Note: This biographical sketch of Susan Hale was written by her nephew, Edward E. Hale, and appeared as the introduction to Letters of Susan Hale.
ONE can rarely give in a few words any true impression of a long life. Susan Hale was almost seventy-seven when she died, and most of those now living remember her as she was in the latter half of her life,-the mistress of Matunuck in the summer, the unwearied traveller in the winter. But before she had settled into the life most characteristic of her later years, she was a very different as well as a very individual and brilliant personality. As a girl in the family circle at Brookline, and later as a woman in the Boston society of the seventies, she was a very distinct character. The following lines can give only a little concerning her life in those and later years which will enable people to read with some comprehension the letters now published.
Yet certain things were permanent with her. As she grew older, her most striking characteristic was probably a very great sympathy, which enabled her to make many intimate friends. Particularly was this the case with young people, who used to feel about her much as though she were one of themselves, called her Susan, and talked to her on their own current interests without often realising that she really belonged to an earlier generation. In that generation, however, her chief quality had been something quite different, chiefly a certain gift of brilliant cleverness in thought and expression which made her a noteworthy person among her contemporaries.
If one called her a " woman of the world " - in the broadest and best sense - one might include both
these phases. Susan certainly did know the world pretty well, both the particular world of America, Boston, Matunuck, where she was intimate, and the larger world about which she so constantly travelled. And a person remembering her in some such way would doubtless have the general impression which Susan Hale made on her generation, as far as it knew her.
But even with all correction,-clever girl, brilliant woman, sympathetic friend, appreciative traveller, such a view would be only superficial. In all Susan's cleverness and brilliancy there was a constant emotional self-restraint not unusual in the seventies and eighties; in her invariable sympathy and interest in others there was a frequent reserve. The real Susan did not often emerge from the veil. When she did one remembered it, but rarely comprehended it entirely. Her conversation was apparently quite genuine and sincere, and so it was actually, with the reservation that though what she said she really felt and thought, yet she never said all she felt and thought. In this respect her letters have rather more of her real self than even her personal talk had, at least to a reader who can get at it. This is one of the secrets of writing-that it is often more truly, even if unconsciously, self-expressive than conversation.
There was also a certain quaintness, not unperceived, in the more personal part of Susan's character. She was very fond of cats, as many others are, but it was more individual that she should invent and develop an especial " cat language " with which to talk to them. She often went about singing to herself, as many people do, but it was her own specialty to invent " morning-songs " and sing them to herself at breakfast. She also invented names for people and places, but it is not common for such names to
be picked up and used by everybody without thought. These things and many others were individual and quaint and belonged to her. It is hard to say just what was the real Susan, but I think the most real was Susan by herself at Matunuck in the fall after the summer life and gaiety had vanished away, and the summer splendours had passed into the soft-toned and moderated autumn, and the country-side had a certain " tristesse," as she liked to call it. Then she would swim in the pond in the early morning, breakfast on the piazza, write her letters till mail time, stroll about the hill with the current cat, Geronimo, or some other, talk with Louisa or Mr. Franklin or Mr. Browning, sit in the south window or on the piazza and darn stockings over a sort of small gourd, or else read the Sun, make a fire in the evening and read a novel out of which she had torn the illustrations, and go to bed at about eight, humming the most successful morning-song of the week. Nor was all this a matter merely of the moment or of the outside. It involved a criticism of life,-a constant valuation of what the world was and a constant expression of what one was oneself. That. too, I fancy, comes out in her letters. One may not always get it-and perhaps an editor should point it out more clearly - but probably most readers will get at it more or less and that is all one could expect at the very best.
Susan Hale was born December 5, 1833, at 6 Hamilton Place, Boston, the youngest of the eight children of Nathan Hale and Sarah Preston Everett. Of these the four oldest, Sarah, Lucretia, Nathan and Edward, constituted rather a compact group ("we four") as the oldest children now almost grown up. They with their friends made an interesting and brilliant group that Susan was somewhat too young to join. She belonged to the younger four- but her sister Jane died early and Sarah some years
afterward, so that as she grew up Susan was naturally thrown largely with her older sister, Lucretia. Not much can be said here of those earlier years; she soon began to learn to draw and to paint, and as the material fortunes of the family somewhat failed on the illness of her father, she soon began to teach school. The family lived in Boston; her father and her brothers Nathan and Charles successively were editors of the Boston Daily Advertiser. Her brother, Edward, after 1856 was minister of the South Congregational Church. About 1860 the family moved to Brookline, where in 1862 her father died, and in 1865 her mother.
Susan was at this time thirty-two years of age, and had long been the youngest member of a large and able family. She was able herself, but so far she had never had a really independent opportunity to see what she could do if she had to, or what she would do if she could. Nor did such an opportunity at once arise. In 1867 the general family group being practically broken up, she and Lucretia went abroad, specifically to Egypt, where Charles was Consul General of the United States.
On her return from abroad it would seem that Susan made up her mind that she had better carry on her life herself instead of letting it be arranged for her by brothers and sisters and family circumstances. She therefore took rooms at 91 Boylston Street and began, or rather continued, to have classes. This she did for several years, but as she went on she became more and more interested in painting. She had al- ways had ability in this art, as had also others of the family, but she had never had particular teaching. She now resolved to get the best teaching in water-colours that she could, and for this purpose went abroad again in 1872. I cannot say just who were her masters ; the only two whom I recall her mentioning were
Copley Fielding and Henri Harpignies, but I do not think she studied much with either of them. She spent the winter of 1872-1873 in Paris and at Weimar.
In 1873 she came back to Boston and began a very characteristic and interesting period of her life. She again took rooms, I am not sure where at first, but soon at 64 Boylston Street, where the Art Club had at that time established itself. Here she began classes in water-colours, which gave her a regular occupation, but she also developed other things to do, sometimes of an original character. She did, in time, a good many books and wrote a good many letters of travel for the papers. She began to have afternoon classes of ladies not only in Boston but elsewhere, to whom she talked or read. The one that interested her most was on the novelists of the eighteenth century. I cannot say when she began to read to Mr. William Amory, but when I first began to frequent her rooms in the late seventies, it was her habit to go across the Common every afternoon to read to him. for a couple of hours. She also used to go in the evening to read to Mr. T. G. Appleton, and these regular engagements together with her morning classes made for a number of years the backbone of her winter occupation. I do not know just what she used to read to them, but I feel pretty sure that Mr. Appleton at least liked her to talk rather than to read. She used often to go over to Mr. Appleton's for dinner, and as one was a wit and the other a humourist, it is not likely that they spent all their time in reading, even so interesting a book as Gibbon's " Decline and Fall."
I do not remember when Susan first came to Matunuck. During the first ten years of our family life there, there was much visiting on the part of Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucretia and, I have no
doubt, of Susan as well. She was never at Matunuck, however, in those earlier years, for any long period. She was much more likely to go for six or eight weeks to such a place as York, Owl's Head, Ogunquit, or somewhere else along the North Shore. Matunuck she never considered an interesting place for painting. My sister was, about this time, studying with Miss Knowiton, the teaching representative, as one may say, of William M. Hunt. She and her friends liked Matunuck because of its figure elements, the ox-teams of that day gathering seaweed, the boys in broad-brimmed straw hats and blue flannel shirts, which lent themselves to the general Millet-Couture sentiment which they felt. But Susan was not interested in this sort of thing and did not often paint at Matunuck. She liked the Maine coast better and wanted generally to spend a good deal of time wherever she was going to paint. She used to say that there was no use trying to paint till you had been in a place for a fortnight or so, getting to know it. So her first days in a place she used to spend walking about and after that she would paint pretty regularly. In the fall she would bring back a number of water-colours, and have an exhibition at the Art Club, and then begin teaching for the winter.
In 1883, however, she came to Matunuck in a new capacity, namely, that of housekeeper. My father and mother had that year been called to Paris by the illness of my sister and remained abroad all summer. Susan came out to 39 Highland Street to take care of the family-at this time consisting of the four younger boys. With them she went to Matunuck to open the house and ran the establishment until my father and mother came home. It was, perhaps, first this summer that she really became charmed with the place. At any rate, two years after-
ward an arrangement was made by which she assumed charge of the house at Matunuck for the summer. It had been built in 1873 for my father by William B. Weeden, whose place at Willow Dell was just across the road. In the first ten years my father and mother and the rest of us came down regularly and spent the whole summer there. But the housekeeping of those days was rather difficult, so that my mother always got pretty well tired out, and really disliked leaving her large, comfortable, and generally cool house in Roxbury, to go to Matunuck, which was beautiful, but not so attractive for those who did not care for bathing and boating and wood-walking, as for those who did. However it was, by the summer of 1885 it was practically settled that Susan was to be the mistress at Matunuck, and she rather rearranged her life on this basis. Instead of spending the winter at work in Boston and the summer travelling about, she began to spend the summer at Matunuck while she travelled in the winter. She got in the habit of coming down earlier in the spring and staying longer in the fall. When she got into the habit of travelling in the winter, she began to give up the idea of having a home in Boston. She had for a long time lived in the Art Club building. When the Club rearranged the house, she moved to other apartments in Boylston Street. But after she had been at Matunuck a few summers, she regularly moved her things down there, and after that she only stayed in Boston for a longer or shorter time between Matunuck and some winter trip, or in the spring before going to Matunuck for the summer.
Travelling was one of the things she liked best. She was very fond of her particular home at any given time, but she also liked to travel. Her first real journey was to Egypt; a few years afterward she spent a year or so abroad. In 1885 and 1886 she
went to Mexico with F. E. Church and his family, who were among her best friends. The next year she went to Spain with Mr. John Johnston and his sister; in 1891 she made a European trip with Miss Susan Day; in 1892 and again in 1893 she went to California; in 1894 to Europe with Mrs. Church; in 1896 to Algiers by herself, though later she joined Mrs. William Weld in Sicily. In 1899 she went to California with Mrs. Weld, and again, in 1901, with her to Mexico. In 1902 she went to Europe with Miss Ethel Damon. In 1903, 1904, 1905 she spent the winter in Jamaica. In 1905 she was in Egypt; in 1906 in Jamaica again; in 1907 in Cannes. The winters of 1908 and 1909 she spent in Washington and Pass Christian, and the last winter of her life, 1910, in Cannes. But every summer she was at Matunuck.
Susan at Matunuck is to those who knew her there her most characteristic phase. She loved the place and its people, and was never so much at home as when there. At first she plunged actively into the outdoor life; she was a capital swimmer and always wanted a swim in the pond before breakfast, and generally a sea-bath, too, while she also loved to traverse the wood-paths, which in those days led in all directions among the ponds. She liked to take a canoe with one of the boys, and to carry across from pond to pond until they had made a circuit of the hill-country. As she grew older she cared less for this active outdoor life, but devised another more suited to the energies of a woman of fifty or sixty. She would breakfast on the piazza when she was alone; it was not too far from the road to hear some- one driving by explain to a friend, " No, she ain't crazy, but she eats outdoors." After breakfast she went about the house or retired to her " rat's-nest " and wrote letters till the mail-man came. Then it
was time to drive to the beach, which generally took up the rest of the morning. In the afternoon she took to the east piazza about four o'clock, where in time the neighbourhood accustomed itself to come for afternoon tea. She often went off for a stroll in the late afternoon, and after supper finished the day by a short time on the front piazza, where, on clear nights, one had a wonderful stretch of sea and lighthouse and horizon. She went to bed very early in the summer,-at eight or half-past. If there were people about she would go away as though to attend to something and not come back.
She early formed intimate relations with the people around, particularly with those who " did for " her, as the phrase is. Mrs. Perry was the first of these, but when she moved away up the Perryville road she could not continue " doing." Susan then took up with Louisa Sebastian, a big coloured woman with something of a following, and for many years Louisa was her cook, and as far as she had any, her manager. Mr. Franklin and George Jones, both coloured, used to be around a good deal cutting wood and doing odd jobs. She got horses of Robert Browning, to whom she was much attracted by his singular strain of almost saturnine humour. She encouraged all the country to come round in carts and bring her food; she always got something and always had conversations with them. The chief of these visitors were Mrs. Tucker and Peth Bradley.
My father always came to Matunuck as much as he could in the summer, though toward the end of his life he used sometimes to go elsewhere. My mother, however, did not come so much. Susan, therefore, had a good deal of room, for the house was large, and she got into the habit of having a good many visitors, generally young people,-her own friends and her nephews'. In this way grew up at
Matunuck in the late eighties and the nineties a group of young people with all of whom Susan was intimate. She was commonly called Susan by them, and, indeed, by almost everyone else.
Although extremely original and natural in what she said and did, Susan, like most other people, was not able to express herself fully in the current forms to which we are all used. She painted a good deal, and for a number of years was immensely interested in her landscapes, yet no one who knew her could fancy that her landscapes gave much real idea of her gay vitality and her shrewd quaintness. She wrote a good deal in various ways, - sometimes travel-letters to the papers, sometimes books, - but though there was a good deal of herself in these, they never impressed people as she did herself. Possibly she could have arrived at a truer self-expression by being an actress than in any other way. She was always wonderful in extempore theatricals or in the monologues which she arranged for herself like " The Elixir of Youth " or " The Female Fool." But even had it proved that she could best express her mercurial personality on the stage, it is doubtful whether she could have done so by the usual and natural course of presenting or creating the characters conceived by others. She would have been a great figure in the popular extempore stage of the Italians.
In the way of letters, however, she did find a means of expression. She was educated at a time when long letters were more common than they are to-day. All the family wrote letters, and according to the custom of the time they were pretty long ones. In the days before envelopes and stamps it was the custom to use double sheets of quarto size, and if one used such a sheet and paid five or ten cents for postage, it was natural to write enough to fill the sheet. So she early got used to writing letters and soon
adopted letter-writing as an easy and natural mode of expression. Her letters were very like her conversation; they were free and familiar, full of her usual ways of thought and expression, giving her characteristic ideas and point of view. They had not so much of her surprising extempore humour as her talk, but they came nearer being a full self-expression than anything else.
EDWARD E. HALE.
-- "Introduction." Letters of Susan Hale. Ed. Caroline P. Atkinson. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1918: vii-xvii.
Return to main page
Scanned by Deidre Johnson for her 19th-century Girls' Series webpage. Please do not use on other sites without permission.
Copyright 2003 by Deidre Johnson