There’s something at the bottom of the garden . . .
I’ve rather belatedly discovered that I’ve missed my vocation: there’s one occupation to which I would have been ideally suited, but it’s just passed me by – perhaps because there’s not much call for it nowadays. I’m talking about the noble calling of ornamental hermit.
Ornamental hermits were all the rage in 18th century, when it was the fashion for aristocrats to have one in a grotto somewhere on their vast estate, part living art installation/part onsite entertainment. The inspiration for them is said to have come from the excavation of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, which uncovered a small building in the middle of a lake, designed for one person to inhabit.
Part of the attraction would be the absence of the irksome requirements of modern jobs. You wouldn’t need to be a team player, there‘d be no point in undergoing Myers-Briggs or Belbin tests, and instead of stultifying weekly meetings, you would probably only need to have a few minutes of idle chitchat with passing visitors every few weeks, with occasional opportunities to run your execrable verses past evening guests at a dinner.
And can you imagine the annual appraisals? Probing questions about how many hours you’d spent lost in reverie about the mysteries of nature or musing on the miracle of Spring, or perhaps a reckoning of how many books you’d read over the year.
With the right outfit, anyone could be an ornamental hermit – qualifications and age were no barrier, so farm labourers and very old people often found it a suitable occupation. But not all those in the recluse industry took their duties seriously: on more than one occasion a lord took his house guests to see his anchorite rapt in contemplation, only to find the individual in question partying with a few mates. Cannier hermits would simply slip off for some recreation, leaving a pair of specs on an open book and a half-eaten apple to suggest they were briefly absent answering a call of nature. (In fact, an impoverished nobleman could save on the cost of hiring a hermit by setting up just such a scene at the mouth of a grotto.)
It would be a far less harsh existence nowadays: you could have a Portaloo at the back of the cave, a space heater, and a computer screen cunningly concealed in a rock so you could alleviate the isolation with social media, and scout the ether for gnomic utterances with which to delight your visitors. You could vent your anger about rude and derisive guests and get moral support via a hermits’ Facebook group.
From what I have been able to gather, hermitting seems to have been an exclusively male occupation. No doubt only men were perceived to have the degree of melancholy and introspection required (and, of course, the ability to sit still and do nothing for hours on end). So how tempting for a dame to break into this masculine preserve. But wait – here is an advertisement from 1797:
‘ … the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone fore seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails on both hands and feet , grow as long as nature will permit them.’*
*(cited in Gordon Campbell’s The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to ornamental gnome, OUP)