Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.