Learning more about 19th century life for women with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

As a follow-up to American Bloomsbury, and in an effort to continue to build on knowledge of life in New England for women in the 19th century, I’ve started reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown, at the advice of a friend (good advice!). This is a beautifully written book that attempts to fill in the gaps with plausible scenarios regarding the complicated marriage and relationship between Lydia Jackson (aka Lidian Emerson), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. It reads in the first person like a historical novel and I’m enjoying the ride very much.

I’m finding that this reading is having a pragmatic effect on my work as a public speaker in the Catholic church. I’ve been asked (along with my partner) to give a half day retreat musing on the topic, “What defines beauty in the eyes of God for women?” and I am reading a couple of books for research purposes to prepare my portion of the talk we will give. One of those books is called The Authentic Catholic Woman by  Genevieve Kineke (if you want to see more details about this branch of my reading, I invite you to visit my spiritual blog at www.susanbailey.org/blog), and as I read, my immersion in the 19th century and the plight of women came flooding into my mind. Oftentimes I am at personal odds with feminists of today because I think we have gotten off message. It seems like it’s only about power, often at the expense of our unique identity as women. Louisa’s efforts with women’s suffrage reminded me of why I still do want to be active in promoting the dignity and rights of women (especially in educating my own daughter) but I would like to avoid the political nature of groups like NOW.

It’s so wonderful to see the connections, and the value, of studying our history. For one thing, it reminds me that it was not long ago (in fact in my own generation) that women did not enjoy the freedoms they enjoy today. We’ve come a long way! But there is a lifetime of history to undo and much work still needs to be done. The spiritual reading I’m doing points out how the world’s view of men and women is badly distorted, and people have taken great advantage of that in many ways.

I look forward to my research for this half day retreat, especially since it brings in the reading I’m doing for this blog.

Oh and by the way? The woman that hired us is a big Louisa fan! God is good. :-)

So far in Mr. Emerson’s Wife, Waldo has just purposed to Lidian, ironically through a letter. How perfect! As you may know, Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, was his true love and there would be no one to replace her. Lidian strikes me as more of a companion, a functional wife, rather than the true love that was Ellen. According to Brown, Lidian was very reluctant to get married and understood very well the sacrifices women had to make to become wives (in essence, giving up their own individual lives). She was 30 and did not want to marry. Waldo proved to be very persuasive.

I feel the pangs inside as I read this, knowing that their marriage turned out to be far less than she had hoped it would be. But I look forward to getting deeper into this story.

Stay tuned . . . :-)

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2 thoughts on “Learning more about 19th century life for women with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

  1. Gina says:

    Loved this book. It does a great job of putting the reader into the 19cent. I was hoping the author would write another Victorian era novel, but she isn’t. Tragic.

  2. Jillian says:

    This sounds like a great read! :-)

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