The Lost Landscape

Winifred Welles
The Lost Landscape is not, as the title might suggest, about nature, but about human nature, and specifically that of an imaginative little girl who grew up in Old Norwich (pronounced Norrich) half a century ago in the kindly bosom of one of the “first families,”and who, from family legends, diaries, and attic relics, reconstructed in her busy little brain the lives of her ancestors back to the Revolution. Since she has altered surnames “except for historical figures,”it is hard to tell where autobiography ends and fiction begins in this adult reconstruction. But it doesn’t really matter.
What Winifred Welles was after, in this her only book in prose, was a picture of New England life — specifically, Connecticut life — at the turn of the century in a level of society assuredly not rustic or poor, but not sophisticatedly urban either, which also kept in its various family strains the racial purity and older traditions of its Colonial origins. The nearest thing to crossbreeding in this specific family saga occurred when an ancestor married a girl from England who dropped her h’s and when Winifred’s mother married a Harvard man. To be sure, he came from Glastonbury, Connecticut, but he inexplicably didn’t go to Yale.
This intermediate culture of the small-town first families — rich in solid virtues, appreciative of books and education, a bit on the proud side but kindly and liberal at heart, always producing in each generation some individualist or humorous cynic like Winifred’s grandfather, and above all deeply attached to home and native town — has never been too well represented in literature, nor have its considerable extent and its comfortable normality been appreciated. It may be passing now. Certainly the physical comforts its representatives once enjoyed are passing for most of them, along with their political if not their social prestige.
In her odd but authentic book Winifred Welles has caught this culture as she knew it at the century’s turn — caught it with the sensitiveness of a poet for whom little things mean much, and preserved it in a prose which is clean and even rather spare, but as well designed and as artfully effective as the façade of an old white house on Norwich Green. It is winter. Grandpa, he of the cynical and sometimes profane humor, lies in the “downstairs chamber.” “Winter days the azure coals would hiss softly in the big stove, and out on the road he could hear the bells on the sleighs sweetly ringing as they passed, or the slow wheels of carts wincing over the packed snow.” She evokes a picture as easily and cleanly as that, or a character or episode. This is a book for real New Englanders to cherish, and outlanders to ponder.