Yesterday evening I was sitting at Barnes and Noble, and in my selection of books was Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott, and also the Autobiography of Mark Twain: Vol 1. And along side these is Twain's Innocents Abroad. I can't remember what prompted me to look up Twain, but those three books came home. The Alcott biography was prompted by another book, Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic.
I've been reading Learning to Stand and Speak at lunch, which is usually at Incredibly Delicious (whose home is a lovely Victorian mansion). Over the course of many lunches I have followed a time line across a hundred years - from when women of early America usually were taught little beyond reading, writing, and ciphering, since they were considered "too weak" to take on more serious learning - to the time past the Civil War when female academies were growing into colleges. And in all the time between women were proving that they could tackle the most thorny of sciences and philosophy.
Yet, they also had to navigate between the shores of a well-educated mind, and of being useful to their families. This was the case so they would not risk the advances they had made in learning; they had to wrap their learning in the proper clothes of deference and usefulness.
"Usefulness" was a powerful tool, though, as under that cloak they became writers, editors, missionaries, and educators. And began to have a much more visible impact on the world.
Women like Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe had to maintain not only household tasks, and later to write, but they also had to steal time to pursue their own continued learning.
It was that love of learning and reading that comes through in the excerpts in Learning to Stand and Speak. These ladies valued their libraries (even if was just a few books), and strived to keep learning through out their lifetimes - seeking out a variety of topics to consider.
Yet the continued learning came with a price in many cases. Martha Lauren Ramsay, three days before her death in 1811, told her husband about her diary, which she had kept for a number of years. It was in her diary that her brilliant intellect shown through, and where she recorded the struggle between her love of knowledge and the restraints of her daily life. Her husband was so proud of his late wife's learning that he published the diary as the Memoirs of the Life of Martha Lauren Ramsay. However, he was not only proud of her learning, but her efforts to properly put her family first.
Also mentioned were two sisters, Eliza and Harriet Adams, who were both graduates of female academies. Harriet married, and struggled to continue her learning after she became a new mother and keeper of a house. She often begged her sister to come visit so that Eliza could read to her from various texts. Eliza was better off since she didn't marry till later, but she still had to help with the care of her parents' home, and had to do most of her studies in the early morning and evening. Her time spent with Harriet was precious as Harriet died not too many years after her marriage.
And as I sat in Barnes and Noble last night, with information, both in book form and digital, all around me I realized how much I take it for granted. We barely have to think of a topic that we want to look at, and its at our finger tips. And yet, I also wonder if all of that ease actually buys us the time to truly consider the information we are reading? To think - to weigh the material, and to share it with our friends and family.
And I also started thinking about the current popularity of Jane Austin and the fascination with the Edwardian and Victorian era that fills both fiction for the young, and for adults. All the mores of those times are recorded amongst that fiction, and yet I wonder if the readers realize that those stories are about time periods that really existed? That many young women, and young men, had to conform to those standards, and prejudices. That all those mores, and the stuggle against them, has shaped our lives today?
So, in the end, all I can do is to give a humble salute to the ladies, and men, of the past that pursued knowledge; particularly to the ladies, though, as knowledge for them was a currency worth more than gold.
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I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.