By J.A. Beard
“A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton's No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.”
- Ornamental Hermit recruitment ad from 1810
A man forsakes the material world and travels into the untamed wilderness. There he seeks spiritual enlightenment in his solitude. In his rude shack, this hermit could commune with nature and his God or gods, untainted by the coarseness of the decadence of modern society. Perhaps, he just dislikes company.
Although such men have existed throughout English history, a most curious false echo, of sorts, was expressed during the Georgian era when the practice of ornamental hermits became popular. These men were, in blunt terms, living decorations rather divorced from the sort of spiritual seeker or just isolated man who dislikes civilization that might have defined a hermit before this period.
In the Georgian era, the landscapes of the rural estates began to be defined by the rising trend of the landscape garden, which were calculated attempts at bucolic splendor. Though many would praise the idea of a “return to nature” versus the often more obvious landscaping in preceding periods, in truth, your average landscape gardens and parks were carefully crafted affairs that would often involve meticulous planning in terms of position of the landscape, plant life, and even waterways such as streams. Really, though, the idea that there was a sort of “wilderness” near the estate was what granted it appeal and enhanced the status of the estate. There was also a growing trend during the period of opening one’s grounds to visitors. Someone needed to appreciate all that fine landscaping after all (e.g., your wandering Elizabeth Bennet-types for example).
What’s this all have to do with ornamental hermits? Well, one type of construct that could enhance the naturalistic feel of one’s landscape gardens and parks was a hermitage. The designs varied, but most were intended to give the impression of some ancient refuge for solitary men. On occasion, some overzealous landowners kind of went the opposite path by decorating their hermitages with gilding and other assorted signs of luxury that one would not exactly associate with a hermit.
Some elite land owners spent rather impressive sums of money to have architects come in and design buildings, for example, that appeared as if they were, say, a partially decayed ancient stone ruin. The careful use of surroundings trees, wreaths, and wooden carved decorations all combined to produce what was, in a sense, an upper-class tourist trap. Lizzy would wander in and take in the old-looking pseudo-ruin and be suitably impressed, even if Lizzy knew it wasn't actually an ancient hermitage.
The initial hermitless hermitages though weren’t necessarily enough in the arms race of upper-class landscape fashions. To really bring the effect to life, one needed an honest-to-goodness hermit skulking about. As actual hermits were somewhat in short supply, particularly the sort who would want to hang out in some gentleman’s estate to impress visitors, landowners did the next best thing: they hired them.
Being a hermit could actually be a tough gig. Atmosphere was everything, and the hermit was supposed to add to that naturalistic feel of the landscape. Some landowners wanted their hermits to wear robes and not groom themselves (nails or facial hair). They might be required to carry around large tomes, skulls, or other sorts of spooky-boo bric-a-brac to really sell the “ancient hermit” character. Some were forbidden from even talking to anyone to add to their mystique. Many slept on hay beds.
Now, one could wonder, rather reasonably, why anyone would agree to be a jumped-up Georgian-era Disney automaton on some rich fellow’s estate? Well, in some cases this could be a rather profitable job. Food and water was taken care of, but typically, if the hermit behaved within the agreed upon parameters, the landowners would give them a rather decent amount of money after their period of hermitage had elapsed, particularly if it was several years. Also, there are some documented cases of some older men just seeing it as a sort of nice retirement job where they could get away from the hustle of life, be provided food and water and a nice stipend at the end.
There’s also the reality that the more restrictive hermit, creeping about in the woods with a skull and Bible in hand, muttering only in Latin to himself was a bit on the rare side if only because a lot of people just couldn’t handle the restrictions.
Although landowners did tend to discourage the average hermit from talking with visitors, there were many hermits who could chat with servants in their “downtime” or maybe even get a bath on occasion. The occasional hermit could mix it up a bit with the visitors, though that tended to be discouraged if only for atmospheric reasons, a bit like a costumed character at a theme park “breaking character” to talk with the park visitors.
Like any “career”, there was a wide range of employers with different expectations. That said, there are reports from the middle of the 19th century discussing some hermits who had lasted over a decade in more restrictive versions of the job. Though, in some of these cases, perhaps the men involved really did just like general solitude.
The height of the ornamental hermit craze was in 18th century, though it lingered into the 19th and was still part of the social landscape in some places until almost the middle of the 19th century as indicated by newspaper reports of long-term hermits dying off.
J.A. Beard is a scientific editor with an interest in Georgian England. He is also the author of the Regency Paranormal Romance A Woman of Proper Accomplishments, which features a family, alas, not fashionable enough to have an ornamental hermit.