The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Lydia H. Sigourney

Justice has hardly been done to Mrs. Sigourney as a prose writer. She has been so long, and is so familiarly, quoted as a poet, that the public has in a measure forgotten that her indefatigable pen has sent forth almost a volume of prose yearly for more than a quarter of a century—that her prose works already issued number, in fact, twenty-five volumes, averaging more than two hundred pages each, and some of them having gone through not less than twenty editions. She has indeed produced no one work of a thrilling or startling character, wherewith to electrify the public mind. Her writings have been more like the dew than the lightning. Yet the dew, it is well to remember, is not only one of the most beneficent, but one of the most powerful of nature s agents—far more potential in grand results than its brilliant rival. When account shall be made of the various agencies, moral and intellectual, that have moulded the American mind and heart during the first half of the nineteenth century, few names will be honoured with a larger credit than that of Lydia H. Sigourney.

The maiden name of this most excellent woman was Lydia Howard Huntley. She was born in Norwich, Connecticut, September 1st, 1791, of Ezekiel and Sophia Huntley. Being an only child, she was nurtured with special care and tenderness. But, besides the ordinary parental influences, there was in her early history one circumstance of a peculiar character, which, according to the testimony of those who have known her best, contributed largely and most happily to the moulding of her mind and heart. I refer to the remarkable intimacy that existed between the gifted and brilliant young girl and an aged lady that lived for many years in the same house. Madam Jerusha Lathrop, the lady referred to, was the relict of Dr. Daniel Lathrop, and daughter of Joseph Talcot, one of the Provincial Governors of Connecticut.

Madam Lathrop is reported to have been gifted by nature with strong powers of mind, and a dignity of person and manners that commanded universal respect. Her character had been matured by intercourse with men of powerful intellect, and by participation in great and trying scenes. The parents of Mrs. Sigourney resided under the roof of Madam Lathrop, who had been bereft of her husband and children, and though the household was separate, the latter manifested from the first a tender solicitude for their infant daughter. As the mind of the child began to unfold itself, and to give promise of future richness and depth, the attachment became mutual, and in a few years an enduring confidence, an almost inseparable companionship, was established between the little maiden of six and the venerable woman of eighty.

The following glimpse into the chamber of Madam Lathrop is from one entirely conversant with the subject. For its substantial correctness as to fact, we are permitted to quote the authority of Mrs. Sigourney herself. It is quoted, not only as a beautiful episode in human life, but also as affording a key to some of the most charming peculiarities of Mrs. Sigourney’s writings.

“Methinks we stand upon that ancient threshold; we enter those low-browed, but ample rooms; we mark the wood-fire gleaming upon crimson moreen curtains, gilded clock, ebony-framed mirror, and polished wainscot; but what most engages our attention, is the venerable occupant and her youthful companion. There sits the lady in her large arm-chair, and the young friend beside her, with face upturned, and loving eyes fixed on that beaming countenance. We can imagine that we hear, in alternate notes, the quick, gushing voice of childhood, and the tremulous tones of age, as question and reply are freely interchanged. And now we are startled, as the tremulous voice unexpectedly recovers strength and fulness, and breaks forth into some wild or pathetic melody—the ballad or patriotic stanza of former days. The young auditor listens with rapt delight, and now, as the scene changes, with light breath and glowing aspect, she sits attentive to the minute and lively details of some domestic tale of truth, or striking episode of our national history—treasuring up the diamond-dust, to be fused hereafter, by her genius, into pellucid gems. As night closes round, and the light from the two stately candlesticks glimmers through the room, the lady takes the cushioned seat in the corner, and the young inmate spreads out upon the table some well-kept, ancient book, often perused, yet never found wearisome, and beguiles, with incessant reading, all too mature for her years, the long and lonely knitting hours of her aged friend.”

This glimpse into the parlour of Madam Lathrop is no fancy sketch. The evening was usually closed by the singing of devotional hymns, and the repetition, from memory, of favourite psalms, or choice specimens of serious verse. The readings were mostly of devotional works. Young’s Night Thoughts stood highest upon the list, and had several times been read aloud, from beginning to end, by the young student, at an age in which most children can scarcely read, intelligibly, the simplest verse. Other tomes, and some heavy and sombrous, were also made familiar to her young mind, by repeated perusal; but as the upper shelves of the lady’s library contained some volumes of a lighter character, the curiosity of childhood would render it pardonable, if now and then those shelves were furtively explored, or some old play or romance withdrawn, to be read by stealth in the solitary chamber.

The chamber, to the young student, is a sacred precinct. There, not only is the evening problem and the morning recitation faithfully prepared for the school, and the borrowed book pored over in delightful secrecy, with no intrusive eye to note the smiles and tears and unconscious gesticulation, that respond to the moving incidents of the tale—but there, too, in silent and solitary hours, the light-footed muse slips in, and makes her earliest visits, leaving behind those first faintly dotted notes of music, which are for a long time bashfully kept concealed from every eye.

Madam Lathrop watched with entire complacency the dawning genius of her young favourite. The simple, poetic effusion occasionally brought from that solitary chamber and timidly submitted to her inspection, was sure to be received with encouraging praise, and to kindle in the face of her aged friend that glow of approbation which was the highest reward that the imagination of the young aspirant had then conceived.

The death of her venerable benefactress, which took place when she was fourteen years of age, was the first deep sorrow which her young heart had known. It was a disruption of very tender ties the breaking up of a peculiar intimacy between youth and age, and she could not be easily solaced for the bereavement. Nor has her mind ever lost the influence of this early association. It has kept with her through life, and runs like a fine vein through all her writings. The memory, the image, the teachings of this sainted friend, seem to accompany her like an invisible presence, and wherever the scene may be, she turns aside to commune with her spirit, or to cast a fresh flower upon her grave.

Mrs. Sigourney has been remarkable through life for the steadfastness of her friendships. Besides the venerable companion already commemorated, she became early in life very tenderly attached to one of her own age, whose history has become identified with her own. This was Anna Maria Hyde a young lady whose sterling worth and fine mental powers were graced arid rendered winning by uncommon vivacity and sweetness of disposition, unaffected modesty, and varied acquirements. The friendship of these two young persons for each other was intimate and endearing. They were companions in long rural walks, they sat side by side at their studies, visited at each other’s dwellings, read together, wrought the same needle-work pattern, or, with paint and pencil, shaded the same flower. The neighbours regarded them as inseparable; the names of Hyde and Huntley were wreathed together, and one was seldom mentioned without the other. Youthful friendships are, however, so common, and usually so transient, that this would scarcely demand notice, but for the strength of its foundation. It appeared to be based upon a mutual, strong desire to do good to others; a fixed purpose to employ the talents which God had given them, for the benefit of the world upon which they had entered. In pursuance of this object, they not only addressed themselves to the assiduous cultivation of their mental powers, but they engaged with alacrity in domestic affairs and household duties; and they found time, also, to make garments for the poor, to instruct indigent children, to visit the old and infirm, read with them, and administer to their temporal comfort, and to watch with the sick and dying.

Among the plans for future usefulness which these young friends revolved, none seemed so feasible, or so congenial to their tastes, as that of devoting themselves to the office of instruction. This, therefore, they adopted as their province, their chosen sphere of action, and they resolutely kept this object in view, through the course of their education. The books they read, the studies they pursued, the accomplishments they sought, all had a reference to this main design. After qualifying themselves to teach those English sciences which were considered necessary to the education of young females, together with the elements of the Latin tongue, they went to Hartford and spent the winter of 1810-11 principally in attention to the ornamental branches, which were then in vogue. Returning from thence, they entered at once, at the age of nineteen, upon their grand pursuit. A class of young ladies in their native town gathered joyfully around them, and into this circle they cast not only the affluence of their well stored minds, and the cheering inspiration of youthful zeal, but all the strength of their best and holiest principles. Animated, blooming, happy, linked affectionately arm in arm, they daily came in among their pupils, diffusing love and cheerfulness, as well as knowledge, and commanding the most grateful attention and respect.

The cordial affection between these interesting young teachers was itself a most important lesson to their pupils. One of the privileged few, writing after a lapse of forty years, thus testifies to the lasting impression it produced upon their young hearts. “Pleasant it is to review those dove-like days—to recall the lineaments of that diligent, earnest, mind-expanding group; and to note again the dissimilarity so beautifully harmonious, between those whom we delighted to call our sweet sister-teachersthe two inseparables, inimitables. It was a matter of admiration to the pupils, that such oneness of sentiment, opinion, and affection, should co-exist with such a diversity in feature, voice, eyes, expression, manner, and movement, as the two friends exhibited.”

After a pleasing association of two years, the young teachers parted, each to pursue the same line of occupation in a different sphere. But another separation, fatal and afflictive, soon took place. The interesting and accomplished Miss Hyde was taken away in the midst of usefulness and promise—mowed down like a rose-tree in bloom, March 26th, 1816, at the age of twenty-four. Of this beloved companion of her youth, Mrs. Sigourney wrote an interesting memoir, soon after her decease; and she again recurs to her with gushing tenderness, in the piece entitled “Home of an early friend,” written nearly thirty years after the scene of bereavement. In flowing verse, and prose almost as harmonious as music, she has twined a lasting memorial of the worth of the departed, and of that tender friendship which was a marked incident in her own young life.

Before the death of her friend, she had transferred her residence to Hartford, and again entered, with fresh enthusiasm, upon the task of instruction. In this path she was happy and successful; it was regarded as a privilege to be received into her circle, and many of her pupils became life-long friends, strewing her subsequent pathway with flowers.

In Hartford, she was at once received as a welcome and cherished inmate of the family of Madam Wadsworth, relict of Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth, whose mother was a Talcot, and nearly connected with the revered Madam Lathrop. The mansion-house in which Madam Wadsworth and the aged sisters of her husband dwelt, stood upon the spot now occupied by the Wadsworth Athenæum. It was a spacious structure; unadorned, but deeply interesting in its historic associations. To the young guest it seemed a consecrated roof, whose every room was peopled with images of the past; nor was her ear ever inattentive to those descriptive sketches of the heroic age of our country, with which its venerable inhabitants enlivened the evening hours. The poem, “On the Removal of an Ancient Mansion,” is a graphic delineation of the impressions made on her mind by her acquaintance with the threshold and hearth-stone of this fine old house, and her communion with its excellent inmates.

Another member of the same family, Daniel Wadsworth, Esq., had always manifested a lively interest in her mental cultivation. He had known her in childhood, under the roof of Madam Lathrop, and had there seen some of her early effusions, both in prose and verse. At his earnest solicitation, she made a collection of her fugitive pieces, and under his patronage, and with his influence and liberality cast around her as a shield, she first ventured to appear before the public as an author. Mr. Wadsworth’s regard for her suffered no diminution till his death, which took place in 1848. Few authors have found a friend so kind and so true. Of her affection for him and his amiable wife, her writings contain many proofs. Her Monody on the death of Mr. Wadsworth has the following noble stanza:—

“Oh, friend! thou didst o’ermaster well
   The pride of wealth, and multiply

   Good deeds not alone for the good word of men,
       But for Heaven’s judging ken,
       And clear, omniscient eye,
   And surely where ‘the just made perfect’ dwell,
       Earth’s voice of highest eulogy
   Is like the bubble of the far-off sea;
       A sigh upon the grave
Scarce moving the frail flowers that o’er its surface wave.”

We have thus far glanced at the principal scenes and circumstances, which appear to have had an influence in forming the character of Mrs. Sigourney, and preparing her genius for flight. As Miss Huntley, she gave no works to the press except those to which allusion has been made, viz: “Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse,” and a memoir of her friend, Miss Hyde. The “Sketch of Connecticut, forty years since,” was, however, one of her earliest productions, though not published until 1824. It is honourable to her sensibilities, that so large a portion of these works was prompted by the grateful feelings of the heart. Her later emanations are enriched with deeper trains of thought, and melodies of higher and more varied power, but these are the genuine outpourings of affection—the first fruits of mind, bathed in the dew of life’s morning, and laid upon the altar of gratitude.

The marriage of Miss Huntley with Charles Sigourney, Esq., merchant of Hartford, took place at Norwich, June 16th, 1819.

Mrs. Sigourney’s domestic life has been varied with frequent excursions and tours, which have rendered her familiar with the scenery and society of most parts of her own country, and in 1840, she went to Europe, and remained there nearly a year, visiting England, Scotland, and France. “Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands,” published in 1843, and “Scenes in my Native Land,” published in 1845, afford sufficient evidence that travelling has had a conspicuous agency in giving richness and variety to her productions.

A personal stranger to Mrs. Sigourney, acquainted only with her varied literary pursuits and numerous writings, might be disposed to think that they occupied her whole time, and that she had accomplished little else in life. Such an assumption would be entirely at variance with the truth. The popular, but now somewhat stale notion, that female writers are, of course, negligent in personal costume, domestic thrift, and all those social offices which are woman’s appropriate and beautiful sphere of action, can never prop its baseless and falling fabric with her example. She has sacrificed no womanly or household duty, no office of friendship or benevolence for the society of the muses. That she is able to perform so much in so many varied departments of literature and social obligation, is owing to her diligence. She acquired in early life that lesson—simple, homely, but invaluable—to make the most of passing time. Hours are seeds of gold; she has not sown them on the wind, but planted them in good ground, and the harvest is consequently a hundred fold.

Authentic report informs us that no one better fills the arduous station of a New England housekeeper, in all its various and complicated departments. Nor are the calls of benevolence unheeded. Like that distinguished philanthropist, from whom she derives her intermediate name, she is said to go about doing good. Much of her time is devoted to the practical, silent, unambitious duties of charity. Nor must we omit the crowning praise of all—the report of her humble, unceasing, unpretending, untiring devotion.

We may not conclude this brief review of the life of Mrs. Sigourney, without allusion to a recent afflictive stroke of Providence, which has over-shadowed her path with a dark cloud, and almost bowed her spirit to the earth with its weight. She was the mother of two children; the youngest, an only son, had just arrived at the verge of manhood, when he was selected by the Destroying Angel as his own, and veiled from her sight.[1] A sorrow like this, she had never before known. Such a bereavement cannot take place and not leave desolation behind. Around this early-smitten one, the fond hopes of a mother’s heart had clustered; all those hopes are extinguished; innumerable, tender sympathies are cut away; the glowing expectations, nurtured for many years, are destroyed, and the cold urn left in their place. But the Divine Hand knows how to remove branches from the tree without blighting it; and though crushed and wounded, the faith of the Christian sustains the bereaved parent. Her reply to a friend who sympathized in her affliction, will show both the depth of her sorrow, and the source of her consolation—“God’s time and will are beautiful, and through bursts of blinding tears I give him thanks.”

The amount of Mrs. Sigourney’s literary labours may be estimated from the following list of her publications, which is believed to be nearly complete. The works are all prose, and all 12mo., unless otherwise expressly stated: “Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse,” 267 pages, 1815; “Biography and Writings of A. M. Hyde,” 241 pp., 1816; “Traits of the Aborigines,” a poem, 284 pp., 1822; “Sketch of Connecticut, forty years since,” 280 pp., 1824; “Poems,” 228 pp., 1827; “Biography of Females,” 112 pp., small size, 1829; “Biography of Pious Persons,” 338 pp., 1832, two editions the first year, now out of print, as are all the preceding volumes; “Evening Readings in History,” 128 pp., 1833; “Letters to Young Ladies,” 295 pp., 1833, twenty editions; “Memoirs of Phebe Hammond,” 30 pp., 1833; “How to be Happy,” 126 pp., 1833, two editions the first year, and several in London; “Sketches,” 216 pp., 1834; “Poetry for Children,” 102 pp., small size, 1834; “Select Poems,” 338 pp., 1834, eleven editions; “Tales and Essays for Children,” 128 pp., 1834; “Zinzendorff and other Poems,” 300 pp., 1834; “History of Marcus Aurelius,” 122 pp., 1835; “Olive Buds,” 136 pp., 1836; Girls’ Reading Book,” prose and poetry, 243 pp., 1838, between twenty and thirty editions; “Boys’ Reading Book,” prose and poetry, 247 pp., 1839, many editions; “Letters to Mothers,” 296 pp., 1838, eight editions; “Pocahontas and other Poems,” 283 pp., 1841, reprinted in London; “Poems,” 255 pp., small size, 1842; “Pleasant Memoirs of Pleasant Lands,” 368 pp., prose and poetry, 1842; “Child’s Book,” prose and poetry, 150 pp., small size, 1844; “Scenes in my Native Land,” prose and poetry, 319 pp., 1844; “Poems for the Sea,” 152 pp., 1845; “Voice of Flowers,” prose and poetry, 123 pp., small size, 1845, eight editions in five years; “The Lovely Sisters,” 100 pp., small size, 1845; “Myrtis and other Etchings,” 292 pp., 1846; “Weeping Willow,” poetry, 128 pp., small size, 1846, six editions in four years; “Water Drops,” prose and poetry, 275 pp., 1847; “Illustrated Poems,” 408 pp. 8vo., 1848; “Whisper to a Bride,” prose and poetry, 80 pp., small size, 1849; “Letters to my Pupils,” 320 pp., 1851.

Besides these volumes, thirty-five in number, she has produced several pamphlets, and almost innumerable contributions to current periodical literature. She has moreover maintained a very extensive literary correspondence, amounting in some years to an exchange of thirteen or fourteen hundred letters.

Perhaps no one, who has written so much as Mrs. Sigourney, has written so little to cause self-regret in the review. The secret of this lies in that paramount sense of duty which is the obvious spring of her writings, as of all her conduct. If it has not led her to the highest regions of fancy, it has saved her from all those disgraceful falls that too often mark the track of genius. Along the calm, sequestered vale of duty and usefulness, her writings, like a gentle river fresh from its mountain springs, have gladdened many a quiet home, have stimulated into fertility many a generous heart. Some of her small volumes, like the “Whisper to a Bride,” are unpretending in character as they are diminutive in appearance, but they contain a wealth of beauty and goodness that few would believe that have not examined them. Of her larger volumes, none are more widely known than the “Letters to Young Ladies,” and “Letters to Mothers.” “Letters to my Pupils,” just published, will probably be equally popular, as they are equally beautiful. The scraps of autobiography, so gracefully mixed up with her reminiscences of others, will add a special charm to this volume for the thousands who have felt the genial influence of her teachings and writings.

The first of the extracts which follow is from “Myrtis and other Etchings.”

  1. Andrew M. Sigourney died in Hartford, June, 1850, aged nineteen years.