Finding Vagabondia: New Clues, and Two Theories About a Novelist’s Legendary Inspiration

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A researcher happened across some clues to an old mystery that’s been nagging at me for a quarter century. In the mix is a pretty incredible coincidence.

For a column in Metro Pulse back in the ’90s, I outlined the Knoxville years of Frances Hodgson Burnett. The British-born author was beginning her extraordinary career as a novelist when she lived in downtown Knoxville around 1870, in a house she called Vagabondia Castle. It was her family’s second Knoxville residence, as I learned through her son Vivian’s 1927 memoir. Free of adults after her mother’s death, the house became a bohemian haven for young artists and musicians in what was otherwise a rough-edged postwar wreck of a town. The name “Vagabondia Castle” was ironic, I gathered; it was “rather roomy but dilapidated” even when the Hodgsons and their friends lived there. A book she began there, though set in London, was called Vagabondia. Her son said it was based on people and situations she knew in Knoxville.

No one has ever identified with certainty where Vagabondia Castle was. City directories from that era are spotty. Most houses didn’t have numbered addresses. From Vivian’s account, we know Vagabondia was very near the river, and close enough to the gas plant to smell it. I’ve pictured Vagabondia in the Maplehurst area.

Just after that column came out, 20-odd years ago, I was in the kitchen fixing some supper when a very old woman telephoned. She had read my column and wanted to talk about something she remembered.

I keep office hours, but old ladies prefer to call me at home. I’m not always ready to take notes.

What she told me was surprising. In the 1920s, along Henley Street near Cumberland, was a tea room. “In those days ladies went to tea rooms,” she said. And there they’d have a light luncheon, or perhaps play some bridge. The particular tea room she remembered was in an old brick house. And the house had a brass plaque on it. The plaque said “Former Home of Author Frances Hodgson Burnett.”

It intrigued her even then. In the 1920s, all smart young women had read Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her novels had already inspired a dozen movies.

I’d never heard of the tea room with the plaque on it. I scribbled her memories down on whatever was handy, maybe the back of a grocery receipt. I wrote her name and number, and the name of the tea room. Then of course I misplaced it.

Ever since, I’ve wondered whether the house she remembered, the one with the tea room, was Vagabondia Castle itself. But I couldn’t remember the name or other details. 

A clue arrived by way of Lucy Curtis Templeton. Her work is still fresh, more than half a century after she retired as a News-Sentinel writer. She was a cosmopolitan columnist. Her job was to write about birds, flowers, and people overlooked by the mainstream rush. Born in 1878, she knew Knoxvillians who remembered the Civil War. She flourished in the radio age, and wrote about that, too. She liked modern Russian literature, and wrote about that, too.

Though she hadn’t known Burnett personally—the novelist left town just before the columnist’s birth—Templeton knew Knoxvillians who remembered Burnett.

Scholar Paul Brown, by day a Morgan County public-school music teacher, has been researching James Agee, tracing that author’s family around town over a period of several decades. The public library’s “Papers to Pixels” project directed Brown to a Templeton column with a bit of information I’d been missing these last 20-odd years.

As she asserted in a 1927 column, Templeton learned, based on the memories of people she trusted, that the former home of Frances Hodgson Burnett was a place then known as Tinker Tavern.

“Tinker Tavern” doesn’t sound like the name of a ladies’ tea room, but I recognized it as the phrase the old lady used. It was not on Henley, but on Cumberland near Henley. Tinker Tavern was a popular destination for bridge games, 5 o’clock teas, sorority luncheons, librarians’ dinners. I’m not sure men were welcome.

“The Burnett family, I am informed by people who know,” Templeton wrote, “lived at one time in the old brick house on the corner of West Cumberland Avenue and Henley Street, now known as the Tinker Tavern. Possibly the Writers’ Club might be interested in marking this place.” (Her reference to “the Burnett family” may be a supposition that the author lived there after her 1873 marriage.)

The reason Paul, the Agee scholar, got interested in Burnett is that the house had another literary distinction. It was a literary neighborhood. A various times, close neighbors included the father and grandfather of playwright Tennessee Williams, Jackson biographer Sam Heiskell, and future critic and environmental essayist Joseph Wood Krutch.

Brown discovered the house Templeton identified as the Frances Hodgson Burnett home was also the home, for a spell in the 1890s, of Joel, Emma, and Laura Tyler: grandparents and mother, respectively, of yet-unborn author James Agee.

Templeton didn’t claim the house was Vagabondia, just that the Burnetts lived there. During the Vagabondia era, Frances was still a Hodgson.

Brown suggests another plausible theory, that Vagabondia was three blocks closer to the river, at the corner of what was then Front and High (now an odd remnant, the corner of Front and South Broadway, neither of which still exist except right there). A woman listed as “Mrs. H.A. Hodges”—perhaps a misprint reference to one of the Hodgsons—lived there in 1869. That house did have “a backyard running down to the Tennessee River,” as Vivian Burnett described.

That corner’s been vacant as long as I can remember.

If Templeton’s 1927 column resulted in a marker on the house, it probably wasn’t there more than a few months. As near as I can tell, that house was torn down by 1929, for the widening project that became the Henley Street, in preparation for the wonderful new bridge. Henley Street was no longer the quiet residential street of intriguing literary heritage and women’s tea rooms. It was suddenly America’s main route to the suddenly popular new Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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