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     Lecture with Dr. Mary Kelly of Dartmouth College on the importance of Women
    Authors in the 19th Century
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This is Vermont Public Radio forums crosscurrents a series of public forums exploring issues of public concern in Vermont. On this edition of cross-currents a lecture by Mary Kelley of the Dartmouth College History Department on April 10th of this year Dr. Kelly spoke at the Rutland free libraries women and literature series. Her topic was the private made public. Women writing about women in one thousandth century America. It struck me that the most recent novels that you have been reading Middlemarch the Bostonians country of the pointed firs did share in one sense at least a similar concern as the fiction that I'm going to be talking about tonight. For one thing most of the fiction that I'm going to be talking about tonight indeed all of it is a product of the 19th century just as the novels you've read are as well products of the 19th century. Perhaps as important even more important is the fact that the primary concern of the fiction that you've been reading and the fiction that I'm going to be talking about is
women. That is to say the concerns of women the roles of women and the experiences of women in the 1903. And yet after that there is a sense in which many of the distinctions between the writers you've been reading and the writers I'm going to be talking about become more apparent because in the 19th century at least the writers that I'm going to be talking about were by far the most popular. They dominated the bestseller lists particularly in the middle of the 19th century. And yet they have not stood the test of time so to speak in the way that Henry James are in Jewett or Broadway have stood the test of time. And today unlike those three authors the 12 women about whom I'm going to be talking are virtually forgotten. You will find there are volumes on the shelves dusty in certain libraries. You will perhaps read one of them and you have indeed read one of them Harriet Beecher Stowe. When you read Uncle Tom's Cabin and that's read as well
by numerous students and it's still issued in paperback. But the other fiction that she wrote is not nearly so well known and the same can be said for the fiction of the 11 other writers that I'm going to be talking about. But as an intellectual and a cultural historian it struck me that if we want to have an understanding of women's perceptions of reality in the 19th century we would do well to take a look at fiction that was written by women. First of all and secondly fiction which was read by women. This is in a sense women writing by women writing for women. Women writing about women were also will achieve a certain understanding of images of women in the 19th century as well as the way in which these women at least perceived their lives by the subject matter. That is to say this particular fiction concerns itself with women's experiences women's role and it
locates itself in what was the prescribe setting for women in the 19th century namely domesticity. And in that regard too we should receive some insights about women particularly white middle class women in the 19th century. When you begin to look at this fiction you see that the writers themselves particularly the 12 who were the most prolific and who were the most popular and who were the subject of my analysis AC evening you'll see that they focus upon women and their role in society. And then you look at the critical reception they've received in their own time as well as in ours. Essentially it's a tale of neglect a tale of dismissal a tale of scorn. Nathaniel Hawthorne a mid 19th century contemporary of these particular writers in a sense signalled the reputation that they would have from that period onward.
Hawthorne wrote to one of his publishers Ticknor fields in Boston the following in the early 1850s America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women. Hawthorne was disturbed. It is clear he was disturbed by what he perceived to be the inferior quality of the fiction. And though he didn't say so we can also assume that he was disturbed and perhaps a little jealous of the fact that they were doing so much better in the literary marketplace than he was able to do. But Hawkman certainly wasn't the only person. A century later Leslie fielder who wrote preeminent seminal study Love and Death in the American novel referred to this group of writers as the purely commercial purveyors of domestic sentiments a condescending comment a comment that indicated that all they needed was one sentence of dismissal essentially in a sense both Hawthorn and fielding were looking at the fiction in terms of its
artistic merits or lack there of as you can tell from their particular comments. But if we set aside the question of artistic merit of their aesthetic merit and take a look at these particular writers in a different way I suggest that we can find out a good deal about social and cultural values in the 19th century and particularly how women responded to those values and in some ways manifested those values and indeed that's what numerous critics and historians have done in the 20th century. What's striking when you begin to look at their analysis of the fiction is that they come to utterly disparate conclusions about the fiction. Just a couple of comments in this regard. Alexander Cowley published a book entitled The Rise of the novel in America in the early 1940s. One of the chapters in this particular study was devoted to these writers collectively known as the sentimentalists essentially Cowie
painted the sentimentalists as ultra conservative. He argued that their fiction for example and I quote functioned as a sort of benign moral police whose regulations were principally comprised under the heads of religion and morality. The image he said that was presented in the fiction was of the idle the complacent lady sitting atop and contentedly so her very own pedestal. Also he said the fiction gave undeviating but now support for the status quo. Essentially he argued that the fiction displayed the following and I quote again keen feminist arguments are met by Stark reprise that women have intuition but not reason that they may lose feminine graces in the pursuit of rights and that men will deteriorate too if the need for chivalry is removed. Complacent women support for the status quo and then if you look
at another study published about a decade later in the middle 1950s and authored by Helen Waite published Feeley and entitled All the happy endings you'll see strikingly opposite the conclusion Popish really argued that the fiction displayed an insidious distaste. Maybe even a hatred for the status quo and for its male custodians she argued that these particular writers in their fiction and I quote from her encouraged a pattern of feminine behavior so quietly ruthless so subtly vicious that by comparison the ladies at Seneca Falls appear to be angels of innocence. Seneca Falls is a reference to the first women's rights rights convention in this country in 1848. What do we have here. Basically we have supposedly vengeful writers who are despising men who are looking for some way to wreak revenge upon men who control most of the power in the society who are arguing in Pappy's release
words that female superiority has to be established has to be maintained and the fiction itself is seen by Popish really at least as literally an act of insurrection an act of rebellion. So here we have rebels who covertly as well as overtly are trying to overturn the status quo are trying to have women become superior in the culture and are dictating to a female audience the various acts that can be done to ensure this particular goal. How do we explain this divergence this dichotomy this juxtaposition of perspectives on the fiction that suggests that we can begin to explain it if we argue that what both cow and poppish really have done is to take isolated aspects of the fiction particular segments of it particular strains in the fiction and then use those
strains to characterize the entire body of the fiction. In other words that one hand it's extremely conservative on the other hand it's extremely radical. About four or five years ago I began to explore the fiction of these 12 writers. And since then I have been reading more than 200 volumes of novels and numerous collections of short stories. I also thought that it would be particularly important to look at the personal papers the letters the diaries the journals of these writers in order to ascertain what was the relationship between their public pronouncements and their private convictions. Were they the same. Were they not the same and therefore I have also spent time reading those personal papers several thousand letters diaries and journals. What I'd like to suggest the See thing is that if you look at these writers these 12 very popular writers what you will find is both
perspectives and what you will also be able to do is in a sense to move beyond those perspectives. And so what I'd like to do the See evening is to talk to begin by talking about the values they reflected in their fiction the values they were imparting to their audience and then locate those values in the social and cultural context of the 19th century. To begin with the values for most people these writers have been known as the foremost progenitors and promoters of what's known as the cult of domesticity which emerges in the 19th century. So to speak the cult looks at the home as a refuge also looks at it as an arena in which children are reared in virtue glorifies women and looks to the nuclear family as a source for virtue within the society itself looks to women women as the basic core for the nuclear
family. It's true in terms of the cult of domesticity that these particular writers did see the world divided in half. You might see you might say what they saw were two spheres of activity one for women and one for men. For example I argued that for men the sphere was the public the sphere where earnings were made where livings were accomplished where people met responsibilities to the community. That was the male world. Whereas there was also another more private but equally important world the world of the home. The world of domesticity. And this was the world for women. Women were seen as the creators the architects of what you might call a mini Eden. And it's within this private home that the basic values of the society would be in call created and it was women who would be primarily responsible for that in
cultivation. It's a neatly divided world public male private female. It's a world in which both people fulfill significant responsibilities. The male providing a livelihood the woman providing a source of values within the society. And it's as well a world that in the fiction in certain aspects is filled with peace harmony. It is an Eden. Wife and husband work in tandem fulfilling their responsibilities. Children are reared in virtue and trained to fulfill according to gender specific roles within the society but to simply look at the sentimentalists and to call them you might say sweet singers of domestic blissfulness is to ignore yet another important strain in the fiction. To ignore tensions to ignore contradictions in a sense what we
should say is that yes they proffered what you might call a domestic dream of bliss of peace of harmony but at the same time there was a definite undercurrent of discontent in the fiction as well. And there are more positive moments they're more hopeful more optimistic moments what they promoted what they prescribed for the society was a vision of womanly glory a strong independent competent wife within the home. She's the central the commanding figure. She is the moral example for husband. She is that the person who in Coke hates virtue in terms of children. How does she do this essentially through behavior that is selfless. It is the that is the ideal form of behavior. Putting others before self. And it is that quality that is prescribed for women and which is seen by these writers as being
innate within women that makes them spiritually and morally superior and which in turn gives them the obvious role of guardian of the society. But this is a positive message this very hopeful message road and in a sense was generated by this undercurrent. The satisfaction even at times despair. For example the entire determination to enhance women's image by glorifying women by calling them spiritual and moral superiors was part and parcel of it and as an attempt at the same time to see them as and to protest to see that their status was inferior and to protest that status. Let's look at a couple of components within the fiction. In the interests of familial stability and in the interests of also divinely
ordained dictates it was argued by these writers that women should defer to their husbands within the household. Clearly this was the origins of this particular dictate were biblical but also in a more secular more practical way. It was argued that someone must have final authority within the household. It will be the male. This is clearly argued in the fiction and yet at the same time what else is argued is that women are clearly superior morally and spiritually in a sense. I would suggest that what this is. This particular contradiction is is a protest that a superior woman should have to defer to a supposedly erring inferior male. Let's look at the promotion of women as strong competent independent within the sphere of domesticity that is there in the fiction. But what that also does is underline the predicament that women faced because
within the home they were economically dependent upon their husband. In this world that divided activities up on the basis of gender. There's also wonderment at women's work at all that she does within domesticity both the physical burdens in terms of maintenance of the household. But to a much greater extent the moral spiritual role that she's fulfilling. Also that is an implied protest at society's designation of women as inferior because they were not as economically productive. If you gear economic productivity to that which gains wages in the society. Equally important if you take a close look at the fiction you'll see a sense of concern a hesitation about the fact that women's position in the society. In fact this year
survival was dependent upon the stability of the family because of course they were not trained or socialized nor did these writers believe they should be to be economically independent outside of domesticity. There was also a sense of apprehension about the fact that perhaps the burdens and I use that word specifically rather than saying challenges perhaps the burdens of domesticity would prove to be exactly that burdens and they would be too demanding that to ask women within the home to create a mini Utopia was perhaps demanding perfection of people who were merely mortal. If we look at the social and the cultural context next and attempt to determine why women writers might hold these convictions I suggest that there are a number of reasons for that and let me just
briefly point to a couple of them. The sentimentalist did not write in a vacuum. We read their books now and we tend to forget that they were not only writers but they were women in the 19th century who were drawing upon their own experiences and were using them to construct this particular fantasy which was prescription and protest as well. The 19th century is a century of upheaval extraordinarily rapid change turmoil. It's a century in which status is uncertain in which stability is tenuous. It's a century in which America is changing radically from an essentially agrarian rural society to one that will be industrialized and urban by the end of that particular century. It's also a century in which so far as these writers are concerned there was an emergence of a very destructive individual ism. What should be replaced by more concern
for the community. It's a century as well in which people were invited to pursue the dollar in which speculation was rampant in which there was opportunism and opportunity as well. What did this mean for women. Historians are only beginning to look at these vast economic and social changes in terms of their impact upon women as well as the ways in which women responded to these particular changes. But what we do know is that modernization which is one of the newer terms that historians have taken from sociologists I believe to talk about industrialization and urbanization as well as the striking decline in fertility which characterizes the 19th century modernization did mean for women that the economic role which they had fulfilled within the context of the home as a process or a food as a producer of clothing a spinner a weaver that these
economic tasks which were vital to the survival of the family and which gave women a definite economic role within domesticity. We're beginning to move from the home to the factory. And what's important about this is that women white middle class women did not tend to follow their economic work out of the home and into the factory. This isn't to say that women were not employed in factories they were. But basically I'm talking about white middle class women and generally they were not employed in factories in the 19th century. And so what occurs to a certain extent is a diminishing of one role and an attempt to fill that particular vacuum and find for women a moral and spiritual role which will be seen as equally important as the former economic role which they have played. If you look too at the lives of
these writers you will see in a sense the 19th century writ large you will see instability you will see premature death. You will see financial fluctuation fluctuation you'll see debilitating illness. You will see the instability of the 19th century as they experienced it both as children and as adults. Their response was one that might be expected. It was in a stall Schick look to a past to a past that was more imagined than it was real I should add. And was that a demand that the society return to what they perceived to be more community oriented values more traditional values more selflessness in a word. What their own familial experiences had proved to them was the mutual dependence of human beings one upon the other. And therefore they argued that individual ism which they saw is becoming increasingly
pervasive in the 19th century be replaced by an ethic which gave precedence to the community before the individual. What they argued as well is that the materialism which they saw is becoming more and more important in the society be replaced too and that there be more emphasis upon the spiritual. So far as they were concerned this revolution in values so to speak could only be achieved by women and it is here that for them women found their true calling because women so far as they were concerned were to become society's moral guardians. They were to be the reformers they were to be the people who would bring a regeneration of values. And they always added that this regeneration would take place within the setting of the family that it was in the role of wife and mother that
women would most effectively be able to fulfill this particular objective. And that raises I think a question almost immediately if we are talking about women writing for women. Women arguing that the morally and spiritually superior woman fulfills her role within the home. What can we say about women who become professionals who are writers. How did they explain the fact that they at least did step beyond the doors of their own home. And indeed were extraordinary successful writers in a profession that was traditionally dominated by males. And ironically enough have achieved that success while they were calling women superior to men. I'd say that in all sincerity and with true conviction they saw themselves as simply extending the role that every wife and mother they
thought should fulfill within the home. They saw their role as moral that they would capture for other women for their audience. The essence of the obligations of womanhood in the 19th century and they saw their own fiction as the basic means by which they could fulfil their objective. In short what they dispensed was prescription what they dispensed was the code for women. But they also disguised it in terms of fantasy. These women themselves if you look at their backgrounds their biographies carefully you'll notice that they are daughters and wives of clergymen legislators journalists merchants jurists educators. They come from and are allied with families that have provided a leading prominent active citizenry. They come from
families that are accustomed to overseeing the spiritual the moral values of a society. They are come from families that are accustomed to being part of directing the nation. But they are wives and they are daughters they are women and as such they are restricted to the private the domestic sphere and they themselves would argue that this is only proper. But as writers they were able to step beyond domesticity and they were able to comment on the very life the public sphere of which they were supposed to have no part in the sensually I think we can say it in a phrase. The exercise the role of social commentator as a person directing attempting to direct and mold the values of the society they did so however without the title and in so doing what they did with their fiction was to transform that fiction into one
massive didactic essay. So to speak. They were always uncertain of themselves as artists. In fact they didn't perceive themselves as artists and if they were asked or if they commented on being an artist they would frequently respond that the creation of art for art's sake was an egotistical act. It was selfish and therefore it didn't have merit. What they were doing was performing as moralists they were not performing an egotistical act in a sense they were saying that art can only be true art when it has a basic moral purpose. All of them would have agreed with the view which was expressed by Augusta Evans Wilson Wilson was a very popular novelist from 1870 to nineteen hundred. She earned $10000 a year in royalties from fiction she had published previously even though she only published I think three novels between 170
and 900. Her most famous novel St. Elmo which was published in 1866 became the name for steamboat cigar and 20 towns from Massachusetts to California. She was a Southerner. She was conservative and her values in some ways. And yet she expressed the same contradictions as did all of the writers in one of her letters. She said to a friend should not excel sure be the watchword and the model of the true artist is not an artist. A great reformer whose instructions are pictorial. She didn't. Essentially these questions were rhetorical because she answered in the next sentence. Art should elevate should refine should sanctify the heart. In other words it wasn't art unless it did that. Mary Jane Holmes who wrote more than 50 novels in a very long and productive career shall we say agreed with Augusta Evans Wilson when she said.
I mean always to write a good pure natural story such as mothers are willing their daughter should read and such as will do good instead of harm. Perhaps the most basic theme. That they as moralists pursued in their fiction and I would say I say pursue and mean they pursued it with a vengeance. Was this emphasis upon the need for selfless behavior and women's ability to act in that way and therefore serve as an example heroines and readers alike are told to obey strictly obey God's command that they defer their own needs their own interests their own desires. To those of others. For example the head mistress of a female Academy in Mariah Commons novel titled Mabel Vaughan says to the heroine whose name is also Mabel Vaughan of course to be aware of self-love cultivate the most universal charity.
Naturally these heroines proved to be extremely able students. Eve Southworth who also published more than 50 novels during her lifetime. One of her heroines Catherine Cavanagh was as follows as described by Southworth lived only for the good of others having grown to believe that there was no individual happiness for herself except in the service of others. These particular writers these sentimentalists did acknowledge that both women and men suffered from the sin of selfishness. But they tended to emphasize and to dwell upon man's not woman's transgressions. And they agreed as well that human beings always had to strive for regeneration. They had to strive for that moment of conversion in which their sins would be cleansed and in which they would then be able to exhibit selfless behavior. But and again
it's that bad. They also argued that men could only regenerate themselves fully through woman's aid. Harriet Beecher Stowe who as I mentioned before is probably the best known to this day of these particular writers wrote to her brother Henry Ward Beecher who was one of the 19th centuries most famous ministers. And in doing so captured the basic ethos in terms of woman's role. It's a poignant observation a personal observation. It is women she said. The women who hold the faith in the world the mothers and wives it is they who must suffer must suffer to the end of time to bear the sins of the beloved in their own bodies. In a sense the sentimentalists saw themselves as their brother's keeper and yet that description paradoxically
fits them better than it fits the group to whom it is usually applied namely the clergy. Ministers of course perceive themselves as responsible for the reformation of human beings regardless of sex but the sentimentalists perceive themselves and all other women as responsible for the reformation of their brothers their husbands their fathers their sons. In other words men basically. How are women to fulfill this particular role. In this sense too we see a fiction that is beset by contradictions beset by contradictions because it demands that women regenerate the entire society that they see that it becomes in viewed with selflessness that it returns to a communal ethic. And yet women are to perform that revolution without ever leaving the home. It's a contradiction I should add that the sentimentalists were not fully conscious. They saw
that it could begin within domesticity and then be carried into the world by males. The fiction written by the sentimentalists is one that is filled with incredible events. It has plots that are bizarre and complicated. It has conventions that boggle the mind. It has endings which as Helen my publisher really termed all the happy endings are in Congress frequently. But a heroine does emerge from the welter of pages these novels were also are also incredibly long five 600 pages frequently through that welter of pages. A superior heroine emerges. Her character is apparent and her dominating presence is felt. It's felt most clearly in her relationships within the context of domesticity. And looking first to her relationship with her husband the heroine is the pious the deferential the chaste wife or she is to become
that by the end of the particular novel this heroine cannot become the authoritative figure in the home because accompanying her strong commanding presence is also the notion that she will defer to her husband but she can become her husband's mentor. His major guide his basic influence Harry Henderson who is one of the narrators of Harriet Beecher Stowe's two novels my wife and I and then its sequel when our neighbors describes the power of his own mother over his own father. This is a power Henderson recalls that was spiritual and invisible. It was a power of the soul over the body. It was a subtle a vital power which constantly gained in terms of control and held every inch that it gained. We may see this in basically manipulative terms in the 20th century but however
manipulative We may choose to interpret this advice to women. The influence of Henderson's mother upon Henderson's father is seen as stabilizing. It's seen as uplifting it is a role to be performed by women gradually. Surely this mother becomes this father's leader and guidance to those words and he in turn begins to exhibit a new finer traits of tenderness doses and a spirituality she continues that pervades his character and teachings. The completion of this dialogue between Henderson and his father the father himself admits that his wife made me buy her influence. The same can be said for relationships with children. Indeed the responsibility in terms of the relationship with the child is perhaps even more vital because here. The influence is with someone who is relatively unformed. Sarah Parton who wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern and had a delight in the
litter ration. One of her volumes of this saves was called fragrant fern leaves from Fanny's portfolio which was published in 1852 and which contained essays such as a mother's soliloquy which I will now be quoting from this particular soliloquy delineates the complete moral as well as physical dependence of the child upon the mother. I am it says the center of the child's little world. Its very life depends upon my faithful care the languages saccharin the tone is model and but the point made is clear. It is my sweet duty to deck those dimpled limbs. It is very model to point that tiny trembling foot. Yet stay my duty ends not here a soul looks forth from those blue eyes and undying spirit that show plume its wings for ceaseless flight guided by my hand for Parton as well as for others. The sole responsibility was the mother's.
Caroline Lee Hans for example who was another one of these writers of approximately eight novels before her death in the mid 80s 50s. Made it abundantly clear that as she put it it is her hand which God appointed to trace the first character on man's unwritten mind. And this was a task that was critically important because what was at stake was not simply the individual child. No indeed it was the fate of the entire nation. Mary Virginia Terhune who wrote under the pseudonym Marion Harland who wrote more than 25 novels as well as numerous didactic tales for children and achieved perhaps her greatest fame as the most one of the most prominent authors in the 19th century of recipe books you had an extraordinarily prolific pen. She stated bluntly that women were in her words the architects of the nation's fortunes. The sculptors whose fair or foul handiwork is to outlast their
age to outlive time to remain throughout all eternity. Certainly an important a vital role to be fulfilled by women. Also I'm sure you would agree a very major challenge. The second is almost as important as the role the setting again is that private sphere domesticity the family woman's sphere of activity. Essentially what is being asked of the wife and mother is that she become an architect of a home that would embody perfection. Again it's that world divided into two spheres. The husband supposedly reliable absents himself on a daily basis from the family in order to provide for its material needs in order as well to meet his obligations within the community. It is the woman who then is the vital the living center within the home. And indeed she is so vital so essential to that home that it cannot be seen as even
existing as functioning without her. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the metaphor of the church to talk about women the family and their relationship. She argued that home was the point it's fear for a woman more holy than cloister more saintly and pure than church an altar priestess wife and mother she ministers daily in holy works of household peace. The home however was the only round the so realm in which women reigned in which they ruled. Indeed women who were annoyed with Guardians for the entire society were called upon to transform that society's values. Only within the home. That along was their bailiwick the boundaries of women's realm could not be enlarged and her role could not be extended beyond the doors of her home warned Augusta Evans Wilson without rendering the throne unsteady
and subverting God's Law Order. Woman she concluded reigned by a divine right only at home. In short what we have is the home as a divinely appointed station for women as a haven a refuge for men as the moral setting for the rearing of children home itself becomes the Eden created by women. Macintosh dubbed it the nursery of high and pure thoughts the source of virtue. Home was ipso facto also the source of happiness for all within the society. Again Mary Virginia Terhune rejoiced home wife peace sweet Symon IMs that sum up the rapturous emotions of many a satisfied heart. What we have here I'd suggest is the dream of domesticity. It is the prescription. It is what these particular
writers thought life should be for women and for the family. In the 19th century and yet within that particular fiction there's more than the dream. Indeed juxtaposed against that dream is a darker vision. It's as if there was a shining image of what the home family wives mothers and their role should be. But that shining image is eclipsed by a graven image and at the same time prescription what should be is overwhelmed by a protest which reveals so far as these writers were concerned what was actually in the society. It's not the conscious intention of these writers to transmit to their readers a predominantly negative image. It's not their conscious intention to simply protest what they saw to be the status of women in the 19th
century. Indeed the fiction that they wrote is an apt illustration of a remark made by D.H. Lawrence the English writer and critic about American literature in general. It's a fairly famous line. It's as follows. Never trust the artist trust the tale. And when you apply that to these writers into this fiction I suggest that what you can say is that as artists they're tended to and they attempted to transmit to their readers the example of superior heroines who were serving family in the nation. They attempted to project that dream of domesticity and a perfection they intended to prescribe and hope that their prescriptions were possible. But then if you look at the second part of Lawrence's quotation trust the tale when you read this fiction you see that their
own tales their own creations subverted those very intentions and the novels and the short stories become in a very real sense a long long melodrama of heroines who are trying valiantly to meet the challenges of woman's role as prescribed for them. But they are doing so with only partial success and with only little satisfaction. What the tales tell you. Social and economic disaster sickness death all plague the performance of the role that has been prescribed for women and the role itself that glorified heroic role is also frequently seen as stultifying as confining as creating frustration rather than joy. And even if catastrophe does not await them within the home what you see is that the achievement of utopia the achievement of perfection
eludes them. As you might add in realistic sense it would elude any human being and as well the impact what they were trying to do is frequently undermined by the sins of those around them by their inability to redeem others. Why. What has happened that creates this particular juxtaposition within the fiction. For the sentimentalists at least basically the villain is man obviously not using man in the generic sense in this regard. Man is frequently portrayed as impious. He is abusive of his position as the head of household. He is a trifler with woman's sexual virtue. He in short becomes in the fiction a basic threat to the domestic dream. At times it is
because he is indifferent to the family's welfare because he forgets or he refuses to fulfill his obligation as the provider. It's because he neglects his children or he fails to abide by his wife's moral example. At other times it's a more passive form of failure. He's well-meaning but he's weak he's irresponsible he's incapable of performing his assigned role. Let me be very careful here. The sentimentalists I would suggest and I would argue were not motivated by a vengeful hatred of men as papa's Vili has suggested already. Indeed the ideal in quotations marks that man does appear in the fiction. It's an infrequent appearance and when he arrives on the scene so to speak his portrait amounts to a study in the feminization of the male. He presents the same selflessness and it's a selfless sense it is
particularly directed toward women and toward children and perhaps even more important. It's clear as well from the fiction that the sentimentalist did not consider every man to be hopeless so to speak. For many times there is the morally flawed male who is receptive to woman's attempt at reform to her ministrations and these cases the male self concerned gives way to concern for others. The harm that has been done throughout the many pages of the fiction is rectified. The moral lesson is imparted in the last few pages of that fiction and there is a concluding scene in which the male is redeemed. In which he begs forgiveness of the heroine in which she based him in tears immediately and agrees to continue to serve as his particular helper and mate. But regardless of what papa she really titled her own study all the happy endings. It's not
true there are not always those happy quote unquote endings. There are the situations in which the man is not redeemed. He's the reprobate. His actions his values have lasting destructive impact. Here what we see is the male who has been corrupted by the values of the society that these writers found to be repugnant and which they want to transform. He is the man who is obsessed with money and social position. He is the man who was willing to yield obligations to his intimates in order to fulfill his own selfish ends. Caroline Lee senses rain or the stone bridge contains perhaps the archetype of this particular male in terms of these obsessions in order Herbert Lindsay does the following. He said deuces and betrays one woman and then fails to recognise the illegitimate child that comes from that union abandons yet another woman at the altar and marries finally
another woman who is wealthier only to neglect her as well as the son that comes from this marriage. Herbert's finale is to commit suicide at the conclusion of the novel. Of course what the writers did is to in a sense that is to say they didn't say that this happened in the society but but the reprobate male always comes to a lousy end in the fiction. But shortly before he commits suicide he writes a letter to the woman he's abandoned at the altar and laments what he has done to women. I have chilled her by coldness. He's referring here specifically to his wife. I have chilled her by coldness bruised her by harshness Yet she loves me still. Oh woman woman great and marvelous is that I love. It will require added wronged and suffering woman. Surely there must be a heaven for the if not for transgressing man. It's this portrait. Of males that serves as a vehicle as
well. It is the self concerned the aggressive the materialistic male who stands as a symbol for what the writers consider to be a rampant destructive individual ism. It was an individual ism but they were convinced was preempting a higher and more beneficial commitment to community. They disdained materialism they called it the damnable worship of the Golden Calf such worship clouded men's judgment corrupted their virtue in a sense this particular materialistic selfish individual a stick male appears as a bellwether in the fiction pointing to the values of a larger society that the writers found to be destructive to all human beings but particularly threatening to women in the family. But if you look further into the fiction you see that it's not simply man he's not the only villain in the piece so to speak. And once again I
want to emphasize it certainly not all men in the fiction that are villains they many begin as villains but of course are rescued by heroines. Others begin to semi villains and still are rescued by heroines. What happens as well is what happens to women within the home. In this particular vision they are the divinely ordained figures within the home in one sense but in the juxtaposition they are also thwarted dissatisfied overly burdened dejected within the home. Caroline Howard Gilman who was born in New England and married a Unitarian minister and spent the rest of her life with him in Charleston South Carolina where he had his church and who wrote poems for children tales for children as well as a number of volumes for women entitled recollections of a housekeeper recollections of a Southern matron spoke in the following terms in
recollections of a housekeeper. As she put it the cares that eat away at the heart the demands that were made upon the wife and mother she said were unceasing each day presses on her with new toils the night comes and they are unfulfilled. She lies down in weariness and rises with uncertainty. GILMAN then bemoans the fact a woman breaks he says and sinks beneath the wear and tear of the frame and the affections. It's clear that here the notion that a woman's work is never done was already part of our vocabulary and sense of women's work within the home. Brian Mackintosh added her own sense her own commentary on the distress of women on their plight. Work work work she said to heart and hand fail to the cloud gather on her once sunny brow and her cheeks grow pale and the friendly consumption the nineteenth century term for tuberculosis come to give her
rest from her labors in the grave or the throbbing brain the overanxious heart overpower the reason and a lunatic asylum receive one more miserable inmate. And though this was fiction. Well actually this was one of her essays that I'm quoting from now to give this more reality in a sense to substantiate it. Mackintosh then went on to cite statistics of lunatic asylums particularly one in Hartford Connecticut that she knew fairly well arguing that women were the people who were filling in and I think Center used the term lunatic asylum which is why I'm using it argued that it was women who were filling these asylums and it was because she said of the strain of the role that they were trying to fulfill. And so it is the defect the defects shown by man in part it's the burdens of domesticity in part that form this juxtaposition that offer you the darker vision that make it impossible to create
that idyllic home that you see in one part of the fiction. Sentimentalists had hoped that they could advance the nuclear family as the basic critical institution for the maintenance and reform of the society. That was their prescription but their protest in the fiction made clear that there were imperfections which precluded the achievement of their objective. It was man. It was domesticity itself. And finally it was death that provides in a sense the final drama for the unrealized. Even if the mother died of course the father could continue to provide provide financial material support for the children but the sentimentalist made clear that they did not consider him capable of fulfilling the responsibilities accorded the mother. Bryant Clinton for example and Caroline Lee hence is love after marriage is denied. The gentle yet restraining influence which woman in her
purity ever asserts he's encouraged to gamble by his father he takes wine at a young age. He goes into debt. He robs a helpless widow and he ends up in prison and another one of Henson's short stories The tale of what happens to the daughter reared by the father becomes clear as perceived by the sentimentalist Augusta Temple's father instills in her the belief that her physical appearance is more important than her inner spirit and as a result hence argues he renders her vain from adulation selfish from indulgence. Certainly Augusta temple will not be able to fulfil the role prescribed for women when the father dies of course. The model is different the consequences are different. The woman can still fulfill her prescribed role but she is without the necessary material support to do so. Not only that but she is not trained she is not socialized to fulfill a role beyond the home.
And what happens in those particular tales is that the widow and her children are left stranded in the home without adequate means of support. The woman is finally forced beyond the doors of her home and finds out that not only is she unprepared to provide the material support for herself and her children but the society itself does not welcome her in that particular effort. Finally it's the fate that awaits children when both parents die. That signals the final disintegration of the nuclear family itself. Recall now that it is a family that has been glorified it's a mini Eden. And yet on the other side of that juxtaposition it is so easily destroyed. It's so fragile. And it isn't the setting of perfection it's the orphan who provides the symbol for that final disintegration. No figure is treated with greater sentimentality no figure is
offered more sympathy in a sense of course this is a literary convention to establish a bond of sympathy between reader and orphan who will frequently be the heroine. But I would suggest it's also a literary convention to a more specific and to the symbol of the nuclear family and its fragility. Mariah Cummins Gertrude Flint one of her orphans is the archetype. She's cared for by a cruel old woman which should also point out to you that not all women in the fiction are heroines or ideals. Gertrud as a result is totally neglected. She is in Cummins words scantily clad in garments of the poorest description her complection was sallow her whole appearance unhealthy and she was denied affection to no one loved her no one treated her kindly. No one tried to make her happy or cared whether she were so. Fortunately she is rescued from this particular situation and goes on to fulfill all the
requisites accorded a heroine. But some are not as fortunate as Gertrude in the fiction they are condemned to orphan asylums in Rose Clark for example. Sarah Parton describes the suffering resignation of orphans with their closely shaven heads their lackluster eyes their stooping forms their pale faces their sheer resignation. In short what I would suggest to you here in the midst of melodrama in the midst of the welter of pages the tears that sometimes make you want to laugh sometimes even make you want to throw the book against the wall. You have an essential shift from prescription from what the society so far as these writers were concerned should be from the role that women should be accorded and should be formed should perform. You have a shift to protest and to beyond. You have in a sense
a fall from innocence on the part of the writers themselves and it's particularly clear in the shifting tones within the fiction. In the interests of prescription of what they thought should be in the interests of well of entertainment and fantasy they offered you a blueprint of what family life in 19th century America should be. At least so far as they were concerned. But what they ended up offering as well was a report on what they thought family life actually was. In 1903 America. Mary Virginia captured their sentiments when she said in one of her stories that these writers herself particularly had become involved in writing hard things heavy to be borne by the young. With him hope is reality and thoughts of love dearer than the promise of life wealth or honor. But he who sketches and she's using in the generic sense he sketches from nature must perforce oftentimes fulfill the thankless
task of iconoclast. These writers attempted to project an idyllic image but the contrast between intention and realisation between the artist and the tale to use Lawrence's metaphor again is evident throughout. In the end then the fiction is more expressive of a darker vision of 19th century life and not as they wished of the wholly redemptive idyllic land that they had hoped to project in the fiction. I suggest as well that they themselves had fully internalised the prescription that they believed with conviction and with sincerity that this was the role to be played. It should be played by women in their society but their own observations and their own experiences led them to. On the other page of the fiction note that that ideal was very very far from the
reality as they sought of life for women in 1903 America Dr. Mary Kelley of the Dartmouth College history department. She spoke at the Rutland free libraries women and literature series on April 10th of this year. Her topic was the private made public women writing about women in 1973 America. Dr. Kelly was recorded for Vermont Public Radio by Fred Wasser. This is Vermont Public Radio forums crosscurrents a series of lectures and public forums exploring issues of public concern in Vermont.
Cross Currents
Lecture with Dr. Mary Kelly of Dartmouth College on the importance of Women Authors in the 19th Century
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In this lecture titled "The Private Made Public: Women Writing about Women in the 19th Century America," Dr. Mary Kelly discusses 12 prominent women authors, whose works build an understanding of women's perceptions of reality and their role in 19th century society.
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Crosscurrents is a series of recorded lectures and public forums exploring issues of public concern in Vermont.
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Editor: Wasser, Fred
Speaker: Kelly, Mary
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Vermont Public Radio - WVPR
Identifier: P13583 (VPR)
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Chicago: “Cross Currents; Lecture with Dr. Mary Kelly of Dartmouth College on the importance of Women Authors in the 19th Century ,” 1979-05-27, Vermont Public Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2023,
MLA: “Cross Currents; Lecture with Dr. Mary Kelly of Dartmouth College on the importance of Women Authors in the 19th Century .” 1979-05-27. Vermont Public Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 3, 2023. <>.
APA: Cross Currents; Lecture with Dr. Mary Kelly of Dartmouth College on the importance of Women Authors in the 19th Century . Boston, MA: Vermont Public Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from