WINCHESTER – The characters which award-winning author Edward Hamlin creates may spring from various wells of inspiration, but for his new novel several have reached out to his imagination from Winchester, specifically the Sanborn House, home of his ancestors.
Were it not for the pandemic, Hamlin might well have returned to Aigremont, as his great-grandparents called the house, to write. Instead he will join the Winchester Historical Society via Zoom on March 3 to read excerpts from the working manuscript as part of a program titled “Women of the Myopia Mansions: Untold Stories Fact and Fiction.”
“I’d wanted to write about my father’s side of the family for some years, because there is such a classic American narrative arc to their story,” Hamlin said. “You have the mid-19th-century tale of the up-by-the-bootstraps American entrepreneur in the person of James Sanborn, my great-great-grandfather, who co-founds Chase and Sanborn and builds it into a household name; then the dissipation of the resulting fortune by the next generation, with the 1929 crash giving the coup de grâce. All this seemed an interesting backdrop to my story, though only one element of a larger fictional narrative.”
Only one of the Sanborn children had a child of her own. That was daughter Helen, Hamlin’s grandmother.
“Because the novel braids elements of the Sanborn story together with a storyline set in modern-day Chicago, I’ve had to be selective about how much of the Sanborn story I incorporate. The entry point is my grandmother, Helen, as a young woman, but we see her through the eyes of a young (fictional) Frenchwoman who gets swept into the Sanborn orbit.”
The real Helen died when Hamlin was three.
“So it was great fun to imagine her as a Winchester ingénue. The Helen that’s resulted is neither the actual Helen Sanborn nor entirely my creation. I don’t know what she would have made of my portrayal. I hope she’s real and credible, if not exactly herself. What I can say with certainty is that the process of working through all this, as much as the process of researching the family and their milieu, has vastly enriched my emotional connection to her. No question about it.”
In 1925, the Sanborns left the Sanborn House. Hamlin’s parents were living in New York when he was born, though he grew up in Chicago and now lives in the Colorado foothills.
His published works include Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, winner of the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Colorado Book Award, plus other stories which have appeared in numerous publications, been performed on stage and published by Audible. His work has been recognized with a Nelson Algren Award, a Nelligan Prize, three Pushcart Prize nominations and other honors.
The “Women of Myopia” program will begin with local historian Ellen Knight introducing the historical background to the women of the Myopia neighborhood and the Sanborn House itself, women such as Mass. First Lady Ella McCall and her friend Lorena Sanborn, unfairly overlooked by historians.
“Of course I’ve desperately wanted to go back to the house while writing the book, but COVID has made it impossible,” Hamlin said. “To my great good fortune I’ve had a tremendous research partner in local historian Ellen Knight, not to mention a great thought partner. The book is much the richer for her diligence—not to mention her gracious willingness to look the other way when the novelist knowingly warps the historical record.”
For the program, which begins at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3, Hamlin plans to read two selections, “both set at Sanborn House but in very different historical situations—one on the eve of the First World War, the other in the depths of the influenza epidemic.”
The public is invited to register for the program at www.winchesterhistoricalsociety.org.