From the Diary of Caroline Dall: On Writing

After my last post in which I included snippets from Caroline Healey Dall’s diary, I thought I would post a few of her diary entries in their entirety.

The first, posted here, is from near the beginning of her diary.  She was fifteen-years-old and living on Beacon Hill in Boston, MA.

excerpt is from “Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman”  edited by Helen R. Reese

Sept. 2nd 1838-

“I have been wondering what it is that raises my spirits, and encourages me in the task which I have undertaken?  Certainly neither father nor mother, brother nor sister, have ever expressed any interest in what I have  written, or ever desired to read anything I have published, – It is strange, I think I should take pride & pleasure in the virtuous endeavors of a child of mine- and this apathy , this indifference breeds coldness- on my side, and there is no sympathy between me and my parents. 

My mother oftentimes expresses harsh, disapproval of my love of study, and her daily life seems to express but one wish- that I were as fond of housewifery as my sister Ellen.  She knows  not the depth of wound she probes, and the unbidden tears, which often spring to my eyes, are imputed childish weakness- Why then should I persevere, if those whom I wish to honor, seem insensible to my truly filial feelings?  Because, in my father’s anxiety to procure me every literary advantage, in his kind smile, and gentle voice, I find at least one assurrance that he will joy in his child’s success, and grieve for her disappointment. 

People talk of literary struggles, and of the trials which a man who chooses this department of life, has to endure.  These do not spring from the nature of literature, but from the interference of friends, the obstacles raised by the envious, and the discouragements, the cold indifference, with which his labors are regarded by the very ones who should be the first to support and aid him. 

Nothing is easier, than this, if he be a man of talent, he forgets in the inspiration of his genius, the disagreeable manual labor, to which his inclination subjects him.  This is a pleasure & not a task.”

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm  Comments (17)  
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Romantic Chess of the Victorian Era

photo of Adolf Anderssen  (July 6, 1818 – March 13, 1879)

During the 19th century (especially from 1851-1870), the style of chess was marked by tactical play and daring sacrifices.  Indeed, it was considered ungentlemanly to refuse a gambit.  One of the most popular opening moves was the King’s Gambit accepted.  In this, white offers a pawn in exchange for establishing  firmer control of the center of the board. 

Chessmasters often met in coffeehouses, where  their matches were not methodical and defensive, but fast-paced, filled with fearless, bold attacks.  Winning did not matter as much as winning with style.

Some of the leading Romantic chess players included such notables as Paul Murphy and Henry Blackburne.  But it was  Adolf Anderssen whose  “Evergreen Game” and “Immortal Game” have gone down in history as two of the most beautiful chess games ever seen.

The latter was played on June 21st, 1851 against Lionel Kieseritzky at the Simpson’s-in-the-Strand divan in London, England.   During the match, Anderssen sacrificed his queen, both rooks, and a bishop.  At the end, Kieseritzky was greatly ahead in both material and points-still possessing his queen, two rooks, and a bishop.  However, Anderssen’s seemingly insane gambits had forced his opponent into a corner unable to defend.   Thus, Anderssen declared, “checkmate” using  his three remaining, weaker pieces. 

The Romantic style of chess fell out of favor when Wilhelm Steinitz (the first Chess World Champion) embraced positional play over  tactical.

Yet, the exhilarating  rapid attacks and brash heroics of the Romantics remain forever in lore.

  Chess scene (inspired by the Immortal Game) in the film, Blade Runner

Of Victorian Women and Whips

“I put out my hands, which she fastened together with a cord by the wrists.  Then making me lie down across the foot of the bed, face downwards, she very quietly and deliberately, putting her left hand around my waist, gave me a shower of smart slaps with her open right hand…Raising the birch, I could hear it whiz in the air, and oh, how terrible it felt as it came down,  and as its repeated strokes came swish, swish, swish on me!”- from Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1870

During the 19th century, women’s periodicals were filled with personal accounts such as the above.  Correspondents detailed use of ropes, handcuffs, which pieces of furniture they tied the girls to, and even the number of strokes they unleashed.  They elaborated on whether they chose to flagellate their daughters while in their drawers or bare-bottomed.  One lady, who signed off as, “A Happy Mother” detailed how she first slathered  her children in cream before whipping them.   

 A debate started in 1868 regarding whether mothers should use corporal punishment on daughters past puberty.     The magazines were flooded by letters to the editors.  Some complained that parents should not take  pride in humiliating their children in such a manner.   Others complained that the accounts were much too titilating  for modest publications.  

 Indeed, as  flagellation was a very popular subject in Victorian erotica, many of  the letters first published in the domestic magazines concerning corporal punishment were later copied verbatum in the adult magazines .   While evidence supports the fact that more men purchased the latter, there are also various accounts of everyday middle-class women not only frequenting the infamous Holywell Street where such stores displayed erotica in their windows, but also wrote and published erotic works of their own. 

However, for most women, such naughtiness could be more safely enjoyed within the pages of the leading domestic magazines.  For, if anyone entered the room while they were reading of servants ordered to pull down a daughter’s underclothes, they could quickly flip the page to an article on fashion, the economy,  politics, or the  latest developments in the suffrage movement.

*source:  Between Women by Sharon Marcus

The Victorian Female Passion for Botany

“Nature is a haunted house- but Art- is a house that tries to be haunted.”- Emily Dickinson

After Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the Victorian public became fascinated with natural history.  Women, in particular, took up the hobby of collecting, preserving, and studying specimens from plants and birds, to butterflies and insects.  The pastime was considered both ladylike and educational (unlike fancywork which many women found tedious).  Poet Emily Dickinson started a herbarium when she was a teenager attending Amherst Academy.   Completed, her  sixty-six page herbarium contains 424 plant specimens that she labeled with the corresponding scientific name.

“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.”- Emily Dickinson in a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, in May 1845.

In July 1841, Godey’s Lady’s Book stated, “If memoranda were made of the places where such wild flowers are found, the latitude, with the common name, and whether they grow singly or in groups, profusely or sparsely, with the time of flowering, ladies might add something to the history of our Flora worthy of remembrance, and particularly so, would they make themselves acquainted with, and note their botanical characteristics.”

While magazines were filled with articles by female botanists, other women preferred to pen tales about the flowers and wildlife about them. In 1838, New England- born Mary Peabody, wrote The Flower People,  a children’s guide to horticulture.   While Mary tutored both males and females in German, French, and Latin, and wrote textbooks on subjects ranging from grammar to geography in her spare time,  botany remained her greatest passion.   Within the book  she was able to share her passion and teach children as magically talking flowers converse with a young girl in her mother’s garden.

Lousia May Alcott’s first published book, Flower Fables, was dedicated to fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.  “Dear Nellie…..Give my love to the Concord Fairies if you chance to see them, though I believe they spend their winters in Italy on a count (sic) of our climate…” 

Along with studying and writing about botany, taxidermy, and horticulture, females also began creating bric-a-bracs for their houses made out of shells, cones, flowers, birds, and leaves.   Fern collecting (Pteridomania) was particularly popular as ferns were hardy enough to grow in the darkened drawing rooms of the 19th century, and because their sober color was deemed elegant in comparison to brightly colored flowers.   Along with collecting ferns, women also bred and cultivated them.  Some were dried, pressed, and framed.  Others were displayed in Wardian cases, which were airtight, enclosed glass cases.  More elaborate showcases included miniature gardens and aquariums.

“…At least you will confess that the abomination of ‘Fancy-work’… has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the Lady Ferns and Venus’s hair appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said Venus’s hair, and agreeing that Nature’s real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woollen caricatures which they had succeeded.”-  from the novel, Glaucus by Charles  Kingsley.


– source:  “Inside the Victorian Home” – by Judith Flanders

– source:  “Peabody Sisters” by Megan Marshall


Mary: The Mysterious 19th Century Medium

The Spiritualist movement sprung from humble origins.  In 1848,  twelve and thirteen year-old Katherine and Margaret Fox heard unexplainable knockings and rappings in their reportedly haunted family home in upstate New York.    The girls, rather than being afraid, were thrilled, and established a simple code to communicate with the spirits.

One early message read:  “Dear friends, you must proclaim the truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must not conceal it any longer.  When you do your duty God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.”

Spiritualism spread across America.  Four years later, the accomplished American Mrs. Hayden traveled to England and introduced it to the fashionable world.

During the height of the movement, while public spiritualists displayed thrilling shows- private home circles were venerated for instilling proper spiritual values and harmony within families.

Spiritualism was a blessed relief to the countless Victorian families who’d lost children.  Now, they were not only  certain  the soul survived, but they could also communicate with loved ones on the other side.  Death was simply a transition to another realm which could be reached any time.  It also appealed to those who were tired of dogmatism and wished to experience God in a personal way.

The middle-class Theobald family of London became involved in Spiritualism in the 1860s.  Morell Theobald lived with his wife and four children.  His spinster sister, Florence, often stayed with them.  Florence always stated she’d been born “sensitive” and immediately was drawn to this new religion.

Florence began practicing automatic writing in 1863.   After she received many loving messages from deceased relatives, the rest of the Theobald family became involved.   Soon they were having regular family sittings in which Morell Theobald’s other children who’d died in early youth communicated with them.  They spoke of their daily activities in heaven and answered some questions related to theology.

As time passed,  the spirits became more active.  Throughout the house, raps broke out at will.  The spirit children spelled out their love to “mama” through the furniture on her birthday.  The spirits encouraged them to live life fully as well as care for their spiritual needs.

The Theobalds became one of the most respected families in the spiritualist community.

In the early 1880s, a new cook named Mary, entered their household.  She claimed to have had psychic experiences  as a child which resulted in being “whipped as a witch” by her parents.

Mary related to the Theobalds that while working in Brighton she’d been “told” one day she would live with a kind, sympathetic family at Granville Park.  (The Theobalds had moved there in 1873 after spirits warned Morell about the ill health effects of the clay soil in Highgate)

The family sittings were their spiritual sphere and always began with prayer.  The servants attended but stood to the side.

In 1882, Mary announced she saw spirits.  The Theobalds were impressed with her powers, yet she was a servant.  Her place was downstairs.  However, as time passed, and her powers became more and more evident, they welcomed her as a family member.  After the rest of the servants gave notice, it was decided Mary would share the household duties with daughter, Nellie Theobald.  They did not want any negative outside forces to interfere with their harmonious circle.

In the class-obsessed Victorian era, associates were horrified.  While  the Theobalds were obviously legitimate  and astute spiritualists, Mary must be a fake, an unscrupulous villain.  Many friends severed ties with them.

Morell Theobald refused to bow down to this prejudice.  He defended their decision by publicly announcing in a journal: “Spiritualism comes somewhat as a leveler of social distinctions……”

Mary became best friends with Nellie.  They ran the house together and Nellie also began developing mediumistic abilities through writing.

Soon, many bizarre ghostly happening occurred.   The girls reported finding fires already lit in the morning.  The dining table already set for breakfast.  Mysterious letters were discovered in locked boxes. Spontaneous writings appeared on the ceiling.  Mr. Theobald rose early and waited in the kitchen in order to see the spirits start the fires or set the table.  They never came.  During family sittings, the spirits informed him  they could not perform fragile operations while being watched.

In 1884, the family acquired a cabinet and were thrilled when Mary produced materializations of spirit hands and feet.   After Mr. Theobald detailed some of their experiences in the spiritualist journal, Light, he was met with more scorn.

The Society of Psychic Research insisted on drilling Mary through a set of tests.  The Theobalds refused to force her through these brutal experiments.  During this tension-filled time, Mary grew quite ill and took to bed.  Morell claimed  the Society was trying to disprove spiritualist ideas rather than observe and record its merits and distanced himself from them.

Through the years, the Theobald family and Mary remained closely knit.

Was Mary a fraud?

On one hand, it was convenient that no one else saw the fires being lit or tables being set.  Some claim Nellie was in cahoots, seeking special attention.

On the other hand, the class prejudice can not be ignored.  It had been perfectly fine when Mary participated in the sittings as a servant. It was only when the Theobalds regarded her as part of their family, that accusations of fraud circulated.