Of the many treatises and books written on Bee Keeping in the eighteenth century, there is one written by a certain J. Isaac, secretary to the Apiarian Society, established at Exeter, a few miles up the road from the Parminter cousins at A La Ronde. In his pamphlet of 1799, The General Apiarian, Isaac commends that you make ‘observations on the wonderful skill and diligence of these industrious insects, and on the wisdom and goodness of Him who gave them both, for your benefit.’ The honeybee has held a special and varied significance for human societies since the beginning of our history on the planet. By the eighteenth century, in the burgeoning tradition of dissenters, among whose ranks the Parminters were numbered, bees provided the perfect model for a good and ‘industrious’ life. Here’s the prolific hymn writer, Isaac Watts on the subject:
How doth the little busy bee Improve each shining hour, And gather honey all the day From every opening flower. How skilfully she builds her cell: How neat she spreads her wax, And labors hard to store it well With the sweet food she makes. In works of labor or of skill, I would be busy too; For Satan finds some mischief still For idle hands to do. In books, or work, or healthful play, Let my first years be passed; That I may give for every day Some good account at last.
Whereas in popular culture of the time the bee is most often characterized as an arrant and promiscuous male lover, here, the worker-bee (who is in fact a ‘mule’, of neither sex) is portrayed as female. Isaac Watts finds something irresistibly housewifely in the diligence and homely skill he observes in the creatures. It is not a great leap to view Jane and Mary Parminter through this prism of female domestic industry. And it seems fitting, that of the relatively little that we know about them, we can surmise from the presence of a flower garden situated near an orchard to the east of the house (today much overgrown), and the footprint of a structure that is believed to have been a bee house, that they kept bees.
Bee-keeping, as shown by the great number of contemporary manuals on the subject, was considered an extremely sensible occupation – for country gentry as well as smallholders and cottagers. Not only did bees supply honey to the household, but also, in the days before electricity or gas, they produced wax which went to form the taper candles by which, for instance, the cousins would have stitched or read as daylight left the house. And bees at A La Ronde could not have been more sympathetic neighbours. Once you start looking for similarities between the households, they abound.
A La Ronde itself, in its unique circular sixteen-sided construction, is more like a hive in shape than a house; the even patterning of its rooms, not dissimilar to the ‘cells’ of the honeycomb within. And certainly the industry that went on inside the house – the carefully construed and executed decoration of the interior – was not dissimilar in intensity to the honeybees’ meticulous creation of their combs.
Before they built A La Ronde, and over a period of about ten years, from 1784, the Parminters went on a Grand Tour of Europe. As the bee brings back pollen in baskets on its back legs, so the two women sent back souvenirs from their travels, packed tightly in the battered leather trunks we see secreted around the house – there’s one under the piano, one out in the hall. Once the cousins had decided to build a permanent home on the estuary of the Exe, they hunted out material closer to hand – shells, feathers, seaweed, sand – and transformed them systematically into the artwork and patterned decoration that would adorn their walls and furniture. Chief among their accomplishments was the creation of a shell gallery. 25,000 or so shells were carried up the narrow stairs to a circular lookout space at the very top of the house, and painstakingly arranged to create remarkable friezes of birds and flowers, exuberant zigzags of razor and mussel shells.
As I begin to immerse myself in the place and in the times of the Parminters, the question I most ask myself – and one I hear many visitors repeat – is this: what drove them to build the shell gallery? And why, unlike contemporary grottos, which tended to be built as follies outside in the garden, did they create one inside the house, and so high up?
In Celtic mythology bees were seen as messengers between this world and the next; the old superstition of ‘telling the bees’ comes from this belief, a custom (as I found talking to a couple, who visited the house recently, and who happen to be beekeepers) still very much alive today. To get into the psychic space of women living over two hundred years ago, and with distinct and strongly held religious beliefs is like entering a maze. The Parminters were extremely well educated (they spoke several languages), well read and well travelled. If we strip away the urban sprawl of Exmouth, the ‘improvements’ made to the house by a Victorian male inheritor, and wander in the first floor rooms they inhabited, filled with the artifacts and furnishings that bear their print, it is possible to share a sense of their daily lives. But I imagine that it is not until you reach the topmost level of the house, thirty-five feet up, that you begin to have an inkling of their motivating spirit. Because of the fragility of the shell gallery, it has not been open to the public for many years, but if you take the virtual tour available on the National Trust website, you get a glimpse of what it was the cousins saw from up there: ethereal mists of low-lying hills, the placid expanse of the estuary, and beyond and above, the boundless sea, the limitless sky. If there were a heaven on earth, then this could be it, and though comparisons to Eden might sound far-fetched, they were not beyond the religious ken of the cousins.
Jane and Mary were clearly preoccupied with how to lead a good and productive life on earth, but also how this life on earth might prepare one best for the life to come. On one hand, their prescient views on education and the rights of women prompted them to build the complex at Point in View: a chapel, a school for girls and a small community for unmarried women; on the other, in their own hive-activity of decoration and celebration, they were creating a sort of Edenic capsule or refuge that anticipates ‘the last trump’ and a paradise on earth. They were ready for the catastrophes that precede the Second Coming, whether it be invasions from French soldiers or from the sea.
If you were disposed to believe in a Second Coming, then you might be forgiven for believing, at the turn of the eighteenth century, that the time was nigh. Jane was born in Lisbon in 1750, and, only because she was visiting England with her family at the time, narrowly escaped death in the destruction wreaked by the catastrophic earthquake of 1755, and its ensuing tsunami and city fires (her father’s wine-bottling factory was raised to the ground). Before they set off for Europe, it is likely that the cousins were living with relatives in or near the City of London, and therefore not inconceivable that they may have witnessed in the summer of 1780 the terrifying Gordon riots, when the streets were on fire with a marauding rabble, inmates set free from Newgate Prison and the notorious ‘Clink’ in Southwark. The decade either side of the 1800s, when the Parminters were building and settling into A La Ronde, were fraught with the threat of revolution and war. Fear of invading French soldiers was particularly rife along the South coast, and the house was purpose built to resist them, the first floor windows, high from the ground, and the interior equipped with corridors and trapdoors of evasion.
From their vantage point, too, at the very top of the house the cousins were in prime position to keep watch, to witness the extraordinary swelling of the tides that one day, who knew, might bring the floods again. And if this idea again appears fanciful, then of what significance is the giltwood dove, hovering with a branch in her mouth above the glass orb that hangs from the ceiling above the gallery down into the central octagon room?, this fixture, so important to Mary she singles it out for mention in her will: ‘the Dove with extended wings and the Olive Branch in its beak outspread suspended thereover a glass Globe’.
I have only begun to prod and poke at the extraordinary times and beliefs that provide some portal into the possible lives of Jane and Mary Parminter. What I am trying to gain is a sense of perspective, and what I am after, a distinctive point in view. All threads lead me from or back to the place they built, the place in which they lived and breathed. Though their gardens now hum with the traffic in and out of Exmouth, they hum too with that continuous thread of bee-song, a live wire, it seems to me, to the place – imaginary or otherwise – I want to inhabit. John Clare was a visionary poet of the natural world, who began publishing in the 1820s. Though, as the son of a farm labourer, he was of a different class entirely from the Parminters, in outlook and sensibility he is as close to the cousins as I could hope to be, and puts such ambition into song:
Dreamers, mark the honey bee; Mark the tree Where the blue cap "tootle tee" Sings a glee Sung to Adam and to Eve - Here they be. When floods covered every bough, Noah's ark Heard that ballad singing now; Hark, hark...