2016 Shakespeare and Our Times Conference


“History, Mystery and Fantasy”: Public Memory of the Early Modern Moment in the New World

The Elizabethan Gardens of Manteo, North Carolina, illustrate the lasting power of public memorials on our historical narratives; built in the 1950-60s, the Gardens strive to simulate a sixteenth century garden. The Gardens’ website announces the objective of the space: “Our garden was created for your enjoyment, and as a living memorial to the time when Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colonists lived in this very place over 400 years ago.” This paper discusses the Gardens as an artifact which displays the ways in which gendered narratives of the past are constructed and preserved. From the faux sixteenth century gatehouse, to the gift shop packed with images of Elizabeth Tudor and “feminine” artifacts, to the elaborate statue of the queen at the center of a rose garden, a romanticized notion of the early modern world dominates this location, representing a lifestyle more typical of England than early colonial experiences, as well obscuring the class-based nature of such a space.  The placement of Elizabeth’s statue within the confines of a garden reinforces the concept of women in private spaces, situating the formidable queen in a space advertised as specifically for entertainment, rather than reflecting the political authority represented by Elizabeth Tudor’s person. The Gardens offers a miscellany of antique statuary, including an imagined and sexualized version of Virginia Dare, should she have lived to adulthood. Thus, the space represents the past as it never was, offering a charming experience of women in gardens, devoid of their lived experiences, perpetuating an idealized notion of the early modern experience in the colonies for tourists’ uncritical consumption.

Carol Mattingly describes the significant ways in which spaces shape our perception of the past and attitudes in the present, stating: “Collective memory is anchored not only in historical narratives but also in material structures that shape and support collective memory–creating identity for future generations, determining how we view the past and, therefore, how we see the future, and naming who is important and who is worthy of being recognized and honored” (Mattingly 292). By observing physical structures dedicated to preserving a version of the past, we can disrupt historical narratives that have become naturalized.

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