from DAUGHTERS OF THE PURITANS By SETH CURTIS BEACH
LYDIA MARIA CHILD
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, few names in American literature were more conspicuous than that of Lydia Maria Child, and among those few, if we except that of Miss Sedgwick, there was certainly no woman’s name. Speaking with that studied reserve which became its dignity, the _North American Review_ said of her: “We are not sure that any woman of our country could outrank Mrs. Child. This lady has been before the public as an author with much success. And she well deserves it, for in all her works, nothing can be found which does not commend itself by its tone of healthy morality and good sense. Few female writers if any have done more or better things for our literature in the lighter or graver departments.”
Mrs. Child began her literary career in 1824 with “Hobomok, a Tale of Early Times,” and she closed it with a volume of biography, entitled “Good Wives,” in 1871. Between these two dates, covering forty-seven years, her publications extended to more than thirty titles, and include stories, poems, biographies, studies in history, in household economics, in politics, and in religion. “Her books,” says Col. Higginson, “never seemed to repeat each other and belonged to almost as many different departments as there are volumes”; and while writing so much, he adds, “she wrote better than most of her contemporaries.”
If she had not done many things so well, she would still have the distinction of having done several things the first time they were ever done at all. It has been claimed that she edited the first American magazine for children, wrote the first novel of puritan times, published the first American Anti-Slavery book, and compiled the first treatise upon what is now known as “Comparative Religions,” a science not then named, but now a department in every school of theology.
Mrs. Child’s maiden name was Francis, and under that name she won her first fame. She was born in Medford, Mass., Feb. 11, 1802. Her father, Convers Francis, is said to have been a worthy and substantial citizen, a baker by trade, and the author of the “Medford Crackers,” in their day second only in popularity to “Medford Rum.” He was a man of strong character, great industry, uncommon love of reading, zealous anti-slavery convictions, generous and hospitable. All these traits were repeated in his famous daughter. It was the custom of Mr. Francis, on the evening before Thanksgiving to gather in his dependents and humble friends to the number of twenty or thirty, and feast them on chicken pie, doughnuts and other edibles, sending them home with provisions for a further festival, including “turnovers” for the children. Col. Higginson, who had the incident from Mrs. Child, intimates that in this experience she may have discovered how much more blessed it is to give than to receive. Certainly, in later life, she believed and practiced this doctrine like a devotee.
Mrs. Child began to climb the hill of knowledge under the instruction of a maiden lady known as “Ma’am Betty,” who kept school in her bedroom which was never in order, drank from the nose of her tea-kettle, chewed tobacco and much of it, and was shy to a degree said to have been “supernatural,” but she knew the way to the hearts of children, who were very fond of her and regularly carried her a Sunday dinner. After “Ma’am Betty,” Mrs. Child attended the public schools in Medford and had a year at a Medford private seminary.
These opportunities for education were cut off at the age of twelve apparently by some change in the family fortunes which compelled the removal of Maria to Norridgewock, Maine, on the borders of the great northern wilderness, where a married sister was living. An influence to which she gave chief credit for her intellectual development and which was not wholly cut off by this removal was that of Convers Francis, her favorite brother, next older than herself, afterward minister in Watertown, and professor in the Divinity School of Harvard University. In later life, Dr. Francis was an encyclopedia of information and scholarship, very liberal in his views for the time. Theodore Parker used to head pages in his journal with, “Questions to ask Dr. Francis.”
Dr. Francis began to prepare for college when Mrs. Child was nine years old. Naturally the little girl wanted to read the books which her brother read, and sometimes he seems to have instructed her and sometimes he tantalized her, but always he stimulated her. Years afterward she wrote him gratefully, “To your early influence, by conversation, letters, and example I owe it that my busy energies took a literary direction at all.”
Norridgewock, her home from her twelfth to her eighteenth year, was and is a very pretty country village, at that era the residence of some very cultivated families, but hardly an educational center. As we hear nothing of schools either there or elsewhere we are led to suppose that this twelve year old girl had finished her education. If she lacked opportunities for culture, she carried with her a desire for it, which is half the battle, and she had the intellectual stimulus of letters from her brother then in college, who seems to have presided over her reading. What we know of her life at this period is told in her letters to this brother.
The first of these letters which the editors let us see was written at the age of fifteen. “I have,” she says, “been busily engaged reading Paradise Lost. Homer hurried me along with rapid impetuosity; every passion that he portrayed I felt; I loved, hated, and resented just as he inspired me. But when I read Milton I felt elevated ‘above this visible, diurnal sphere.’ I could not but admire such astonishing grandeur of description, such heavenly sublimity of style. Much as I admire Milton, I must confess that Homer is a much greater favorite.”
It is not strange that a studious brother in college would take interest in a sister who at the age of fifteen could write him with so much intelligence and enthusiasm of her reading. The next letter is two years later when she has been reading Scott. She likes Meg Merrilies, Diana Vernon, Annot Lyle, and Helen Mac Gregor. She hopes she may yet read Virgil in his own tongue, and adds, “I usually spend an hour after I retire for the night in reading Gibbon’s Roman Empire. The pomp of his style at first displeased me, but I think him an able historian.”
This is from a girl of seventeen living on the edge of the northern wilderness, and she is also reading Shakspere. “What a vigorous grasp of intellect,” she says, “what a glow of imagination he must have possessed, but when his fancy drops a little, how apt he is to make low attempts at wit, and introduce a forced play upon words.” She is also reading the Spectator, and does not think Addison so good a writer as Johnson, though a more polished one.
What she was doing with her ever busy hands during this period we are not told, but her intellectual life ran on in these channels until she reaches the age of eighteen, when she is engaged to teach a school in Gardiner, Maine, an event which makes her very happy. “I cannot talk about books,” she writes, “nor anything else until I tell you the good news, that I leave Norridgewock as soon as the travelling is tolerable and take a school in Gardiner.” It is the terrible month of March, for country roads in the far north, “the saddest of the year.” She wishes her brother were as happy as she is, though, “All I expect is that, if I am industrious and prudent, I shall be independent.”
At the conclusion of her school, she took up her residence with her brother in Watertown, Mass., where one year before, he had been settled as minister of the first parish. Here a new career opened before her. Whittier says that in her Norridgewock period, when she first read Waverly at the house of her physician, she laid down the book in great excitement, exclaiming, “Why cannot I write a novel?” Apparently, she did not undertake the enterprise for two years or more. In 1824, one Sunday after morning service, in her brother’s study, she read an article in the _North American Review_, in which it was pointed out that there were great possibilities of romance in early American history. Before the afternoon service, she had written the first chapter of a novel which was published anonymously the same year, under the title of “Hobomok: a Tale of Early Times.”
A search through half a dozen Antique Book stores in Boston for a copy of this timid literary venture I have found to be fruitless, except for the information that there is sometimes a stray copy in stock, and that its present value is about three dollars. It is sufficient distinction that it was the first attempt to extract a romantic element from early New England history. Its reception by the public was flattering to a young author. The Boston Athenaeum sent her a ticket granting the privileges of its library. So great and perhaps unexpected had been its success that for several years, Mrs. Child’s books bore the signature, “By the author of Hobomok.” Even “The Frugal Housewife” was “By the author of Hobomok.”
In 1825, the author of Hobomok published her second novel, entitled, “The Rebels: a Tale of the Revolution.” It is a volume of about 300 pages, and is still very readable. It ran rapidly through several editions, and very much increased the reputation of the author of Hobomok. The work contains an imaginary speech of James Otis, in which it is said, “England might as well dam up the Nile with bulrushes as to fetter the step of Freedom, more proud and firm in this youthful land than where she treads the sequestered glens of Scotland or couches herself among the magnificent mountains of Switzerland.” This supposed speech of Otis soon found its way into the School Readers of the day, as a genuine utterance of the Revolutionary patriot, and as such Col. Higginson says he memorized and declaimed it, in his youth.
This literary success was achieved at the age of twenty-three, and the same year Miss Francis opened a private school in Watertown, which she continued three years, until her marriage gave her other occupations. In 1826, she started _The Juvenile Miscellany_, as already mentioned, said to be the first magazine expressly for children, in this country. In it, first appeared many of her charming stories afterward gathered up in little volumes entitled, “Flowers for Children.”
In 1828, she was married to Mr. David Lee Child, then 34 years of age, eight years older than herself. Whittier describes him, as a young and able lawyer, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, and editor of the _Massachusetts Journal_. Mr. Child graduated at Harvard in 1817 in the class with George Bancroft, Caleb Cushing, George B. Emerson, and Samuel J. May. Between 1818 and 1824, he was in our diplomatic service abroad under Hon. Alexander Everett, at that time, Charge d’Affaires in the Netherlands. On his return to America, Mr. Child studied law in Watertown where, at the house of a mutual friend, he met Miss Lydia Maria Francis. She herself reports this interesting event under date of Dec. 2, 1824. “Mr. Child dined with us in Watertown. He possesses the rich fund of an intelligent traveller, without the slightest tinge of a traveller’s vanity. Spoke of the tardy improvement of the useful arts in Spain and Italy.” Nearly two months pass, when we have this record: “Jan. 26, 1825. Saw Mr. Child at Mr. Curtis’s. He is the most gallant man that has lived since the sixteenth century and needs nothing but helmet, shield, and chain-armor to make him a complete knight of chivalry.” Not all the meetings are recorded, for, some weeks later, “March 3,” we have this entry, “One among the many delightful evenings spent with Mr. Child. I do not know which to admire most, the vigor of his understanding or the ready sparkle of his wit.”
There can be no doubt that she thoroughly enjoyed these interviews, and we shall have to discount the statement of any observer who gathered a different impression. Mr. George Ticknor Curtis, at whose home some of these interviews took place, was a boy of twelve, and may have taken the play of wit between the parties too seriously. He says, “At first Miss Francis did not like Mr. Child. Their intercourse was mostly banter and mutual criticism. Observers said, ‘Those two people will end in marrying.’ Miss Francis was not a beautiful girl in the ordinary sense, but her complexion was good, her eyes were bright, her mouth expressive and her teeth fine. She had a great deal of wit, liked to use it, and did use it upon Mr. Child who was a frequent visitor; but her deportment was always maidenly and lady-like.”
The engagement happened in this wise. Mr. Child had been admitted to the bar and had opened an office in Boston. One evening about nine o’clock he rode out to Watertown on horseback and called at the Curtises’ where Miss Francis then was. “My mother, who believed the denouement had come,” says Mr. Curtis, “retired to her chamber. Mr. Child pressed his suit earnestly. Ten o’clock came, then eleven, then twelve. The horse grew impatient and Mr. Child went out once or twice to pacify him, and returned. At last, just as the clock was striking one, he went. Miss Francis rushed into my mother’s room and told her she was engaged to Mr. Child.”
There are indications in this communication that Mr. Curtis did not himself greatly admire Mr. Child and would not have married him, but he concedes that, “Beyond all doubt, Mrs. Child was perfectly happy in her relations with him, through their long life.” After their marriage, he says, they went to housekeeping in a “very small house in Boston,” where Mr. Curtis, then a youth of sixteen, visited them and partook of a simple, frugal dinner which the lady cooked and served with her own hands, and to which Mr. Child returned from his office, “cheery and breezy,” and we may hope the vivacity of the host may have made up for the frugality of the entertainment.
In “Letters from New York,” written to the Boston _Courier_, she speaks tenderly of her Boston home which she calls “Cottage Place” and declares it the dearest spot on earth. I assume it was this “very small house” where she began her married life, where she dined the fastidious Mr. Curtis, and where she seems to have spent eight or nine happy years. Her marriage brought her great happiness. A friend says, “The domestic happiness of Mr. and Mrs. Child seemed to me perfect. Their sympathies, their admiration of all things good, and their hearty hatred of all things mean and evil, were in entire unison. Mr. Child shared his wife’s enthusiasms and was very proud of her. Their affection, never paraded, was always manifest.” After Mr. Child’s death, Mrs. Child said, “I believe a future life would be of small value to me, if I were not united to him.”
Mr. Child was a man of fine intellect, with studious tastes and habits, but there is too much reason to believe that his genius did not lie in the management of practical life. Details of business were apparently out of his sphere. “It was like cutting stones with a razor,” says one who knew him. “He was a visionary,” says another, “who always saw a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow.” This was a kind of defect which, though it cost her dear, Mrs. Child, of all persons, could most easily forgive. One great success he achieved: that was in winning and keeping the heart of Mrs. Child. Their married life seems to have been one long honeymoon. “I always depended,” she says, “upon his richly stored mind, which was able and ready to furnish needed information on any subject. He was my walking dictionary of many languages, and my universal encyclopedia. In his old age, he was as affectionate and devoted as when the lover of my youth; nay, he manifested even more tenderness. He was often singing,
‘There’s nothing half so sweet in life As love’s _old_ dream.’
Very often, when he passed me, he would lay his hand softly on my head and murmur ‘Carum Caput.’… He never would see anything but the bright side of my character. He always insisted upon thinking that whatever I said was the wisest and whatever I did was the best.”
In the anti-slavery conflict, Mr. Child’s name was among the earliest, and at the beginning of the controversy, few were more prominent. In 1832, he published in Boston a series of articles upon slavery and the slave-trade; in 1836, another series upon the same subject, in Philadelphia; in 1837, an elaborate memoir upon the subject for an anti-slavery society in France, and an able article in a _London Review_. It is said that the speeches of John Quincy Adams in Congress were greatly indebted to the writings of Mr. Child, both for facts and arguments.
Such, briefly, is the man with whom Mrs. Child is to spend forty-five years of her useful and happy life. In 1829, the year after her marriage, she put her twelve months of experience and reflection into a book entitled, “The Frugal Housewife.” “No false pride,” she says, “or foolish ambition to appear as well as others, should induce a person to live a cent beyond the income of which he is assured.” “We shall never be free from embarrassment until we cease to be ashamed of industry and economy.” “The earlier children are taught to turn their faculties to some account the better for them and for their parents.” “A child of six years is old enough to be made useful and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others.” We are told that a child can be taught to braid straw for his hats or to make feather fans; the objection to which would be that a modern mother would not let a child wear that kind of hat nor carry the fan.
The following will be interesting if not valuable: “Cheap as stockings are, it is good economy to knit them; knit hose wear twice as long as woven; and they can be done at odd moments of time which would not be otherwise employed.” What an age that must have been when one had time enough and to spare! Other suggestions are quite as curious. The book is “dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy.” “The writer,” she says, “has no apology to offer for this little book of economical hints, except her deep conviction that such a book is needed. In this case, renown is out of the question; and ridicule is a matter of indifference.”
Goethe made poems of his chagrins; Mrs. Child in this instance utilized her privations and forced economies to make a book; and a wonderfully successful book it was. She was not wrong in supposing it would meet a want. During the next seven years, it went through twenty editions, or three editions a year; in 1855, it had reached its thirty-third edition, averaging little short of one edition a year for thirty-six years. Surely this was a result which made a year of economical living in a “very small house” worth while.
“The Frugal Housewife” was a true “mother’s book,” although another and later volume was so named. “The Mother’s Book” was nearly as successful as “The Frugal Housewife,” and went through eight American editions, twelve English, and one German. The success of these books gave Mrs. Child a good income, and she hardly needed to be the “frugal housewife” she had been before.
A check soon came to her prosperity. In 1831, she met Garrison and, being inflammable, caught fire from his anti-slavery zeal, and became one of his earliest and staunchest disciples. The free use of the Athenaeum library which had been graciously extended to her ten years before, now enabled her to study the subject of slavery in all its aspects, historical, legal, theoretical, and practical and, in 1833, she embodied the results of her investigations in a book entitled, “An Appeal in behalf of the class of Americans called Africans.” The material is chiefly drawn from Southern sources, the statute books of Southern states, the columns of Southern newspapers, and the statements and opinions of Southern public men. It is an effective book to read even now when one is in a mood to rose-color the old-time plantation life and doubtful whether anything could be worse than the present condition of the negro in the South.
The book had two kinds of effect. It brought upon Mrs. Child the incontinent wrath of all persons who, for any reason, thought that the only thing to do with slavery was to let it alone. “A lawyer, afterward attorney-general,” a description that fits Caleb Cushing, is said to have used tongs to throw the obnoxious book out of the window; the Athenaeum withdrew from Mrs. Child the privileges of its library; former friends dropped her acquaintance; Boston society shut its doors upon her; the sale of her books fell off; subscriptions to her _Juvenile Miscellany_ were discontinued; and the magazine died after a successful life of eight years; and Mrs. Child found that she had ventured upon a costly experiment. This consequence she had anticipated and it had for her no terrors. “I am fully aware,” she says in her preface, “of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken; but though I expect ridicule, I do not fear it…. Should it be the means of advancing even one single hour the inevitable progress of truth and justice, I would not exchange the consciousness for all Rothschild’s wealth or Sir Walter’s fame.”
Of course a book of such evident significance and power would have had another effect; by his own acknowledgement, it brought Dr. Channing into the anti-slavery crusade, and he published a book upon slavery in 1835; it led Dr. John G. Palfry, who had inherited a plantation in Louisiana, to emancipate his slaves; and, as he has more than once said, it changed the course of Col. T. W. Higginson’s life and made him an abolitionist. “As it was the first anti-slavery work ever printed in America in book form, so,” says Col. Higginson, “I have always thought it the ablest.” Whittier says, “It is no exaggeration to say that no man or woman at that period rendered more substantial service to the cause of freedom, or made such a ‘great renunciation’ in doing it.”
Turning from the real world, which was becoming too hard for her, Mrs. Child took refuge in dreamland and wrote “Philothea: a story of Ancient Greece,” published in 1835. Critics have objected that this delightful romance is not an exact reproduction of Greek life, but is Hamlet a reproduction of anything that ever happened in Denmark, or Browning’s Saul of anything that could have happened in Judea, a thousand years before Christ? To Lowell, Mrs. Child was and remained “Philothea.” Higginson says that the lines in which Lowell describes her in the “Fable for Critics,” are the one passage of pure poetry it contains, and at the same time the most charming sketch ever made of Mrs. Child.
“There comes Philothea, her face all aglow; She has just been dividing some poor creature’s woe, And can’t tell which pleases her most–to relieve His want, or his story to hear and believe. No doubt against many deep griefs she prevails, For her ear is the refuge of destitute tales; She knows well that silence is sorrow’s best food, And that talking draws off from the heart its bad blood.”
In 1836, Mr. Child went abroad to study the Beet Sugar industry in France, Holland, and Germany and, after an absence of a year and a half, returned to engage in Beet Sugar Farming at Northampton, Mass. He received a silver medal for raw and refined sugar at the Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in 1839, and a premium of $100 from the Massachusetts Agricultural society the same year. He published a well written and edifying book upon “Beet Sugar,” giving the results of his investigations and experiments. It was an enterprise of great promise, but has taken half a century, in this country, to become a profitable industry.
Mrs. Child’s letters from 1838 to 1841 are dated from Northampton, where she is assisting to work out the “Beet Sugar” experiment. It would have been a rather grinding experience to any one with less cheerfulness than Mrs. Child. She writes, June 9, 1838, “A month elapsed before I stepped into the woods which were all around me blooming with flowers. I did not go to Mr. Dwight’s ordination, nor have I yet been to meeting. He has been to see me however, and though I left my work in the midst and sat down with a dirty gown and hands somewhat grimmed, we were high in the blue in fifteen minutes.” Mr. Dwight was Rev. John S. Dwight, Brook Farmer, and editor of _Dwight’s Journal of Music_.
Half of her published letters are addressed to Mr. or Mrs. Francis G. Shaw, parents of Col. Robert G. Shaw. Here is one in 1840, to Mr. Shaw, after she had made a trip to Boston. It will be interesting as presenting a new aspect of Mrs. Child’s nature: “The only thing, except meeting dear friends, that attracted me to Boston was the exhibition of statuary…. I am ashamed to say how deeply I am charmed with sculpture: ashamed because it seems like affectation in one who has had such limited opportunity to become acquainted with the arts. I have a little figure of a caryatid which acts upon my spirit like a magician’s spell…. Many a time this hard summer, I have laid down my dish-cloth or broom and gone to refresh my spirit by gazing on it a few minutes. It speaks to me. It says glorious things. In summer I place flowers before it; and I have laid a garland of acorns and amaranths at its feet. I do love every little bit of real sculpture.”
Her other artistic passion was music, quite out of her reach at this period; but happily, she loved birds and flowers, both of which a Beet Sugar Farm in the Connecticut Valley made possible. A family of swallows made their nest in her woodshed, husband and wife dividing the labors of construction, nursing, and even of incubation, though the male bird did not have the same skill and grace as the lady, in placing his feet and wings. Mrs. Child gives a pretty account of this incident in a letter to one of her little friends, and says, “It seems as if I could watch them forever.” Later, in one of her letters to the Boston _Courier_, she gives a more complete account of the episode. Her observations convinced her that birds have to be taught to fly, as a child is taught to walk.
When birds and flowers went, she had the autumn foliage, and she managed to say a new thing about it: it is “color taking its fond and bright farewell of form–like the imagination giving a deeper, richer, and warmer glow to old familiar truths before the winter of rationalism comes and places trunk and branches in naked outline against the cold, clear sky.”
Whether she had been living hitherto in a “rent” we are not told, but in a letter of February 8, 1841, she informs us that she is about to move to a farm on which “is a sort of a shanty with two rooms and a garret. We expect to whitewash it, build a new woodshed, and live there next year. I shall keep no help, and there will be room for David and me. I intend to half bury it in flowers.”
There is nothing fascinating in sordid details, but Mrs. Child in the midst of sordid details, is glorious. A month before this last letter, her brother, Prof. Francis, had written her apparently wishing her more congenial circumstances; we have only her reply, from which it appears her father is under her care. She declines her brother’s sympathy, and wonders that he can suppose “the deadening drudgery of the world” can imprison a soul in its caverns. “It is not merely an eloquent phrase,” she says, “but a distinct truth that the outward has no power over us but that which we voluntarily give it. It is not I who drudge; it is merely the case that contains me. I defy all the powers of earth and hell to make me scour floors and feed pigs, if I choose meanwhile to be off conversing with angels…. If I can in quietude and cheerfulness forego my own pleasures and relinquish my tastes, to administer to my father’s daily comfort, I seem to those who live in shadows to be cooking food and mixing medicines, but I am in fact making divine works of art which will reveal to me their fair proportions in the far eternity.” Besides this consolation, she says, “Another means of keeping my soul fresh is my intense love of nature. Another help, perhaps stronger than either of the two, is domestic love.”
Her Northampton life was nearer an end than she supposed when she wrote these letters; she did not spend the next year in the little farm house with “two rooms and a garret”; on May 27th, she dates a letter from New York city, where she has gone reluctantly to edit the _Anti-Slavery Standard_. She had been translated from the sphere of “cooking food and mixing medicines” to congenial literary occupations; she had, let us hope, a salary sufficient for her urgent necessities; her home was in the family of the eminent Quaker philanthropist, Isaac T. Hopper, who received her as a daughter, and whose kindness she repaid by writing his biography. However the venture might come out, we would think her life could not well be harder or less attractive than it had been, drudging in a dilapidated farm house, and we are glad she is well out of it. Strange to say, she did not take our view of the situation. We have already seen how independent she was of external circumstances. In a letter referred to, dated May 27, she chides a friend for writing accounts of her outward life: “What do I care whether you live in one room or six? I want to know what your spirit is doing. What are you thinking, feeling, and reading?… My task here is irksome enough. Your father will tell you that it was not zeal for the cause, but love for my husband, which brought me hither. But since it was necessary for me to leave home to be earning somewhat, I am thankful that my work is for the anti-slavery cause. I have agreed to stay one year. I hope I shall then be able to return to my husband and rural home, which is humble enough, yet very satisfactory to me. Should the _Standard_ be continued, and my editing generally desired, perhaps I could make an arrangement to send articles from Northampton. At all events, I trust the weary separation from my husband is not to last more than a year. If I am to be away from him, I could not be more happily situated than in Friend Hopper’s family. They treat me the same as a daughter and a sister.”
The _Anti-Slavery Standard_ was a new enterprise; its editorship was offered to Mr. and Mrs. Childs jointly; Col. Higginson says that Mr. Child declined because of ill health; another authority, that he was still infatuated with his Beet Sugar, of which Mrs. Child had had more than enough; it appears from her letter that neither of them dreamed of abandoning the Sugar industry; if the enterprise was folly, they were happily united in the folly.
However, of the two, the _Anti-Slavery Standard_ was the more successful enterprise, and at the end of the two years, Mr. Child closed out his Beet Sugar business and joined Mrs. Child in editing the paper. Mrs. Child edited the _Standard_ eight years, six of which were in conjunction with Mr. Child. They were successful editors; they gave the _Standard_ a high literary character, and made it acceptable to people of taste and culture who, whatever their sympathy with anti-slavery, were often repelled by the unpolished manners of Mr. Garrison’s paper, _The Liberator_.
Something of her life outside the _Standard_ office, something of the things she saw and heard and enjoyed, during these eight years, can be gathered from her occasional letters to the Boston _Courier_. They are interesting still; they will always be of interest to one who cares to know old New York, as it was sixty years ago, or from 1840 onward. That they were appreciated then is evident from the fact that, collected and published in two volumes in 1844, eleven editions were called for during the next eight years. Col. Higginson considers these eight years in New York the most interesting and satisfactory of Mrs. Child’s life.
Though we have room for few incidents of this period, there is one too charming to be omitted. A friend went to a flower merchant on Broadway to buy a bunch of violets for Mrs. Child’s birthday. Incidentally, the lady mentioned Mrs. Child; she may have ordered the flowers sent to her house. When the lady came to pay for them, the florist said, “I cannot take pay for flowers intended for her. She is a stranger to me, but she has given my wife and children so many flowers in her writings, that I will never take money of her.” Another pretty incident is this: an unknown friend or admirer always sent Mrs. Child the earliest wild flowers of spring and the latest in autumn.
I have said that one of her passions was music, which happily she now has opportunities to gratify. “As for amusements,” she says, “music is the only thing that excites me…. I have a chronic insanity with regard to music. It is the only Pegasus which now carries me far up into the blue. Thank God for this blessing of mine.” I should be glad if I had room for her account of an evening under the weird spell of Ole Bull. Her moral sense was keener than her aesthetic, but her aesthetic sense was for keener than that of the average mortal. Sometimes she felt, as Paul would have said, “in a strait betwixt two”; in 1847 she writes Mr. Francis G. Shaw: “I am now wholly in the dispensation of art, and therefore theologians and reformers jar upon me.” Reformer as she was and will be remembered, she was easily drawn into the dispensation of art; and nature was always with her, so much so that Col. Higginson says, “She always seemed to be talking radicalism in a greenhouse.”
Mr. and Mrs. Child retired from the _Standard_ in 1849. Her next letters are dated from Newton, Mass. Her father was living upon a small place–a house and garden–in the neighboring town of Wayland, beautifully situated, facing Sudbury Hill, with the broad expanse of the river meadows between. Thither Mrs. Child went to take care of him from 1852 to 1856, when he died, leaving the charming little home to her. There are many traditions of her mode of life in Wayland, but her own account is the best: “In 1852, we made our humble home in Wayland, Mass., where we spent twenty-two pleasant years, entirely alone, without any domestic, mutually serving each other and depending upon each other for intellectual companionship.” If the memory of Wayland people is correct, Mr. Child was not with her much during the four years that her father lived. Her father was old and feeble and Mr. Child had not the serene patience of his wife. Life ran more easily when Mr. Child was away. Whatever other period in the life of Mrs. Child may have been the most satisfactory, this must have been the most trying.
Under date of March 23, 1856, happily the last year of this sort of widowhood, she writes: “This winter has been the loneliest of my life. If you knew my situation you would pronounce it unendurable. I should have thought so myself if I had had a foreshadowing of it a few years ago. But the human mind can get acclimated to anything. What with constant occupation and a happy consciousness of sustaining and cheering my poor old father in his descent to the grave, I am almost always in a state of serene contentment. In summer, my once extravagant love of beauty satisfies itself in watching the birds, the insects, and the flowers in my little patch of a garden.” She has no room for her vases, engravings, and other pretty things; she keeps them in a chest, and she says, “when birds and flowers are gone, I sometimes take them out as a child does its playthings, and sit down in the sunshine with them, dreaming over them.”
We need not think of her spending much time dreaming over her little hoard of artistic treasures. Her real business in this world is writing the history of all religions, or “The Progress of Religious Ideas in Successive Ages.” It was a work begun in New York, as early as 1848, finished in Wayland in 1855, published in three large octavo volumes and, whatever its merits or success, was the greatest literary labor of her life.
Under date of July 14, 1848, she writes to Dr. Francis: “My book gets slowly on…. I am going to tell the plain, unvarnished truth, as clearly as I can understand it, and let Christians and Infidels, Orthodox and Unitarians, Catholics, Protestants, and Swedenborgians growl as they like. They will growl if they notice it at all: for each will want his own theory favored, and the only thing I have conscientiously aimed at is not to favor any theory at all.” She may have failed in scientific method; but here is a scientific spirit. “In her religious speculations,” says Whittier, “Mrs. Child moved in the very van.” In Wayland, she considered herself a parishioner of Dr. Edmund H. Sears, whom she calls, “our minister,” but she was somewhat in advance of Dr. Sears. Her opinions were much nearer akin to those of Theodore Parker. Only a Unitarian of that type could perhaps at this early period have conceived the history of religion as an evolution of one and the same spiritual element “through successive ages.”
She had not much time to dream over her chest of artistic treasures when the assault of Preston S. Brooks upon Senator Sumner called her to battle of such force and point that Dr. William H. Furness said, it was worth having Sumner’s head broken.
When death released her from the care of her father, she took “Bleeding Kansas” under her charge. She writes letters to the newspapers; she sits up till eleven o’clock, “stitching as fast as my fingers could go,” making garments for the Kansas immigrants; she “stirs up the Wayland women to make garments for Kansas”; she sends off Mr. Child to make speeches for Kansas; and then she writes him in this manner: “How melancholy I felt when you went off in the morning darkness. It seemed as if everything about me was tumbling down; as if I were never to have a nest and a mate any more.” Surely the rest of this letter was not written for us to read: “Good, kind, magnanimous soul, how I love you. How I long to say over the old prayer again every night. It almost made me cry to see how carefully you had arranged everything for my comfort before you went; so much kindling stuff split up and the bricks piled up to protect my flowers.” Here is love in a cottage. This life is not all prosaic.
Old anti-slavery friends came to see her and among them Charles Sumner, in 1857, spent a couple of hours with her, and left his photograph; she met Henry Wilson at the anti-slavery fair and talked with him an “hour or so.” Whittier says, “Men like Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, Salmon P. Chase, and Governor Andrew availed themselves of her foresight and sound judgment of men and measures.”
When John Brown was wounded and taken prisoner at Harper’s Ferry, nothing was more in character for Mrs. Child than to offer her services as his nurse. She wrote him under cover of a letter to Gov. Wise, of Virginia. The arrival of Mrs. Brown, made Mrs. Child’s attendance unnecessary, but the incident led to a lively correspondence between Mrs. Child and Gov. Wise, in which Mrs. Senator Mason, of Virginia, joined. Neither of her distinguished correspondents possessed the literary skill of Mrs. Child. The entire correspondence was collected in a pamphlet of which 300,000 copies were sold. On a visit to Whittier at Amesbury, a delegation from a Republican political meeting called upon her, saying they wanted to see the woman who “poured hot shot into Gov. Wise.”
In 1863, after saying that she is “childish enough to talk to the picture of a baby that is being washed,” she writes her friend, Mrs. Shaw, “But you must not suppose that I live for amusement. On the contrary I work like a beaver the whole time. Just now I am making a hood for a poor neighbor; last week I was making flannels for the hospital; odd minutes are filled up ravelling lint; every string that I can get sight of I pull for poor Sambo. I write to the _Tribune_ about him; I write to the _Transcript_ about him; I write to private individuals about him; and I write to the President and members of Congress about him; I write to Western Virginia and Missouri about him; and I get the articles published too. This shows what progress the cause of freedom is making.” Not everything went to her mind however. If we think there has been a falling from grace in the public life of our generation, it may do us good to read what she says in 1863: “This war has furnished many instances of individual nobility, but our national record is mean.”
In 1864, she published “Looking Toward Sunset,” a book designed to “present old people with something wholly cheerful.” The entire edition was exhausted during the holiday season; 4,000 copies were sold and more called for. All her profits on the book, she devoted to the freedmen, sending $400 as a first instalment. Not only that, but she prepared a volume called “The Freedman’s Book,” which she printed at an expense of $600, and distributed among the freedmen 1200 copies at her own cost. She once sent Wendell Phillips a check of $100 for the freedmen, and when he protested that it was more than she could afford, she consented to “think it over.” The next day, she made her contribution $200. She contributed $20 a year to the American Missionary Association toward the support of a teacher for the freedmen, and $50 a year to the Anti-Slavery Society. A lady wished, through Mr. Phillips, to give Mrs. Child several thousand dollars for her comfort. Mrs. Child declined the favor, but was persuaded to accept it, and then scrupulously gave away the entire income in charity. It is evident she might have made herself very comfortable, if it had not given her so much more pleasure to make someone else comfortable.
Her dress, as neat and clean as that of a Quakeress, was quite as plain and far from the latest style. A stranger meeting her in a stage coach mistook her for a servant until she began to talk. “Who is that woman who dresses like a peasant, and speaks like a scholar?” he asked on leaving the coach. Naturally, it was thought Mrs. Child did not know how to dress, or, more likely, did not care for pretty things. “You accuse me,” she writes to Miss Lucy Osgood, “you accuse me of being indifferent to externals, whereas the common charge is that I think too much of beauty, and say too much about it. I myself think it one of my greatest weaknesses. A handsome man, woman or child can always make a pack-horse of me. My next neighbor’s little boy has me completely under his thumb, merely by virtue of his beautiful eyes and sweet voice.” There was one before her of whom it was said, “He denied himself, and took up his cross.” It was also said of him, “Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor.” He never had a truer disciple than Mrs. Child.
Not that she ever talked of “crosses.” “But why use the word sacrifice?” she asks. “I never was conscious of any sacrifice.” What she gained in moral discipline or a new life, she says, was always worth more than the cost. She used an envelope twice, Wendell Phillips says; she never used a whole sheet of paper when half of one would do; she outdid poverty in her economies, and then gave money as if she had thousands. “I seldom have a passing wish for enlarging my income except for the sake of doing more for others. My wants are very few and simple.”
In 1867, Mrs. Child published “A Romance of the Republic,” a pathetic story, but fascinating, and admirably written; in 1878, appeared a book of choice selections, entitled, “Aspirations of the World”; and in 1871, a volume of short biographies, entitled “Good Wives,” and dedicated, to Mr. Child: “To my husband, this book is affectionately inscribed, by one who, through every vicissitude, has found in his kindness and worth, her purest happiness and most constant incentive to duty.”
Mr. Child died in 1874 at the age of eighty, and Mrs. Child followed him in 1880, at the age of seventy-eight. After her death, a small volume of her letters was published, of which the reader will wish there were more. Less than a month before her death, she wrote to a friend a list of benevolent enterprises she has in mind and says, “Oh, it is such a luxury to be able to give without being afraid. I try not to be Quixotic, but I want to rain down blessings on all the world, in token of thankfulness for the blessings that have been rained down upon me.”
It is too late to make amends for omissions in this paper, but it would be unjust to Mrs. Child to forget her life-long devotion to the interests of her own sex. In 1832, a year before her “Appeal in behalf of that class of Americans called Africans,”–eleven years before the appearance of Margaret Fuller’s “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Mrs. Child published “A History of the Condition of Women in all ages and nations,” showing her disposition to begin every inquiry with a survey of the facts, and also that the “woman question” was the first to awaken her interest. Her greatest contribution to the advancement of women was herself; that is, her own achievements. To the same purpose were her biographies of famous women: “Memoirs of Mme. de Stael and Mme. Roland” in 1847, and sketches of “Good Wives” in 1871. Whittier says, she always believed in woman’s right to the ballot, as certainly he did, calling it “the greatest social reform of the age.” In one letter to Senator Sumner, she directly argues the question: “I reduce the argument,” she says, “to very simple elements. I pay taxes for property of my own earning, and I do not believe in ‘taxation without representation.'” Again: “I am a human being and every human being has a right to a voice in the laws which claim authority to tax him, to imprison him, or to _hang_ him.”
A light humor illuminates this argument. Humor was one of her saving qualities which, as Whittier says, “kept her philanthropy free from any taint of fanaticism.” It contributed greatly to her cheerfulness. Of her fame, she says playfully: “In a literary point of view I know I have only a local reputation, done in water colors.”
Could anything have been better said than this of the New England April or even May: “What a misnomer in our climate to call this season Spring, very much like calling Calvinism religion.” Nothing could have been keener than certain points scored in her reply to Mrs. Senator Mason. Mrs. Mason, remembering with approving conscience her own ministries in the slave cabins caring for poor mothers with young babies, asks Mrs. Child, in triumph, if she goes among the poor to render such services. Mrs. Child replies that she has never known mothers under such circumstances to be neglected, “and here at the North,” said she, “after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.” After Gen. Grant’s election to the Presidency, a procession with a band from Boston, marched to her house and gave her a serenade. She says that she joined in the hurrahs “like the strong-minded woman that I am. The fact is, I forgot half the time whether I belonged to the stronger or weaker sex.” Whether she belonged to the stronger or weaker sex, is still something of a problem. Sensible men would be willing to receive her, should women ever refuse to acknowledge her.
Wendell Phillips paid her an appreciative tribute, at her funeral. “There were,” he said, “all the charms and graceful elements which we call feminine, united with a masculine grasp and vigor; sound judgment and great breadth; large common sense and capacity for everyday usefulness, endurance, foresight, strength, and skill.” The address is given in full in the volume of “Letters.” There is also a fine poem by Whittier for the same occasion:
“Than thine was never turned a fonder heart To nature and to art;
Yet loving beauty, thou couldst pass it by, And for the poor deny Thyself….”
The volume contains a poetical tribute of an earlier date, by Eliza Scudder, of which Mrs. Child said, “I never was so touched and pleased by any tribute in my life. I cried over the verses and I smiled over them.” I will close this paper with Miss Scudder’s last stanza:
“So apt to know, so wise to guide, So tender to redress,–O, friend with whom such charms abide, How can I love thee less?”