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
Common sense had a premature triumph, and Delia shifted her quarters to her brother’s house, where MacWhorter took the earliest opportunity of calling and was as assiduous as ever. Delia’s little nephews were employed as messengers between the lovers. Delia’s mother expressed dissatisfaction with the turn of events. She asked her daughter what she had in mind. The answer was not very reassuring.
“She assured me again and again that nothing would induce her to marry him and that she much desired and must have the opportunity of telling him so.”
Delia had, in short, maneuvered herself into the position of being forced to sue for a proposal of marriage in order to refuse it. In her mother’s presence she wrote to MacWhorter, who had gone to Saratoga, and sent the letter off. He replied at once, and Delia dutifully handed the letter to Mrs. Bacon.
“It contained a declaration of warm, eternal, undying affection,” declared Mrs. Bacon. “I distinctly remember the expression: ‘I have loved you purely, fervently.’ He assured her … that his love for her was a love which no change of circumstances could alter and that even though she should hate him it would make no difference: that he should love her in life and in death and beyond it.” But there was a further unfortunate allusion to loving her “as a brother.” Mrs. Bacon had never heard of such a thing as fraternal love between grownups, believed it to be an impossibility of nature and repugnant besides. Delia was reduced to telling MacWhorter that she could not be a sister to him, and he countered : “Was not another relationship possible?” What other he did not say.
With her mother’s views so painfully clear, and mindful that her brother was diverted from antislavery legislation, the colonization of Africa, the annexation of Nebraska, and the conversion of China by his now thoroughly disapproving view of his sister’s case, Delia decided to try a change of air. She set out for Brattleboro, Vermont, and MacWhorter came tumbling after.
For ten weeks Delia and MacWhorter remained at Brattleboro. During that time he danced constant attendance. His thoughts, his looks, the very slant of his shoulders, were all directed toward her. They walked together, talked almost exclusively to each other—in fact so absorbed were they in their liaison that the other guests in the hotel where they had lodgings made themselves scarce when Delia and MacWhorter took possession of the parlor, rather than intrude upon them. To all of this the people who ran the inn testified exuberantly.
One person who was not convinced was MacWhorter’s friend, Alexander Clapp, the minister of Brattleboro. He and his giddy young wife refuted the whole notion of a love affair between the elderly Miss Bacon and the young minister as absurd. Mrs. Stowe, however, had arrived in Vermont with her sisters and was satisfied that what she saw must lead to marriage. She reported her findings to her sister Catharine, and shortly after doing so she encountered Robert Forbes. Rumors of the “engagement” had reached him, and he was seething like a kid in its mother’s milk. His friend MacWhorter was a helpless pawn in a series of nefarious moves by Miss Bacon. She was a woman of talent; MacWhorter was a man of property; she was of an unsuitable age. She must be a schemer. She had written him a note without benefit of a prior introduction, had lain in wait for him at other people’s houses where he had not thought to find her. Her immodest behavior justified MacWhorter in amusing himself at her expense to his heart’s content.
Mrs. Stowe was bewildered and distressed. “It displeased me to hear that you had written a note prior to the introduction,” she wrote Delia later.
It seems little enough now—a display of reciprocal interest on the part of a lady and a gentleman in the restrained atmosphere of a family hotel, a few letters containing lofty sentiments couched in the ornate language of the era. The whole ritual seems so stylized that it carries about as much conviction as the antics of the figures in a willowware plate. But to the people of the year 1846 the parson and the bluestocking were chief actors in a drama as compelling as a bullfight, and New Haven society wanted its moment of truth.
It did not come. Catharine Beecher asked Delia point-blank what her matrimonial prospects were. When questioned, Delia proved as unmanageable at thirty-six as she had been at eleven.
“What shall I say if people ask me if you are to marry him?” inquired Miss Beecher.
“Say what you please,” was the reply.
“Shall it be called a Platonic flirtation?” pursued Miss Beecher.
“Say whatever you think best,” evaded Delia. She had been jilted, and she knew it. MacWhorter had returned to New Haven, and Leonard Bacon had tackled him with an excited request for an explanation of the attentions paid to Delia.