The novelist Clara Louise Burnham was a summer resident of Bailey Island.

Over the course of her career, Clara Louise Burnham wrote and published more than 26 novels. Reviews of her work appeared in such prominent publications as Dial and The Atlantic Monthly. At least two of her books, “Jewel” and “The Opened Shutters,” were adapted to film. She was, in short, a well-recognized turn-of-the-century author, and her presence among Bailey Island’s summer population contributed to the area’s appeal. For readers who enjoy the history of Harpswell, it might be worthwhile to revisit her writing, if only to see what all the excitement was about.

But first, some background on Burnham herself. She was born in Massachusetts in 1854, the eldest daughter of George Frederick Root, composer of the Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Mary O. Woodman Root, scion of a prominent Boston family. When she was 4, the family moved to Chicago, where her father took a job at a publishing firm. Here, Clara would spend the better part of her life, studying music and becoming part of a vibrant city. At the age of 19, she married Walter Burnham, a lawyer. Rather than set out on their own, the couple chose to remain in her father’s household — offering some indication of how close Clara was to her birth family.

Clara’s turn from music to literature came as the result of a dare issued by her brother. Her first attempt at novel-writing was so disastrous that the editor to whom she sent her work essentially advised her to quit. But Clara relished the process, and soon she was pushing out novels that would gain an enthusiastic readership, especially among women devoted to the romance genre.

For many years, Clara and her Root relatives spent their summers at Bailey Island. Eventually, their affection for the place led them to seek a summer home there. In 1894, her brother Charles bought from Sinnett Orr a large parcel on Jockey Hill, where he built his cottage, Tekiteasy. In 1910, following the deaths of her father and husband, Clara bought the parcel next door, establishing her cottage, The Moorings. There were frequent interactions between the two houses, as occupants and guests joined in musical and theatrical events, lounged on their expansive porches, sailed to nearby islands or went swimming at Pebbly Beach.  

Clara played an active role in the island’s social life, organizing pageants and parties, bringing in famous people to entertain and offering creative opportunities for local youth. The poet Marjorie Johnson, for instance, got her artistic start playing in one of Burnham’s pageant plays. Clara’s niece, Esther Root, received support in the form of an introduction to her memoir, “Over Periscope Pond.” Clara was a force in the cultural development of the island.

An excerpt from The Casco Bay Breeze for July 11, 1907, conveyed the excitement that surrounded her annual arrival: “Mrs. Clara Louise Burnham, the gifted authoress, arrived last week for the summer months and is now enjoying the delights of our charming island at her summer home on Pebbly Beach.”

A decade later, on July 19, 1917, the Breeze continued its praise, reminding readers of the opportunities available to them: “Bailey Island summer visitors should not forget that they have in their midst one of the best known modern composers, Mr. R. Huntington Woodman, and one of the most popular and well-known authors, Mrs. Clara Louise Burnham.”

Woodman was a relative of Burnham’s on her mother’s side, further evidence that artistic achievement ran in the family.

As Clara Burnham’s presence on the island contributed to cultural opportunities, the island, in turn, contributed to Burnham’s literary expression. The characters she created and the settings she chose not only captured a sense of place, but reflected the culture and ethics of its inhabitants. Two novels that depend on this interaction are “The Opened Shutters” (1906) and “Dr. Latimer: A Story of Casco Bay” (1893), which contrast the stresses of city life with the simpler, more laid-back atmosphere of coastal Maine.

To my mind, “Dr. Latimer” is the more successful work, perhaps because its religious values are less directly connected to Burnham’s Christian Scientist beliefs, but both offer memorable and uncanny descriptions of the island as it was.

For Burnham, Bailey Island was an opportunity for imaginative expression, where family and friends could join together in a variety of creative projects, and the concerns of the city could be resolved. In “Dr. Latimer” and “The Opened Shutters,” she depicted a similarly welcoming environment, where characters found ways to interact, learn from each other and grow.

Significantly, both “The Opened Shutters” and “Dr. Latimer” concern orphaned girls whose loss of immediate family gets in the way of their ability to thrive. In “The Opened Shutters,” Sylvia Lacey is put in the care of distant and unwilling relatives, a situation that makes her bitter and cynical and keeps her from true happiness. In “Dr. Latimer,” the Iverson sisters, Josephine, Helen and Vernon, are ostracized by the snobby but well-connected Charlotte Norman, who believes that girls without parents should not be allowed to mix in polite society.

In the end, both Sylvia and the Iversons find a way to overcome their differences after they arrive in Maine and discover the healing power of love — Sylvia through the ministrations of her cousin “Thinkright” and the Iversons through the kindness of Dr. Latimer, an older gentleman whose own emotional issues are resolved by those he sought to help.

Clara Burnham died of heart disease on June 20, 1927, a week after she and her sister Mary (Kerns) arrived at The Moorings for their summer stay. After her passing came significant social and political changes, a different way of looking at the world. The optimism that drove her, the sense of human goodness she believed in, were countered by such devastating events as the Great Depression and the Second World War. As time passed, more social and political upheavals increased that shift in perception, so that today her work may seem outdated or naive.

Yet some publishers have found it important to keep Burnham’s novels in print, if only for what they tell us about past experience. For those of us who consider Bailey Island our home, or return to it as a refuge from the stresses of urban life, there is more to appreciate in these works: the power and beauty of our natural surroundings, the importance of community to our sense of well-being, and the responsibility we have to preserve and enhance what we have inherited from the past. Perhaps, as we relax on our hammocks, sail among the many islands of Casco Bay or enjoy the spectacular views the Midcoast has to offer, we can find in Burnham’s example some answers for ourselves.

A former English professor at Florida State University and a Maine native, Joann Gardner now works as a freelance poet, essayist and book critic. She divides her time between Bailey Island and Tallahassee, Florida.