Elizabeth Payson Prentiss

portrait Like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, her contemporary, Prentiss was the daughter of a Congregational minister whose New England ancestry dated back to the seventeenth century. Also like Phelps, unfortunately, she spent much of her life plagued by ill health, a condition exacerbated by several tragic losses during the early years of her married life.

She was born in Portland, Maine, on 26 October 1818, to Edward and Ann Payson, and grew up in Portland as part of a large family. She began writing stories during her childhood and in 1834, when only sixteen, had a story published in Youth's Companion.

From 1838-1844, Prentiss taught school, first at home for two years, and then at a girls' school in Richmond, Virginia. During the latter part of this period, she apparently met -- or became romatically involved with -- her future husband, and on 16 April 1845, she married George Lewis Prentiss, a Congregational minister. The couple lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for several years. There they had two children, Annie (born in 1846) and Eddy (born in 1848). For the first year of his life, Eddy's health was so poor that he was not expected to live; indeed, when he recovered, Prentiss wrote in her journal, "To me he never seemed the same child. . . . I often said afterward that a little stranger was running about my nursery, not mine, but God's." During this period (actually, from about 1840 until 1853), Prentiss's only writing was apparently in voluminous correspondence and journals, including one preserving a detailed account of Eddy's days.

In 1849, Rev. Prentiss accepted a call to a Presbyterian church in Newark, New Jersey, necessitating a family move; two years later, the Prentisses again moved, this time to New York. In 1853, one of the greatest (and perhaps the greatest) tragedies of Prentiss's life occurred: Eddy sickened again and died in January. Prentiss was devastated. In April, her health, already poor, was further strained when she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. The baby lived only a month. During this period, Prentiss herself was been so ill that, as she wrote in her journal, "I was too feeble to have any care of her. Never had her in my arms but twice; once the day before she died and once while she was dying." According to The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, these tragedies propelled Prentiss into writing. As the NCAB explains, "After her death, the following lines, written in pencil . . . were found in her desk:"
I thought that prattling boys and girls
    Would fill this empty room;
That my rich heart would gather flowers
    From childhood's opening bloom.

One child and two green graves are mine;
   This is God's gift to me:
A bleeding, fainting, broken heart --
   This is my gift to Thee. [1] 

In 1856, Prentiss published the first volume in her Little Susy series, Little Susy's Six Birthdays. Its preface alludes to childhood death, noting "Sometimes little children don't live to spend six birthdays in this world. They go to heaven and spend them there; and they are better and happier days than any little Susy ever knew." This was apparently not the only connection with Prentiss's loss, for the NCAB notes that Eddy is "immortalized in [the] 'Susy-Books,'" as the younger brother of the title character.

Prentiss published two additional volumes in the series -- which also reflect her mixed experiences with motherhood. Her youngest daughter (born in 1854) had been very ill but was recovering when Prentiss noted in her journal, "To help divert my mind from such incessant brooding over my sorrows, I am writing another book." The new volume, Little Susy's Six Teachers, told not of flesh-and-blood instructors, but instead of Mrs. Love, Miss Joy, Aunt Patience, Mr. Ought, Faith -- and Mr. Pain.

Although the Little Susy series seems rather didactic to modern readers, it was quite popular during the period and even appeared in British and French editions. Like Susy, Prentiss also experienced joy as well as pain, for in 1857, a year after the series concluded, she had another son, and, in 1859, while spending several years abroad, gave birth to her sixth child, in Switzerland. She continued writing, enjoying success with adult works as well as juvenile fiction. In 1869, her most popular adult novel, the semi-autobiographical Stepping Heavenward appeared; it sold approximately 150,000 copies and was translated into numerous languages. [3] Prentiss also wrote a number of hymns, the best-known of which is probably "More Love to Thee, O Christ." [2] She died 13 August 1878.

1. Quoted in "Prentiss, Elizabeth (Payson)." National Cyclopedia of American Biography.

2. The text and music for "More Love to Thee" can be found at The Cyber Hymnal.

3. Stepping Heavenward is now online at Project Gutenberg.

"Elizabeth Payson Prentiss." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Lina Mainero. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Payson Prentiss. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1882.
    (Now online at Project Gutenberg.)
"Prentiss, Elizabeth Payson." Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971.
"Prentiss, Elizabeth (Payson)." National Cyclopedia of American Biography.

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