Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Lydia Maria Child 1802 ~ 1880

 


Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Francis was born in Medford, Massachusetts, February 11, 1802. Her ancestor, Richard Francis, came from England in 1636 and settled in Cambridge, where his tombstone may be still seen in the burial ground. Her paternal grandfather, a weaver by trade, was in the Concord fight. Her father, Convers Francis, was a baker, first in West Cambridge, then in Medford, where he first introduced the article of food still known as "Medford crackers." He was a man of strong character and great industry. Though without much cultivation he had an uncommon love of reading and his anti-slavery convictions were deeply rooted and must have influenced his child's later career.

He married Susanah Rand, of whom it is only recorded that "She had a simple, loving heart and a spirit busy in doing good." They had six children of whom Lydia Maria was the youngest. While her brother Convers was fitting for college she was his faithful companion, though more than six years younger. They read together and she was constantly bringing him Milton and Shakespeare to explain so that it may well be granted that the foundation of Miss Lydia's intellectual attainments was laid in this companionship. Apart from her brother's help the young girl had, as was then usual, a very subordinate share of educational opportunities, attending only the public schools with one year at the private seminary of Miss Swan, in Medford.

In 1819 Convers Francis was ordained for the first parish, in Watertown, and there occurred in his city, in 1824, an incident which was to determine the whole life of his sister. Doctor G. G. Palfrey had written in the North American Review, for April, 1821, a "Review" of the now forgotten poem of "Yamoyden," in which he ably pointed out the use that might be made of early American History for the purpose of fictitious writing. Miss Francis read this article at her brother's house one summer Sunday morning. Before attending afternoon service she wrote the first chapter of a novel. It was soon finished and was published that year, then came "Hobomak," a tale of early times.

In judging of this little book it is to be remembered that it marked the very dawn of American imaginative literature. Irving had printed only his '"Sketchbook;" Cooper only "Precaution." This new production was the hurried work of a young woman of nineteen, an Indian tale by one who had scarcely even seen an Indian. Accordingly "Hobomak" now seems very crude in execution, very improbable. In plot and is redeemed only by a sincere attempt at local coloring.

The success of this first effort was, however, such as to encourage the publication of a second tale in the following year. This was "The Rebels; The Boston before the Revolution, by the Author of Hobomak." It was a great advance on its predecessor, and can even be compared, favorably, with Cooper's Revolutionary novels.

In October, 1828, Miss Francis married David Lee Child, a lawyer of Boston. In that day it seemed to be held necessary for American women to work their passage into literature by first completing some kind of cookery book, so Mrs. Child published in 1829 her "Frugal Housewife' a book which proved so popular that in 1855 it had reached its thirty-third edition.

The "Biographies of Good Wives" reached a fifth edition in the course of time as did her "History of Woman," and in 1853 Mrs. Child was brought to one of those bold steps which made successive eras of her literary life the publication of her "Appeal for that class of Americans called Africans." It was just at the most dangerous moment of the rising storm of the slavery question that Mrs. Child wrote this and it brought down upon her unending censure. It is evident that this result was not unexpected for the preface to the book explicitly recognizes the probable dissatisfaction of the public. She says, "I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken; but though I expect ridicule and censure, I cannot fear them. Should it be the means of advancing, even one single hour, the inevitable progress of truth and justice, I would not exchange the consciousness for all Rothschild's wealth or Sir Walter's fame." These words have in them a genuine ring; and the book is really worthy of them. The tone is calm and strong, the treatment systematic, the points well put, the statements well-guarded.

It was the first anti-slavery work ever printed in America and it appears to be the ablest, covering the whole ground better than any other. During the next year she published the "Oasis," also about this time appeared from her hand the "Anti-slavery Catechism" and a small book called "Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery."

While seemingly absorbed in reformatory work she still kept an outlook in the direction of pure literature and was employed for several years on "Philothea," which appeared in 1836. The scene of this novel was laid in Greece, and in spite of the unpopularity that Mrs. Child's slavery appeal had created it went through three editions.

In 1841 Mr. and Mrs. Child were engaged by the American Anti-Slavery Standard, a weekly newspaper published in New York. Mr. Child's health being impaired his wife undertook the task alone and conducted the newspaper in that manner for two years, after which she aided her husband in the work, remaining there for eight years. She was a very successful editor. Her management proved efficient while her cultivated taste made the Standard pleasing to many who were not attracted by the plainer fare of the Liberator, During all this period she was a member of the family of the well-known Quaker philanthropist, Isaac T. Hopper, whose biographer she afterwards became. This must have been the most important and satisfactory time in Mrs. Child's whole life. She was placed where her sympathetic nature found abundant outlet and earnest co-operation. Here she also found an opportunity for her best eloquence in writing letters to the Distant Courier. This was the source of "Letters from New York," that afterwards became famous. They were the precursors of that modem school of newspaper correspondence in which women now have so large a share, and which has something of the charm of women's private letters.

Her last publication, and perhaps her favorite among the whole series, appeared in 1867, "A Romance of the Republic." It was received with great cordiality and is in some respects her best fictitious work.

In later life Mrs. Child left New York and took up her abode in Wayland, Massachusetts. She outlived her husband six years and died October 20, 1880.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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