I was attracted to Quebec House, the childhood home of General James Wolfe, not by wanting to find more about the ‘conqueror of Quebec’ but because the National Trust are currently re-doing the small vegetable garden (actually just a strip) with the flowers and vegetables General Wolfe’s mother would have grown in the 1730s.
Many of the plants were used in Mrs Wolfe’s extraordinary household recipe pamphlet so there’s a real feeling of homely usefulness that I loved. However, this provided a strange dissonance with the exhibition on the other side of the garden wall.
This exhibition focused on General Wolfe’s military life, culminating in the Siege of Quebec which Wolfe ‘won’ for Britain over the French, but at the cost not just of his life but of the lives of many innocent people. Wolfe was openly ruthless.
This was fascinating to me – on one side of the wall, evidence of a mother who took so much care growing good food for her family and on the other, a son who used hunger as a weapon. And then I took the guidebook into the garden and in the sun – remember the sun? – read about how he received his military orders when he was still effectively a child, how he would write home for his mother’s recipes so he could keep his soldiers healthy throughout his career, and then how he rejected his mother’s first choice of wife, suffering heartbreak when his own choice rejected him…
…and all I could think of was how much of the story of this so-called public man actually mirrored the petty anguishes that go on in any family with a headstrong child.
And so I went to look again at the vegetable garden with quite different eyes – imagining a mother who sees quite a different man than the public would have seen. Even ‘heroes’ need someone to worry about whether they are ‘growing straight’.
Here’s my poem – it’s a mash-up with Mrs Wolfe’s recipe for a cure for consumption…
The General’s Mother Shares a Recipe for Consumption
Take a peck of garden snails
He was fourteen, already a man several years
wash them in beer, put them in an oven
full of stories from his father, the house too small for him
and let them stay till they are done crying
that day he came running, I didn’t need to read the commission in his hand
then with a knife and cloth
got to work packing, had to trust I’d taught him enough
pitch ye green from them
kindness, compassion, to put others first
and beat ye snails all in a stone mortar
all his reports glowing, his progression almost too fast
then take a quart of green earthworms
we thought a wife would settle him, chose a fine girl but
slice them through ye middle
his father made light of the row, said at least he knows his own mind
and stew them with salt
I wept in secret, at least I did that
then wash them and beat them
smiled when my choice married my son’s best friend
ye pott being first put into ye still
even played with the babies as they grew up
with two hand fulls of angelica, a quart of rosemary flowers
but I slept with his letters under my pillow
then ye snails and worms, the egrimony, red clover
tried not to let a mother’s worry speak too loudly
then pour in three gallons of milk
or that I knew he wrote different news to his father
keep your still covered all night
but I’d seen before what happens when he loses his softness
this done, stir it not
and I knew first-hand that a broken heart never heals straight
distill it with moderate fire
later we held our heads high, proud parents of a martyred hero
ye patient must take two spoonfulls at a time
and now I grow flowers, try to forget I ever had a child.