Other Lives and Other Times

I used to come across the word of the day, “moue,” pretty often back when I was reading Victorian fiction. I never looked it up. I guess, even as a kid reading Little Women, I understood its meaning in a general sense. It seemed to happen to the faces of the female characters when they didn’t get their way. In Little Women Amy was alway “pulling a moue” when she didn’t get her way. Of course Beth, the good sister, NEVER “pulled a moue” though she had more to endure than the other three sisters. It was an object lesson in putting a brave face on things. The message came through pretty clearly that it was far more noble (and therefore better) to be like Beth than to be like Amy.

I like Victorian fiction or maybe, more accurately, 19th century fiction. I’m not sure that we’ve ever done better in English than the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This was also era in which American fiction began to blossom and that, right there, is pretty amazing. Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and a plethora (since I’m writing about literature just like an English teacher) of female (they were called that back in the day) writers whose names have been forgotten but whose books were read more than those by male writers. Whatever the natal genitalia of the writers, the 19th century gave us great stories with three-dimensional characters involving themselves in realistic and complicated situations.

Wow. I remember feeling bereft the day I finished the last of the Thomas Hardy novels from the library at the University of Colorado. At that very time I was working on my senior paper which was about Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book, a project that later evolved into my thesis.

In the process of writing my thesis I learned that when we look at history we don’t see very much. We see less of the iceberg than did the captain and crew of the Titanic.

My first encounter with Mrs. Hale or the 19th century happened when I was a little girl, so little that when I sat on a sofa my legs still stuck out straight in front of me. My dad had acquired a book at the University of Denver library book sale and he brought it home for me. It was A Poet’s Offering one of the coffee table books of the 19th century, a compilation of poetry organized according to topic.

Of course I couldn’t read it, but I could look at the beautiful engravings.

Immediately inside the embossed cardboard cover was an engraving of the woman who’d sponsored the compilation, Sarah Josepha Hale.

I have imagined the book being given as a Christmas gift back in 1850 and sitting on a velvet or lace covered table, thumbed through on rainy days and used as a reference in times when a certain thought, a certain poetic line, could turn around the course of a day. Most of the names in this book would be unfamiliar to people alive today, but they were famous in their time. Women were always “Mrs. Whoever” unless they were unmarried and then, chances are, they wrote under a nom de plume.

I gave the book my dad gave me to a Chinese professor from the University of Chengdu. I have a partial copy here that I scored on Etsy some time ago. He was struggling to compile a poetic lexicon of English and that’s essentially what A Poet’s Offering is. We knew each other in Denver the year after I had returned from China. He was a sweet, intelligent, kind and sincere man who’d been redeemed from the shit he’d endured in the Cultural Revolution and put at the head of an English department, then, miracle of miracles (to him) sent to America to study.


15 thoughts on “Other Lives and Other Times

  1. I read “Jude the Obscure” and walked away from it profoundly depressed. Too close to home. I realized I was a modern day equivalent, always an outsider and somehow everything I wanted and needed was on the inside, out of reach. Never read another book by him.

    I don’t ask that an author give me hope but when they bury me under futility and failure I don’t “get it.”

    • I guess some of a book depends on the reader. Hardy was a true observer of the human condition and resisted the ubiquitously saccharine rendering of popular fiction all around him. But since we don’t see the popular fiction that was all around Hardy we can’t see why he wrote what he wrote.

      It’s a testament to his skill as a writer and his power of observation that Jude hit you so hard. For what it’s worth, I think most people view themselves as “outsiders” and the idea that we ever get what we want (or even know what that is!) is pretty universal. Among Hardy’s arguments are that no one belongs, the grass is always greener, people lie, everyone is blinded by desire and aspiration, unable to see where they actually ARE and what they actually have. He also resisted conventional society’s definitions of success and morality. One of his funniest poems is “The Ruined Maid.”

      His poem, “The Darkling Thrush” is one of the most consoling and beautiful poems I’ve ever read.

  2. That book was quite a treasure – and still is. All I had known about Sarah Josepha Hale was that she wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb and was instrumental in getting a Thanksgiving holiday. I was a science major and didn’t get much exposure to literature in college. I obviously missed out. Thanks for this 🙂

    • Sarah Hale is pretty well known now, but back in the 70s, she had been completely forgotten. I would have majored in physics, but I could not work any equations correctly because of discalcula. It was awful. Physics was my favorite class in high school, but I never passed a test.

      • I’m glad she is back! I had issues with geometry, which may explain my complete lack of a sense of direction. I really wish history classes had included women (I would say “more women” but I can hardly think of any except maybe Betsy Ross). English classes had a few more, but not enough.

        • It’s true. I remember in college a few women had crept into the anthologies but their stories were gross (IMO). I now know it’s just because that was what people knew at the time. That’s funny about geometry. It was the easiest part for me. The ONE quarter (8th grade) I got an A in math was the one in which we did all the stuff like Klein bottles, map coloring all that topology stuff, Pascal’s triangle, probability. All that was FINE with me. It was when I had to write numbers down on paper that things got weird. 5 became S, S became 5, b became 6 or p or q. 3 was B and vice versa and so on. Algebra was the end for me BUT I learned a decade or so later that if I didn’t write anything down I could solve equations. I really loved math but just because you love something, doesn’t mean you can do it well. I’m glad of the experience, though. That right there was worth a lot.

  3. Your article touches several chords. I’ve read about Sarah J H and her “little lamb” poem, also that she was a strong promoter of women teachers for younger school children, back in the day when almost all schoolmasters were men.
    Also, I knew a lady, Sandy, whose daughter lived in Chengdu and taught English there. The girl was affiliated with/ graduated from (?) Goshen College in IN, but I forget her name right now. Her mom sent me a little write-up of her daughter’s experiences in that city.

    • Sarah Hale was very instrumental in persuading Louis Vassar into opening a woman’s college. She supported Elizabeth Blackwell’s aspirations to become a doctor. She and a group of women she organized established Bunker Hill and Mt. Vernon as national monuments. She wrote a persuasive and practical anti-slavery novel, Northwoods; Life North and South. It wasn’t as flashy as Harriet Beech Stowe’s book, but it was very well received and looked at more of the options people were considering long before the Civil War. She was editor of the largest selling magazine in the world from 1842 until she retired in the 1870s. Back in my undergrad years when I was learning about her I wished I had the chance to talk to her. I admired her for her pragmatism and tact, her understanding of the world in which she lived. She spoke often, passionately, for women’s education so women were not compelled to throw their lives away on “…the marital lottery.” Godeys even published architectural plans for people to build houses on the frontier. Once in a while I see one — there are a couple in my town. I tried to buy one in Colorado Springs when I retired, but the owners took it off the market. I would so love to live in a Godey’s house.

      When I finished my research, I cried. It was like a friend had died. BUT I got to write my masters thesis about her and no longer had to read on microfilm; I found the Denver Public Library had bound copies of the actual magazines. I indexed the five years on which my thesis focused.

      Feminism has brought Sarah Hale into the popular world which is a good thing, but the moments I had of discovery were so wonderful. I’m glad I was ahead of that curve. ❤

  4. I feel like I’ve wandered into an English/American lit tutorial full of all the brainy people. I will just sit here in the background and be amazed. 🙂
    You have a kind heart, Martha, to give that beautiful book to your friend. He must have treasured it.
    Did you realise that you’ve used two of my favourite words – plethora and ubiquitous? I know that plethora is not your usual style. 🙂
    One of my favourite historical literary novels is Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. It is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century.

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