The Parson And The Bluestocking

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Here is the child Delia as her twenty-two-year-old headmistress saw her: “An agreeable person, a pleasing and intelligent countenance, an eye of deep and earnest expression, a melodious voice, a fervid imagination and the embryo of rare gifts of eloquence.” Miss Beecher’s affection for the child did not blind her to Delia’s flaws. She longed to excel, but more for the sake of applause than for any devotion to excellence. Love, recognition, and literary notoriety were far too dear to Delia in her teacher’s estimation. She aimed for prizes, and when these eluded her, her disappointment was out of all proportion to the value that should have been placed on such trifles. Catharine describes her as a brilliant improviser but deficient when it came to organizing her material and getting it down according to the rules of unity, coherence, and emphasis. Worse, she was only intermittently pious, performing her religious duties sketchily enough to cause some concern as to the state of her soul. Catharine candidly admits that Delia was a handful. Fiercely competitive, she could not endure to see the work of others valued above her own, and when, as frequently happened, some other student gained the first place in class, her jealousy was so keen that her schoolfellows, who seem to have been a good-natured lot, were forced to forget their own triumphs in an effort to comfort and encourage her.

“Her keen sensibility,” continues Catharine, “her transparency, sincerity and impulsiveness, the dangerous power of keen and witty expression … would make her an object of unjust depreciation. … The persons … who were the objects of her regard would almost immediately become enthusiastic admirers while those who in any way came into antagonism would be as decided in their dislike.”

Only one likeness of Delia Bacon exists, a daguerreotype taken when she was in her forties. By all accounts it does not do her justice. The rich eye, the fine mobility of feature, the translucent complexion which though pale yet seemed to glow, are all absent. The woman whom Hawthorne described as “majestic … graceful,” full of vivacity, dignity, and charm, has nothing in common with the strained and cynically smiling personage of the picture. It is a portrait of a sardonically tilted head, a warped mouth, two veined hands, a poke bonnet, and a cashmere shawl. Little is revealed of the creature who caught the attention of Emerson, Carlyle, and Hawthorne, and of whom Elizabeth Peabody wrote in a kind of rapture, as though there were something mesmeric in Delia.

“A beautiful being,” declared Miss Peabody in a letter to Leonard Bacon after Delia’s death. “A glorious and wonderful work of nature, most unhappily environed by uncongenial circumstances in many respects. Her entire unworldliness, her childlike character inspired me with a tenderness without bounds.” But Miss Peabody strikes a dissonance in her paean. Unbounded tenderness did not prevent Hawthorne’s shrewd sister-in-law from knowing that Delia “suffered … from the fear that I would steal her secret [the Shakespearean cipher] and publish it myself.”

In her twenties and early thirties Delia’s character partook apparently of the Victorian image of a perfect lady. She was a virtuous daughter and sister, religious, nice to the point of prudishness in her relations with the opposite sex. Had it not been for her almost excessive refinement she might have earned a reputation for strong-mindedness through her evident indifference to male admiration. Throughout her youth she gave no sign of having any interest in men at all, save those included in her immediate family. At fifteen she had decided to become a teacher, but she soon discovered that classroom instruction did not promise the kind of rewards that she wanted. She attempted a school of her own as Miss Beecher had done so successfully, but the venture failed and she wavered to writing. She had an errant fancy, could tell a tale with spirit, define a character and summon up a landscape with poetic immediacy. She tackled historical romance and did not scruple to write drama in verse. Tales of the Puritans and The Bride of Fort Edward were published and brought her neither fame nor fortune, but they led ultimately to the lecture platform. Delia had a remarkable propensity for oratory and was, like her brother, capable of haranguing an audience for hours together without tiring either it or herself.

The wives and daughters of her brother’s colleagues were in transports about her. She lectured on classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and English letters in Boston, Hartford, and New Haven; her select audience of wellborn, well-endowed ladies paid highly for the privilege of hearing her. As she stood before two statues of Diana and Apollo (tributes from admiring listeners), fragile and fiery, dressed always in black which set off her delicate style of beauty to perfection, she struck the spectators as a Tennysonian princess, an enchanting priestess in the courts of the muses.