The Victorian era abounded with romantic poetry, with love stories often more than bordering on the melodramatic and quixotic. One specifically popular tome of the era in English literature is a poem titled “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight,” a story of a young woman who saves her lover unjustly condemned to death with the tolling of the curfew bell in not-so-merry-old England. It was written by a 16-year-old schoolgirl growing up in a pioneer family in Michigan. Her name was Rose Hartwick Thorpe, and she spent her adult life as one of La Jolla’s leading citizens.
Mrs. Thorpe, an imposing-looking figure, and her husband Edmund, a well-known builder in the area, moved here in 1901 and lived in a cottage at 7810 Herschel Ave. Appropriately, the house was known as “Curfew.” As Valentine’s Day rolls around again this month, it seems apropos to consider Mrs. Thorpe’s popular romantic poem, how she came to write it and how it became her signature work, even though she continued to write other poetry and prose during her life here. She died in 1939 at age 89.
As a young woman, Rose read a story published in Peterson’s magazine in 1865 called “Love and Loyalty.” It concerned two young lovers named Basil and Bessie, whose fate and destiny become entwined in the politics of Cromwellian England. Basil is condemned to die when the curfew bell tolls. But in a valiant effort, Bessie prevents the bell from ringing and the two young lovers unite arm in arm for happiness ever after. Such was the story Rose committed to time immemorial verse, writing her poem on milliner’s tape for lack of real paper. First reaching publication in a Detroit newspaper, it became a sensation, the verses oft-quoted and memorized by every Victorian school child. Translations spread around the world in many languages. In England, Queen Victoria gave it a stamp of approval authenticating that the story had actually happened. The real curfew bell — cast in 1310 — was discovered hanging in a church steeple in Chertsey.
While living in La Jolla, Rose was long venerated by the community as the author of the poem. But she also continued to write and publish prose and poetry and was well-known in the local literary circle of the early 1900s, often sharing thoughts with Green Dragon Colony founder Anna Held. In the romantic spirit of the time, she wrote about the beauties of California nature, the old Spanish missions and many other subjects. In 1904, her fictional story of “The White Lady of La Jolla” was published, telling of the celebrated white lady cave. She also wrote a poem on La Jolla’s seven caves: “The caverns where the waves make moan … Are spiked with columns carved from stone.”
Another poem, “February on the La Jolla Hills,” bears quoting this month.
“There are fields of gold—whole poppy fields—
Oh, the land is color crazy;
Purple and yellow and lavender,
Under the warm sky hazy.
Dashes of color, and shouts of glee,
All in the winter weather,
For the flowers of earth and the human flowers
Are out on the hills together.”
— “Reflections” is a monthly column written for the La Jolla Village News by the La Jolla Historical Society’s historian Carol Olten. The Society, dedicated to the preservation of La Jolla heritage, is located at 7846 Eads Ave. and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.