Sunday, July 27, 2008

Total change of topic today, except to say that I have finished tidying the front and back of the dinosaur sweater, and embarked on the first sleeve. I will press on today, I think, rather than relapsing into scarf-knitting.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

There is a review in the current issue of the Economist of a book called “White Heat: the Friendship of Emily Dickenson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson” by Brenda Wineapple.

The reviewer says, “Dickenson’s externally uneventful life has been chronicled before, but Brenda Wineapple finds a new way in by focussing on her relationship with the man who would eventually help to bring her to the public gaze after her death. Thomas Wentworth Higginson has usually been patronised as a second-rater who bungled the transmission of Dickenson’s work by allowing too much editorial tampering, a man whose bourgeois conventionality tried to silence a woman poet’s true voice. Yet Ms Wineapple responds to him with compassion and respect, and in doing so makes her book much more than a biography – rather a sweeping cultural and political history of the lead-up to the American civil war and its aftermath.”

And why is this of any interest? Because my mother wrote just that book, described by its reviewers in just those terms, 45 years ago. My mother’s was the first biography of Higginson, apart from a book his widow wrote not long after his death. Her name was Anna Mary Wells, and her Higginson book is called “Dear Preceptor”. It can be had very cheaply from Abebooks.

I’m not complaining. Forty-five years is a reasonable interval, in the academic world, if Higginson really deserves another biography. But I must see Wineapple’s book to find out in what terms she mentions my mother’s, and in what respects she thinks she has surpassed it.

And first of all, I am embarrassed to say, I must read “Dear Preceptor”. It came out in 1963. Helen was born in January of that year, when Rachel was four and a half, Alexander nearly three, and James, 17 months. My husband wasn’t well. We bought and furnished and occupied Burnside that spring and summer. I marvel at myself in retrospect, and am not entirely surprised that I didn’t read “Dear Preceptor”. But I will now.


  1. Anonymous11:49 AM

    I don't think anyone could have called Dear Preceptor a "sweeping cultural and political history of the US leading up to the civil war" so this may be quite a different book--but DP does have an outstanding chapter on the history of cultural attitudes towards womens' education. It should be very interesting to compare the two. (This is a Sister Helen post, pretty obviously)

  2. Well Jean, once again you have lead me, cup of tea in hand, thru another google wander. I went to look at DP - then ended up at the New Yorker, and was excited to find that I can get the entire NY archive for $40, and my birthday is just around the corner. I'll be dropping hints today.

  3. The dinosaurs sound like they are starting to take on the flavour of a penance. I'm sure your life will become more interesting/fun after this Jurassic period in your life is over. As for me, my relief knitting post hoodie is a little angora headwarmer for a friend who's travelling with her 9mo daughter from London to Canberra, which is experiencing v. cold temperatures. Poor little bub won't know what's hit her!

    I try not to think of all the books I've meant to read as it's quite depressing. Sitting next to my bed at the moment is Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London', which has been on the To Read List since 1996. Hmmm.