[ A daughter's reminiscences about Elizabeth Stuart Phelps from ]
Chapters from a Life
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [Ward]
The Riverside Press,Cambridge
[Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward)'s mother, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, died when her daughter was only eight. After a passage about her mother's funeral -- where Phelps and her siblings "wondered what it all meant, and what became of children whose mother was obliged to go to heaven when she seemed so necessary in Andover," Phelps devoted several pages to the following reminiscences about her mother and reflections on her life:]
At eight years of age a child cannot be expected to know her mother intimately, and it is hard for me always to distinguish between the effect produced upon me by her literary success as I have since understood it, and that left by her own truly extrordinarly personality upon the annals of the nursery.
My mother, whose name I am proud to wear, was the eldest daughter of Professor Stuart, and inherited his intellectuality. At the time of her death she was in the first blossom of her
very positive and widely-promising success as a writer of the simple home stories which took such a hold upon the popular heart. Her " Sunnyside " had already reached a circulation of one hundred thousand copies, and she was following it fast - too fast - by other books for which the critics and the publishers clamored. Her last book and her last baby came together, and killed her. She lived one of those rich and piteous lives such as only gifted women know; torn by the civil war of the dual nature which can be given to women only. It was as natural for her daughter to write as to breathe ; but it was impossible for her daughter to forget that a woman of intellectual power could be the most successful of mothers.
"Everybody's mother is a remarkable woman," my father used to say when he read overdrawn memoirs indited by devout children; and yet I have sometimes felt as if even the generation that knows her not would feel a certain degree of interest in the tact and power by which this unusual woman achieved the difficult reconciliation between genius and domestic life.
In our times and to our women such a problem is practical, indeed. One need not possess genius to understand it now. A career is enough.
The author of " Sunnyside," " The Angel on
the Right Shoulder," and " Peep at Number Five," lived before women had careers and public sympathy in them. Her nature was drawn against the grain of her times and of her circumstances; and where our feet find easy walking, hers were hedged. A child's memories go for something by way of tribute to the achievement of one of those rare women of the elder time whose gifts forced her out, but whose heart held her in.
I can remember no time when I did not understand that my mother must write books because people would have and read them ; but I cannot remember one hour in which her children needed her and did not find her.
My first distinct vision of this kind of a mother gives her by the nursery lamp, reading to us her own stories, written for ourselves, never meant to go beyond that little public of two, and illustrated in colored crayons by her own pencil. For her gift in this direction was of an original quality, and had she not been a writer she must have achieved something as an artist.
Perhaps it was to keep the standards up, and a little girl's filial adoration down, that these readings ended with some classic - Wordsworth, I remember most often -- " We are Seven," or " Lucy Gray."
If is certain that I very early had the convic-
tion that a mother was a being of power and importance to the world; but that the world had no business with her when we wanted her. In a word, she was a strong and lovely symmetry - a woman whose heart had not enfeebled her head, but whose head could never freeze her heart.
I hardly know which of those charming ways in which I learned to spell the word motherhood impressed me most. All seemed to go on together side by side and step by step. Now she sits correcting proof-sheets, and now she is painting apostles for the baby's first Bible lesson. Now she is writing her new book, and now she is dyeing things canary-yellow in the white-oak dye-for the professor's salary is small, and a crushing economy was in those days one of the conditions of faculty life on Andover Hill. Now-for her practical ingenuity was unlimited - she is whittling ' little wooden feet to stretch the children's stockings on, to save them from shrinking ; and now she is reading to us from the old, red copy of Hazlitt's "British Poets," by the register, upon a winter night. Now she is a popular writer, incredulous of her first success, with her future flashing before her; and now she is a tired, tender mother, crooning to a sick child, while the MS. lies unprinted on the table, and the pub-
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lishers are wishing their professor's wife were a free woman, childless and solitary, able to send copy as fast as it is wanted. The struggle killed her, but she fought till she fell.
In these different days, when,
" Pealing, the clock of time
Has struck the Woman's Hour,"
I have sometimes been glad, as my time came to face the long question which life puts to-day to all women who think and feel, and who care for other women and are loyal to them, that I had those early visions of my own to look upon.
When I was learning why the sun rose and the moon set, how the flowers grew and the rain fell, that God and heaven and art and letters existed, that it was intelligent to say one's prayers, and that well-bred children never told a lie, I learned that a mother can be strong and still be sweet, and sweet although she is strong; and that she whom the world and her children both have need of, is of more value to each, for this very reason.
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Copyright 2002 by Deidre Johnson