If you’re a gardener, this time of year likely has you thinking about the backyard. Your plans might include moving the flower beds or restocking the fish pond. They do not, most likely, involve hiring a live hermit.
Had you been a wealthy landowner in 18th-century England, however, things might have been different. For several decades beginning at the middle of the century, live hermits were the height of fashion for the British gentry. New trends in garden design—away from formal, geometric grounds and towards artificial Edens—created a new kind of cultural habitat, which some people filled with an actual occupant. Provided with a hut or grotto to call his own and a few simple meals a day, a garden hermit might live for years on a picturesque corner of the property. Wandering guests would marvel at this living, breathing symbol of rural withdrawal.
Though today it sounds bizarre—indeed, indecent—to use a live person as a garden ornament, the practice had deep roots. The tradition extended all the way back to the Roman Empire, when the emperor Hadrian built himself a miniature villa on a tiny island near his palace to be used for solitary escapes. In his new book, “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome,” Gordon Campbell, a professor of renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, traces the history and lasting influence of perhaps the strangest trend in the history of landscaping.
Hermits, and the hermitages in which they lodged, were chiefly a feature of the more lavish gardens of Georgian England, but there is also evidence of the phenomenon extending to Ireland, Scotland, and, less frequently, continental Europe. The hermit, Campbell argues in his book, was a public symbol of an emotion that we have since learned to bury: melancholy. Sadness was something one cultivated, a state that suggested emotional sensitivity and a kind of native intelligence. To employ a garden hermit—cloaked in rags, performing solitude—was to assert a fine sensibility, one keen to the spiritual benefits of privacy, peace, and mild woe.
With today’s public mood tilted toward positive thinking rather than melancholy solitude, we are no longer so eager to savor our sadness or put it on display. (Also, of course, most contemporary gardeners are ordinary people rather than landed gentry desperate for diversion.) But subtle relics of this peculiar chapter of landscape architecture do live on in our gardens today: They take the form of hidden benches positioned for intimate conversation, small gazebos perfect for pursuing solitary hobbies, even—most literally—garden gnomes.
Campbell spoke with Ideas from Leicester, where he lives and teaches. This interview was edited from multiple conversations.
IDEAS: How did all this happen? How would one even get a hermit?
CAMPBELL: Landowners advertised, and under oddly similar conditions—they feel like they come from fairy tales. The term is often seven years, the hermits are not allowed to wash their hair or cut their nails, which sounds horrendous. They had to live austerely, and when their term was up, they’d receive 4 or 5 or 600 pounds, enough to never work again. Landowners had enormous power. They could also say to one of their tenants, “I want you to be my ornamental hermit. Here is your druid costume.”
IDEAS: Was it a good life?
CAMPBELL: There are a few hermits that appear to have had small cottages, but only in summertime. There was one who lived in a cave; he had a bell that he could ring for cave service. A pot of tea or something would be brought, though he couldn’t talk to the servants. There’s no suggestion of cruelty—besides the fact of being basically owned, of course.
IDEAS: The hermits’ dwellings were also used as sites for parties and lively human interaction. Can you talk a little bit about this contradiction?
CAMPBELL: Is solitude an ideal to be achieved or a sign of failure in society?...The hermit comes down bizarrely on both sides....It’s quite striking how often the hermitages are used for family picnics, say. There’s one example I quote in the book of a hermitage in Ireland that has a hatch in it and the hermit becomes the bartender, he serves wine.
IDEAS: Did you encounter any American hermitages in your research?
CAMPBELL: Andrew Jackson’s place is really the only one I can think of that relates to this history. He wasn’t wealthy by origin; he bought the estate on which he grew up and called it his hermitage.
IDEAS: You write that the hermit is “an embodiment of the ideals of solitary retirement and pleasing melancholy.” How are these virtues expressed now?
CAMPBELL: There’s a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, [“God’s Garden”]: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden/ Than anywhere else on earth.” Everyone’s grandmother has that engraved on a plaque in their garden. The idea of the garden as a place of contemplation, the garden as a therapeutic place to go and work or sit, or whatever you do—that is a relic of what we’re talking about. It’s a place to go think....And we still put buildings in our gardens. I don’t know about America, but England has the garden shed—the man hole of the garden—the place where the man goes and makes things in a manly kind of way. And women from Edith Wharton onwards take tea in the garden. So that sense of respite lives onwards.
IDEAS: But there’s no longer such literal symbolism.
CAMPBELL: Back then, the notion of melancholy wasn’t a medical condition, like depression. It was a sign of depth of character....So in that sense, we no longer put symbols of our sadness, as it were, in our gardens.
IDEAS: Have you been following the case of the “Maine hermit”? He’s not so much a melancholy figure; he’s more of a menace—stealing bacon from campgrounds.
CAMPBELL: There are some hermits I left beside when writing my book. After World War I, for instance, there were soldiers who returned to England and suffered from what we would now call shell shock [or post-traumatic stress disorder] and regard as a medical condition. They found themselves entirely unable to reintegrate themselves into civilian life and ended up living in the woods, unable to talk to anyone. They were regarded not as sinister at all; they were regarded as damaged in some way....They lived in suburban woodlands for years and years.
IDEAS: The hermit seems to have taken on different connotations over the last, say, 100 years.
CAMPBELL: We have developed, in our society, a mistrust in this sort of person. The hobo, for example, was a kind of friendly folk figure, but we now teach our children to beware of strangers, especially ones who are “alternative” and live in the woods....We have a much darker image of people who retire from the world. We don’t regard them as lovable eccentrics anymore.