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“The Ancient Beautiful Things”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 18, 2013

As stories go, there isn’t much here. But I’d love to hear your ideas about why a Mormon woman of 1939 – and a much-published author like Vesta P. Crawford – wrote stories like this, and why the Magazine printed them, and how readers might have responded to them.

From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1939 –

“The Ancient Beautiful Things”

By Vesta P. Crawford

John Wilson sat on a rounded rock half way up a long hill in the South Downs country. Below him at the base of the white sea cliffs the little village of Shoreham jutted out into the Channel. It was a fine clear day, but John was tired. He took off his worn shoes and pressed his feet down into the cool grass. The salty breeze swept up the hills and ruffled the man’s white hair. Here he was in England again, back home after so many years.

From his coat pocket he took out a blue notebook, a small bottle of ink, and his pen. He balanced the book on his knee and began to write slowly: “Today is the tenth of August, 1896. I am in my sixty-fifth year and have been on this mission nearly fourteen months. Here I am in this lovely South Downs country, the land of my birth. Shoreham, my native village, lies below me. Forty years ago I left this place and sailed to America with my wife and child. Forty years, and now I am back again, a Mormon missionary tracting in the very section where I played as a youth.

“Forty years – so much has happened. The child we had then has been dead thirty-nine years. My wife died twenty years ago. I am very poor in worldly goods. Yet, in America I found great wealth of spirit, joy in the Gospel, and happiness with my family.

“Utah is a strange country – so very new. I realize this more fully now as I sit on the hills above that place where the ships of the Saxon kings lay at anchor nearly a thousand years ago. near me, along the roads that wind inland, are old castles and steepled churches with intricate carvings and stained glass windows. Not far away is London with its great museums and magnificent libraries housing the art and culture of the centuries. Indeed, when I think of all this, I am more sympathetic than ever with the efforts of my people in the mountain valleys to bring education and opportunity to their children. It is I, and others like me, who must take back all that we can of the good things of the earth, the ancient beautiful things …”

John closed the book and put it back in his pocket. He stood up, stretched himself, and picked up his shoes. He turned them upside down to get the pebbles out. Then, when the shoes were again neatly laced and tied, he started slowly up the hill, holding his head high, feeling the wind on his face.

At the summit he stopped and breathed deeply. How different the moist air was from the dry atmosphere of Utah, the dusty, dry air of the desert. he wondered how things were going now, far away in that little farming community known as Dover. The hills, high crested, blue, now would be glinting in the hot sun of late summer; the river, shrunken in its steep banks, now would move slowly, drift along, unruffled. His little adobe house perched above the stream, how did it look? His fields, how would his fields be now? Dry, withered, no doubt, burned up with alkali – his hard-won fields!

Now he took another look at the sea beating endlessly against the white cliffs, beating against the shore. he turned around and walked down the other side of the hill toward Kingstone. Secluded, safe, the village lay, coved in by the hills, its crooked streets curved through a green meadow.

John thought of the long roads of his Utah home, rutted, dusty, bordered with sagebrush. Perhaps even now, at this very moment, his daughter Maud might be walking along the road toward the adobe house. Dear Maud, black-haired, gray-eyed, a frail little thing for being all of twenty-two. And his daughter Kate, where was she? Home in the house singing, very likely, or perhaps out in the garden. Let’s see, it was Maud’s birthday this month and six weeks later Kate would be twenty-four.

What would he send them for their birthdays? He couldn’t spend much money. If only he could find something to bear a message from England to these children of his, something to carry the beauty and culture of this mother country to the far Utah valley – some token of a father’s love, to bridge the sea and bring the green hills of England and the gray hills of Utah close together.

It was nearly sundown when John came into Kingstone. Ahead of him he could see a second-hand book store. Nearly every village in England had them, crowded little shops where you might find anything from an Atlas of the World to a first edition of Shakespeare. John never could pass a bookstore without at least looking. How he loved books. how his daughters loved books.

Books, that was it. Books are the carriers of all ancient beautiful things. They bear messages of hope and achievement and high thoughts from one generation to another, from one land to another, from great minds to lesser minds. Books are the treasure chests of the ages.

He read title after title. He kept saying to himself, “I’d better hurry along. I really can’t afford to buy books.”

Then he saw them right together, two volumes – The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the other, The Poems of Felicia Hemans. Both were selling for three shillings. John’s fingers touched the good leather bindings. The title letters were written in gold.

He turned the pages of the Browning volume. He scanned the immortal words of that Elizabeth who said she was “but a cricket,” compared to her husband, the great Robert, who was “a mandolin.” John turned the pages. He noted the perfection of the lines of poetry, the music of the words … “Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame …”

John laid the volume down and picked up the Hemans poems. He turned to his favorite, that great American poem, written by an English poetess – The Landing of the Pilgrims … “the breaking waves dashed high on a stern and rock-bound coast, and the woods against a stormy sky their giant branches tossed …”

The Englishman from America handed the two volumes across the counter. “I’ll take both of these,” he said, and took three shillings out of his purse.

He stood there and wrote on the fly-leaf of the Browning volume: “To my dear daughter Kate, with best birthday wishes, from your father in England, 1896.” Upon the fly-leaf of the other, he penned in large letters: “To my darling Maud, many happy returns of your natal day, from your father across the sea.”

John laid a fourth shilling on the counter. “Mail these books, please,” he said. “Here’s the address – The Misses Kate and Maud Wilson, Dover, Sanpete County, Utah, U.S.A.”

It was dusk when he came out of the shop. Deep quiet lay upon the village and stretched away to the hills. Peace and beauty. John thought again of the land of his birth and the land of his adoption. He thought of the sea and ships and the long roads in Utah. He thought – I have sent some of England home to America.



12 Comments »

  1. FamilySearch seems to be running like that infamous government website, so I couldn’t find out much about Sis. Crawford’s life. I wonder if her parents (or grandparents) were from England, and told stories about their lives there, in contrast to the rough, frontier life in Utah.

    That might be the beginning of an explanation for why she wrote it–but why would the RS Mag have published it?

    Comment by Mark B. — December 18, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  2. Can I be dense and ask, why wouldn’t the Relief Society magazine publish it? I’ve read the serials and other short stories that have been posted on Keepa, but that’s about the sum total of my familiarity with the magazine. Is this very out of character? And Ardis, I think it’s beautiful. It conjures up the scene perfectly, I don’t recall reading anything on such a theme before. Perhaps it is trying to educate Utah natives on the roots of some of their ancestors and the heritage of the British Isles that influenced their culture?

    Comment by Alison — December 18, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

  3. Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything wrong with it, or that they shouldn’t have published it — I’m just trying to get into the minds of the sisters of 1939. I can easily understand why they would print stories with morals (go to Relief Society; save your marriage), or stories with action (no matter how unrealistic, or perhaps especially because they’re unrealistic). This one, though, is so subtle. Nothing happens, really, in the way of plot; the magic is all in the mood, and if you read it too quickly you’d miss that.

    And while there’s no way to know how far ahead of publication it was written, knowing what is going on in Europe just as this was published makes it all the more remarkable to me. In the early months and years of the war, the Magazine is all shoulder-to-the-wheel and brisk and efficient and “let’s get ‘er done” no-nonsense. It’s been a while since I went through the Magazines, but this strikes me as something more to be expected late in the war, when everyone is growing weary and needing to be reminded about the “ancient beautiful things” that they are fighting to save.

    I guess it all just seems more contemplative than is common for RS stories. I like it, and I can see that Alison and perhaps Mark do, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 18, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  4. Since my first comment was on the short side of semi-literate, I’ll add that I agree with Alison–I think this was a lovely little story, and it did paint a believable and sympathetic picture of an old man remembering the Old Country.

    As to the British heritage of the Utah saints, the 2000 Census shows that Utah is the most British of any of the states–a higher percentage of people identified their ancestry as English, Scottish, or Welsh than any other state. (The maps in this Wikipedia article provide a fascinating graphic illustration.) So, this story would likely have resonated with many of the likely readers.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 18, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  5. Interesting thoughts, Ardis. My hunch is that Mrs. Crawford and the editors were more likely to have been looking back, not forward, as they prepared this for publication, because in June or July of 1939 they couldn’t have seen what was going to happen on September 1, 1939, much less August–December 1940.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 18, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

  6. I love your stories from the RS Magazine. My mother took this in the 50’s & 60’s and I used to read it cover to cover every month. I love stories like this one, with a mood and a wonderful way of “painting a picture” of places I wanted to visit. I always thought I was born in the wrong era (although running water and inside plumbing is something I couldn’t do with out! Oh and central heat!) because of the “romantic” stories from this magazine and other books my mother introduced me to. I wasn’t around in the 30’s but from being with my mother and grandmother I think this was just the thing they would have loved to read more than once, just for the scene detail and the mood.
    I love these old stories. They are improbable, but don’t we all need an escape once in a while? That’s why, what a Davis County Librarian called “gum drop books” are best sellers.

    Comment by Kathleen — December 18, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

  7. Thanks, Mark. I like to hear what you have to say about these stories. Well, about most things, really.

    Kathleen, I appreciate knowing how and why you love these stories. I suppose if Keepa lasts long enough we’ll eventually run out of them, but that’s not going to happen for quite a while yet! In the meantime, we’ll enjoy them together.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 18, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

  8. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Felicia Hemans? Not the first time they appeared in a Mormon context; they were both on Wilford Woodruff and Lucy B. Young’s list of Eminent Women.

    Felicia Browne Hemans (1793-1835) is probably best known in Mormon culture as the author of a poem about the Waldensian sect in 12th century Italy. The poem, “Hymn of the Vaudois Mountaineers in Times of Persecution” has been adapted for our hymnbook as “For the Strength of the Hills” (Hymn 35).

    Comment by Amy T — December 18, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  9. I had no idea, Amy. Thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 18, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

  10. Here’s some of the history of Dover, Utah. Interesting to note that the town no longer existed when this was published. I think this line sums it up “Books are the carriers of all ancient beautiful things. They bear messages of hope and achievement and high thoughts from one generation to another, from one land to another, from great minds to lesser minds.” Just as a sidenote, it’s fascinating what this shows about missionary work at the time as well.

    Comment by Seth — December 18, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

  11. Thanks, Seth. I had no idea the story might have been referring to an actual location. I pulled up the location on Google Maps, searching for “Fayette, Utah.” There is still a “Dover Road” a bit south of Fayette, heading off into the area where Dover had been, and the map shows a location for the Dover Cemetery.

    Seeing that Fayette is on State Highway 28, which runs from Gunnison to Nephi, brings back a whole host of memories. Maybe I’ll write about them when I’m 65 and want to share with my children a bit about the old country!

    Comment by Mark B. — December 18, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  12. Now that I am an adult, I realize that my paternal grandmother thought that I was raised in exile–sort of like Jacob said, a sad and lonesome people, living in the wilderness, cast out by my brethren, etc. This was because at the age of 5 my father’s employment ripped me from the traditional family home in Utah and sent me to the evil east–the ‘mission field’. Thereafter, until I started college, I spent one week out of every two year in Salt Lake City.

    Grandmother felt that we had finally returned to our true home–the land of the pioneers, the center of the church. Actually, it was kind of boring. I mostly had to entertain myself and often my siblings while my parents visited family and friends. Some of my cousins were snobs. They all took cooler vacations than we did (since all of our vacations were to visit them!)
    Once grandmother told me I spent too much time reading and instructed me to go outside to ride my bike or play with my friends, or else to go visit the neighbors and offer to help them if they needed anything. I was stunned that she didn’t know that my bike and my friends were on the other side of the country, and I was terrified of knocking on the doors of strangers. I now realize that she had lived there so long that she couldn’t imagine that I didn’t know her neighbors. In her mind, I was finally home. Anywhere else was just a place I was staying until I could go home again.
    But Grandmother’s mother was the first white child born in Bear Lake County,born in a dug-out only days after her parents’ arrival. I’m sure that my Great great grandmother desperately missed Norway with its established cities, its culture, and of course her extended family. I’m sure she did everything possible to bring some of the culture and refinement of her home in Norway to the wilderness God had asked her to settle.
    Obviously she succeeded because two generations later, my Grandmother didn’t believe there was any other True place to live besides the Inter-mountain west. She did take one trip to Europe in her later years, and may have visited Norway, but her grandparents never saw it again.
    In 1939 there would still have been plenty of readers who were raised by immigrants. While the young people focused on taming the wilderness and ‘blooming where planted’ their elders struggled to recreate the ancient beautiful things that were so important to them about their old homes. Now that I am older, I realize that your childhood home stays with you.
    I’m guessing the young probably found some of the talk about the old country irrelevant or even annoying. But by the time women were old enough to be reading the Relief Society Magazine they probably had enough experience to begin to really appreciate their parents’ or grandparents’ yearning for the homes they sacrificed to gather to Zion.

    Comment by LauraN — December 19, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

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