Wythe House: typical Williamsburg building though rather larger than most.
The Engineer and I have just had a three week trip to the States, part-business, part-pleasure, wholly wrapped up in all things literary.
Back in the late Seventies we spent a year living in Egypt while The Engineer worked on a project with the Egyptian Army and I and the children, then aged 8, 6 and 1, sampled life as ex-pats. The elder two were enrolled at the Cairo American College which gave them not only a unique insight into how other children lived, but also accents straight out of the Deep South (many of the children’s fathers were in oil so the kids came from Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, et al). (We had a maid there and she taught the little one to speak Arabic at the same time as she learned English; sadly she forgot the Arabic when she came home at the age of two.) _Photo: my favourite – the children in an Egyptian palace
One of the spin-offs for the ex-pat parents was that we were allowed to use the school library and that’s where my holiday’s first episode of Literary Tourism comes in because that’s where I first came across the Williamsburg novels of Elswyth Thane. And fell headlong in love with American history as played out between the fictitious Day, Sprague and Murray families.
The first book in the series, ‘Dawn’s Early Light’, begins with 21-year-old Julian Day newly arrived at Williamsburg – then the capital of Virginia. It’s 1774 and he has travelled from London with his father who is to be the town’s new schoolmaster. There’s only one problem – his father has died on the voyage and Julian is now penniless in a strange land – though not really a foreign land, as it’s a British colony. Befriended by Englishman-turned-patriot St John Sprague, he has arrived just at a time when independence is being discussed and war is on the horizon.
The series of seven books follows Julian’s story and that of the 9-year-old Tibby whom he rescues from a brutish stepfather and who later follows him to war dressed as her twin brother. It continues with the intermingling of the quietly bookish Day families and the more dashing and effortlessly charming Spragues, along with the wealthy Yankee Murray family, spreads across the Atlantic to the Cotswolds and ends in 1941 when wartime alliances and romances promise to take the story further.
The books are both full of history and action – graphic descriptions of battles and conditions in various wars, but they’re also romantic and a delight and I’m so glad I discovered them because I’d probably never have been moved to visit Williamsburg. We did this first in 1979 when we hired a Winnebago and drove from Miami to New York with a detour to Vermont, and taking in a day in Williamsburg. This was just enough to show me how much more I wanted to see of the little town and just enough to make me realise how much more I’d prefer to do that without having small children strung about me. Photo: not-quite-8-yr-old ‘driving’ somewhere in the USA
It took us 34 years to make that dream come true but it was worth it. The town was saved from genteel decay in 1928 when a local clergyman approached John D Rockefeller III and they set up a trust to restore Williamsburg to its colonial heyday. Nowadays the town’s modern life continues around the centre which is known as Colonial Williamsburg where you can find shops staffed by costumed ‘interpreters’ as well as historic workshops like the blacksmiths, etc. We paid for a 3 day pass which allowed us entrance to the museums but sadly I didn’t spot till too late that it’s possible to hire 18th century costumes. (You might think that an Engineer would shy away from fancy dress but you would be wrong, but that’s another story…)
It’s the prettiest place imaginable; 18th century clapboard houses painted white or cream or ochre or grey; trees lining the streets; taverns dating back to pre-Revolutionary days where orators preached rebellion; carriages and horses clip-clopping around town. Yes, it’s a museum of a kind though the past and present live harmoniously together, but it’s living history too. I hadn’t realised until we were there this time how much of a Civil War the American Revolution actually was. It was Englishman against Englishman in the beginning with the distinctions becoming blurred later as the French coming in on the American side and the Hanoverians imported to fight for the King.
Although we arrived a little before the official start of the season we were there for some of the street theatre, so one day we were electrified by a galloping horseman riding to the Capitol where he read out the newly published Declaration of Independence and the next day we thought we’d better lie low because Benedict Arnold and the British rode into town, all red coats and shiny buttons.
We spent four nights in Williamsburg and besides exploring the town itself we took in Jamestown where the early settlers landed in 1607 and Yorktown, scene of the decisive battle of the Revolution. On the way to Washington DC we spent a day at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the embryo nation and a man who was far more fascinating that we had ever imagined.
Meanwhile, in Williamsburg, I carried Elswyth Thane’s characters with me as we strolled down Duke of Gloucester street. I pictured the Yankee officer who fell in love with Julian’s great-granddaughter Eden Day and I tried to identify the house on England Street where her cousin, Sedgewick Sprague, the captain in the Confederate army, was carried wounded and unconscious in a town occupied by the enemy.
It rained most of the time we were in Williamsburg but not enough to dampen our enjoyment of the fascinating little town or my delight in seeing the church where Tibby married Julian or the riverbank where they picnicked.
The B&B (chosen for its name and picture of the house – and very nice too!) http://www.alicepersonhouse.com/