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The Parson And The Bluestocking
The spinster thought she’d been proposed to; the young minister thought not. Their courtship and quarrel rocked devout New Haven
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
While Delia was in the way of accumulating, if not a fortune, a pretty good living and the literary fame that she had so passionately longed for as a schoolgirl, she was not the only woman in New Haven aspiring to literary eminence. At 77 Elm Street a young rival was putting the polish on a series of lustrous attainments. Henrietta Blake was at this time in her early twenties, a tall, dark girl of formidable achievement. She was a good classical scholar and is reliably reported to have thrown over an eligible parti for sending her a Greek ode disfigured by false quantities.
Unlike Delia Bacon she was born rich, one of the ten children of Eli Whitney Blake, inventor of the Blake stone crusher. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin also loomed in her background. According to one of her admirers, James Hadley, she “avowed and gloried in a delightful perversity of taste.”
The Blakes shared with the Bacons, the Taylors, the Days, the Baldwins, the Woolseys, and others a comfortable eminence in the New Haven hierarchy, and it was toward this company that the Reverend Alexander MacWhorter, the only son of a doting widow from New Jersey, directed his innocent footsteps. Possessing a good income, a good profile, and an engaging address, the gentle youth made a charming impression. Nathaniel Taylor took him under his special protection, and Leonard Bacon’s signature was one of those adorning the articles licensing him to preach. He had won a reputation as scholar during his undergraduate days at Yale and was considered to have a pretty, if slightly condescending, wit. Beyond these attractions he seems to have had, in common with Delia Bacon, an indefinable allure. People flocked around him, especially men, although women liked him too. He claimed an extreme naïveté where women were concerned, but he took pains that no false quantities should mar his interchange with Henrietta Blake.
On becoming a licentiate in the Congregational Church, he moved into the same boardinghouse where Delia Bacon lived, fixed his large eyes on her, and breathed a longing to know her. The recipient of this confidence was a classmate, Robert W. Forbes, for whom Delia had conceived one of her celebrated dislikes. She considered him flimsy and quite unfit to attend the levees that she was in the habit of holding in her rooms for the benefit of her students and their parents. She had, however, nothing against MacWhorter, and with the arrogance of a de Staël and without waiting for a formal introduction she sent him a note, indicating her willingness to receive him but pointedly excluding Forbes.
Delia’s initial objections to Forbes remain mantled in mystery. Catharine Beecher, Delia’s staunchest defender, admits that she cannot account for them. But it was enough that she did not like him and would not have him on the premises, although she had known him since childhood and had even been a guest of his family. The slight cankered him vilely. The flirtatious licentiate applied a certain balm by reading the note of invitation aloud to his neglected friend and making good fun of a maiden lady, old enough to know better, unabashedly scurrying after a rich young man. MacWhorter also wrote a most entertaining letter to his friend, the Reverend Alexander Clapp, parson of the Congregational Church at Brattleboro, Vermont, describing the whole amusing episode and, without precisely saying so, hinting that Miss Bacon’s behavior had been unbecomingly forward.
He concealed this state of things from Delia, however, and having finally gained admittance to her levees, rather rapidly cemented the friendship, which under this treatment shortly flowered into a love which was “pure,” “fervent,” but to Delia’s annoyance and her family’s incredulous scorn, “fraternal.”
Victorian courtships were things of sighs and glances, of half-uttered exclamations, blushes and pallors, pleasing confusions, and devoted and particular attentions, signs as cloudy as the symptoms of typhoid fever but as decided and contagious as the disease itself. This one was no exception and was moreover carried on at one time in the full glare of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose affidavit makes it clear that MacWhorter pressed his suit as zestfully as any pouter pigeon. “The most open, direct, above-ground, positive and explicit piece of wooing that was ever performed under my own particular observation. … such as nothing but a positive engagement would justify any gentleman and Christian in pursuing.”
To do her justice it appears that Delia had doubts as to the wisdom and propriety of this courtship. She found MacWhorter’s attentions disconcerting. When she appeared at the boardinghouse breakfast table, he would leave his seat to join her and pledge her in his second cup of coffee. His eyes followed her wherever she went. Other ladies in the boardinghouse rallied her on her conquest. Like Mrs. Stowe, they had never seen such unmistakable signs of devotion. Clearly MacWhorter was incapable of giving his thoughts to anybody but Miss Bacon. Children noticed it, servants noticed it, and, with some distaste, the Bacon family was forced to notice it. Delia was flustered. She feared that MacWhorter, taking advantage of the difference in their ages, “had chosen to insult her with unmeaning expressions of regard.”