>I pulled this blog from my old blog. It was originally posted on August 30, 2009.
Not everything was sweet and romantic, though. Lawrence had an intense dark side and I did too. No relationship is perfect, even if you are cut from the same cloth. We both suffered from bouts of depression throughout our lives before and after we were together, before depression as a concept was understood. I once wrote to him before we were married that I wished I had never been born, to which he replied to the effect of, “If you knew how much I loved you, you would never say that you wished you were never born.” I referenced “those morbid states of feeling” to which Lawrence “often fell” numerous times. We seemed to pull each other out of it when it was necessary but our frequent separations made it worse.
In today’s terms, he would have been considered a child raised by an abusive father. He was also extremely sheltered as a boy. His mother didn’t allow him to read any poetry, novels or anything that weren’t deeply religious in nature, so he wasn’t exposed to things like Lord Byron until he was in college. When he started college, he was socially awkward, he was very shy and he had a serious stuttering problem. It was a disability, despite his genius. To get over the stuttering, he began singing and went on to become a famous orator and a talented singer. His voice was a smooth baritone and music was how we bonded a lot. I was a professionally trained singer, musician and performer. He was self-taught but his raw talent allowed him to keep up with me. We spent a lot of time singing together, he played bass viol, I played piano, and the music allowed us a way to say things to each other that we couldn’t ordinarily say. In all of our differences, music was like speaking the same language.
The early signs of his dark side manifested as jealousy. He called jealousy his “demon” and it almost killed our relationship before it began. For him, seeing me was love at first sight. I had a reputation as a flirt and I floated around seeing several men at the same time. At one point, I was seeing both Lawrence and his college friend, Samuel. I had no intention of settling down with one man but Lawrence was so certain and so ardent in his love for me that seeing me around other men drove him crazy. I admit, some of it was intentional. I admired him and respected him so much that I couldn’t figure out how seeing me on the street with another man could make him so unglued. In times when we argued about other things, I made sure he saw me out with one of his friends just to prove my point that I was not going to be controlled and me deciding to see him was my choice and my choice alone. Early on, we could get so angry at each other about the stupidest things and then do things just to prove points to the other. We could have intense arguments, followed by intense making up. That was just part of the dynamic of our entire marriage, although his jealousy cooled after we started having children. Admittedly, I tortured him early on. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was trying to push him away or see how deep he really cared, if he would stand by me no matter what I did. He never gave up, even when the things I did made him write things like this:
Long term separation during our engagement left Lawrence so lonely, stressed out and depressed that he unintentionally allowed another woman to fall in love with him. He had planned to try to finish four years of seminary school in two years so that we could get married sooner but he basically ran himself into the ground. He was also a man who didn’t function well unless he had someone around him loving him and offering support. Enter his cousin, Annie. In those days, cousins getting together was not the taboo that it is today. Since I was a thousand miles away in Georgia teaching music at a girls school, I don’t really know what happened.
Historical evidence shows that Annie fell in love with Lawrence to the point of being an unhealthy, obsessive love. On his end, it seems that he didn’t grasp what was going on until it all blew up in his face. I don’t think he was completely innocent though because there is a letter in which he wrote to me about being sick in bed all that day, while his journal of the same date shows that he was out sledding with Annie. Her father found letters that were unsettling and an entire branch of the family stopped speaking to Lawrence because of it. Annie was forbidden from seeing him again and she was shipped away to live in another state. When Lawrence wrote to her to effectively end whatever was going on, she became furious. I think she wanted him to fight her father on it and I think she wanted him to proclaim love for her, which he never did. I don’t think Annie ever really got over him. I think Lawrence unintentionally led her on in his need for female companionship.
Despite the bumps in the road, we managed to overcome all of it and get married. Typically, women were married at that time between 17 and 21 while men were older, like between 25 and 35. Lawrence was 27 when we got married and I was 30. We were never a typical couple. We were married by my father, a minister, on December 7, 1855, at 4:30 in the afternoon, which, again, was not typical.
Most weddings in the early-Victorian period happened early in the morning, followed by a wedding breakfast/lunch at the bride’s family’s home. It was Queen Victoria who brought white wedding dresses into fashion in the 1830s but most brides were still wearing whatever they wanted in the 1850s and 1860s. Most brides wore their Sunday church dress as their wedding dress, or they had a new dress made in any manner of color. Dancing was frowned upon and alcohol was illegal in Maine, so the wedding breakfasts/lunches were based around a lot of food, socializing, etc. There was no entertainment because it was considered the high privilege of attending the wedding itself. In those days, it really was just about the bride, groom and the marriage. A corner of the room was decorated where the bride sat with the groom and each guest had to come and pay their respects. Saying congratulations was strictly reserved for the groom, while “best wishes” were offered to the bride. Only the groom got congratulated because it was implied that the honor was given to the bride by marrying her.
Food for a winter wedding would have been some type of fowl like turkey, fish, soup, probably cranberries, potatoes, nuts, sweets, “chocolate” which we call hot chocolate now (it was a luxury then), probably some type of ice (ice cream), etc. There would have been three wedding cakes. One was made of dark, rich fruitcake with white frosting decorated in ornate scrolls and orange blossoms to go with the ones in the bride’s hair. Orange blossoms symbolized purity and fertility. Then there was a smaller, simpler white cake made to represent the bride and a smaller, simpler dark cake to represent the groom. Pieces of cake were boxed up and handed out to guests as they left the wedding breakfast/lunch. The top of the cake was saved for the bride and groom for their 25th wedding anniversary.
Typically, the newlyweds would leave for their honeymoon immediately after the wedding breakfast/lunch. Only the best man was allowed to know where they were going, as it was considered rude for others to ask and the best man typically took care of all the arrangements. Wealthy people took fashionable trips to Europe for months, while poorer people went to borrowed cottages or the city just to have some time alone together. Since Lawrence and I got married so late in the day, we couldn’t leave until the next morning. So we spent our wedding night in my father’s house, in the room where I grew up. For the honeymoon, we went up north to Brewer to his family farm and spent several weeks there. Literally, within a month of being married, I was pregnant.
While Lawrence and I were deeply in love and we respected each other as individuals, we did not have an easy marriage. Like any modern couple, we never had enough money for the babies we had, Lawrence had to work a lot to make ends meet, it took us a few years to be able to afford a home of our own, etc. Neither one of our families wanted us to see each other or be married. His father didn’t like me and my father didn’t like me. Eventually our families resigned themselves to the fact that we were not going to give each other up.
We had four babies between 1856 and 1860. Grace, a son (officially unnamed but I’ve always said George), Wyllys and Emily. I gave up my entire life as a performer and an artist to be a mother, despite my initial reservations about it. George was three months premature and he only lived a few hours. Emily died before she was a year old in a scarlet fever epidemic. There is no way to describe the deaths of your own children, so I’m not even going to try. I do remember a little of the aftermath of each child’s death. We lost a third baby, Gertrude, to scarlet fever again in 1865. Even the strongest marriage will be tested and stretched to its limits with the grief and blame that comes with the death of a child. Death was an everyday fact of life in those days but I get really angry when historians sort of brush it off when it comes to the grieving parents endured. It doesn’t matter how high the child mortality rate is. When you hold your dead child in your arms, someone could rip your heart out of your chest and it wouldn’t even come close to the pain. Lawrence was a very hands-on father, not afraid to change diapers or play with the babies, so he took the deaths very hard. He wanted to be a father more than I wanted to be a mother. I don’t think I ever really let go of the guilt, thinking my early distaste for motherhood made God punish me by taking away three out of five of my children.
Pregnancy and childbirth in the nineteenth century were almost never referenced in positive terms. When a woman was pregnant, it was talked about within the family as being “ill” or “sick.” Before we were married, I had written to Lawrence saying that I expected to be sick again before the summer was over. He told his little brother, Tom (who was a child, like 15, I think), not thinking anything of it, so Tom went and told their mother (in front of a bunch of women) that, “Fanny expects to be sick soon!” Mother Chamberlain looked at Lawrence and said, “So Fanny expects to be sick, does she?” and Lawrence quipped something to the effect of, “Well, if she does, it isn’t on *my* account,” and everyone had a good laugh over it. There was not much to laugh about when it came to pregnancy and childbirth though. It was very difficult without modern medical care. Most women gave birth at home without doctors but with the help of other women in the neighborhood who had already gone through childbirth. I had a doctor but it didn’t save me from complication. I had a staph infection for months after my first baby was born, probably acquired during her birth.
Preparing for a baby involved sewing or buying all the necessary clothing and blankets. In writing to family members who were helping me, we referred to baby clothes as “articles of a small dimension.” It was considered vulgar to talk openly, show off, or go out in public if your pregnancy could no longer be hidden with clever use of clothes. Some women even found it vulgar to make baby items in front of the baby’s father, although I was not one of them. Babies were not named, nor were names planned or discussed until it was sure that they were going to live. The mother usually named the baby but again, we weren’t typical. Lawrence would get impatient with saying “the baby” for weeks, so he would start throwing names out there. He named Grace, the first baby, since I couldn’t make up my mind.
Being parents is what really became the glue that held us together. Not that we were necessarily immature but having babies forced us to quit playing jealousy games, give up old fanciful dreams and be responsible parents. Typically, child rearing was solely up to the mother because the father was responsible for bringing home the income. I enjoyed traveling a lot and there were many instances when I would leave the children with Lawrence and neighbor women and go down to Boston or New York City, especially early in the marriage when we were still setting up household. There were places to buy furniture for cheap in Boston that you couldn’t find in Portland or Brunswick, and I had a lot of family and friends in Boston too. Lawrence never thought it was beneath him or emasculating to take care of his own babies. He had a special bond with Grace, the oldest, and referred to her as a soulmate. She was his in every way, just as Wyllys was mine in every way. Lawrence was gone in the army for much of Wyllys’ childhood, so they didn’t know each other as well as he knew Grace.
We moved around a lot in the first few years of being married. It’s not unlike now with young couples starting out in tiny apartments or rented rooms in houses. In 1858, we ended up buying the first house in which we rented rooms as newlyweds. Wyllys was either not born yet or he was just a tiny baby (I can’t remember). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived in the house as a newlywed as well, and our family grew there, built up the house and stayed there for almost the next half-century. When you spend such a significant portion of your life in the same home, filling that space with your energy, whether it’s happiness, love, anger or sorrow, the feeling within those walls will be familiar no matter how many centuries pass. I have been to the home twice in this life. The first time, I went into Lawrence’s library and dissolved into tears. Oprah jokingly calls it the “ugly cry” when it consumes your whole body.
This is a modern painting of Lawrence in his library as an old man. It’s very accurate.