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The imaginative power and feminism of Harriet Prescott Spofford

“A Flaming Fire Lily Among the Pale Blossoms of New England” poignantly points to the paradoxical nature behind the imaginative power of notable American author Harriet Prescott Spofford. No, she is no longer with us today, having produced most of her work during the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, but to those of us lucky enough to have encountered her tales of romance and the supernatural, we can only believe that Gothic genius came much earlier than Ann Rice and Joyce Carol Oates. During her time, Spofford published continuously in periodicals, offering short stories, serialized novels, poetry, and articles for adults and children. Despite her long career (over 60 years) and impressive list of publications, Spofford has been neglected by critics and only recently has she been resurrected from the footnote. To overlook this writer who challenged stereotypical depictions of women, blending the colors of romance with the realities of her New England environment, while introducing us to the very first female authored serial detective—A Mr. Furbush—is to shortchange our literary history.

Born in Calais, Maine in 1849, Spofford moved with her parents to Newburyport, Massachusetts, which would be her eventual resting place. She attended the Putnam Free School in Newburyport, and Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire, both prestigious schools that indicate a very high level of formal schooling, quite a feat for a woman during this time. At the age of 16, she won a prize for the best essay on Hamlet, which drew the attention of well-known editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who soon became her friend, and gave her counsel and encouragement. Economic hardship, however, owning back to Spofford’s ship-owning grandfather who lost his fortune in the War of 1812, propelled her toward writing for money, especially when her father returned from a Western prospecting trip with little to show for it. Soon after, Spofford began writing short stories to augment her father’s meager income from running a boarding house, so she set to work publishing anonymous pulp fiction in various Boston papers, sometimes laboring fifteen hours a day and making as little as $2.50 a story. One day in 1859, however, she caught a break. She sent “In a Cellar,” a dark story about Parisian life, to the venerable Atlantic Monthly which was edited by the well-known James Russell Lowell. Believing the story to be a translation, he at first rejected it, but after being assured by Higginson of its originality—“I had to be called into satisfy them that a demure little Yankee girl could have written it”—he sent Spofford a check for $100 commending her work.” From then on, her stories were gobbled up by a reading public secretly enjoying the many tales of the supernatural she penned.

Although Spofford was often held up as a model of behavior for other “lady authors,” she was also often criticized for her excessive description that lacked realistic precision. Spofford’s fiction had very little in common with what was regarded as representative of New England life. Her Gothic romances were set apart by luxuriant descriptions, and she had a gift for creating atmosphere through vivid descriptions, using setting and object to capture character, and playing with the passionate and often amoral aspects of human behavior. And yet she was an artist of Romance living in the age of literary Realism. Her dedication to descriptions and fancies ushered in some scathing criticism from male contemporaries who felt she needed to wrangle in her emotions and write with a more realistic temperament.

Portrait drawing of United States writer Harriet Prescott Spofford. Published in Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, v. 5, 1900, p. 633. Jacques Reich, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So, she did what any God-fearing early feminist would do—she continued to write and publish more Gothic fiction. In fact, Emily Dickinson once wrote to Higginson on 25 April 1862, “I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me in the Dark—so I avoided her.” To her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert, Dickinson conveyed, “Sue, it is the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn’t think I could have imagined myself,” and despite her comment to Higginson, she begged Sue to “send me everything she writes.” This story, based on an incident that actually happened to Spofford’s maternal great-grandmother, describes a woman who spends an entire winter night pinned motionless in a tree by a panther, known as the “Indian Devil.” The heroine must continue to sing, hoping to lull the beast to sleep so that she can escape. She eventually does (after her husband finds her and shoots the beast) only to return to a home burned by Native Americans.

There have been calls of late for critical attention to Spofford’s long-neglected works and most of these calls have cited “Circumstance” (1860), a story concerned with issues of women’s voice. Most recently, editors have called attention to “Her Story” (1872), a tale of rivalry between two women, both unnamed, one the wife of a wealthy minister and the other his ward. The wife narrates her story from the madhouse to which she has been committed – “bur[ied] . . . alive” in “this grave” by her husband Spencer. “Her Story” in many ways anticipates the themes and critical interests of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” (published two decades later). Like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Her Story” offers a critique of the social conventions that oppress women, but unlike Gilman’s later tale, “Her Story” is not really concerned with the divisions between men and women, but rather with the origins and significance of divisions among women. Specifically, it explores the way the oppositions common to male- and female-authored fictions (blond-passive-chaste; dark-aggressive-sexual) serve to divide women from each other. Spofford’s adaptation of the Gothic mode demonstrates how the concept of the “other woman” objectifies the status of woman as “other” in the service of intra-gender warfare. For all their apparent differences, the two rivals are shown to be more co-conspirators, both equally subject to male authority, continuously perpetuated by the myths of our culture.

Indeed, Spofford’s work did not always deal with feminist concerns, but following her love of the Gothic, she explored detective fiction as well. In fact, Harriet Spofford is the first woman writer to introduce us to a serial detective in crime fiction, anticipating latter detectives created by such authors as Metta Victor and Anna Katharine Green. “In a Cellar” presents a quasi detective—“[i]t is not often that I act as a detective”—that would be given full form in “Mr. Furbush” (1865) where he works with the New York police and is “a man of genteel proclivities, fond of fancy parties and the haut ton, curious in fine women and aristocratic defaulters and peculators.” He reappears again in “In the Maguerriwock,” (1868) where he works as a private detective. There are so many more stories to be found, perhaps leaving us to wonder if Mr. Furbush does somehow live on in the stacks of old libraries.

The works collected in A Scarlet Poppy (1894) are light satire, quite different from the more somber collection Old Madame and Other Tragedies (1900). Spofford’s days in Washington with her husband provide the basis for the sentimental stories in Old Washington (1906), and her final collection, often considered her best, The Elder’s People (1920), returns to New England. These stories reflect the dry humor, realities, believable dialect, and even restraint of New England life, all of which earned her high praise. Yet the women in these narratives remain as strong as ever. They face the realistic necessities of life, live with the limited perceptions of their men, and triumph through the art they create. Spofford always finds the cerulean and azure threads woven into the browns and grays of the New England life and the women she knew so well.

Featured Image credit: Photo accompanying chapter by Harriet Prescott Spofford entitled “Camp Cookery” from American Home and Gardens, Volume 10, New York: Munn and Co, 1913. Photo by Mary H. Northend, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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