Carole Owens: Afternoon tea
Over the years I had afternoon tea with some wonderful Berkshire women and the sum of conversation was a tasty slice of Berkshire history.
Tea time, Strawberry Hill, Stockbridge, 1980:
"It is China tea," Rosamond Sherwood says as she sets the silver pot on the table.
She motions around the broad living room with the spectacular view of the Berkshire Hills.
"We moved up into the big house on this spot on the hill. My mother was actually the architect of that house but Stanford White was a great friend (his wife was our relative) and he gave us quite a few assists on the design of that house."
"Did many well-known people visit your family in The Berkshires?"
"Well, family of course and close friends."
"You mentioned Henry James before."
"Oh yes," Rosamond brightens, "He was a relative of ours as a matter of fact. My mother and father had a marvelous library of books including first editions of every book that Henry James wrote. He immediately sent a first edition of each to my mother. There was a long inscription in it -- I mean it wasn’t just an inscription -- it was describing what he was trying to say in the book."
"May I see one?"
Passions do rage around the tea table, and the great domestic epics unfold.
"Burned; all our books burned. The whole house burned down. Every first edition of Henry James gone. I watched the fire.
I watched everything just going up into nothing. It was the middle of the night and I watched the smoke and I thought of all the Henry James books, Stanford White’s architectural touches, and other things of course, just gone."
Rosamond is the picture of privilege, of grace and goodness.
"We were very prosperous. My father and his family had a lot of money. My mother’s family was very distinguished. My mother came out in society in New York with Sarah Delano [FDR’s mother]."
Sitting in her home, pouring tea, she appears as if her life was always a soft sweet song, the proverbial bowl of cherries. Not so.
"My father’s firm failed in New York in 1917. He suffered a long, bad illness, one of his partners died, and another partner made terrible investments. It failed, and we were completely broke. That was the end, we lost everything: the houses taken and everything in them in the hands of receivers. We felt sorry for father, terribly sorry. He was old and ill and humiliated."
She looks away remembering.
"It was terrible for father; he took it personally, but for the rest of us it was the greatest thing that ever happened."
The women of wealthy families in the late 19th and early 20th century were not expected to do anything beyond the domestic circle, she explains.
"Even the young men of rich families didn’t have to work. They played polo and traveled; gentlemen of leisure. Now here we were down flat. It was up to us. We haven’t got any money unless we made some. My brother could write some and my mother painted."
Well, yes: her brother could write some. He was Robert Emmett Sherwood, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner; the first time for "The Petrified Forest." Her mother was Rosina Emmett, one of the three famous Emmett sisters, all portrait artists. For a period, her mother supported the family with help from her children.
"The wealthy were so limited in accomplishments: my brother would have written a little but would he have accomplished what he did?" (She gently shakes her head).
"My mother said, in her later years, that when she was painting and the family depending upon her, it was the happiest time of her life."
Afternoon tea is a true restorative: a warmed pot and hot topics; strong brew and gentle tales. Many are tales of survival. Tales of survival among the tea cups are rarely about war or violence, murder or mayhem, but almost always about the triumph of the human spirit over loss, grief, adversity or travail. They are the subtler dramas, often undervalued; even more often drowned out by the noise of violence, and yet, if you listen carefully, they are tales of heroism.
Two daughters married, and one, Rosamond, rebuilt the house on Strawberry Hill. The sons prospered, and the parents lived out their last days in dignity. It is a small thing, but Dorothy Sayers commended it. When faced with adversity, the Sherwood family did not allow bad luck to make them bad-tempered; small triumph but a major addition to civilized living.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.
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