Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Rebellious Daughter

Unless you're living on another planet, you must have read or heard that a woman has been named president of Harvard University. Unless you read past the headlines in this New York Times article, however, you may not have noticed that Catharine Drew Faust is an historian. I'm sure that when I read Dr. Faust's books, mainly on the Civil War era, I will learn many Lessons from History, but that is not the reason I chose to mention this event.

When I read about Ms. Faust's appointment, I had just finished reading the diary of another remarkable Virginia girl, Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill; The Journal of a Virginia Girl, 1862-1864, edited by Mary D. Robertson. It immediately struck me that There were a number of parallels between the lives and characters of these two Virginia girls. You could even say that Lucy's historical specialty was also the Civil War, because she came of age right in the middle of it. Lucy's plantation home at Grove Hill, near Roanoke, lies in an extension of the Shenandoah Valley, where Dr. Faust grew up, and, since her father raised horses, we can suppose that the academician is as much of an expert horsewoman as Lucy was. All this is pure coincidence, of course, which I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't discovered the two at the same time.

This paragraph in the NY Times, however, suggested deeper resemblances:
Dr. Faust has written frankly of the “community of rigid racial segregation” that she and her three brothers grew up in and how it formed her as “a rebellious daughter” who would go on to march in the civil rights protests in the 1960s and to become a historian of the region. “She was raised to be a rich man’s wife,” said a friend, Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard. “Instead she becomes the president of the most powerful university in the world."
A century later, Lucy, too, certainly would have been active in the civil rights movement. She confided in her diary -
Slavery is a troublesome institution and I wish for the sake of the masters that it could be abolished in Virginia.
If that seems rather hard-hearted, she also appreciated the other side of the story -
I find I am a true abolitionist in heart—Here I have been crying like a foolish child for the last half hour because I saw Jimmy chasing poor, little Preston all over the yard beating him with a great stick, and Sister not making him stop but actually encouraging him. I never shall forget Viola's expression of suppressed rage—how I felt for her! My blood boiled with indignation.... I guess my sons had better not beat a little servant where I am.
I have no doubt that Lucy would also have been active in women's movements -
I wish the women could fight, and I do think they might be allowed to do so in the mountains and in the fortified cities. Their lives are not more precious than the men's, and they were made to suffer—so a leg shot off or a head either wouldn't hurt them much. I would gladly shoulder my pistol and shoot some Yankees if it were allowable.
According to one of her suitors, she was a pretty good shot.

Lucy, too was raised to be a rich man's wife, and she usually seemed resigned to her fate. Her basic attitude, however, was that the rigid role definition then reserved for women was terribly unfair -
A woman's life after she is married, unless there is an immense amount of love, is nothing but suffering and hard work I never saw a wife and mother who could spend a day of unalloyed happiness and ease.... I wish I was a man! I would make my wife so happy. She should never repent having married me.
Society being what it was, she probably never really imagined herself as as anything other than a wife and mother or an old maid. When she finally chose Thomas Jefferson Bassett from among her several suitors, she seemed genuinely in love with him and happy at the prospect of her marriage, which took place in January 1865.

Thankfully, 100 years later an intelligent and determined Virginia girl like Lucy could follow practically any career she might fancy, and even wind up as President of Harvard. Nevertheless, it grieves me to think of the many lights hidden under bushels during that century, and of others still not permitted to bring their light to other dark corners of the world.

You might be forgiven for wondering if, in spite of her misgivings, Lucy found happiness as Mrs. Bassett. I guess we'll never know, because she wrote the last entry in her journal on Christmas Day 1864, and because Lucy died of typhoid fever less than six months after her marriage.
I am extremely grateful to Lucy for having kept this journal, and to Mary Robertson for editing it and getting it published. In the autumn of 1862, Lucy met my great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, and made some extremely insightful comments on his character and personality. In a few paragraphs, she told me as much about what kind of a man he was as I have learned from any single source! She has brightened up my forthcoming biography of Henry as she must have brightened up the lives of all who knew her well.

This entry is getting very long, and it's almost time to stop for dinner, so I will write more about Lucy's journal and her meeting with Henry on another day.

1 comment:

Becky Mushko said...

Lucy was quite a gal! What a shame she could not have lived longer and written much more. She was certainly a woman ahead of her time.