Legacy 18.1 (2001) 94-100
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From the Archives
An Epistolary Friendship:
The Letters of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to George Eliot
George V. Griffith
Chadron State College
George Eliot and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had little in common. The English woman was the century's most celebrated agnostic; the American, at age twenty, reassured Civil War widows with The Gates Ajar (1868). Phelps's book, although it departed from her father's more orthodox Calvinist views, nevertheless provided a best-selling fictional confirmation of an afterlife too impossible for Eliot to believe. Eliot appealed to the upper intellectual reaches of the Anglo-American audience. In spite of her considerable reputation, only Adam Bede and Silas Marner among her dozen books were best sellers. Phelps, whose Gates Ajar was exceeded in sales in the nineteenth century only by Uncle Tom's Cabin (Smith vi), 1 wrote more than fifty-seven books over forty years as well as hundreds of stories, essays, and poems. A mass audience read her inspirational books, children's books, books on homeopathy and women's dress, and novels with feminist heroines who broke the limits of the sentimental domestic fictions of the generation of female writers who preceded her.
Phelps and Eliot had a relationship conducted wholly by a brief correspondence. They developed a cordial friendship, yet never met. In an exchange of fifteen letters (the first in early 1873, the last just four months before Eliot's death in December 1880), the two crossed a broad plain of potential disagreement to found an epistolary friendship. They wrote of their differing but strongly felt opinions on "the Woman Question," religion, health, and the life of the artist. About "the Woman Question" and religion, their differences were too great for them to bridge, but on health and the role of the artist they were of sympathetic minds. The exchange reveals much about the community of feeling and understanding that bound women writers of the Anglo-American world in the nineteenth century.
Phelps's letters to George Eliot, with one exception, are in the George Eliot Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and have never before been published. The exception, a letter of July 27, 1875, is housed in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library; Gordon S. Haight, the editor of George Eliot's letters, chose to include it in his edition of Eliot's correspondence. Of the fifteen letters exchanged, one of Eliot's and four or perhaps five of Phelps's are missing, although their existence may be inferred from details in the other letters. When judged by Eliot's customary practice as a reluctant respondent to letter writers, particularly American women, 2 an exchange of this size suggests something of the bond they forged. No other American woman correspondent, excluding [End Page 94] Harriet Beecher Stowe, exchanged as many letters with Eliot.
Each letter is printed here in its entirety. Phelps may have written quickly, for the letters are not always legible. Moreover, she often wrote lines up the sides of her sheets when she had reached the bottom and was unabashed about postscripts for her afterthoughts, or in one case, even a footnote. She apologized when a nervous disorder weakened her hand, making the letters difficult to read. During the 1870s when the exchange took place, Phelps's recurring insomnia became chronic, inaugurating a complete breakdown and an invalidism from which she never recovered. 3 The effect on her handwriting was considerable. I have indicated with question marks potentially troublesome readings and portions too illegible to warrant even a guess.
Phelps initiated the correspondence with a letter of effusive praise for Middlemarch on February 26, 1873, just eleven days after the novel made its final serial appearance in Harper's Weekly. 4 Eliot's work spoke strongly to Phelps's passionate interest in the cause of women, then at a peak of activity. In the preceding two years, Phelps had published as many as fourteen articles concerning women's...