Saturday, July 22, 2023

A place-based writing retreat in Richmond- the former Ellis Garden

I’m sitting in what used to be the Ellis Garden once filled with roses, jasmine, and linden trees. I brought my own rose- one my friend rescued from an old southern cemetery lovingly propagated and now thriving in my own garden. This land was once part of a much larger property owned by Thomas Rutherfoord whose fortunes were in tobacco and real estate. In 1816, Charles Ellis purchased a portion of the land, including the area where I sit. Ellis lived across the street and used this spot for his garden.

Ellis was the business partner of John Allan, Edgar Allan Poe’s foster father. The Allans, including young Poe, lived with the Ellis family after returning from England. It was here that Poe and the Ellis children played. The local legend is that this was once the enchanted garden mentioned in Poe’s “To Helen” and where a teen Poe courted Elmira Royster. 


The property today is the Linden Row Inn, and its history extends beyond Poe’s time but I’m here because of Poe’s connection and I’m using this for my own place-based writing retreat. There are hanging baskets and potted plants throughout this courtyard but there are no other roses except the one I brought in my tiny vase. To be fair, most roses thrive in sun and this courtyard is shaded by trees making a rather hot afternoon feel much more inviting. Linden trees live about 150 years. Poe died 174 years ago this October. These probably are not the same trees and Richmond is not the same city. 


The Souls of Edgar Allan Poe: Graves of His Family, Friends and Foes will be published in a month. While sitting in this garden, I found that my book now has its own page on Arcadia Publishing. I drank two To Helens (lavender infused gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, and simple syrup) at the restaurant. I’m trying to find a connection to Poe in this inn. There is no lack of décor. I had read that each room had a copy of Poe’s collected works. I did not realize that the artwork in the room and even the Do Not Disturb door signs would also include nods to Poe. 

"To Helen" cocktail

It strikes me that today when visiting Capitol Square, I was most connected to both of my books-The Souls of Edgar Allan Poe and Women Writers Buried in Virginia


Capitol Square has a statue of Poe by Pennsylvania sculptor Charles Rudy who designed and build the statue in 1956- first from a plaster model and then a bronze cast was made. The statue includes a seated Poe whose hands are on his lap- one holds a pen while the other holds papers. Under the chair is a pile of books. I always admire books in bronze and in stone. I suppose I just appreciate book décor. The face of the Poe statue does not resemble the author as much as I would like but then it took Virginia forever* to even erect a statue of him. The statue was dedicated in 1959 so it seems that even with the completed statue ready, Richmond couldn’t get around to placing the statue for a few years. Maybe placing the statue near the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth was significant to the city leaders. 

Statue of Poe by Charles Rudy

In 2017, the statue was moved to the northwest corner to make room for other statues- one being the Virginia Women’s Movement, which I had specifically gone to visit earlier in the day. I first visited Poe’s statue now tucked away in the corner behind the security gate building. It’s a rather pleasant place to stand and gaze upon a statue considering it is shaded and away from foot traffic. 

Voices from the Garden by Ivan Schwartz

In the Poe statue’s former location is Voices from the Garden: The Virginia’s Women’s Monument, which was the “first monument honoring [a] full scope of women’s achievements.” There are a dozen life-sized bronze statues representing four centuries of Virginia’s history, including Clementina Rind, the first woman printer in Virginia. I’ve written about her before


With the monument, there is also a Wall of Honor with names etched in glass. Names such as V.C. Andrews, Rosa Dixon Bowser, Ellen Glasgow, Mary Johnston, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, Anne Spencer and Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy who are each profiled in Women Writers Buried in Virginia; and Elizabeth Van Lew who is included in The Souls Close to Edgar Allan Poe.


I also recently learned that Edith Mansford Fitzgerald, the Deaf educator who developed the Fitzgerald Key and who worked at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind (VSDB) in Staunton, Virginia and a Gallaudet alum is included on the Virginia Women’s Monument Wall of Honor. I don’t know how I missed that. 

While sitting in the garden, my thoughts return to women and Elmira Royster Shelton who was young and in love. She, too, walked these grounds, and lived so much of her life in Richmond. She was kind and caring, she managed her money well, she was a woman of faith, and she just happened to love a poet. Perhaps she was too nostalgic when reacquainting herself with a first love near the end of his life. She was 34 when her husband passed and 38 when Poe came back into her life.

While scholars may disagree which ladies Poe’s poems were written for or to, I’ve always believed that he wrote about not one woman but the woman he loved in that moment (Ms. Right Now), perhaps a combination of qualities of the women he loved at different times. While sitting in the garden in Linden Row Inn watching a wedding party gather for someone’s special day, I read “Song,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Raven” since Elmira was often referred to Poe’s Lost Lenore later in life. She didn’t have her second chance with Poe. A death notice took the place of a wedding announcement. 


“Leave no black plume as a token…” 


On this trip, I did not find a feather. There’s a metaphor there.  


Catterina's cousin poses
I snuck a postcard in the Poe collection.

*over a century

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