Patricia Hampl’s new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, is so delightfully nebulous—dangling somewhere between travelogue, literary criticism, memoir, and love letter, with a couple of philosophical deadlifts thrown in—that it’s worth summarizing her argument right from the get-go: reveries and daydreams are not throwaway instances that we should shrug off or snap out of. Times when we are lost in thought, far away from quotidian woes, are moments to seek out and cultivate. The central concern of her book is to show us how to do just that—how to live a life of the mind in a humdrum world.
We begin with Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, who in 1778 abandoned their duties, routines, and familes in Ireland for a long life of what they called “delicious seclusion” in the Welsh countryside. For the next 50 years, they lived in solitude, savoring each other’s quiet company. Well, almost.
Having become “famous for wishing to be left alone,” as Hampl puts it, they were soon visited by the whole literary kingdom. Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, and Byron all stopped by, as did Sir Walter Scott and Caroline Lamb. All were enchanted by the two “chatelaines of serenity” who had voluntarily rusticated themselves, eschewing the pleasures and vices of urban society. Instead, the Ladies organized their days around self-improvement activities, clocking everything by what they termed “our System”: hours for language studies, transcription, sketching, long walks, and letter writing. Reading was the centerpiece of each day. A full life, but “so still,” as Eleanor records in her journal. “So silent.”