Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1654
Lydia Maria Child 1802–1880
American novelist, biographer, short story writer, non-fiction writer, journalist, children's writer, and editor.
For additional information on Child's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 6.
Child was a best-selling author of novels, books of advice for homemakers, and literature for children. She gained even more attention during her lifetime for her political writings denouncing the institution of slavery in the United States. Abolitionism was a highly controversial and often unpopular position in the 1830s when Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), but she was unapologetic about her principles and continued to produce political tracts despite initial damage to her financial success and her reputation. Child was, nonetheless, a resiliently popular writer, producing fiction and nonfiction books that appeared throughout the nineteenth century in multiple editions.
Child was born on February 11, 1802, in Medford, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. She was the youngest child of David Francis, a successful baker and respected citizen of the town, and Susannah Rand Francis. Like other American women of her generation, Child had access to a growing but still very limited system of public education; her real education came from her own curiosity and the mentoring of her brother Convers Francis, a Unitarian minister who taught theology at Harvard and participated in the pathbreaking American Transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1821, after reading a journal article touting the value of American historical fiction, Child wrote the first chapter of her first novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824), set in Salem in the 1620s. Hobomok sold well and earned generally favorable reviews. Child's The Juvenile Miscellany (1826-34), a children's periodical she created and published, was also popular and made her a household name.
In 1828, Child married David Lee Child, a prominent lawyer and member of the Massachusetts Legislature who shared many of her ideals and her intellectual drive. Without putting aside her work as a writer and
editor, Child assumed the role of homemaker, perfecting her ability to run a household on a limited income. Her husband, whose talents could have earned a substantial salary, sacrificed financial reward to dedicate himself to abolitionism, the political movement against slavery that, at that time, still had few adherents and little popular support. In her typically resourceful fashion, Child turned her experience into books: she published The Frugal Housewife in 1829 and The Mother's Book and The Little Girl's Own Book in 1831. The Frugal Housewife became an immediate and longstanding success, going through twenty editions by 1836 and insuring the sales of Child's other homemaking tracts.
Child's books did not make the couple wealthy, but they did provide financial security until 1833, when Child made a choice that abruptly curtailed her economic success. Swayed by the arguments of her husband and his friend William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist, Child put into writing her new-found antislavery convictions. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, Child's first antislavery tract, presented a solid, thorough, and ultimately very influential argument for emancipation. In the decades before the Civil War, most white Americans considered abolitionism an extremist and politically unwise philosophy; slavery's most virulent supporters even considered abolitionism immoral. Consequently, when the beloved author of historical novels, children's literature, and household advice added her voice to the debate, most of her readers were horrified; sales of her books stalled and subscriptions to The Juvenile Miscellany dropped off so sharply that the journal failed. Child was nonetheless unapologetic about her beliefs; she followed the Appeal with other antislavery writings, mostly pamphlets. Other abolitionists who attributed their political commitments to her writings include William Ellery Channing and Senator Charles Sumner.
By the 1840s, Child and her husband lived apart in order to devote themselves to different aspects of their political cause. Because much of slavery was driven by the need for labor on sugar plantations, Child's husband began experimenting with sugar beet farming in the 1830s, hoping to provide an economically viable alternative. Child worked with him for several years in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the two held poverty at bay while struggling to make the farm work. In 1841, Child went to New York City, where she had been offered the relatively more lucrative opportunity to serve as the National Anti-Slavery Standard's editor, a post she held until 1843. She remained in New York through the decade, gradually rebuilding her broad reading audience through a series of new nonfiction publications.
In 1850, Child and her husband returned together to Massachusetts, where she cared for her ailing father. When he died in 1856, Child inherited his house in Wayland, where she and her husband would remain for the rest of their lives. During this last period in her life, Child continued to work, though never again at the pace she had maintained in earlier decades. She produced her first full-length biography, of Quaker Isaac T. Hopper, in 1853. She dedicated most of her writing energies over these years, however, to a comparative history of religion, ultimately published in three volumes in 1855 as The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages. As with her political writings, it was not calculated for sales or popularity but still achieved marks of respect from a portion of readers. She published her last novel, A Romance of the Republic, in 1867. For the most part, she removed herself from the public sphere and maintained a simple life, entertaining only occasional guests and close friends. She died October 20, 1880.
Child first established her reputation with American readers as a novelist with Hobomok and The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution (1825). Both were historical novels, employing conventional styles of the genre and depicting Massachusetts in the early colonial period and the revolutionary era, respectively. Although Child's writing career veered off into non-fiction in the 1830s, she still wrote novels on occasion and was particularly successful in 1836 with Philothea: A Romance, set in ancient Greece. Her final historical novel, A Romance of the Republic, addressed the issue of interracial marriage. To her first generation of readers, however, Child was best loved as a fiction writer for her children's pieces. After writing a book for children, Evenings in New England (1824), Child directed her energies toward the periodical The Juvenile Miscellany, which garnered sales and admiration across the nation. Unlike other periodicals for children, Child's privileged entertainment over didacticism; it also included writings from many of the leading female writers of the day, including Catherine Maria Sedgwick.
Child's initial forays into nonfiction writing addressed the same broad spectrum of women and young adult readers. Child began with a series of books of advice meant to be helpful in the home, including The Frugal Housewife, The Mother's Book, and The Little Girl's Own Book. While the first two concentrated on advice to the young homemaker, promoting the Protestant ethic of hard work and economic resourcefulness, the last included more playful suggestions, such as rules for games. All three remained in print for many years, going into many editions in the United States and even crossing into the European market. In her Ladies Family Library series, a joint effort undertaken with publisher Carter and Hendee, Child shifted to more serious nonfiction works for women readers. The first two volumes, released in 1932, offered biographies of, first, Madame de Staël and Madame Roland, and, second, Lady Russell and Madam Guyon. The sketches became briefer in Good Wives, the third volume, printed in 1833. After a brief hiatus due to a change in publishers, Child finished the series in 1835 with a compendium of facts titled The History of the Condition of Women (1835).
Child could by all estimations have made a steady and lucrative living from these fiction and nonfiction works, which had widespread appeal and were at least superficially apolitical. When she entered into the abolitionist cause in the 1830s, however, Child risked her general popularity. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans produced a barrage of hostile responses, although more careful readers found the tract to be a substantial, well-argued, and carefully considered look at the foundation and ramifications of slavery in the United States. She followed it with other political pamphlets over the years, including an Anti-Slavery Catechism (1836) and The Freedmen's Book (1865), which she published at her own expense as a reader for black Americans in the South who had just won emancipation from slavery. Tangentially related were her Letters from New York, published in two volumes in 1843 and 1845, which collected her columns for the National Anti-Slavery Standard together with the letters she had written to the Boston Courier during the 1840s; Thomas Higginson described the work as the first in "that modern school of newspaper correspondence" that would go on to find an important niche in American literature.
During her lifetime, Child was one of the first national celebrities of American literature. Her novels and advice books, generally praised in reviews, sold very well, demonstrating her popularity with a broad and general readership. Her abolitionist writings, despite harsh and often cruel criticism from advocates of slavery, won many adherents to the cause and admirers for her logical and persuasive argumentative style. Throughout the nineteenth century, her writings appeared in one form or another in most American homes, as well as in readers used by school children. By the turn of the century, however, her works fell more and more out of favor and her name into obscurity; her works appeared too sentimental in the rising current of modernism and industrialization. Attention to her writing was not renewed until the 1970s, when feminist scholars in particular brought to light many forgotten women writers. Feminist studies of Child have produced two currents of thought: one characterizing her according to the apparently conservative impulses of The Mother's Book and The Frugal Housewife, both of which reinforced women's domestic roles, and the other holding up her life of activism and her more politically-charged writings as examples of path-breaking challenges to gender norms.