The Dream Life of Teresa Harris, b. 1839 d. 1928
You wonder what prepared me. You know
I am a gatherer, and gatherers often wander
far from home especially if they are last,
the youngest of twelve. All those brothers
and sisters doubled up behind me, always
older: no wonder I had to run all the way
round the world to escape their constraint.
They were forever first up the hill and
fastest to hide away. They made the rules.
I was eternally seeking them out across
creaking floor boards, sure giveaways.
Though secret places were mine, ones
they’d never fit. I could squirm under
oak bureaus, sneak behind the wardrobe,
tuck between draped bronze lion claws.
Growing up in such an upright house, I
could never catch on to proper routine
instilled by successions of nannies. I
dreamed of escaping provincial mores.
Out from under my mother’s petticoats,
away from my brother’s taunts, my sisters’
impossible glamour, the corsets’ apparel
I‘d never grow into, whatever my age.
I too would be married into the ritual of
household management, the daily round
of what to wear, what to eat and who is
up to snuff. For this life I am groomed.
My sisters dream of gentlemen callers to
whisk them into a comfortable future. I
dread such confinement of finery hindered
by lace nicety, boxed in by picnic hamper.
We are as high as we can be in this London.
We have burned stumps to create a wooden
town. We live at the Forks of Antler River,
nowhere to turn but out and away, escape
into the wonderful wild, somehow. I read,
dreaming mountain. I wander into the wood,
already exploring, discovering land new to me
in clearings, in shifting currents of the Thames.
When Scott comes calling, asking for my hand, he
promises Ladahk, Kashmir, India, lands where
women like me do not go. Gladly accepting, I
head off to honeymoon in immeasurable adventure.
When Scott later dies, of course I marry St. George
Littledale, our travelling companion. He is fifteen
years my junior. Now I am no longer the youngest.
I gather men, my mother snipes, resenting our age
difference. But I am his match. He offers me
solace a long way from home. I gather information
for the Great Game the way he collects big game.
We exchange formal family high tea for rancid
yak butter tea laced with salt. My mother would
bitterly complain if she knew how far I’d left her
white linen, white skirts, white house for the peaks.
“On 4 August 1895, at a 19,000 ft pass on the north side of Goring La in Tibet, only 48 miles from Lhasa, a 43-year-old Englishman, his 55-year-old wife and a fox terrier confronted over 150 Tibetans armed with primitive matchlocks… Teresa and George Littledale were known as the greatest English explorers of their day, journeying further into the hidden lands of Asia than any Western explorer had previously achieved.”
We come so close to impenetrable Lhasa,
I can almost breathe the air a pass away.
“We utterly refuse to go back an inch…
They said their heads would be cut off if
they did not send us back. I at once told
St. George to say that if it were a question
of my dying going over the pass or their
heads being cut off, I preferred the latter.”
Ill with disappointment and dysentery,
we leave. I must be carried out of Tibet
while Tanny, my fox terrier, frisks all
twelve hundred miles away. While
I dream in the albedo of snow
of our white house gleaming
Himalayan high on the hill.
I dream in the mountain pass
of romping on our lawn, of
batting croquet balls uphill.
And dogs, always, fox terriers,
a breed you could trust to run
true to type, to romp and gambol
like mountain sheep, the small
ones they now call Littledales,
after my husband, St. George.
* All quotes are from Nicholas and Elizabeth Clinch’s THROUGH A LAND OF EXTREMES: THE LITTLEDALES OF CENTRAL ASIA
The poem can be heard in my CD, Night Vision (Pendas Productions). It’s performed with singer/songwriter Brenda McMorrow and me on this videopoem by Dennis Siren: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO4_aJpvqjE&list=UUExB7YpDG2lBqqRtH06GIKg&index=67, filmed at The Aeolian Hall, London ON.
The Dream Life of Teresa Harris
Teresa Harris, b.1839, Eldon House, London. d. 1928.
This poem portrays the dream life of 19th century Londoner, explorer and world traveller, Teresa Harris. What a long life to explore, and such interesting times! Teresa tells her amazing story from her death bed, reliving her delightful childhood as the youngest of twelfth children in newly built Eldon House. The Thames, down the hill from the home at The Forks, plays an essential role in the piece as a living presence. Born to a prosperous pioneer family intent on bettering itself in their new home in London, Teresa married a Scottish military man who promised to carry her off to foreign parts she had dreamed of all her life. Teresa’s story emerges through her own voice and that of her protective mother, her family and her two husbands. Both men offered Teresa escape from the ordinary domestic constraint for a woman of her time and position in London society. Research reveals that Teresa and her second husband George Littledale were the greatest English explorers of their period, travelling further into Asia than any Westerner had. Hers is an historical life as mediated through my imagination. Teresa came back home to Eldon House often, and I am interested in exploring the effects of her visits on the family/
My own visits to Eldon House, with its beautifully realized interiors and lush heritage gardens, brought the era alive. As did visits to the Harris Fonds in the Archives at Western. When I was Writer-in-Residence at Western (2009-10), my own literary archives were deposited in the Collection. When head archivist and noted local historian, Dr. John Lutman, gave me an extensive tour of the Archives, I was deeply impressed by the extensive Harris Family holdings and history, available there in letters, diaries, even a lock of Teresa’s hair. If I, as a native Londoner, did not know this history, then it seemed a writerly challenge to bring Teresa’s story to life, to connect our so easily forgotten past with London’s cultural heritage.
The play originated in this poem, “The Dream Life of Teresa Harris”,above, first published in POSSESSIONS: The Eldon House Poems (Poetry London, 2010). To honour Eldon House’s 175th Anniversary, Poetry London had put out a call for poems about the place and I was inspired to write several. This short poem became part of my Sound Opera, Dream Sequins, produced at Aeolian Hall in 2010 and in a CD, Night Vision (Pendas Productions).
Photos from the play by Daniela Sneppova.
Donna Creighton plays Teresa and Mary Ashton plays her mother, Amelia.