Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Essay - Critical Essays

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart


Elizabeth Stuart Phelps 1844-1911

(Born Mary Gray Phelps) American novelist, short story writer, poet, and autobiographer.

Long considered a writer of didactic moral novels in the tradition of Victorian women's fiction, Phelps has more recently been discovered to have been an early proponent of feminism in her writings and in her life. In novels that feature creative and educated heroines pursuing professions, exploring their own intellects, and trying to reconcile public expectations with private desires, Phelps upheld her own personal social ideals as well as those of her mother—also a talented writer—before her.

Biographical Information

Phelps was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1844. Her parents—Elizabeth Wooster Stuart Phelps, a writer of popular stories, and Austin Phelps, a writer and professor of sacred rhetoric and homiletics—christened her Mary Gray, and her mother called her Lily. The family moved to Andover, Massachusetts, when Phelps was four. Phelps's mother died when she was eight years old, and soon afterward she adopted her mother's name, which she used in her personal and professional life, even after her marriage to Herbert Dickinson Ward in 1888. The reasons for Phelps's name change remain obscure, and Phelps left no written explanations for it in her autobiographical work. Both of Phelps's grandfathers were ministers: Moses Stuart, her maternal grandfather, was a professor of sacred literature at Andover College and a distinguished Protestant theologian. Eliakim Phelps, her paternal grandfather, was a revivalist preacher of a much less regimented sort. From her grandmothers, Phelps learned about the lives of ministers' wives, who were highly visible in their communities and expected to exemplify strict Christian ideals. She later used their experiences to great effect in creating her heroines, particularly in her novel The Story of Avis (1877). As the daughter of a professor living in a university town, Phelps had the unusual advantage of a strong education, attending Abbot Academy and then Mrs. Edwards' School for Young Ladies, whose curriculum was nearly equal to that normally only offered to boys at the time. Phelps began writing in earnest around the time of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860, although none of her earliest works survive. Her first published story, “A Sacrifice Consumed,” appeared in the January 1864 issue of Harper's New Monthly. This marked the beginning of Phelps's financial independence, and in order to support herself she wrote Sunday school books, as her mother had. Phelps experienced international literary success with The Gates Ajar, published in 1868. Nearly thirty years after its publication, the novel was still popular in the United States, England, and Europe, having reached a circulation of eighty-one thousand copies in the United States and more than one hundred thousand copies in England. It was also translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. Additionally, the novel inspired a whole line of products, music, and even flower arrangements. While Phelps received little financial benefit from the international sales of the novel because of inadequately enforced copyright laws, it did secure her literary career for the next forty years. From 1868 until her marriage in 1888 Phelps's writing focused on women's issues. In this twenty-year period Phelps honed her understanding of American patriarchal culture, writing in support of women's political rights, educational and occupational opportunities, dress reform, health concerns, and financial independence. Beginning around 1869 Phelps began to spend her summers at the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she eventually built herself a cottage at Eastern Point. She also delivered a series of lectures at Boston University in 1876, titled “Representative Modern Fiction,” which focused primarily on the work of the English novelist George Eliot. Phelps's social-reform activities eventually included temperance work, and in the last years of her life she supported anti-vivisection legislation. Her devotion to social causes may have been undercut, however, by her father's open opposition to woman suffrage; during her most active period of advocacy for women's rights, her father published two anti-suffrage articles. This period was also punctuated by the sudden death of her brother Stuart in 1883 and the death of her closest friend Dr. Mary Briggs Harris in 1886. Phelps also suffered from increasingly poor health, especially insomnia. The early years of Phelps's marriage to Herbert Dickinson Ward—who was seventeen years younger than Phelps—were relatively happy, but as time went on the couple spent more and more time apart. During the last phase of her career Phelps became more conservative in her attitudes toward reform and the possibilities for women's advancement. She died in 1911 of a heart condition that had been diagnosed in 1903.

Major Works

The Sunday school books Phelps wrote to support herself were intended to help young girls make proper decisions about their conduct and religious convictions. Among these titles are Ellen's Idol (1864), Tiny (1866), Tiny's Sunday Nights (1866), and I Don't Know How (1868), all of which are in the “Tiny” series. These volumes are conventional and undistinguished, but Phelps's other books for girls, when read alongside these early works, indicate her emerging interest in critiquing social expectations of how women lived. In 1868 Phelps published a story based on an event that had occurred in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1860. The roof, walls, and machinery of the Pemberton Mill had collapsed on 750 mill workers inside. During the rescue a lantern caught fire, burning to death eighty-eight mill girls in one of the worst factory disasters in New England history. Phelps's fictionalized account of the tragedy, “The Tenth of January,” shows her outrage over the treatment of factory workers, especially young women, in America. Also in 1868 Phelps published The Gates Ajar, a novel that is a depiction of heaven emerging through a series of conversations between the protagonist, who is grieving the death of her brother in battle during the Civil War, and her widowed aunt. Phelps intended the novel to be a realistic portrayal of the deep and traumatic effects of the war on American women. In the 1870s and 1880s Phelps produced many works that explore the sexual double standards that unjustly punish “fallen” women, the occupational restrictions that keep women out of the business world, the unfair pressure that men exert on women to meet men's needs over women's self-interest, and the difficulties that women face when they commit themselves to serious professional careers. Some of her best-known books with these themes include Hedged In (1870), The Silent Partner (1871), The Story of Avis (1877), Friends: A Duet (1881), and Doctor Zay (1882). The Story of Avis is a particularly successful novel featuring Phelps's unrelenting investigation of the effects of marriage on a woman's creativity and potential for fulfillment. It was also the first American novel to focus exclusively on the subject of a failed marriage. In 1879 Phelps published a more lighthearted book, An Old Maid's Paradise (1879), which was a series of sketches about women living on their own in a seaside community much like where Phelps's cottage was in Gloucester. Phelps resurrected these characters in 1886 in Burglars in Paradise (1886), a spoof on detective fiction that suggests that the real potential burglar about whom single women should worry is a man offering friendship. In 1896 Phelps published her autobiography, Chapters from a Life. Since Phelps was careful to protect the privacy of her friends who were still living, Chapters from a Life is more of a selective memoir rather than a comprehensive autobiography. She also wrote in the voice of a self-deprecating nineteenth-century woman, so many of her true feelings are somewhat compromised. Nonetheless, the work is thought to provide an important glimpse into the sensibilities and experience of a Victorian woman artist.

Critical Reception

While Phelps's works were virtually ignored for decades after her death, they were much admired in her lifetime. However, with the advent of feminist literary criticism and the rediscovery, beginning around the 1970s, of much Victorian women's writing that had previously been cast aside as “minor,” Phelps was restored to a place of esteem in literary history. Although her earliest works are still considered conventional and pedantic, her novels and stories that realistically portray the inner lives of women are hailed as a preview of the emerging New Woman of the early twentieth century.

Principal Works

Ellen's Idol (novel) 1864

Up Hill; or, Life in the Factory (novel) 1865

Tiny (novel) 1866

Tiny's Sunday Nights (novel) 1866

I Don't Know How (novel) 1868

The Gates Ajar (novel) 1868

Hedged In (novel) 1870

The Silent Partner (novel) 1871

Poetic Studies (criticism) 1875

The Story of Avis (novel) 1877

An Old Maid's Paradise (novel) 1879

Friends: A Duet (novel) 1881

Doctor Zay (novel) 1882

Beyond the Gates (novel) 1883

Songs of the Silent World and Other Poems (poetry) 1885

Burglars in Paradise (novel) 1886

The Gates Between (novel) 1887

Come Forth (novel) 1890

Austin Phelps: A Memoir (biography) 1891

A Singular Life (novel) 1895

Chapters from a Life (autobiography) 1896

Loveliness; A Story (short story) 1899

The Successors of Mary the First (novel) 1901

Within the Gates (novel) 1901

Avery (novel) 1902

The Confessions of a Wife (novel) 1902

Trixy (novel) 1904

The Man in the Case (novel) 1906

Walled In: A Novel (novel) 1907

Though Life Us Do Part (novel) 1908

The Whole Family: A Novel By Twelve Authors (novel) 1908

The Oath of Allegiance and Other Stories (short stories) 1909

The Empty House and Other Stories (short stories) 1910; also published as A Deserted House and Other Stories, 1911


Henry C. Vedder (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps,” in American Writers of To-Day, Silver, Burdett and Company, 1895, pp. 187-200.

[In the following essay, Vedder presents an overview of Phelps's major works.]

Lord Byron once said, in describing the sudden fame that came to him from the publication of the first part of “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,” “I awoke next morning and found myself famous.” There was almost as much truth as hyperbole in the saying, and the same remark might have been made by the author of The Gates Ajar. When that book first appeared, more than twenty-five years ago, it attained a popularity of the most extensive and impressive sort. There were...

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Carol Farley Kessler (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Final Years,” in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1982, pp. 104-20.

[In the following essay, Kessler explores images of women in Phelps's late fiction.]

The final seven of twenty-five novels by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps are the work of a tired woman and lack the energetic conviction of her fiction from the 1870s and 1880s. She offers no innovative solutions to women's need for fulfillment or equality in relationships with men. Instead, from 1901 to 1908 she reworked previous material. From having concentrated upon male figures during the 1890s, she returns to her emphasis upon women—but her women have become spineless, dependent for their...

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Carol Farley Kessler (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Heavenly Utopia of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps,” in Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations, edited by Marleen Barr and Nicholas D. Smith, University Press of America, 1983, pp. 65-95.

[In the following essay, Kessler suggests that Phelps creates an ambivalent utopia in her novels dealing with the afterlife.]

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, for those not familiar with her, lived from 1844 to 1911. She was raised in Andover, Massachusetts, where her father taught at Andover Theological Seminary, an institution founded in 1807 to maintain a conservative trinitarian theology against Harvard's unitarian innovation. Phelps's mother, also an author, died when her...

(The entire section is 3444 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: “‘Checkmate’ Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Silent Partner,” in Legacy, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 17-29.

[In the following essay, Fetterley explores the phenomenon of inarticulateness of women in The Silent Partner.]


Even before I was consciously feminist, I found Ben Jonson's Epicoene offensive for its assumption that a “silent woman” is an oxymoron. Our culture exudes commentary on the talkativeness, the irrepressible noise of women—“tell it to a woman, tell it to the world”; “a woman's tongue is never still.” Yet, as many linguists have documented, the truth is precisely opposite. Though the...

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Timothy Morris (essay date Autumn 1993)

SOURCE: “Professional Ethics and Professional Erotics in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' Doctor Zay,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 2, Autumn 1993, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Morris argues that the elements of erotic fantasy in Doctor Zay are intended to teach readers to respect professional women.]

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was best known in her lifetime for Christian Utopian novels: The Gates Ajar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and The Gates Between (1887). She is best known today for her secular masterpiece, The Story of Avis (1877), a study of Victorian courtship and marriage. But to her...

(The entire section is 5257 words.)

Jack H. Wilson (essay date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: “Competing Narratives in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis,” in American Literary Realism, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 60-75.

[In the following essay, Wilson explores the ways in which The Story of Avis is a multi-textual early feminist story.]

Over the last two decades Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' The Story of Avis has received deserved attention as a pioneering feminist text. Writing from her observations and experiences, Phelps produced a text which argues that marriage can have a devastating effect upon the aspirations of women. The narrative that traverses the text is one of entrapment in marriage and its consequences. At...

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Amy Schrager Lang (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Syntax of Class in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Silent Partner,” in Rethinking Class: Literary Studies and Social Formations, edited by Wai Chee Dimock and Michael T. Gilmore, Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 267-85.

[In the following essay, Lang uses The Silent Partner to examine the difficulty for nineteenth-century writers to discuss class and gender issues.]

When literature was a thing apart and organic wholeness the sign of its value, the task of the literary critic was, if not simple, at least clear. As we begin to restore literature to history, however, we confront the problem not only of the discursive complexity of texts and...

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Jennifer A. Gehrman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘I Am Half-Sick of Shadows’: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's Ladies of Shalott,” in Legacy: A Journal of Women Writers, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997, pp. 123-28.

[In the following essay, Gehrman examines Phelps's interpretation of the myth of the Lady of Shalott and its embodiment of Victorian womanhood.]

The Lady of Shalott was a central icon of the nineteenth century, enjoying a level of popularity among artists and poets similar to the fame of the Roman Catholic madonna throughout the Italian Renaissance. In 1832 Alfred Lord Tennyson drew upon the mythology of the Age of Chivalry and Arthurian Legend to create in his poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” the appealing...

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Deborah Barker (essay date September 1998)

SOURCE: “The Riddle of the Sphinx: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis,” in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, Vol. 9, No. 1, September 1998, pp. 31-64.

[In the following essay, Barker argues that The Story of Avis is Phelps's feminist revision of Nathaniel Hawthorne's representation of the woman artist in his The Marble Faun.]

In the late nineteenth century the woman artist was in the ambiguous position of serving both as a sign of the decline of cultural standards and as an emblem of cultural redemption through proper education. Nowhere is this dual potential better exemplified than in Nathaniel Hawthorne's representation of the woman...

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Karen Tracey (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: Professional Women and Traditional Wedlock,” in Plots and Proposals: American Women's Fiction, 1850-90, University of Illinois Press, 2000, pp. 148-80.

[In the following essay, Tracey explores the duality of Phelps's female characters as both radical career women and conventional marriage partners.]

A declared reformer and advocate for women's rights, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps ranks with Laura J. Curtis Bullard as the most openly radical of the writers considered in this study. In particular, she believed that women deserved better education and access to a wider range of employment opportunities. Critics have praised her for the...

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Further Reading


Fulton, Valerie. “Rewriting the Necessary Woman: Marriage and Professionalism in James, Jewett, and Phelps.” Henry James Review 15, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 242-56.

Explores social and professional options for women as they are portrayed in the works of Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Elizabeth Phelps.

Kessler, Carol Farley. “A Literary Legacy: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mother and Daughter.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 5, No. 3 (Fall 1980): 28-33.

Discusses feminist elements of Phelps's mother's writing that Phelps embraced and expanded upon in her own fiction.


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