Caroline Lee Hentz (1800-1856), one of America’s most popular writers in the 1850s, sold over 93,000 copies of her more than fifteen novels and a multitude of short stories and poems. The Boston Library named her one of the top three writers of her day.
Born in Massachusetts, she married a dashing French artist, writer, and entomologist and with him ran a series of girl’s schools. In 1830 she wrote an award-winning play De Lara or The Moorish Bride which was performed in Boston and Philadelphia to rave reviews. Two other plays she wrote were performed in New York City and in Cincinnati. These successes led to problems with her husband who suffered jealousy and depression. When his health worsened and he became an invalid, Hentz ‘s writing became her main livelihood, and she wrote over ten books in seven years to support her four surviving children.
While living in Cincinnati, Hentz was a member of the same literary group as Harriet Beecher Stowe, and they became personal friends. However, Hentz was pro-slavery having lived most of her married life in the south. Later when Stowe published the anti-slavery Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hentz, claiming she was more expert on slavery, published her most well-known novel, The Northern Planter’s Bride (1858), a pro-slavery rebuttal, which also attacked the industrialization of the north, Like other women writers of this time, her novels were sentimental, romantic, full of moral lessons, and bathed in Christianity. Her plots usually featured an innocent girl pursued by a villain of some sort.
The excerpt below is taken from Ernest Linwood (1856) a story of a young orphan girl, mistaken identities, excessive jealousies, and the saving grace of God and marriage. However, there is none of these elements in the opening to the novel. Instead, in the childish voice of the main character, Gabriella, we can hear, perhaps, a hurt that Hentz, who had written poetry and novels before the age of twelve, might have experienced herself at the hands of a school master.
With an incident of my childhood I will commence the record of my life. It stands out in bold prominence, rugged and bleak, through the haze of memory.
I was only twelve years old. He might have spoken less harshly. He might have remembered and pitied my youth and sensitiveness, that tall, powerful, hitherto kind man, — my preceptor, and, as I believed, my friend. Listen to what he did say, in the presence of the whole school of boys, as well as girls, assembled on that day to hear the weekly exercises read, written on subjects which the master had given us the previous week.
One by one, we were called up to the platform, where he sat enthroned in all the majesty of the Olympian king-god. One by one, the manuscripts were read by their youthful authors, — the criticisms uttered, which marked them with honor or shame, — gliding figures passed each other, going and returning, while a hasty exchange of glances, betrayed the flash of triumph, or the gloom of disappointment.
“Gabriella Lynn!” The name sounded like thunder in my ears. I rose, trembling, blushing, feeling as if every pair of eyes in the hall were burning like redhot balls on my face. I tried to move, but my feet were glued to the floor. “Gabriella Lynn!”
The tone was louder, more commanding, and I dared not resist the mandate. The greater fear conquered the less. With a desperate effort I walked, or rather rushed, up the steps, the paper fluttering in my hand, as if blown upon by a strong wind.
“A little less haste would be more decorous, Miss.”
The shadow of a pair of beetling brows rolled darkly over me. Had I stood beneath an overhanging cliff, with the ocean waves dashing at my feet, I could not have felt more awe or dread. A mist settled on my eyes.
“Read,” — cried the master, waving his ruler with a commanding gesture, — “our time is precious.”
I opened my lips, but no sound issued from my paralyzed tongue. With a feeling of horror, which the intensely diffident can understand, and only they, I turned and was about to fly back to my seat, when a large, strong hand pressed its weight upon my shoulder, and arrested my flight.
“Stay where you are,” exclaimed Mr. Regulus. “Have I not lectured you a hundred times on this preposterous shamefacedness of yours? Am I a Draco, with laws written in blood, a tyrant, scourging with an iron rod, that you thus shrink and tremble before me? Read, or suffer the penalty due to disobedience and waywardness.”
Thus threatened, I commenced in a husky, faltering voice, the reading of lines which, till that moment, I had believed glowing with the inspiration of genius. Now, how flat and commonplace they seemed! It was the first time I had ever ventured to reveal to others the talent hidden with all a miser’s vigilance in my bosom casket. I had lisped in rhyme, — I had improvised in rhyme, — I had dreamed in poetry, when the moon and stars were looking down on me with benignant lustre;— I had thought poetry at the sunset hour, amid twilight shadows and midnight darkness. I had scribbled it at early morn in my own little room, at noonday recess at my solitary desk; but no human being, save my mother, knew of the young dream-girl’s poetic raptures.
One of those irresistible promptings of the spirit which all have felt, and to which many have yielded, induced me at this era to break loose from my shell and come forth, as I imagined, a beautiful and brilliant butterfly, soaring up above the gaze of my astonished and admiring companions. Yes; with all my diffidence I anticipated a scene of triumph, a dramatic scene, which would terminate perhaps in a crown of laurel, or a public ovation.
Lowly self-estimation is by no means a constant accompaniment of diffidence. The consciousness of possessing great powers and deep sensibility often creates bashfulness. It is their veil and guard while maturing and strengthening. It is the flower-sheath, that folds the corolla, till prepared to encounter the sun’s burning rays.
I did read, — one stanza. I could not go on though the scaffold were the doom of my silence.
“What foolery is this! Give it to me.”
The paper was pulled from my clinging fingers. Clearing his throat with a loud and prolonged hem, — then giving a flourish of his ruler on the desk, he read, in a tone of withering derision, the warm breathings of a child’s heart and soul, struggling after immortality, — the spirit and trembling utterance of long cherished, long imprisoned yearnings.
Do you have a childhood memory of a teacher criticizing something you have created?
2 Replies to “Caroline Lee Hentz on a Child’s Yearning”
excellent essay – wonder why we’ve all but forgotten about Hentz now….?!
I am amazed at how many women authors have been neglected. In Hentz’s case her work for a long time was considered very sentimental, melodramatic, and overly religious. Today we can see that she was writing remarkably strong female characters who took action and stood up for their beliefs even if they ended up married in the end. It probably didn’t help that she wrote a pro-slavery novel. One thing I have learned is that reading these older works does provide the opportunity to enter minds shaped by their times and view history in unexpected ways.