Although Mary P. Wells Smith is best known for her children's series, much of her early writing was aimed at an older audience and often commented wryly on gender issues. "Trials of a Tall Young Lady," possibly her earliest publication, was a humorous look at stereotypes of women's appearance and the plight of those girls who failed to satisfy them; "Cacoethes Scribendi" (urge to write) tells of the trials of women writers.
Some elements of the story may be considered autobiographical: Smith did live in a small New England town (Greenfield, Massachusetts) and, like her heroine, had attended a local high school and a female academy in a nearby state. Unlike the protagonist, Smith worked at occupations other than writing: she taught high school and then became a bank clerk. Her first publications appeared while she was still unmarried and working at the bank.
The story is also noteworthy as an example of what literary critic Susan S. Williams labels "the cacoethes scribendi plot," serving as metacommentary on the difference between amateur and professional writing. (Indeed, Smith's story provides one of the examples in Williams's analysis.) In her Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), Williams notes the most common pattern in this type of story involves the woman's discovery "that the result of successful writing is not as satisfying as a happy marriage" (21, 23). On a larger level, Williams views such stories as "exerting disciplinary quality control, [women] critiquing indiscriminate writing through stories that they themselves have succeeded in getting into print" (24). The stories also illuminate some of the dialogue (or perhaps tension) between women who sought to define themselves as authors (i.e., creating Literature) versus those who were merely writers (of popular or s/lighter fare). At this stage in her career -- and perhaps for all of it -- even though Smith's work serves as an example of the genre, she would fall into the latter category.
MISS LUCIA LAMMERMOOR was a rather nice girl, who lived in a little village in the depths of Vermont called Topknot. There was nothing in the early part of her career leading her friends to suppose she would ever be otherwise than all that was estimable and proper to the end of her days. It is true, one thing was seriously against her at the outset. She was the oldest child, the first grandchild, and hence very remarkable as an infant. It was universally conceded—at least by all her grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and the more polite of the neighbors—that so precocious, so wonderful a child was never seen. Her parents endeavored to bear themselves meekly before an envious world, but it was a struggle. At the age of four months she pointed at the fire! When only ten months and two weeks old she distinctly said "Da-da" and "Googoo!" She stood alone when Mrs. Briggs' Tommy next door, two weeks older, was still ignominiously creeping. We spare the reader many equally wonderful testimonies to her early prowess which might be recounted, being all perfectly fresh in Mrs. Lammermoor's mind to this day.
Never did poor child have fairer prospects of being spoiled than Lucia. But the speedy arrival on this mundane sphere of Willie Lammermoor, followed in due time by that of Susan, Mary, Toppy and Poppy the twins, and James Adolphus, served to consign her to a wholesome state of partial neglect and let-aloneness.
After having exhausted the resources of the Topknot district school and academy, she was sent for the finishing, ornamental touches to a boarding-school in Montpelier, whence, after undergoing the regular course in manners and morals, French and music, she was launched on an admiring world, warranted to "elevate and adorn any circle to which Providence in its wisdom should call her," as per accompanying certificate tied with blue ribbon.
For a while her life was as harmless —and, to tell the truth, useless—as could have been desired. She made tatting and tidies, loaded her friends with gratitude and embroidered pin-cushions, waged the battles of her younger sisters against Will, the common enemy, corresponded vigorously with ten of her most intimate boarding-school friends —was, in brief, quite a model nineteenth-century young lady. All might have been well, but for one of those crises in the money market which now and then literally try men's souls. Money suddenly grew very tight. Banks and business-men hauled in all extra canvas and lay-to, prepared for squalls. Cashiers frowned on even the best paper. Flocks of "lame ducks," like seagulls in a storm, were flying madly around, offering the wildest kind of per cent. in vain. Cottons went down, down, and with them Mr. Lammermoor's funds and spirits. The strictest economy was enjoined on his family. One day this edict fell like a thunderbolt on their devoted heads: "No new bonnets this year, girls."
The girls stared at him aghast. Then, in chorus: "You can't be serious, father: you're joking now—aren't you?"
"I wish I were," grimly responded Mr. Lammermoor, usually the most easily wheedled of fathers where his three daughters were concerned. "Why, I see in to-day's Tribune that Overall, Sheeting and Co. have just failed for half a million, and cottons are quoted 'Unsteady, with strong downward tendency.' New bonnets, indeed! We may be thankful if we manage to keep out of the poorhouse!" and Mr. Lammermoor stalked gloomily off to put his factory running on half time.
"Oh, Lucia, what shall we do?" quoth Sue in accents of despair.
"Like the First Witch in Macbeth, 'I'll do, and I'll do, and I'll do;' only I'm not quite certain what, yet!" replied Lucia.
"Perhaps our old ones may be made respectable?" suggested Sue.
"Respectable!" said Lucia, with infinite scorn. "I've no taste for being merely respectable. The bonnet makes the woman, or at least her looks, which is the same thing."
Here Will entered from the post-office with the last number of the Windboro' Family Chronicle. The girls fell on it at once, hoping for light from its New York correspondent, whose high-toned dicta on the fashions were regarded as indisputable. Skimming rapidly down the dissertations of this authority, their eyes fell on this blasting paragraph:
"Bonnets will be worn much larger the coming winter. While the crowns are entirely different in shape from those of last season, and the capes much deeper, the distinguishing and most recherche feature of the latest importations from Paris is the front, which is worn very high and projecting over the forehead, imparting a truly distingue air to the fair wearer."
A solemn silence followed this destruction of their last hope, broken by Lucia. "Girls, mark me!" said she in tragic accents befitting the occasion. "For the present, I adopt as my aim in life the old man's advice to his son: 'Git money—honestly, if you can—but, anyhow, git money.'"
It has been suggested that the often-quoted passage from St. Paul should read, "The want of money is the root of all evil." Certain it is, an empty purse was the sole cause of our heroine's misdoing. "Be good and you will be happy," has become an axiom. "Be rich and you will be good," might almost be another.
"Gold doth lure,
Gold doth secure
All things. Alas the poor!"
Three ways of earning money are open to women who lack strength or inclination for housework—viz.: teaching, sewing, writing. The last seemed the most feasible to Lucia. Her head was slightly turned with certain marvelous stories in circulation of the immense pecuniary successes achieved in this line. She thought of Fanny Burney and her Evelina, of Miss Phelps and Gates Ajar, of Mrs. Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Why should not she also go where glory waited her? Why longer be a mute, inglorious Milton? She remembered that at school she was supposed to excel in "compos.", as the girls dubbed them. Did she not, by the pathos of her last great valedictory effort, bring out the handkerchiefs of all the girls and an audible sniff from one of the audience? The die was cast. She too would become an authoress, and earn, if not fame, at least money and a new bonnet.
To work she went, with a touching ignorance of any possible disagreeable consequences that should have disarmed all cavilers. At first, she tried the high and mighty style. She shed much ink, and some real tears, over a tale of tragedy and trap-doors, called "Beauty and Booty; or, The Brigand's Bride." As the scene was laid in Italy, and her whole life had been spent in Topknot, Vermont, where brigands are by no means so plenty as blackberries, the result was not, even to her partial mind, a success. Finally, this great effort was abandoned, and she decided to perpetrate a sketch of Yankee life and character, called "Our Donation Party."
And now McGregor's foot was on his native heath. All went on charmingly. As every one, no matter of what age, sex or position, enjoys a love-story, a thread of this essential ingredient was carefully worked in. Red-haired heroes not being so common as the other well-known varieties, her hero had red hair. Tall, of course: heroes must be tall. To make a proper contrast the heroine was endowed with black eyes. All the characters expressed themselves in that Yankee vernacular — ha-ow, wa'al, dun'no, guess so, etc.—so universally spoken throughout New England, as witness the Biglow Papers, Josh Billings, Widow Bedott, the traditional stage Yankee and popular opinion generally—outside of New England. Long before her story was finished she arrived at the conclusion that money is not to be earned, even by writing stories, without some hard work. But all things come to an end, and so finally did Lucia's story, and it was furtively dropped into the post-office, addressed to her favorite magazine, The Tin Trumpet.
After two days had passed she visited the post-office daily, and made her father's and Will's lives burdens to them by her persistent determination that they must have a letter for her concealed in some forgotten pocket. One day, after she had lapsed into utter despair, the postmaster surprised her by handing out a letter, which Lucia felt instinctively was no common letter —was, in short, the letter on which hung her fate and her new bonnet. She blushed guiltily beneath the postmaster's eyes: she wondered if he mistrusted. Young people always fancy the world at large feels the same vivid interest in their affairs which they themselves do. Only by hard experiences do they learn at last the insignificance of any one person in this world of ours. As for the postmaster, who handled daily letters that meant success or failure, joy or despair, sin or salvation, life or death to some one, Lucia's little hopes and fears were of the smallest moment to him.
She hurried home, regarding the fateful missive with a queer countenance, expressive of the most mingled emotions. Once safely in a side street, curiosity triumphed over apprehension, and she tore it open, thinking, "Of course it's rejected, and I may as well get over the worst before I reach home." But what was this? Could she credit the evidence of her own eyes? Certainly this was a check, for the incredible sum of twenty-five dollars!
She walked home on air, with a beaming face that seemed to diffuse several square feet of happiness around her into the "circumambient air." She burst wildly into the house, joyfully proclaimed the great news, and then gave vent to the exuberance of her feelings by whirling Sue with her in a waltz of triumph around the sitting-room, to the accompaniment of loud wails from James Adolphus, too young to appreciate the glory that had befallen the family. This money seemed to Lucia rather too remarkable to be expended like common greenbacks. She overcame her reluctance, however, so far as to procure for the exterior of the head whose interior had furnished the wherewithal, one of the pokiest of those poke bonnets in which the heart of woman rejoiced only a few years ago.
And here, one would suppose, the story might end. Alas! this was but the beginning. Lucia was to learn that everything has its price. Success can be achieved in any pursuit if you are willing to pay the price. The sorrows of rejected authors have long formed a favorite theme of story-writers. No one thinks of the accepted's trials, all the harder because his lot is popularly supposed to be one of unmingled felicity. Take even the mildest form of success, that of Lucia's, for instance. In the first place, there was the long waiting for the article to appear. When, finally, it did appear, she was exceedingly ashamed of it, it read so differently in print. She assured her mother confidentially: "It is the last story I ever should have read if written by any one else. How could I be guilty of such namby-pambyism? However, there's one comfort—no one knows it is mine."
Alas for the vanity of human hopes! Somehow it had leaked out in Topknot that Lucia Lammermoor had written a story for the Trumpet, to appear in the March number. All Topknot was at once on the qui vive, and an immense number of Trumpets for March was sold. The other short stories in this number being a seafaring tale and a thrilling episode in high life at Saratoga, "Our Donation Party" was easily identified as the fatal article.
It became at once the sensation of the day in Topknot. Lucia could not call anywhere without seeing the Trumpet's green cover peering out from under a newspaper. People who usually did not condescend to read stories read this, even sarcastic Dr. Paine and the Rev. Mr. Graves, Lucia's minister. Lucia writhed in spirit as she pictured to herself these venerable men sitting solemnly down, deliberately donning their spectacles and gravely bringing their great minds to bear on her poor little nonsense. Then every one was determined she should "mean some one" by her characters. All in vain were her assurances that these were mere puppets of her imagination, pieces of mechanical work made to suit the market. Topknot was not to be hoodwinked by any such easily-seen-through evasion. Had there not once been a tall, red-haired young man attentive to Lucia, and were not her eyes black? How very improper to describe her own charms so fluently! At least six persons in Topknot were convinced they were "shown up" in "Our Donation Party," and accordingly treated Lucia "civilly" for ever after. And then the grammar the Topknotians considered themselves as represented to use was deeply resented. Lucia was regarded as a highly dangerous character, who might break out any day in a new spot.
In short, as Topknot was a small country town, where not more than three events happened in a year-—as, moreover, differing herein from most New England villages, it had never experienced a live authoress in its midst before—-Lucia found she had, with the most harmless intentions imaginable, succeeded in raising a very respectable tempest in a teapot. There is nothing like your good intentions for raising a thorough breeze.
Anna Sweet gave a little evening-party to exhibit her "perfectly splendid" young gentleman cousin from New York, of which fascinating being the Topknot girls had often heard glowing accounts, but for a sight of whom they had hitherto pined in vain. Early in the evening, Lucia had the pleasure of catching the following fragment of a dialogue in one of those sudden lulls that leave the unwary talking confidentially in a shout.
Miss Sweet: "Introduce you? She writes for the Trumpet.'"
P. S. Y. G. C.: "No, thank you. I've a horror of blues."
And the guest of the evening betook himself and his moustaches over to Celestia Smiler, whereat Lucia tasted the sweets of revenge, knowing but too well how Celestia would respond, "Yeth. No. I gucth tho," and nothing else, to his most brilliant efforts, when the deluded mortal might have been entertained, as she could not secretly help knowing he would have been, by one of her own funniest, brightest talks.
Lucia was seized with a sudden compassion for the wall-flowers, on whom, with the usual selfishness of prosperity, she had not ordinarily bestowed many thoughts. In a certain hopeless corner were five amiable girls trying to smile and act as if, in the language of the immortal Toots, it was of "no consequence." Lucia joined them. Virtue is, indeed, its own reward. They immediately selected the "Donation Party" as the topic most agreeable to Lucia, little knowing how thoroughly sick she was of the very name of the thing.
Lilly Lambkin said, "Tee, he, he! I'm really afraid of you, Lucia. Positively, I expect to see every word I say in some of your stories."
And again: "Is Sarah Sharp really yourself? Every one says so."
As the shipwrecked mariner is not usually over-particular about the barque that rescues him from his desert island just as he has eaten his last shoe, so Lucia now hailed with joy the advent of an individual not ordinarily as welcome as flowers in May. This was Mr. Webster Bolus, an exceedingly profound —not to say heavy—young man, studying medicine with Dr. Paine; a youth so weighed down with a sense of the importance of the science of medicine, and himself as a disciple of that science, that he never descended to those trivialities in which common minds delight.
He never unbent—was improving to the last. Born in Boston, he trembled not even before a woman who wrote. On the contrary, he evidently regarded Lucia as a kindred spirit, and attached himself to her for the rest of the evening, entertaining her with well-worn platitudes on woman's rights, the conservation and correlation of forces, Confucius, the subjective Me, and other light topics suitable to evening-parties.
Lucia cast agonizing glances of appeal at Tom Briggs. Why didn't he come to her rescue? Did he not know how she detested Bolus?
But Tom, usually Lucia's specialty, was, for some unaccountable reason, obstinately blind to all hints—in fact, decidedly shy of her—and at the close of the evening actually went home with Celestia Smiler, leaving Lucia to the tender mercies of Bolus.
Lucia went to bed a miserable being, feeling that she should soon be able to depict a broken heart, with full particulars, from her own experience. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," even if it be only imitation laurel. Lucia said to Sue the next morning, "You didn't lose much by your cold. It was, without exception, the stupidest party I ever attended."
Odd how people's opinions differ! For instance, Miss Smiler's verdict on this same party was exactly the reverse of Lucia's—nothing short of "Thplendid!" in fact.
The very last of the winter—to be exact, the third week in March, when winter begins to show some signs of yielding, even in Vermont—the event of the season occurred in the shape of a grand sleigh-ride. All Lucia's set went. She did not, because she scorned going with Bolus, and no one else invited her. From behind the parlor blind her feelings were still further harrowed by seeing Tom Briggs dash by with Celestia Smiler, who wore a provokingly becoming new hood, and whom—-such is the strength of human nature, even in authoresses—she instantly hated.
A long standing neighborhood-and-school-day flirtation had been waxing, of late, into something suspiciously more tender, when Lucia's story, like a bombshell, burst in on Topknot, shaking that quiet village to its centre, and rudely dissipating Love's young dream. Tom's ideas of literary women were the usual vague but damaging ones of inky fingers, untidy hair, neglected families and henpecked husbands. Besides, supposing he so far forgot himself as, for instance, to tenderly press Lucia's hand, how did he know it might not all figure in her next story? "They" said she went deliberately around experiencing things as so much raw material for stories, even the calamities of her best friends being not wholly unwelcome from this point of view.
In short, he was rather afraid of Lucia, and took refuge in Celestia Smiler's society as a sort of antidote. Celestia might be dull, but she was at least perfectly safe. One might be quite sure she would never, under any possible combination of circumstances, do anything out of the commonplace. She would never give way to impulses, because she never had any. Because her temperament was of this dull, lethargic order, leading her to talk little but smile a great deal, displaying thereby some not unpleasant dimples, Tom, with the fine discrimination of his sex, pronounced her "a womanly woman: nothing strong-minded and unfeminine about her." Which dictum having been uttered one evening in Mr. Briggs' store, where a group of young men were amusing themselves by discussing the girls with their cigars, Will brought it home as something likely to interest Lucia.
"That's all young men know about women," said Lucia. "We girls all know that Celestia lies in bed till noon, that her room generally looks as if there had been a small hurricane in it, and her stockings always have holes in the heels. I wish you could see some of her sewing. But of course we cannot speak of these things. It would be considered all our jealousy."
"And not far from right, I imagine: hey, Lu?" said this aggravating Will, who, being a man and a brother, could not resist teasing his sister a little now and then.
"I don't understand your allusion in the least. I'm sure Celestia Smiler is nothing to me—or Tom Briggs, either, for that matter."
With which highly veracious and logical remark, and, as the novelists say, a "haughty mien," Lucia swept out of the room in a high tragedy manner not unworthy of Mrs. Siddons' best days, injuring the effect somewhat, perhaps, by the slight bang of the door in which her wounded feelings found vent.
There was nothing remarkable about Tom Briggs. He was eminently one of those fish of whom there are plenty more, equally desirable, still swimming in the sea. But hearts are such queer, contrary, perverse pieces of property! They never feel as they ought to. Here was Lucia's blindly fastened on this undeserving Thomas. Other men might be as virtuous and agreeable, but she would have none of them. He was practically, for her, the only man the sun shone on, or, as Mrs. Browning puts it,
"All other men were to her but as shadows."
She might have fame, wealth, everything the world could offer, and still be unsatisfied so long as this one Mordecai of a denied and wasted love sat in the gateway of her life.
Authors and authoresses are very much like the rest of the world, after all. They can no more "feed upon the empty wind" than other people. If you tickle them, they laugh; if you poison them, they die; they are fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, warmed by the same summer and cooled by the same winter, that other Christians are. Their fame, the world's applause or blame, is all something extrinsic, outside of their real life. In the privacy of their homes, in the secresy of their own souls, they must still share all human weaknesses, feel all human wants.
Things drifted along without much change until summer—Lucia still writing for the magazines, miserable in private, defiantly gay in public; Tom flirting spasmodically with Celestia, but subject to relapses, during which he drove past Mr. Lammermoor's door altogether an unnecessary number of times in a day, and might have been detected in church gazing pensively across at the crown of a certain poke bonnet gracing the Lammermoor pew— when finally a pink lawn dress brought matters to a crisis. On such slight threads are the Fates pleased to hang mortal destinies. .
Young ladies with black eyes look well in pink lawn. Lucia did—uncommonly well. Tom thought so; only, being merely an ignorant man-creature, he didn't know it was the pink lawn. He simply felt the effects, the deadly effects. It was at singing-school. At the close, when the girls began to stroll homeward in a markedly unconscious manner, as if they did not dream of any one's accompanying them, accidentally—such accidents will happen so long as "all the world and love is young"—Tom found himself in his old place by Lucia's side, with her hand—the wicked little hand that wrote the stories that made all the trouble—resting on his arm. And then, somehow, whether it was the moonlight, or the pink lawn, or the shy way in which Lucia wouldn't look at him, the question, the momentous, the dreadful question, popped itself!
As for Lucia, she blushed and fluttered, and stammered out her "Yes" just like any ordinary woman.
And so they were married, and Lucia darned Tom's stockings and sewed on his shirt-buttons, and never, never wrote for the magazines any more, and they lived happily for ever afterward. But it was a very narrow escape for her, and her example should none the less serve "to point a moral and adorn a tale."
P. Thorne [Mary P. Wells (Smith)]
Lippincott's 6 (December 1870): 639-645.
Copyright 2012 by Deidre Johnson . Please do not reproduce without permission.