Becoming Sarah Harris

Somewhere between researching London’s oldest supernatural tale and learning about the people at the center of this fascinating story, I became deeply connected to Sarah Harris, heroine of the Eldon House ghost story.

Part of it has to do with all the letters, diary entries and literature that I’ve read about Sarah, the Harris family and what life was like in Upper Canada during the 1840s.  Through this, I’ve gained insight into what she was like before she met her beau Wenman Wynniatt, the types of events she would have attended during their acquaintance, and an understanding of how Wenman’s ghostly appearance and the news of his death would have affected her.

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Research included reading The Eldon  House Diaries, five generations of female diarists.                Photo credit: Jessica Lutz Photography.

The other part of getting to know Sarah is sensory and intuitive. Reading words written from her perspective, seeing her penmanship, walking the gardens and sipping tea from a china cup on the shaded porch of her family home, these all have brought me closer to her. Quiet moments spent inside Eldon House, built in 1834, sitting in rooms where wood paneling and wallpaper look the same as they did during her time, to the point where I can feel the emotion those walls have absorbed. Standing in the bedroom upstairs that she likely shared with her sister, I picture her daily routine looking out the windows while brushing her hair, sitting at her writing desk with a candle and finally crawling into a four-poster bed in her long white nightgown whispering secrets to her sister in the dark.

This October I had another chance to renew my acquaintance with Sarah Harris as I stood in the very library where she saw an apparition of Wenman Wynniatt  on the night of May 14, 1841 at her family’s ball. I reenacted her supernatural story for multiple visitors throughout the night, sharing the details of her experience and the turbulent emotions that she must have felt.dsc_1451
img_20160918_191345_1sepAs I got ready for the event I didn’t just feel I was putting on period inspired attire, but also layers of a persona, becoming Sarah both inside and out.  I imagined the anticipation she must have felt as she put on her chemise and first petticoat, that initial layer between bare skin and corset, thinking about what the day held for her. How she may have inhaled deeply, her breath catching as her sister tightened her corset laces while talking about horse races and British officers.  Layering more petticoats and my vintage raspberry coloured underskirt, I thought about the effort that Sarah must have put into her attire, feeling this may be the day she’d know where their love would lead.

Buttoning my high-collared blouse, I thought about the air of reserve she’d have followed, to meet parental and social expectations and how that might have been challenging to navigate against her emotions. How do you reciprocate affection without being too forward? How to accept romantic gestures without setting tongues wagging but gracefully enough to avoid deterring an appropriate suitor? As I pulled on my black over-skirt and brocade jacket, I wondered if she was a strategic young woman, planning her every move, or if she rolled with the day as it unfolded, leaving her expectations on the doorstep…perhaps her family’s expectations were enough.

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I pinned up my hair as I imagined Sarah may have done and adjusted the curls for my 1840s hairstyle, borrowed from a painting of Sarah’s sister Amelia, the closest portrait we have of that time period (all images of Sarah are when she is much older for some reason). I realized while doing this that my hair is a similar shade of brown to the early Harris women, quite coincidentally (or not). Lastly I selected three simple but elegant pieces of jewelry appropriate to Sarah’s age and the family’s financial status, representing some finery that she may have worn at that time. While my timepiece necklace isn’t antique, I wore it to symbolize the clock out in the hallway which was there on the night Sarah saw Wenman’s ghost, the very hallway that he moved into and then disappeared into the ballroom.

As I looked into my reflection when all was done, I saw Sarah looking back at me. Perhaps it was the different hairstyle, or the thought process during dressing, but in that moment I felt that I was Sarah, and Sarah was me…we were one and the same. Years of research, writing and thinking about Sarah had allowed me to draw her out and step into her world.

On the night of the event in Eldon House, the library felt charged the moment I started Sarah’s monologue.

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While it may have been the heightened energy from the mock-seance going on in the drawing room or the cool air leaking in from one of the windows, I felt that there was a phantom presence in the room all evening, despite many moments spent alone.  There was a sadness to it, but also curiosity. As if somehow they were studying me.

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Standing before the hearth in the Eldon House library. Photo credit: Joseph O’Neil.

 

That night at Eldon House I reached into the past… I think they heard me.

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More about the Eldon House ghost story
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About Misstoricalfiction

Historian, researcher and writer specializing in historical fiction with a supernatural twist. By day marketing specialist in the insurance industry.

Posted on November 12, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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