I fancy myself as a sort of amateur ornamental hermit. Thirty plus years of living with multiple chemical sensitivity and environmental illnesses, with the social and logistical restrictions these conditions require, will do that to a person. It’s important to find solace and sources of amusement while living in (varying degrees of) isolation, as Covid-19 has taught so many of us now. I have to admit, though, that I am less ornamental than I used to be.
However my fascination with the quaint profession of Ornamental Hermiting started as a literary one, long before the logistics of my life narrowed. I had read a book that belonged to my late uncle, English Eccentrics by Edith Sitwell, and in it was an entire chapter to the 16th-17th century fad of installing aged and/or impoverished persons in picturesque grottoes, caves, and “follies” on palatial country estates. This was, alas, a male dominated profession and one must somehow strive to look and act like Gandalf before there was ever a Gandalf. The ad below will give you some idea of the job.
this antiquated career choice should be a modern option.
I have said this should be a modern employment option and I mean it. What with the 1% of the 1% getting richer from our labor by the minute, the least they could do is build modest follies for the 99% to dwell in. Years ago I even wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle about this. The dapper Willie Brown was mayor at the time, and everyone was bemoaning “the homeless” camped out in United Nations Plaza across from City Hall. In my letter I suggested the city do some creative thinking for a change. Why not invite the unhoused people to join a city-funded guild, attach it to the SEIU or some other union, pay decent wages and benefits, and provide all members with cast-off costumes from Beach Blanket Babylon and ACT (American Conservatory Theater). Once costumed, these newly minted urban “hermits” could be trained to mutter strange utterances (if they weren’t doing that already) and pretty much spend their time as usual. This would be a tourist draw to rival mimes (no longer in fashion) at Union Square or busking musicians at Fisherman’s Wharf. I thought it was a win-win idea, but the Chronicle declined to publish the letter. However one of the editors did call me and give me thumbs up for having cited absolutely the most obscure literary reference (that was Edith Sitwell) he’d ever seen in a Letter to the Editor. So I suppose I felt a little proud.
In days of old, I think there were probably a lot of women and other gendered people who could have benefited from the solitude and reflection that accompanied this position, not to mention “food from the house.” However a ragged dame or leaf-festooned hag, flitting through shrubbery across the lawn, is less appealing to gentry sipping tea on the veranda. They would have looked too much like witches.
And it’s THAT which gave me the idea of making my imagined (and ancient) mystery school, The Guild of Ornamental Hermits, a front for rescuing accused witches and hiding them in plain sight as the living equivalent of garden gnomes. The English witch persecutions weren’t quite as bad as in Scotland (where witches were burned), but they were still pretty brutal (in England, witches hanged). So in my book, twelve human famillies collaborated with twelve to fifteen Elves of the Realm (who served as magic instructors) to rescue and shelter the poor wretches who were accused or in danger. My fourth book, The Perilous Past of The Guild of Ornamental Hermits, is all about that.
Lastly there’s something here too about ravages of poverty and the inconvenience of “non-normative” behavior, packaged as a spectacle and amusement for the wealthy, that also seems quite congruent with our present time.
To Learn More
Edith Sitwell‘s book, English Eccentrics, contains a chapter on Ornamental Hermits.
From the Best of Craig’s List – Gentle Lady Seeks Ornamental Hermit, July 26, 2014.
Ornamental Hermits of Eccentric Modern England, Author and date unknown. Hermitary.
Before the Garden Gnome, the Ornamental Hermit: A Real Person Paid to Dress like a Druid, Alison Meier. AtlasObscura. March 18, 2014. Discusses Gordon Campbell’s book, The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome.
The Strange Short-Lived British Trend of Hiring Ornamental Hermits, Claire Cock-Starkey, MentalFloss. May 15, 2017.