Monday, May 23, 2011

"What must it have been like to have been curious, intelligent, and a woman in 1815?"

The following excerpt from a letter written by Rosana Beecher (nee Foote, mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe & 12 other children) to her sister-in-law prompted biographer Joan Hedrick to ask the poignant question: "What must it have been like to have been curious, intelligent, and a woman in 1815? (And Rosana Foote was among the privileged⎯what of Zillah and Rachel in the kitchen)?":

Would now write you a long letter, if it were not for several vexing circumstances, such as the weather extremely cold, storm violent, and no wood cut; Mr. Beecher gone; and Sabbath day, with company⎯a clergyman, a stranger; Catharine sick; George almost so; Rachel's finger cut off, and she crying and groaning with the pain. Mr. Beecher is gone to preach at New Hartford, and did not provide us wood enough to last, seeing the weather has grown so exceedingly cold....As for reading, I average perhaps one page a week, besides what I do on Sundays. I expect to be obliged to be contented (if I can) with the stock of knowledge I already possess, except what I can glean from the conversation of others....Mary has, I suppose, told you of the discovery that the fixed alkalies are metallic oxyds. I first saw the notice in the "Christian Observer." I have since seen it in an "Edinburgh Review." The former mentioned that the metals have been obtained by means of the galvanic battery; the latter mentions another, and, they say, better mode. I think that is all the knowledge I have obtained in the whole circle of arts and sciences of late; if you have been more fortunate, pray let me reap the benefit.

Roxana died a year later of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one.

(From Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994). The illustration that accompanies this post is of the Hartford Female Seminary, founded by Harriet's elder sister Catharine in 1823, an important institution in the history of women's education in the United States.)


Dorte H said...

The good old days, or...?

Sometimes I think it was easier to be a writer in the past - readers did not expect fast-paced thrillers but appreciated good language - but then I remember I am a woman and would probably have been a servant or a mother of fifteen children.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is both enthralling and tragic. She must have been an amazing woman. I did a lot of research on early women writers and most of them had to battle furiously against a domestic avalanche of tasks - no wonder so many of them were either childless or spinsters!

bloglily said...

This is heartbreaking. And the answer is pretty clear: it must have been hell.

Cozy in Texas said...

Then there were the women writers who had to use a pen name (a man's name) in order to get published. Even now, according to J.A. Jance, that if you're writing a book to appeal to men you use your initials. i.e J.A. Jance, J.K. Rowling.

Suko said...

"As for reading, I average perhaps one page a week, besides what I do on Sundays."

bloglily is right.

Lisa said...

Very difficult and I think I would have made a very poor wife in those days. Thanks

one said...

Indeed times have changed. Thanks for an interesting post.

K. Robinson said...

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Jacqueline Smith said...

Nice blog, this is my first time here.

Rosana had 13 children, including Harriet, by the time she was 41? Heart breaking to think about. I'm 40, almost 41.

To ponder on your question a bit... the tone of her letter is frustration with the plight of having to be content with tidbits of knowledge here and there amid the million mundane details she had to manage. But there is also a defiance against the norms of the time. That's something special, even today when it is so much easier to do.