Celia Thaxter found solace, friendship and fame on the Isles of Shoals, a tiny archipelago off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. She had grown up on one of the larger islands, White, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Her poems and stories about the island captivated her readers. And her island garden, which contained 57 flowers, inspired her artist friends.
A letter to her friend Rose Lamb on August 29, 1889, typifies her island-inspired prose.
To-night there is the most delicious slender red crescent sinking slowly in the west, throwing a mysterious glimmer on the calm sea; there isn’t a whisper of wind, and it is balmy and beautiful; windows and doors all open; a most heavenly night. Now people begin to come and I must stop.
Celia Thaxter, Early Life
She was born Celia Laighton on June 29, 1835, in Portsmouth, N.H. Her father, Thomas Laighton, was appointed lighthouse keeper on White Island. Celia only had her two brothers, Cedric and Oscar, to play with. Of her island life, she once wrote,
One of the first things a settler on the Isles of Shoals has to learn is to live as independently as possible.
At 16, she married her tutor, Levi Thaxter, a Harvard graduate 11 years her senior. He had come to the islands hoping to make money from the hotel Thomas Laighton was building on Appledore Island. Soon he tired of island life and persuaded Celia to move to the mainland.
They moved to Newtonville, Mass., and immersed themselves in Boston’s literary circles. At 17 Celia gave birth to her son Karl, who was injured during delivery. He was bright, but nervous, temperamental and dependent. Soon she gave birth to another son, John, and then her youngest, Roland, who became a prominent mycologist.
Levi took the boys on long hunting trips, which Celia resented. She also hated living in Newtonville. She called her home ‘a household jail’ and complained of the ‘hideous ironing. ..the trinity of the soapkettle, the ashcan and the cookstove.’ She wrote a poem called Landlocked, which Levi discovered and took to publisher James T. Fields. He published the poem, and many others by Celia, in the Atlantic. Celia became friends with his wife, Annie Adams Fields, who ran a literary salon on Beacon Hill.
Back to Appledore
In 1866, Celia’s father died and she spent more time on Appledore Island, helping her family with the hotel. Her growing literary fame attracted artists, writers and intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, James and Annie Fields.
John Whittier showed her special kindness. The artist William Morris Hunt, a close family friend, visited the Isles frequently — and died there.
His student, portrait painter Rose Lamb, became a friend of Celia Thaxter’s. After her death, Lamb and Annie Fields compiled a book of her letters. In the introduction, they wrote, “Her “parlor,” as it was called, was a milieu quite as interesting as any of the “salons” of the past.”
In one letter to Lamb, on April 15, 1894, Celia Thaxter wrote,
I cannot tell you how beautiful it is to be here, and I wish for you every day. It is so still and heavenly and fresh and full of promise. I work all day long, mostly out of doors, and there are so many pleasant things to do. Not easy, there is a great deal of hard work, but I love it all.
Childe Hassam painted several pictures of her in her garden, which had its own celebrity. Its flowers filled the rooms at Appledore House. She wrote a book about it called An Island Garden, which Hassam illustrated. The Shoals Marine Laboratory, now on Appledore, has recreated the garden.
Celia Thaxter and Birds
Celia Thaxter grew outraged by the slaughter of birds for ladies’ hats, which she called “funeral pyres they carry on their heads.” She took the post of secretary of the Audubon Society of Waltham, Mass., in 1886. The next year she wrote an article for the first issue of Audubon Magazine called ‘Women’s Heartlessness.’
She also struck up a correspondence with Bradford Torrey, an ornithologist who published a popular book, Birds in the Bush. “I am all the time vexed at my ignorance, and wish somebody were here to tell me the different birds and recognize those delicious voices,” she wrote in a letter to him in 1890.
Heavenly and Fresh
By 1893 she had grandchildren. “I don’t think I ever realized what “fun” was until I became a grandmother!” she wrote to her friend, Feroline W. Fox. “Isn’t it delightful?”
Celia Thaxter died suddenly on Aug. 25, 1894 at the age of 59. Four months before her death she wrote to Rose Lamb.
I cannot tell you how beautiful it is to be here, and I wish for you every day. It is so still and heavenly and fresh and full of promise. I work all day long, mostly out of doors, and there are so many pleasant things to do. Not easy, there is a great deal of hard work, but I love it all; and Karl is so good and helps me with the heaviest, and we have such a good time together.
The garden is a wilderness of sticks and stalks and rubbish from last year, and it is a job to begin, after pruning the roses, to clear all this away, to dig up the hollyhock roots that have sowed themselves outside and transplant in the inside of the fence, to fork over and manure all the earth, etc.
I have my mother’s big, sunny room, with one opening out of it for Karl; and the large bay window is full of tables, and boxes of seeds that I am watching with as much delight as if I had never done it before. It is such a pleasure.
I am busy every instant, so glad and thankful to be here. No tongue can tell it; just to be here, it is all I ask. Sometimes I am afraid I enjoy it too much, and wonder what ever would become of me if I had to be away.
Flowers from her garden covered her coffin.
This story was updated in 2022. Images: Celia Thaxter house in Newtonville By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20433891.