when I was a boy at Rivermouth."
Mr. Aldrich died in the spring of 1907. In the early summer of that year there was published in the Portsmouth II Chronicle a suggestion that the town of Portsmouth should buy the old Nutter House, and keep it as a memorial to her distinguished son whose eyes had first opened there on sea and sky. The response to that suggestion was quick and earnest. An association was at once formed and incorporated under the name of the "Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial" -- a fund of ten thousand dollars raised by popular subscription, in sums from one dollar to one thousand dollars.
The house, which many years ago had passed into alien hands, was bought and work at once begun to restore the house and garden to their former condition, which fortunately could be done, as the heirs gladly gave back all that was taken from it at the death of Grandfather Nutter: the old silver in the sideboard, the china in the closets, even the little dresses that were made by loving hands for the first-born. Not only are the material things restored, but that which is much more difficult, the atmosphere of the past, which is so tangible there that the stranger feels impelled -- to hasten his visit ere the family return and find him. The house stands on a narrow street at the foot of which is the Piscataqua River. But the Nutter House and its surroundings are described so delightfully in "The Story of a Bad Boy " that the next few paragraphs shall be given to the reader by Tom Bailey himself:
"Few ships come to Rivermouth now. Commerce drifted into other ports. The phantom fleet sailed off one day and never came back again. The crazy old warehouses are empty; and barnacles and eel-grass cling to the piles of the crumbling wharves, where the sunshine lies lovingly, bringing out the faint spicy odor that haunts the place-- the ghost of the old dead West India trade. "
"The house abutted directly on the street; the granite doorstep was almost flush with the sidewalk, and the huge old- fashioned brass knocker extended itself in a kind of grim appeal to everybody. It seemed to possess strange fascinations for all seafaring folk; and when there was a man-of-war in port, the rat-tat-tat of that knocker would frequently startle the quiet neighborhood long after midnight."
Downstairs at the Nutter House
"Imagine a low-studded structure, with a wide hall running through the middle. At your right hand, as you enter, stands a tall mahogany clock, looking like an Egyptian mummy set up on end. On each side of the hall are doors opening into rooms wainscoted, with wood carvings about the mantelpieces and cornices."
"There are neither grates nor stoves in the quaint chambers, but splendid open chimney-places, with room enough for the corpulent back-log to turn over comfortably on the polished andirons. The door on the left as one enters is the best room. The walls are covered with pictured paper, representing landscapes and sea-views - for example this enlivening figure is repeated all over the room: A group of English peasants wearing Italian hats are dancing on a lawn that abruptly resolves itself into a sea beach, upon which stands a flabby fisherman (nationality unknown), quietly hauling in what appears to be a small whale, and totally regardless of the dreadful naval combat going on just beyond the end of his fishing-rod. On the other side of the ships is the mainland again, with the same peasants dancing."
"It is Sunday morning. I should premise by saying that the deep gloom which settled over everything set in like a heavy fog early on Saturday evening."
"Our parlor is by no means thrown open every day. It is open this June morning, and is pervaded by a strong smell of center-table. The furniture of the room, and the little China ornaments on the mantelpiece, have a constrained, unfamiliar look. My grandfather sits- in a mahogany chair, reading a large Bible covered with green baize. Miss Abigail occupies one end of the sofa, and has her hands crossed stiffly in her lap. I sit in the corner, crushed. Robinson Crusoe and Gil Blas are in close confinement. Baron Trenck, who managed to escape from the fortress of Glatz, can't for the life of him get out of our sitting-room closet."
"The door at the right of the hall leads into the sitting-room. It was in this room where my grandfather sat in his armchair the greater part of the evening, reading the "Rivermouth Barnacle,' the local newspaper. There was no gas in those days, and the Captain read by the aid of a small block- tin lamp which he held in one hand. I observed that he had a habit of dropping off into a doze every three or four minutes. Two or three times, to my vast amusement, he scorched the edges of the newspaper with the wick of the lamp; and at about half-past eight o'clock I had the satisfaction -- I am sorry to confess it was a satisfaction-of seeing the "Rivermouth Barnacle' in flames. "
"My grandfather leisurely extinguished the fire with his hands, and Miss Abigail, who sat near a low table, knitting by the light of an astral lamp, did not even look up. She was quite used to this catastrophe."
"The monotonous 'click click' of Miss Abigail's needles made me nervous after a while, and finally drove me out of the sitting-room into the kitchen, where Kitty caused me to laugh by saying Miss Abigail thought that what I needed was 'a good dose of hot-drops.'"
"Kitty Collins, or Mrs. Catherine, as she preferred to be called, was descended in a direct line from an extensive family of kings who formerly ruled over Ireland. In consequence of various calamities, among which the failure of the potato crop may be mentioned, Miss Kitty Collins, in company with several hundred of her countrymen and countrywomen -- also descended from kings -- came over to America in an emigrant ship, in the year eighteen hundred and something. I don't know what freak of fortune caused the royal exile to turn up at Rivermouth; but turn up she did, a few months after arriving in this country, and was hired by my grandmother to do 'general housework' for the modest sum of four shillings and sixpence a week. In time she grew to be regarded less as a servant than as a friend in the home circle, sharing its joys and sorrows -- a faithful nurse, a willing-slave, a happy spirit."
Of the dining-room Master Bailey had little to say, excepting the pen picture of Sunday morning in the Nutter House:
"Sunday morning -- At seven o'clock my grandfather comes smilelessly down stairs. He is dressed in black, and looks as if he had lost all his friends during the night. Miss Abigail, also in black, looks as if she were prepared to bury them, and not indisposed to enjoy the ceremony. Even Kitty Collins has caught the contagious gloom, as I perceive when she brings in the coffee-urn -- a solemn and sculpturesque urn at any time, but monumental now -- and sets it down in front of Miss Abigail. Miss Abigail gazes at the urn as if it held the ashes of her ancestors, instead of a generous quantity of fine old Java coffee."
Upstairs at the Nutter House
In the "Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich," writing of the small hall bedroom in the Nutter House, his biographer says: "Even in those-days be was a reader, a little dreamer, and moved in a world peopled with the folk of the imagination. The books he found there and the use he made. of them is of the first biographic importance."
"I had never before had a chamber all to myself, and this one, about twice the size of our stateroom on board the Typhoon, was a marvel of neatness and comfort. Pretty chintz curtains hung at the window, and a patch quilt of more colors than were in Joseph's coat covered the little bed. The pattern of the wallpaper left nothing to be desired in that time. On A gray background were small bunches of leaves, unlike any that ever grew in this world; and on every other bunch perched a yellow bird, pitted with crimson spots, as if it had just recovered from a severe attack of the smallpox. That no such bird ever existed did not detract from my admiration of each one. There were two hundred and sixty-eight of these-birds in all, not counting those split in two where the paper was badly joined. I counted them once when I was laid up with a fine black eye, and, falling asleep, I immediately dreamed that the whole flock suddenly took wing and flew out of the window. From that time I was never able to regard them as merely inanimate objects "
"A washstand in the comer, a chest of mahogany drawers, a looking-glass in a filigreed frame, and a high-backed chair studded with brass nails like a coffin, constituted the furniture. Over the head of the bed were two oak shelves, holding perhaps a dozen books -- among which were Theodore, or, The Peruvians; Robinson Crusoe; an odd volume of Tristram Shandy, Baxter's Saints' Rest, and a fine English edition of the Arabian Nights, with six hundred woodcuts by Harvey."
"Shall I ever forget the hour when I first overhauled these books? I do not allude especially to Baxter's Saints' Rest, which is far from being a lively work for the young, but to the Arabian Nights, and particularly Robinson Crusoe. The thrill that ran into my fingers' ends then has not run out yet. Manyatime did I steal up to this nest of a room, and, taking the dog's-eared volume from its shelf, glide off into an enchanted realm, where there were no lessons to forget, and no boys to smash my kite."
In a life so tranquil and circumscribed as ours in the Nutter House a visitor was a novelty of no little importance. The whole household awoke from its quietude one morning when the Captain announced that a young niece of his from New York was coming to spend a few weeks with us."
"The blue chintz room, into which a ray of sun was never allowed to penetrate, was thrown open and dusted and its moldy air made sweet with a bouquet of pot-roses placed on the old- Fashioned bureau."
"At the time I came to Riverrnouth, my grandfather had retired from active pursuits and was living at ease on his money, invested principally in shipping. He had been a widower many years, a maiden sister, the aforesaid Miss Abigail, managing his household. Miss Abigail also managed her brother, and her brother's servant, and the visitor at her brother's gate."
"According to Kitty, it was not originally my grandfather's intention to have Miss Abigail at the bead of his domestic establishment. She had swooped down on him (Kitty's own words) with a band- box in one hand and a faded blue cotton umbrella, still in existence, in the other. Clad in this singular garb -- I do not remember that Kitty alluded to any additional peculiarity of dress -- Miss Abigail had made her appearance at the door of the Nutter House on the morning of my grandmother's funeral."
"Miss Abigail had effected many changes in the Nutter House before I came there to live; but there was one thing against which she had long contended without being able to overcome-- this was the Captain's pipe. On first taking command of the household, she prohibited smoking, in the sitting-room, where it had been the old gentleman's custom to take a whiff or two of the fragrant weed after meals."
"The edict went forth -- and so did the pipe. However, my grandfather humored her in this as in other matters, and smoked by stealth, like a guilty creature, in the barn or about the gardens. That was practicable in summer, but in winter the Captain was hard put to it. When he could not stand it longer, he retreated to his bedroom and barricaded the door."
"I needn't tell a New England boy what a museum of curiosities is the garret of a well-regulated New England house of fifty or sixty years' standing. Here met together, as if by some preconcerted arrangement, all the broken-down chairs of the household, all the spavined tables, all the seedy hats, all the intoxicated-looking boots, all the split warming-sticks that have retired from business, 'weary with the march of life,' the pots, the pans, the trunks, the bottles -- who may hope to make an inventory of the numberless odds and ends collected in this bewildering lumber-room? But what a place it is to sit of an afternoon with the rain pattering on the roof! What a place to read Gulliver's Travels I or the famous adventures of Rinaldo Rinaidini In a lidless trunk in the garret I subsequently unearthed another motley collection of novels and romances, embracing the adventures of Baron Trenck, Jack Sheppard, Don Quixote, Gil Bias, and Charlotte Temple -- all of which I fed upon like a bookworm. I never come across a copy of any of those works without feeling a certain tenderness for the yellow-haired little rascal who used to lean above the magic pages hour after hour, religiously believing every word he read, and no more doubting the reality of Sinbad the Sailor or the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance than he did the existence of his own grandfather."
["garret of a well-regulated New England" links to a jump page tbagarret;org - this is not a postcards, since there is none, but goes with that set.]
In the story of the "Nutter House" Mr. Aldrich does not speak of the garden, but he has often told me of the inexhaustible territory of
pleasure and play it was - at times swarming with Indians in ambush,
behind every bush and tree -- then, presto, change ! it was transformed
into an English forest through which rode Robin Hood and his men --
again the pirates had it -- Captain Kidd burying his treasure in the
moonlight -- Jeanne d'Arc proudly riding on her white steed with banners
flying -- and here, many times, was solemnized the marriage of
Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.
Article by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, reprinted in its entirety from THE OUTLOOK, May 27, 1911 in the collection of the Portsmouth Public Library. The quotations throughout are from Thomas Bailey Aldrich's classic, "Story of a Bad Boy" (1869). See also: "Crowding Memories" by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton, Miflin, Boston 1920. Illustrations are from the original reprinted in 1990 by Hardscrabble Books, University of New Hampshire, University Press of New England.
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