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Legacy 19.2 (2002) 241-254

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Maria Susanna Cummins's London Letters:
April 1860

Heidi L. M. Jacobs
University of Windsor

Within scholarship on Maria Susanna Cummins (1827-1866), there are two recurrent phrases: "author of the best-selling novel The Lamplighter" and "little is known about her life." Despite the early contextualization of Cummins by Nina Baym and Mary Kelley, most of the recent critical work on Cummins has centered on her first and best-known novel, The Lamplighter (1854). 1 Very little critical attention has been paid to Cummins's life, her career as a publishing author, her lesser-known novels, her periodical publications, and her archived letters. The limited scope of scholarship on Cummins perpetuates a narrow vision of her publishing career. Moreover, few scholars have challenged the characterization of Cummins as having "a quiet, retiring personality" and leading "an uneventful, secluded life, occupied with the duties of home and church and with her writing" ("Cummins, Maria Susanna"), thus perpetuating a stereotypical depiction not only of Cummins but of the antebellum woman writer. Details of Cummins's personal life are unfortunately sparse; however, her archived papers are a vital resource for creating a fuller picture of Cummins as an antebellum woman and as a novelist. A series of three letters that Cummins wrote to her mother from London in April 1860 are particularly useful in this regard. Written in the weeks preceding the publication in the United States and Britain of her third novel, El Fureidîs, these letters offer a rare in media res view of her life and her world.

Biographical Context

Maria Susanna Cummins was born April 9, 1827, in Salem, Massachusetts. She was the first of four children born to David Cummins (c. 1762-1855) and his third wife, Maria Franklin Kittredge (b. 1792). Kittredge was the daughter of Susanna Osgood and Dr. Thomas Kittredge and was from Andover, Massachusetts. David Cummins was the descendant of Isaac Cummings, a landowner of Scottish descent who settled in the Ipswich, Massachusetts, area prior to 1638. The Cummins family possessed affluence and social standing; David Cummins was educated at Dartmouth College and later became a lawyer and a judge. Cummins married his first wife, Mehitable Cave, in 1784; birth records and David Cummins's 1817 will and testament suggest they had six children. 2 Catherine Kittredge was David Cummins's second wife; they married in 1815, and birth records suggest they had three children. In [End Page 241] October 1825, David Cummins married Catherine's sister, Maria Franklin Kittredge.

Maria Susanna Cummins's early childhood was spent in Salem, and she is reputed to have spent parts of her life in Springfield, Massachusetts. When she was a young girl, the family moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where David Cummins was judge of the court of common pleas of Norfolk County. The remainder of her life was spent at the family home on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester. The family home was described in Dorchester Beacon as being a "pretty colonial-styled house" with "its pretty walks, its surrounding shrubbery and beds of flowers, its pine environed fish-pond, its beautiful and stately orchard" (qtd. in Orcutt 393). In Dorchester, Cummins joined the First Unitarian Church, where she is said "from time to time, as circumstances permitted," to have been a Sunday School teacher (Hall 11).

Like Margaret Fuller's father, David Cummins directed his daughter's education at home. According to one source, he had "literary tastes and encouraged them in his daughter, in whom he thought he discovered a gift for writing" ("Cummins, Maria Susanna"). Cummins's formal education was not unlike that of other women of her economic class and social standing. As an adolescent, she attended Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's Young Ladies School in Lenox, Massachusetts. The pioneering Lenox School was part of a broader cultural movement in America, which experimented with and explored various forms of education for women. What is perhaps most significant about Cummins attending the Lenox School is that Mrs. Sedgwick was the sister-in-law of well-known novelist Catharine Maria...


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