When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar
to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.
Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.
One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.
Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver
Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.
For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.
Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”. All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.
So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.
My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating
Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.
May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children. When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”
“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.
As May grew up she was independent and ambitious. She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.
May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women. Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities
of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.
Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.
The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.
This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.
Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:
Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.
When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.
Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.
In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”
One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played. He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.
By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.
May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:
Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.
And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.
Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.
This past week the New York Times launched a series paying tribute to fifteen notable women who did not get obituaries in the newspaper when they died. Each week in this new section, called “Overlooked”, the Times will add the stories of women who deserved, but were not given, an obituary when they died.
What a great idea! I thought when I read the announcement. I decided I would go back and take a look at some of the women I’ve written about on my blog to see whether they fit into the “Overlooked” category. One of the first people I thought of was Elizabeth Peabody, a celebrity during much of the 19th century, who has long been forgotten
despite her achievements in education and publishing. As it turns out, she did get an obit in the New York Times, when she died in 1894, although she was treated more as an eccentric old woman than as the respected educator that she was. I think she deserves a better send off than that.
We have no picture of Elizabeth Peabody as a young woman, although she was well-known in Boston. As her biographer, Megan Marshall, explains, Elizabeth’s portrait was painted in 1828 by Chester Harding, a well-known portrait artist in Boston. Elizabeth was 24 years old at the time and teaching at a school she had started for girls. Instead of being pleased by the portrait, her parents were scandalized. Women of that time did not have pictures of themselves mounted on walls and displayed to others. Unlike men, women were supposed to live lives that were private and hidden from everyone except their families. Despite the prevailing customs, however, Elizabeth was destined to become a well-known figure in Boston and elsewhere during her long life. The portrait, incidentally, was destroyed years later in a warehouse fire so the only existing pictures show Elizabeth as an elderly woman.
Elizabeth was one of three Peabody sisters—the other two were Mary, who married
Horace Mann, and Sophia, who became the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All three were born in the early 1800s and lived through most of that eventful century, but Elizabeth had the most lasting influence and left a legacy that is still with us.
In 1838 Elizabeth opened a small circulating library and bookstore in the family home. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his friends who were interested in expanding the intellectual horizons of Americans. They were eager to learn about the new ideas being talked about in Europe and Elizabeth’s bookstore offered them a chance to read and discuss European journals and new books. Not only that, Elizabeth also opened a small publishing operation and published several articles and books written by members of the group including several of Nathanial Hawthorne’s early stories.
Elizabeth Peabody’s small bookstore in West Street was the place where the new Transcendental Club held meetings. Margaret Fuller offered her “Conversations” in the bookstore for the wives and friends of the Emerson circle. Elizabeth’s bookstore appears in my mystery story A Death in Utopia as a place where the Charlotte Edgerton and her friend Daniel Gallagher can follow up ideas for solving a mysterious death.
Running a bookstore and being a publisher were not Elizabeth Peabody’s only occupations. She studied European educational theories and opened the first kindergarten in America. Her most lasting legacy remains the revolution in teaching young children which grew out of the kindergarten movement. She deserves more than the meager obituary written for her when she died in 1894. Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters; Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism gives a good start on learning about Elizabeth and her accomplished sisters.
We have heard far too much about guns this week and the discussions are likely to continue. The question of who should have guns and where and when they should be allowed will continue because it is of vital importance to all of us. But not everyone realizes how unusual the American attitude toward guns is compared with attitudes in most other countries.
Early guns were designed for armies fighting to support kings and nobles. Their use was limited to wars. As handguns became easier to use and more available, they were often purchased by wealthy men who used them for hunting, and for protecting themselves and their property against burglars and assassins.
America was different. During the 19th century as Americans pushed westward, guns became the property of many ordinary farmers and hunters. Guns no longer belonged to the aristocracy, but to everyman. Of course it was definitely man—not woman. Guns have always been associated with men, but in the late 19th century the image was shattered by a 15-year-old girl.
The woman we know as Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860. She grew up in poverty in Ohio and learned to shoot while she was very young. By the time she was nine or ten years old she was shooting game and selling it to hotels and restaurants in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio. She made enough money with her sales that she was able to pay off her widowed mother’s mortgage.
As Annie’s shooting skills became more famous, a man who owned a Cincinnati hotel invited her to participate in a shooting contest with a local performer named Frank Butler. At the age of 15, and standing only five feet tall, Annie Oakley was able to win the contest with the well-known marksman. Butler was so impressed by her performance that he began courting her and the couple was married in 1876.
From then on, Annie’s life was in show business. She was a star of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became the highest paid entertainer in the country. Butler was content to take second billing and to manage her career. The couple travelled throughout the country and to Europe where Annie performed for Queen Victoria.
One of Annie’s greatest interests was in persuading other women to learn to shoot. Almost alone at that time, she believed women should be able to serve in combat for the American army. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain”. Her offer was turned down and women did not serve in either the Spanish-American War or World War I.
Annie Oakley died in 1926, so she did not live to see women serving in combat. That was left for later generations. Today thousands of women learn to handle guns and to shoot, although even now guns are far more often associated with men than with women.
None of the shooting sprees that have led to mass killings in the United States were carried out by women. Why is that? Despite the importance of understanding why some people use guns in violent attacks, most researchers are forbidden to investigate the issue. In 1996, Congress passed an amendment to a spending bill that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” That action has meant that researchers find it almost impossible to get grants for research.
Annie Oakley believed in guns as a force for good in the country, not for evil. She would be ashamed to discover that we have become too timid to even try to find out how people use the weapon that she mastered so well.
The dazzling display that marks the beginning of the Olympic games whenever they are played has become traditional. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world watch on TV screens, tablets or phones to see the athletes march into a massive stadium carrying the flag of their country. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime-moment for the athletes. But the Olympics were not always such a high profile occasion. The first American woman to win an Olympic event won it in a contest that was so low key she wasn’t even sure that the golf game she won was part of the Olympics.
There was no ceremony to mark the opening of the Paris Olympics of 1900. There was no closing ceremony either and the winners did not receive medals—they received one of a variety of knick-knacks provided by the sponsors.
How is that possible? Well, the 1900 Olympics in Paris were only the second in the series of modern Olympics, which had started in Athens in 1896. When 1900 rolled around, Paris was holding a large World Exhibit and the Olympics became a kind of sideshow to that. Various events were run from May until October in different venues around Paris. Spectators and even participants were not always sure which events were part of the Olympics and which were unaffiliated athletic contests. The event was quite disorganized, but one innovation that was made has lasted—it was the first time that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. Women have been a prominent part of the Olympic contests ever since.
America’s first female Olympic champion was Margaret Ives Abbott. She was a young society woman from Chicago who played golf for pleasure and was very good at it. In
1900, she was in Paris studying art and heard there was a golf contest, so she signed up. Her mother, also an excellent golfer, participated in the contest too. 1900 was the first year that golf had been part of the Olympic program and for many years it was the only time. Not until 2006 was golf reintroduced as an Olympic sport.
Margaret won first place in the golf tournament and was given a porcelain bowl in recognition of her achievement. But there was no huge newspaper coverage, probably no photos, and certainly none of the adulation that Olympic champions win today. Margaret Abbott, who was 22 years old at the time she won her award, continued to live the normal life of a prosperous young woman. She married the journalist and author, Finley Peter Dunne in 1902. He was creator of the well-known “Mr. Dooley” essays, humorous commentary on politics and life of the early 20th century.
It wasn’t until almost fifty years later when scholars put together a reliable history of the Olympics that the Paris 1900 games were fully recognized. And Margaret Ives Abbott finally received full recognition. Because she died in 1955, it seems unlikely she was even aware that she was America’s first woman Olympic winner. Such a mistake would never happen today when all the events are filmed and a full historical record kept of the games. Women who win medals get full recognition of their achievements. The Olympic games have come a long way—and so have women athletes. But let’s not forget to honor Margaret Ives Abbott, a leader in the recognition of women athletes.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain
Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.
Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.
Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and
supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.
In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.
British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.
Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.
There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet. And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left behind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.
In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”
Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.
After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.
When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence
Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.
Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.
Here in San Francisco the pianos are back in the gardens again—the Botanical Gardens. The idea of placing pianos in public areas and inviting passers-by to play them is now more than a decade old and it is still charming people around the world. Even though piano lessons are not as common as they were a generation or two ago, many amateur musicians still enjoy playing when they have a chance.
Today I want to talk about a woman who helped to make the piano the major instrument that it continues to be—Clara Wieck Schumann. When she gave her first concerts in Vienna in 1838, one critic described her “not a wonderchild—and yet still a child and already a wonder.” Clara was 18 at the time, so not exactly a child, but an accomplished young musician who had studied under her father’s guidance all of her life. From those early concerts, she moved on to a career in music that lasted for sixty years.
On the day before her 21st birthday Clara married Robert Schumann, the composer whose work she helped to make famous. She continued to perform and to compose music after she was married. She had little choice because she was the family
breadwinner. She also raised seven children (an eighth died in infancy). We often hear about the discrimination that women suffered during the 19th century, discrimination that kept many of them from fulfilling their early promise. But sometimes we need to think about the remarkable women who overcame the prejudices and oppression of the times and managed to have successful careers despite all the barriers.
If you ever feel discouraged about the difficulty of combining a career with marriage and motherhood, you can find inspiration by reading more about Clara Schumann. An excellent biography is Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich. The author gives a great deal of scholarly musical background, but even if you are not knowledgeable about music, the story of Clara Schumann’s life will hold your attention and strengthen your resolve to persist in your own ambitions.
And if you have a chance—try to find one of those pianos in a public place and give it a try!
Readers often have a great curiosity about the authors who write the books they love, especially the novelists. And in fact sometimes the life of the author lives on long after
the novels cease to be read except by scholars. That’s what seems to have happened to Constance Fenimore Woolson, one of the most successful American authors of the 19th century.
Back in the days when I studied American literature, Woolson was considered a female regional writer—not at all important when compared with the great writers like Twain,
Melville, Howells, and James. One professor of mine commented that she was “the spinster woman who killed herself because she was in love with Henry James”. Years before that she had been ignored when Howells and James set up their canon of important American writers. They included only male writers because they didn’t think women were capable of great writing, or even rational thought.
In recent years, of course, attention has shifted to women writers and several are now studied in college literature classes. Constance Woolson is seldom included, but her books are available in libraries and bookstores and there have been new biographies and a novel written about her life. A lot of the interest in her has developed because of her relationship with Henry James, which is a shame because her life and work are worth reading on their own.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Woolson’s life is how seriously she took her writing despite the lack of encouragement from “serious” critics. She devoted time and attention to her novels. When she was living in Venice in 1893, she wrote of her daily schedule: “I am now called at 4:30 every morning, and then, after a cup of tea, I sit (in a dressing gown) and write until 9:30, when I have breakfast. This is to get the cool hours for work. Then I dress and go on writing until 4 p.m., when I go to the Lido and take a sea-bath.” This is not a woman who rushed out her books in order to maximize sales.
Woolson started publishing in 1870, first magazine stories and then novels. She was a success from the beginning and was able to support her mother as well as help her brother and sister. After her mother died in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe in order to meet Henry James, a writer whose work she admired. She did meet him, in part because he was impressed that she was a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, and their relationship continued for the rest of her life. It is this relationship that has fascinated both critics and general readers through the years.
During the past year I have read two books about Woolson and enjoyed both of them thoroughly. One is a biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, Constance Fenimore Woolson; Portrait of a Lady Novelist, which gives a full account of her life and travels. She did not have an easy life because her hearing began to fade while she was still a young woman. Her deafness was a barrier that kept her from enjoying the music she loved and from easy exchanges with friends and colleagues. She sometimes said that she valued Henry James because she would never run out of things to talk about with him. Conversation was important to her, although not as important as her writing. James envied her success in writing and continued to patronize her because he recognized—they both recognized—that he was a greater artist.
The second book I read about Woolson this year is Elizabeth Maguire’s novel, Open Door, based on Woolson’s years in Europe and her relationship with Henry James. The author invents many details of Woolson’s life, some more convincing than others, and readers
may quarrel about whether she successfully portrayed the connection with Henry James and whether Woolson did indeed know about his carefully closeted homosexual life.
Woolson’s death, after a jump or fall into a canal in Venice, is still a subject of speculation. Could it have been just a fall? Was it suicide? Was it caused by chronic depression or perhaps by the intense pain caused by her deafness and brain cancer? There will probably never be a definitive answer.
So where is truth? Is it in a fully-documented biography or in an imaginative novel? My answer would be that it is in both. We need a solid biography like the one Rioux has given us so we can understand Woolson’s background and life and better appreciate her work. But there is also truth in trying to imagine what Woolson’s life must have felt like from the inside. I think we all try to do that instinctively when we read biographies. Maguire gave us intriguing speculation about what it might have felt like being Constance Woolson. Both books deserve to be read.
The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.
In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.
Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.
Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good
education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.
Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.
It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.
Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.
It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.