Elizabeth Smither seeks out A Girl of the Limberlost.
I can still remember my fear of the swamp. Was it because of The Hound of the Baskervilles? But A Girl of the Limberlost held a deeper kind of fear when I was 12. The hound could be explained away by phosphorescent fur; he was half-starved and bayed to be fed. And though Holmes had a narrow escape from Grimpen Mire and the villain assuredly perished in it, the Limberlost swamp, I recognised, was altogether longer-lasting.
A Girl of the Limberlost was romantic and about love and worth. Especially the worth of one young woman as opposed to another. But it suggested that the heroine Elnora Comstock’s sense of self-worth came from a swamp and was based on what she found there, while she observed nature and collected butterflies. How puzzling that seemed and how shaky. The young man, who would eventually come to recognise her qualities, would need to be taken to the swamp, and her mother would need to overcome her hatred of it, since it had claimed her husband. And swamp-based or not, Elnora had to launch herself in the real world (ie society), despite beginning badly by wearing the wrong clothes to school. I was not averse to butterflies but I wished Elnora would get onto firmer ground.
The message of the swamp, to me, with my nose perpetually in books, was that the world itself was swampy. The butterflies Elnora collects – $300-worth, but at the last moment Mrs Comstock crushes a rare moth that would complete the set – seem as insubstantial as the ground she treads on. And yet, immersed in the Limberlost Swamp in Wabash Township as Gene Stratton Porter undoubtedly was, “with camera, notepad, and glass plates, photographing the birds and wildlife and then developing the photos herself, sometimes tinting them with watercolors”, there was obviously something to be learned. Lessons that animals in fields might know: endurance, patience, just standing still.
I think I realised that these might not be the lessons required by Edith Carr, the society belle with whom the hero, Philip Ammon, is in love. Until the spoilt Edith throws a tantrum at a ball. Then the merits of Elnora, based on independence and introversion, become visible, like a cloud of blue butterflies.
I don’t think, at 12, it was this romance I believed in. I had pondered independently about what human beings could get from “scenery”. Driving out to view a promontory or taking the waters (horrid) at a spa: that consumption of cloud and hill and rainbow seemed to me false. It might be, since she was based on a swamp and had a head full of butterflies, that for Elnora necessity was the mother of invention. Land-based Edith Carr, on the other hand, would not have bothered. She would just have summoned her carriage and drawn the shades, fanned herself and complained of the weather.
I was heartily pleased when Elnora’s life progressed to finding a mentor. This made me feel more secure, given that the kindness of strangers might be a parallel to nature worship. And the chapter headings consoled, sweetly giving the game away, however much the swamp drew Elnora back:
WHEREIN ELNORA GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL AND LEARNS MANY LESSONS NOT FOUND IN HER BOOKS.
WHEREIN MOTHER LOVE IS BESTOWED ON ELNORA AND SHE FINDS AN ASSISTANT IN MOTH HUNTING.
WHEREIN PHILIP FINDS ELNORA AND EDITH CARR OFFERS A YELLOW EMPEROR.
I never overcame my fear of the swamp or the ephemerality of butterflies, but how I hugged those chapter headings to myself.
Gene Stratton Porter (1863-1924) had written an earlier Limberlost novel, Freckles (1904), about an orphaned boy with only one hand who believes he is “absolutely nothing” until he is rescued by a mentor and a beautiful girl known as Swamp Angel. The real swamp, where Gene Stratton Porter lived as a child and when she married, was drained for cropland in 1911 but later restored as an historic site by the State of Indiana. Ironically, it turns out, the swamp may have been safer, for Ms Porter died in a streetcar accident in Los Angeles when she was negotiating movie rights.
A Girl of the Limberlost opened the door to all those wonderful Southern novels I would read, steeped in gallantry and tradition and something mouldy, like an antebellum plantation house with its slave cabins tucked out of sight. A premise that form counts but also an awareness of why. If things end well for Freckles and Elnora, in the adult authors I would find few happy endings, despite resolve and spirit and the right clothes. I’m thinking of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner. Still, the shifting simmering swamp, with its beauties and dangers, its pervasiveness, convinced me that whatever an author did with her characters, there was an underpinning reality that might have a larger say. Call it upbringing, roots, an imprinted landscape that forms people through their struggles and hobbies.
Why do we remember one book and not another? Why would I now look at Holmes’ and Watson’s antics on the moors with no fear at all and yet still fear the swamp in A Girl of the Limberlost? Surely intangibles, inchoate fears, are richer than being rescued. And doesn’t a writer require ambiguities?
It is significant in Gene Stratton Porter’s writing that characters are reduced first to their lowest level of confidence before they can climb. That they need the fairytale agency of mentors and kindly spirit guides who look into the maze of their characters and discover a jewel. It is significant too that the rich privileged young suitor is reduced in the same way by illness before he can see the merit of Elnora.
Perhaps the greatest gift that remains is the function of nature to bring not just solace but harsh truths, so school books and school clothes are rendered into props. This minute observation that Gene Stratton Porter practised in her laboratory on the edge of the swamp is a remaining virtue. And yet, I think I was right to feel that childish fear and uncertainty. Here is Elnora waxing lyrical about the swamp:
The Limberlost is life. Here it is a carefully kept park. You motor, sail and golf, all so secure and fine. But what I like is the excitement of choosing a path carefully, in fear that the quagmire may reach out and suck me down; to go into the swamp half-naked and wrestle from it treasures that bring me books and clothing, and I like enough of a fight for things that I always remember how I got them. I even enjoy seeing a canny old vulture eyeing me as if it were saying “Ware of the sting of the rattler, lest I pick your bones … .” Keep me away from that vulture.
But there is a moral overtone too that I probably missed. A Southern striving for grace and good form. It must have sailed over my head altogether. Here are Elnora and Philip after a reformed Edith has presented a rare moth as apology:
“Superb!” exclaimed Elnora. “I have no words. I feel so humbled!”
“So do I,” said Philip. “I think a brave deed like that always makes one feel so. Now are you happy?”
“Unspeakably happy!” answered Elnora.
Now I think I would go off with Edith on a golf cart or climb into a Hispano-Suiza. And if we passed a swamp I would signal to the driver to drive straight on.
Elizabeth Smither is a New Plymouth writer.