Woman of letters, courage


Thanksgiving: Her best remembered work is a children's poem, but a mid-19th-century writer earned fame and respect in her day until she spoke out against slavery.

November 26, 2003|By Linda F. Lapides | Linda F. Lapides,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A poem written by Lydia Maria Child that appeared in 1845 in a small volume called Flowers for Children went on to become a well-known holiday song that for many has become synonymous with Thanksgiving.

Yet, challenge friends to complete its opening line, "Over the river, and through the wood," and without hesitation their reply will be, "to grandmother's house we go." When informed that the sleigh cutting through the snow is headed for "grandfather's house" they murmur, "I could have sworn it was grandmother's." Grandmother does make an appearance in Child's poem, called "The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving," but not until the final two stanzas when the children glimpse her cap and anticipate her pies and pudding.

In 1845, no such mistake would have been made. Grandmother could not have a house. Married women, by law, had no right to own property, one of many grievances that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others would attempt to redress three years later at the first Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

At that time, most considered a woman's highest calling to be domestic accomplishment. Child, who lived from 1802 to 1880, certainly had impeccable credentials in both the kitchen and nursery. Her 1829 compendium of household hints, maxims and recipes, The Frugal Housewife, dedicated "to those who are not ashamed of economy," ranks as one of the earliest American books devoted to household arts and sciences.

Reflective of Yankee thrift as well as Child's dire financial circumstances in the year after her marriage, by 1855 it reached its 33rd edition. More practical manuals followed. The Mother's Book (1831) focused on the rearing of females from birth to marriage and The Girl's Own Book (1832) offered games, conundrums and charades, plus instruction in how to engrave eggshells, knit and embroider, activities deemed suitable for young ladies.

After Maria's mother died in 1814, her father, David Francis, a baker in Medford, Mass., sent his youngest daughter, then 12 years old, to live with a newly married sister in Maine. There Maria Francis honed her household skills and in her spare moments devoured books. Sir Walter Scott's Waverley inspired her to ask, "Why cannot I write a novel?" At 15, in a letter to her brother Convers, she praised Paradise Lost but added, "Don't you think Milton asserts the superiority of his own sex in rather too lordly a manner?" Clearly, Maria was developing an independent mind.

In 1821, Maria left a teaching position she had held for more than a year in Gardiner, Maine, to take up residence in Watertown, Mass., with Convers, by then a minister. The move afforded her not only stimulating companionship but the joy of her brother's fine library.

Unexpectedly, at the age of 22, she achieved literary fame. The discovery of an article in an old issue of the North American Review by the Rev. J.G. Palfrey in her brother's study gave Maria the spark to weave history into fiction as Scott had done.

Within six weeks, in 1824, she had written Hobomok: A Tale of the Times and signed it "By an American." A novel of miscegenation, it told the story of a well-bred Puritan woman who married an Indian warrior of noble character and bore his child.

It drew much attention from a public accustomed to reading fiction from England. There was curiosity about the author, fascination regarding Indians, controversy over the plot branded "unnatural," "disturbing" and "in poor taste," but praise for its accurate depiction of village life in 17th-century New England, well-drawn characters and lively narrative. Hobomok highlighted the author's principles and foreshadowed her future writings.

Once unmasked, the young Miss Francis became a literary sensation. The Boston Atheneum, a men's library, honored her talents by according her card privileges; the homes of prominent citizens opened for her. In 1825, she produced another novel, The Rebels, or Boston Before the Revolution, which underscored her reputation as a leading author. In 1826, a publisher engaged her to edit a magazine for children, The Juvenile Miscellany.

From inception, Miscellany, with its stories, biographical sketches, puzzles and reviews of new books, met with great success. One memorable poem first printed in its pages, "Mary's Lamb," by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), became a childhood classic.

In 1828 the realistic Lydia Maria Francis married the idealistic David Lee Child, a lawyer and newspaper editor. It was her income that largely sustained them. Of her, the North American Review stated, "We are not sure that any woman of our country could outrank Mrs. Child. Few female writers, if any, have done more or better things for our literature, in the lighter or graver departments."

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