The Autobiography of a New England Farm House

A romance of the Cape Cod lands

N. H. Chamberlain

Boston: Cupples and Hurd, 1888

This was first published in 1865, as The autobiography of a New England farm-house; a book. Nathan Henry Chamberlain (1828-1901) was a minister, and that is a big problem for this "novel."

It is a mystery and romance, set in "Sandowne," which stands in for Sandwich. The time is perhaps 1830-1840 for the main events. The protagonist is Arthur Bassett, returning after a university education, when he inherits the ancient family farm. The other main characters are Agnes Lawrence, pretty and smart, the love interest; Rev. Henry Leverick, scholar, trout-fisher, bachelor, the town parson; and Old Treeman, mysterious recluse and woodsman. The town folk are like town folk in many places — provincial, uneducated, gossipy, often mentally shriveled, but democratic Yankees.

Will Arthur and Agnes get together? Who is Old Treeman? Why does the portrait of Agnes's murdered father light up? Who cares?

What interests me are the settings. Chamberlain was born and lived in that area, so I'll assume his settings are accurate. This was written as looking back some decades (from 1865 or 1888). The town is quiet, stagnant even. The old Puritan spirit survives weakly in the habits and memories of its citizens, and the author is ambivalent about that - he criticizes the people for it, yet his minister is thoughtful and broad-minded. The tavern is the likely road to ruin for its frequenters, who will end up in the poor-house, but working men need their rum when working hard. There was an Acadian village, now abandoned, where the exiles were allowed to live and quietly practice their religion (there really was a group of Acadians at Sandwich - I don't know their fate). A forest fire threatens to run through miles of woodlots (so the land is not as barren here as elsewhere or elsewhen). There was a community Cranberry Day, when everyone picked the berries on town lands, but this was abandoned later as being "vulgar." The May militia muster is Search Day, a major community event, where most of the men are required to attend with their weapons, gear and uniforms for inspection and parade — the men are utterly undisciplined, their weapons a motley collection, and their gear sub-standard — most of the men end the night at the tavern, and some started there.

So, the setting is interesting, but the characters and plot are not. The time frame is unclear, in that some of the Revolutionary veterans and contemporaries are 60ish, and some in their 90s, and some by context are well under 50. And the novelist was a minister, so there is page after page of philosophical musings and religious piety that I mostly skipped over. And there's a side story, a hideously Victorian tale about the minister's favorite young orphan, who runs off into the woods when a ghostly mother coaxes him there, and dies soon after.

David Kew, January 2003

full text link to the 1865 book

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