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Portraits of American women online

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which flow fast as I now write and think of her good
behavior, her virtues, her filial piety."

To which let me add these few words from the same
source, which show that she was a live, flesh-and-blood
girl and not a mere copy-book model : " You I hope are
skipping, jumping, dancing, and running up and down
in Boston. This I know you are doing if you are well,
for you are always on the wing."


Souls that skip and dance and are always on the
wing usually have the elements of sociability in them.
In her youth, as later, Sarah was popular and beloved
by those who knew her. She had a singular charm of
simplicity and grace, and if she was aroused and inter
ested, she had that social attraction which comes when
quick words spring from vivid and eager thoughts. At
the same time, she never sought the world and often
shunned it. Her first preoccupation was with books,
and she turned to them when possible. Trivial social
occasions were to be avoided on principle: "I do not
intend to give up all society ; I intend only to relinquisfi
that from which I can gain no good." Moreover, she
was naturally shy and self-conscious, doubted her own
powers of conversation and entertainment, her own in
stinct of behavior in company. A 3read of impropriety,
she says, is the plague of her life. And again, " I should
have exerted myself more, but I believe I shall never
learn to talk."

She was a close analyst of her sensations and experi
ences with others as well as alone, and this is not a
temper favorable to complete social enjoyment. The
hearts of those about her she read with equal keenness
a habit also not always socially fortunate. She would
not for the world have hurt the feelings of a single


human being; and when she reproaches herself with
talking scandal, we know that it is such scandal as one
might expect from a saint. But even at an early age she
saw men and women as they are, and this, alas, in our
mingled life, is too often to appear ill-natured. There
fore she turned from men and women to books and
thoughts. Which does not mean that she had not kindly
affections, deep and tender and lasting. Here also
die sharp probe of her analysis intrudes itself. To her
dearest friend she says, " I love you as much as I am
capable of loving any one " ; and late in life she observes,
" I have learned by experience that friendship is a plant
that must be watered and nursed or it withers."

But these self-doubting loves often are the tenderest
and truest, and Sarah s 3evotion to those for whom
she really cared was as sincere as it was lasting. With a
humility as touching as her independence, she writes to
one of then/, " You are the only person who ever thought
me of any consequence and I am pretty well convinced
that other folks are more than half right. I want you
to love me, but do as you please about it."

These words were written to that singular person
age, Mary Moody Emerson, aunt of Ralph Waldo and
half-sister of Samuel Ripley, whom Sarah afterwards
married. The friendship between these ladies was


close and warm, and Mrs. Ripley always spoke of Miss
Emerson with the greatest esteem. But one even
nearer to her was Miss Allyn, later Mrs. Francis, and
the long series of letters that passed between them is
delightful in its simplicity, its cordiality, its curious
revelation of two pure and sympathetic spirits. What
an odd mixture it presents of common daily interests,
religious aspiration, and intellectual enthusiasm! New
bonnets, old prayers, botany, chemistry, Homer and
Tacitus jostle each other on the same page with quite
transparent genuineness and charm.

The one topic supposed to be most common in young
ladies letters, that is, young men and their doings and
their attentions, is quite absent here. The truth is,
Sarah was not concerned with such things. There is
no evidence that in her childhood and youth her heart
was ever touched. When she was twenty-five years
old, she married Mr. Ripley. She did not pretend that
it was a marriage of love on her side. She had the
greatest respect for her husband, who was a clergyman
of high and noble character in every way. Her father
was anxious for the match, and she yielded to persua
sion. But at the time a life of solitary study seemed to
her preferable, as she frankly admits. The words with
which she announced her engagement, in writing to


Miss Emerson, are curiously characteristic: "Your
family have probably no idea what trouble they may
be entailing on themselves ; I make no promises of good
behavior, but knowing my tastes and habits they must
take the consequences upon themselves." After which,
it need merely be added that there never was a more
devoted and affectionate wife.


I AM going to pa*ss at once from Mrs. Ripley in youth
to Mrs. Ripley in age, because in fairness I should end
with the ripe perfection of her middle years. It so hap
pens that we have abundant correspondence of the
earlier and later periods, but little between, when she
was too occupied and too active to write. In age as in
youth her spirit was pure, lofty, and serene; but with
her temperament it was natural that the sadness of age
should be peculiarly apparent. The contrast cannot be
better illustrated than by two very beautiful passages,
written fifty years apart.

In the buoyancy of early days she writes: "A light
breakfast and a ride into town in the cool morning
air, stretched my existence through eternity. I lived
ages in an hour." The tottering limbs and broken


thoughts of after years recall a dim echo of these rap
tures, how far, how very far away : " I took a walk in
the pine grove near the cemetery, yesterday morning,
and crept down the hill into a deep ravine we used to
call the bowl, covered with decayed leaves, where we
used to play tea with acorns for fairy cups; the acorns
and the cups remain, but the charm is gone never to

It is in this older period of her life that the impression
of Mrs. Ripley s personal appearance survives with most
of those who have told us anything about her career. It
is not said that even in youth she was especially beau
tiful; but in youth as in age there must have been the
suggestion of earnest purity and dignity, so marked in
all the likenesses of her that remain. Her features are
calm, thoughtful, noble, sympathetic, but with a hint
of the sadness of one who has meditated long on life
with vast comprehension and limited hope.

This impression of sadness is undeniably prominent
in the numerous letters of her later years. " Sorrow,
not hope," she says, "is the color of old age." Her
sorrow never has the shade of petulance or pitiful
complaint. It is even penetrated with a sweet kindli
ness that often amounts to sunshine. But the sorrow is
there, deeply motived and all-pervading.


To her clear vision it seems that all things are falling
away from her. Society? The contact with her feflows
had never been the chief thing in her life. Now the few
she loved are gone or going, and the many who used to
excite a vague curiosity have such different ways and
thoughts that she can hardly understand them any more.
Her last years were passed in the Manse, at Concord,
the dwelling of her husband s forefathers. The Manse
was then, as it has always been, widely hospitable, and
the hurry of eager feet often passed her threshold and
the door of her quiet chamber. She listened to it with
sympathetic tenderness, but her interest faded with the
fading years.

Religion? Religion had melted for her into a great
love. But of active beliefs she cherished few or none.
The days of strenuous thought and fierce probing of
impenetrable secrets were over. She would gladly put
aside the little child s questions if she could have the
little child s peace. " How well it is that the world is
so large, that lichens grow on every tree, that there are
toadstools as well as sermons for those that like them."

Newspapers? She had rarely read them in her most
active days. She could find little interest in them now.
Even the turbulence of the Civil War touched her but
slightly. She had drunk deep of the horrors of the past


and hated them. Why should she revive their torment
in the present? The war, she writes, "sits on me as a
nightmare." But, like a nightmare, she shakes it off
when she can.

Study? Ah, that alone is still real, as always. And
she would have echoed the phrase that Sainte-Beuve
loved, On se lasse de tout excepte de comprendre.
"Thank Heaven/ she says, "I led a lonely life of study
in my youth and return to its rest with satisfaction."
The books on her shelves are friends and companions
who will not desert her. "When I am alive I hold
audience with Plato, and when I am not, I gaze on his
outside with delight." She learns Spanish by herself
at seventy and reads Don Quixote \vith relish, com
plaining only that the pronunciation is impossible for
her. Yet, after all, even books are but pale comforters,
when life is behind instead of before. And in a dull,
dark moment she confesses that she reads mainly to kill

As the years grow shorter and the hours longer, the
one thing that she falls back upon more and more is
the affections of home. Her memory fails her, her
great mental powers no longer sustain her. But, in
noting this, she observes with touching pathos, " I may
be childish, but there are no limits to love." In her


active years she had never depended upon those around
her for comfort or for diversion. To her sister-in-law,
who remarked that she was contented only when she
had all her children in the room with her, Mrs. Ripley
said that she did not require her children s presence so
long as she knew that they were happy. But as time
flowed on, her heart turned more to the contact of those
she loved. It pleased her to be busy for them, when she
could, though she deplored the weakness and ineptitude
of age in this regard. " It seems strange that I that have
so litle to do, should do that little wrong." It pleased her
to have them about her. She writes to the daughter she
loved best, with winning tenderness: "I feel a want un
satisfied, and I think it must be to see you. Now this
is somewhat of a concession for one who has always
professed entire independence. But there is often,
nowadays, a solitude of the heart which nothing can fill
except your image."

She loved to hear the prattle of her grandchildren, to
watch their pretty, wild activities, as if they were crea
tures of her dreams. So they were, and she regarded
them, as she regarded the whole world and her own
soul, with a sad and gentle curiosity. In such a tender
atmosphere of thought, of love, and of memory, she
faded away, in the spirit of the beautiful words which


she herself wrote not many weeks before the end: "We
have kept step together through a long piece of road in
the weary journey of life: we have loved the same
beings and wept together over their graves. I have not
your faith to console me, as they drop one after another
from my side ; yet my will, I trust, is in harmony with
the divine order, and resigned where light is wanting.
The sun looks brighter and my home more tranquil as
the evening of life draws near/


Now, to consider Mrs. Ripley as she was in her best
years, from thirty to sixty, with all her wealth of
spiritual power and practical usefulness. We find, of
course, the same qualities that we studied in her youth,
but amplified, enriched, and balanced by the full develop
ment of maturity and a broader contact with the world.
And first, the wife and mother and housekeeper. It
must be admitted that Mrs. Ripley s natural tastes did
not lie in this direction. All the more notable is it that
she was as admirable and successful here as in more
abstract and ambitious pursuits. She herself recognizes
amply that in giving up her cherished interests for a life
of active usefulness she had found gain as well as loss.


" I once thought a solitary life the true one, and, contrary
to my theory, was moved to give up the independence
of an attic covered with books for the responsibilities
and perplexities of a parish and a family. Yet I have
never regretted the change. Though I have suffered
much, yet I have enjoyed much and learned more." And
housekeeping for her meant, not a ladylike supervision,
but hard, perpetual labor. She rarely had a servant,
she had many children, she had large social obligations,
and for years she had the needs of a boys school to
provide for. Whatever her life lacked, it was not ac
tivity. The fret, the wear, the burden of all these cares
she undoubtedly felt, especially as her health was never
of the best. Sometimes she longed unutterably to be
free and quiet. But she never complained, she never
grew sour or querulous. Says one who knew her and
loved her: "In all the annoyances of an overtaxed life
I never saw her temper touched. She did not know
resentment; she seemed always living in a sphere far
above us all, yet in perfect sympathy."

As a wife and mother she did her full duty as if it
were a pleasure. The affection, almost devotion, with
which her husband speaks of her is sufficient evidence
as to her relation to him. I have already said that she
did not depend upon her children for amusement; but


she watched over them and entered into their lives as
only her intelligence could. Her methods of training
and education were those of sympathy and kindness, and
better testimony to their success could not be afforded
than the noble qualities and eminent usefulness of her
sons and daughters.

No account of these middle years of Mrs. Ripley s
life would be complete without an analysis of her con
tact with the world, with her fellow men and women.
In one way her career was an isolated, or at least a lim
ited, one. She never traveled, knew nothing even of her
own country outside the circle of her immediate sur
roundings. Books and talk, however, gave her a far
wider knowledge of mankind than this would promise.
And, though she did not go to the world, the world came
to her. Her father s houses in Boston and Duxbury were
always open to friends and neighbors, and during her
husband s long ministration in his Waltham parish, she
kept up a hospitality which never failed or weakened.
All sorts of people were welcomed in her parlor, and if
her thoughts were often called away to other higher or
lower cares, she did not show it and her visitors never
knew it.

This is not saying that her duties were not some
times irksome. Occasionally, in her most intimate cor-


respondence, she rebelled and uttered what she felt. " I
would there were any hole to creep out of this most
servile of all situations, a country clergyman s wife.
Oh, the insupportable fatigue of affected sympathy with
ordinary and vulgar minds." Yet an impatience like
this was but momentary, ancf was in no way incompati
ble with the social charm which I have already indicated
in Mrs. Ripley s youth, and which continued and in
creased with age. She certainly did not seek society, in
fact preferred the multitudinous solitude of her own
thoughts; but neither did she avoid her fellows, and
when with them she had always the supreme attraction
of being wholly and perfectly herself. There was no
affectation, no convention in her manners or in her talk.
She said what she thought, and 1 , as her thoughts were
wide, abundant, and original, her conversation could
not fail to be stimulating. She was, indeed, more inter
ested in the thoughts of others than in her own, and
never permitted herself to be burdened with the demands
of making talk where there was none.

The shyness of early years persisted in the form of
quiet self-effacement. In the words of one who knew
her well, " Without being precisely shy, she often gave
one the impression of an unobtrusive, yet extreme solici
tude to be in nobody s way." And this is not the worst


of social qualities. It must not, however, in Mrs. Rip-
ley s case, suggest ciullness. When she did speak, it
was with the ease and the fertility of a full soul. To
Dr. Hedge it seemed that she had "an attraction pro
ceeding from no personal charms, but due to the aston
ishing vivacity, the all-aliveness, of her presence, which
made it impossible to imagine her otherwise than wide
awake and active in word or work."

Yet even so, I have not quite portrayed the singular
candor and impersonality of Mrs. Ripley s spirit. Her
lower self did not exist for her; that is, she left it to
regulate its doings by an exquisite instinct, without
cumbering her soul with it. When her friends, in jest,
engaged her in speculative talk and then put a broom in
her hands and asked her to carry it across Boston Com
mon, she did it quite without thought. In the same way,
she carried her own external, social person through life,
bearing it with the flawless and unfailing dignity that
belonged to high preoccupations, and so making contact
with her one of the privileges and delights of all she

Among the activities of Mrs. Ripley s prime none is
more illustrative of her character than her teaching.
She taught boys for many years, sometimes as an assist
ant in her husband s boarding-school, or again simply


taking pupils to tutor in her own house. I find very
little evidence that she enjoyed the work. Of course,
there was the rare pleasure of really waking up a soul,
knowing and seeing that you have done so. But the
teacher was too self-distrustful to take much credit,
even in such cases. She hated all responsibility
how much, then, the responsibility of a young life.
She hated drudgery, of body or soul, though her whole
long existence was made up of it. And whatever
pleasure there may be in teaching, few will deny that
there is drudgery also. Especially she hated discipline,
believed at least that she had no faculty for it, and
refused to practice it in any harsher sense. It is said
that, as she sat in her teacher s chair, she knitted assid
uously and purposely, so that small infractions of pro
priety might escape her notice. It is said, also, that
when such things were forced upon her, she made no
comment at the time, but afterwards wrote gentle, plead
ing notes to the culprits, which never failed of their

For, whatever she may have felt herself, her pupils
thought her eminently successful as a teacher. They
learned from her, they obeyed her, they admired her,
they loved her. No one affords better evidence than she
that the stimulus of the soul goes further than the stim-


ulus of the rod. Most of her boys were rich, idle fellows,
who had been suspended from college or had never been
able to get there. Such hearts are not always bad, but
you have got to touch them to help them. On this point I
do not know that I can quote better testimony than that
of Senator Hoar. He says of the pupils who came to
her from college: "She would keep them along in all
their studies, in most cases better instructed than they
would have been if they had stayed in Cambridge. I
remember her now with the strongest feelings of rever
ence, affection, and gratitude. In that I say only what
every other pupil of hers would say. I do not think she
ever knew how much her boys loved her."

I cannot leave Mrs. Ripley s teaching and practical
usefulness better than with the pathos of that last


THERE is no cloubt that the chief interest of Mrs.
Ripley s best years, as of her youth, is in her intellectual
preoccupations. It is true that she theoretically sub
ordinates such preoccupations to useful action, but her
very words in doing this show her attitude. "I sym
pathize much with your tranquil enjoyment in study.
There is no enjoyment like it, except perhaps disinter-


ested action ; but all action is disturbing, because one is
constantly limited and annoyed by others." So, in spite
of the immense activity that was forced upon her by
her choice of life and her surroundings, she persisted
day after day and year after year in grasping more
firmly and more zealously the things of the spirit.

Sometimes, indeed, the difficulties were so great that
even her courage faltered. " I begin to think we must
either live for earth or heaven, that there is no such
thing as living for both at the same time."

Her health was uncertain; her time was broken, till
there seemed nothing left of it; those about her would
call her attention to petty details and trifling matters,
world removed from the high thoughts she loved to
linger with. It made no difference. The persistence
call it obstinacy which others expended upon social
success, upon worldly profit, upon mere immediate
pleasure, she devoted wholly to books, to study, to vaster
acquisition of varied knowledge ; and somehow or other
she knit up the flying minutes, which many would have
wasted, into connected hours of profitable toil.

Note that this spiritual effort was given to intel
lectual interests pure and simple. Mrs. Ripley had never
any great love for the aesthetic side of life. Music, unless
as a matter of analytical study, made little appeal to her.


Art made almost none. " I am not sufficiently initiated
into the mysteries of art to admire the right things,"
she says. Even in poetry her tastes were narrowly
limited. The Classics she read because they were the!
Classics. To the moderns she gave little attention and
less care. So with contemporary events. They passed
her by almost unnoticed. Her whole thought was given
to the eternal.

Note also that she did not study, to make a parade of
it. She was as far as possible from a pedant in her
speech as in her thought. She had no desire whatever
to give instruction, simply to get it. Nor did literary
ambition enter at all into her enthusiasm. She never
wrote, had probably no great gift for formal writing.
Her one inspiring passion, from youth to age, was to
use every power she had in making just r. little more
progress into the vast, shadowy regions of obtainable

As I have already pointed out in connection with her
young days, her intellectual appetite was universal in
its scope. It almost seemed as if she did not care upon
what she used her mind, so long as she used it. The
truth was, that every study was so delightful that choice
was hardly necessary. Language? All languages fas
cinated her, and she grasped eagerly at every one that


came within her reach. The ethereal flights of pure
mathematics and astronomy might have absorbed her
altogether, had it not been that chemistry and botany
offered attractions so perpetually and variously allur
ing. The close contemporary of Thoreau, she had none
of his imaginative interpretation of the natural world;
but it is doubtful whether his actual knowledge of plants
and trees was more exact than hers.

On the whole, it must be said, however, that her chief
interest was in philosophy and abstract thought. The
intense preoccupation with heaven and hell which beset
every New England childhood in those days, turned,
with her, as with so many others, into a close and keen
analysis of where heaven and hell came from and
where they had gone to. She read the Greek and the
English and the German philosophers and meditated
upon them, with the result of a complete, profound, and
all-involving intellectual scepticism. Observe that this
scepticism was individual, not general. She was no dog
matic agnostic, no blatant unbeliever; above all, she
abhorred the thought of leading any other astray. She
was simply a humble, gentle, reverent seeker, ever anx
ious to know whether any one had found the light, but
irrevocably determined to accept no false gleam, no
deluding will-o -the-wisp.


Even in face of the greatest mystery of all she would
express only a deep resignation, making no pretense to
a confidence she could not feel. " Death is an event as
natural as birth, and faith makes it as full of promise.
But faith is denied to certain minds, and submission
must take its place. The Unknown, which lighted the
morning of life, will hallow and make serene its evening.
Conscious or unconscious, we shall rest in the lap of the

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 3 of 14)