Biography was once the elegant matriarch of nonfiction. Smelling faintly of lavender, she clutched her pearls when the story got too personal, or the author intruded on the narrative to address the reader, or the political machinery showed through the corseted layers of her heaving bodice. No more. Her skirts are shorter now, her research notes briefer. Her authors prance through their pages telling us what to think and feel within a hodgepodge of genres—memoir, philosophy, even a bit of self-help.
Lydia Moland’s thorough, fascinating biography of the 19th-century writer Lydia Maria Child fits all of the above. “There’s a lesson here,” Moland writes of Child’s political awakening, in an aside that would wake up even the sleepiest undergraduate. “Even if you resolve never to live your life the same way again, center before you stretch. Gather your resources, find your arguments, get your facts straight. Uninformed enthusiasm helps no one.”
A growing number of 21st-century biographers are in the middle of a 19th-century restoration project. Skipping the 20th century, they are interested in giving voice and paying attention to the formerly visible—and currently invisible—women of the 1800s. There have been recent biographies of Margaret Fuller, the Grimké sisters, and Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister, Abigail May Nierike—all prominent figures in the 19th century who are often overlooked now. Meanwhile, The New York Times, worried about past omissions, is in the process of printing obituaries of the 19th-century women it once ignored.
In the old days, women did not go to college, couldn’t own property, and didn’t have the vote. Worse, they were also left out of their own history. Women could be of considerable importance in their time and then be almost entirely forgotten. Many 20th-century books about the 19th-century American Renaissance in literature, for instance, fail to mention that Louisa May Alcott was an important link between Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or that Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne fell out over their shared passion for Margaret Fuller. The women who washed Emerson’s dishes and raised his children, cooked for Thoreau when he walked into town from Walden Pond, mended Herman Melville’s black waistcoat, and put up with Bronson Alcott’s loony ideas have all been rendered invisible.
Lydia Maria Child is another famous 19th-century woman you have probably never heard of, although you may know one of her poems by heart. In 1844, Child—who by that time was already famous as an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate—wrote the sentimental poem “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” with its famous opening lines: “Over the river, and through the wood, / To Grandfather’s House we go….” It was an oddly cheery choice for a political rabble-rouser who would offer to join John Brown in prison for his final days when the time came. “I think Child was trying something different,” Moland speculates regarding the Thanksgiving poem: “hoping that since all truths were interconnected, she could help her readers towards antislavery sentiments by encouraging a wider embrace of humanity.”
Although she had no children herself, Child was one of the first American writers to address children directly. When she was still in her 20s, she made a name for herself with the first periodical for children, The Juvenile Miscellany. Working as a teacher, she quickly wrote the first of a series of popular historical novels about New England, Hobomok. Her lifetime of writing included not just novels but poetry, essays, and self-help books. Child’s The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy was hugely popular, and she also wrote helpful guides for mothers and for girls. Her biographical subjects ranged from Madame de Staël to the Quaker elder Isaac Hopper. Her An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, published in 1833, was cited by people as varied as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the 19th century and Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison in the 20th. Yet it took more than 100 years for Child to rate a biography: Carolyn Karcher’s The First Woman in the Republic, published in 1994. Moland, who had never heard of Child until a chance encounter at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, seeks to restore this prolific, passionate writer and activist to her former revered status.
Child was born in 1802, one of six children in the family of a Medford, Mass., baker. From her earliest years, she was fearless and great-hearted and witty, and as she got older, she wrote as if she had nothing to lose. In fact, she often did have something to lose: Her antislavery work sometimes cost her readers, even if it attracted others, especially when she combined her sass with her furious commitments. In a heated correspondence on the subject of maternal care with John Brown, Virginia Governor Henry Wise, and Margaretta Mason, a Virginia senator’s wife—which became a pamphlet that immediately sold 300,000 copies—Child responded to Mason: “Here at the North…after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.”
There are dozens of wonderful stories in this stew of a book, which covers Child’s life and loves as well as the significant events of the era—including abolition, women’s rights, Native American rights, John Brown’s failed uprising, the Civil War, and the repulsive inhumanity of slavery. There is Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a white soldier leading the Black troops of the 54th Regiment as they marched triumphantly through Boston on their way to fight in Charleston, S.C., where Shaw would be killed. (His mother, Sarah, was Child’s old, close friend.) There is the disheartening 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton sparred angrily with Frederick Douglass over which rights were more important—those involving gender or those involving race. And in the midst these stories is Child herself. As a fierce abolitionist—she controversially called for emancipation without reparations to slave owners—she was friends with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips as well as Charles Sumner. As an advocate of women’s suffrage, she supported Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
The sweetest of the stories, and in some ways among the saddest, is her long and complicated marriage to David Child, a Harvard lawyer from a modest background who had distinguished himself by fighting in Spain on behalf of the liberal reformers against the French king, Louis XVIII. Lydia was a bestselling author by the time they met, and David wooed her by writing about her hugely successful romantic novels in the Massachusetts Journal. “He is the most gallant man that has lived since the sixteenth century,” Lydia wrote after meeting him again, “and needs nothing but a helmet, shield, and chain armor to make him a complete knight of chivalry.”
Lydia and David were married in 1828 and stayed together through all manner of better and worse, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, including his absence for years at a time without much communication and her falling half in love with another man. There was also the constant, unsettling, depressing lack of money. Child’s astonishing ability to earn through her writing was balanced by her husband’s astonishing ability to spend those earnings on cockeyed ideas. For example, David thought that he could bring an end to slavery by planting sugar beets in a field in Northampton, Mass. The sugar crop from the beets, he predicted, would become much more profitable than the South’s existing cane sugar crop. Slavery would no longer have a viable economic basis and thus would come to an end all by itself. Loyally, his wife moved in with him in Northampton, poured money into the project, and cultivated this doomed crop.
History is how we understand ourselves, as people and as a nation, but writing biography across the centuries creates a problem of context. Should the writer try to reproduce the age she is writing about, or should she use her modern knowledge to critically reinterpret the past? Lydia Child may have been a brilliant writer serving a noble cause, but she lived in a world where the spread of disease was mysterious and few understood how the planets orbit the sun. In 2023, we have far more information than was available in the 1800s, to say nothing of the benefit of hindsight; should we not take advantage of this? Using the present to pass judgment on the past—“presentism,” as it’s sometimes called—is everywhere in modern biography, including this one.
Moland doesn’t hesitate to use her own voice and experience as a lens for understanding Child. She is outraged by the laws of coverture, which in 19th-century Massachusetts meant that when Lydia married David, everything she had, including her copyrights, automatically became his legal property. Yet Moland doesn’t speculate on why the couple never had children. “They probably never knew,” she writes, “and neither will we.”
Moland ends the book in the 21st century, having breakfast with her husband one October day. The leaves are turning; there’s a chill in the air; and frost shimmers on the meadow. Her husband asks how Lydia Child died. A heart attack, Moland replies, at the age of 78. At the time, Moland was at work on her Civil War chapter, but she confesses that Child’s end haunted her throughout the writing of the book. Lydia is buried in Wayland, Mass., about 14 miles from where she was born, Moland tells us, next to David and with an epitaph written by him. “You call us dead: We are not dead; We are truly living now.” Lydia Maria Child may or may not be “truly living” in another world now, but in the pages of this book she is certainly alive, vibrant and inspiring.