Who is Miriam?
Miriam Rockness is the author of a trilogy on home and family: Keep These Things (Doubleday), A Time to Play and Home: God’s Design (Zondervan) and a biography, A Passion for the Impossible: The Life Of Lilias Trotter and the companion book, A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter (Discovery House Publishers).
She lived in Lake Wales, Florida where her husband pastored the First Presbyterian Church for thirty-seven years and they raised their three children – David, Kimberly, Jonathan – now collectively the parents of their thirteen grandchildren.
Their home presently is in Mt. Dora, Florida where she continues to enjoy interests that have enriched her life through the years: reading, writing, music, traveling (to visit family!), hosting friends and family – and savoring the unique beauty of Central Florida.
The short version and formal version “Who is Miriam?” is sufficient to explain her deeply vested interest in Lilias Trotter. But for the longer and more personal version she will address the question most frequently asked regarding her interest in Lilias:
How did you discover Lilias Trotter?
My introduction to Lilias Trotter was the result of a fortuitous encounter with two elderly sisters, Jane and Betty Barbour over two decades ago. They were wintering in Lake Wales Florida, due to changes in their usual seasonal site. Visiting the local Presbyterian church, of which my husband was minister, they noted his surname – the same as a woman who had befriended their eldest sister, many years before, while she was teaching English in Singapore. The discovery that their sister’s friend was my husband’s mother led to a dinner engagement where, for the first time, I heard the name Lilias Trotter – a woman the sisters knew only through the beautifully illustrated devotional books she began publishing in the 1890’s.
I listened enthralled as they talked about this well-born daughter of a distinguished Victorian family whose heart led her into volunteer work in London while her artistic talent led to a friendship with John Ruskin artist, critic, social philosopher, and a towering figure in Victorian England. They related more of Lilias’s remarkable life: her involvement with the fledgling YWCA at Welbeck Street Institute in London and her eventual call to Algeria, where she served the Arab people for the remaining forty years of her life. Their pressing concern, however, was their collection of her once-popular devotional books. They were about to dissolve their library and feared that no one would appreciate Lilias’s work as they did.
Several months later, to my complete surprise, a package arrived containing a cameo biography with the title, Lilias Trotter of Algiers, embossed in gold on the white cover and a leaflet with a delicate cover sketch of a fir wood printed on ivory stock and bound by a slender cord: Focussed: A Story & A Song – a tiny devotional classic of rare beauty and depth. Over the next several years, one by one, without announcement, other volumes appeared in my mailbox, until perhaps the loveliest arrived – an Algerian sketchbook, Between the Desert & the Sea – with a note from our friends informing me that this was the final volume of their collection.
By then I was totally besotted by Lilias. I was determined to track down other out-of-print works alluded to in writings about her – and I longed to know even more about the woman behind the books. A tantalizing reference by an early biographer to “thirty little diary volumes” seemed to hold the key to my questions. But where were they located? And what had become of the Algiers Mission Band, the organization of some thirty men and women who eventually joined Lilias in North Africa? Unwittingly, I became a detective, following through phone or mail, any clue that might help me discover the fate of Lilias’s ministry – and those elusive diaries! My search took me on a circuitous path which led, after five years, to Loughborough, England, to the UK headquarters of Arab World Ministries, a step-grandchild of Lilias’s mission band. Here, at last, I discovered her archives: a rich reservoir of books and leaflets and most compellingly, her diaries and journals, illuminated by exquisite watercolors and a strong sketches!
This discovery convinced me that Lilias’s extraordinary written and artistic legacy should not be forgotten. I began to see if I could arrange to have her books reissued and was told that the only way they had a chance of being marketable was if her reputation were revived. With the encouragement of Marj Mead and Lyle Dorset of the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, it was determined that I was the one to write it and that Harold Shaw Publishers, under the North Wind Books imprint, would publish it. (It is presently in print and available from Discovery House Publishers.)
In 1995 I returned to England, this time to research for the writing of her biography. With a full month stretching before me, I immersed myself in Lilias’s astonishingly beautiful diaries and travel journals, where she documented in words and watercolors the seasons of her life in Algeria. Of course there was more sleuthing to be done. Map in hand, I roamed London’s West End searching out her early homes and haunts. Curator in tow, I hunted down the paintings Ruskin had given to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. After my return home, over a period of time, with much transatlantic communication to Trotter family members and friends, Ruskin scholars, and the archivist for YWCA of Great Britain, piece by piece, I gathered more and more information about her life – the biography, A Passion for the Impossible being the result of these efforts.
In the summer of 2000, several years after the publication of the biography, I had the privilege of presenting a paper, “‘an old porcelain maker, a dainty bit of clay’: the Ruskin/Trotter Friendship” at the International Symposium sponsored by The Ruskin Programme. A weekend at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District, where Lilias spent many a fortnight at the home of her mentor, was part of the event celebrating the centennial of Ruskin’s death. The response of scholars fascinated with the “missing piece” of the Ruskin saga as well as with Lilias’s art – validating the influence of her mentor – and the viewing of additional paintings and correspondence of Lilias at The Ruskin Museum at Lancaster University, heightened my desire to reclaim from the past the paintings of this talented artist. A visit to Robert Egerton, Lilias’s grandnephew in Surrey, further quickened this desire, when he showed me, among other treasures, the very sketchbook that Lilias had produced under Ruskin’s guidance in Venice.
The dream, inspired by my first glimpse of her paintings and spurred by events following, evolved into a sketchbook pairing these paintings with writings excerpted from the diaries, journals, and out-of-print books. A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter is a dream come true.
And, now, I offer my personal reflections on her paintings and writings through the weekly post. Having “lived” with Lilias for so many years and having been shaped by her vision – external and internal – I hope to continue my “conversation” with her – and to bring you into the discussion!