Memoir of Mary Twining

by Annie Eliot Trumbull

THE other day I spent several hours in looking over a lot of dusty volumes which had fallen to me in the way of inheritance. In the somewhat heterogeneous collection I came upon a brief memoir which, after a glance within, I laid aside as worthy, at least, of perusal. The other books were of little value of any sort—an orthodox commentary, an odd volume of a county history, one or two cook-books, a worn and broken set of certain standard British authors,—the usual assortment to be found in a country farmhouse, whose occupants soon ceased to keep up with the times. But this little book seemed to me unusual,—an opinion subsequently confirmed by examination. I had long ago discovered the fallacy of that tradition of early youth that a memoir is, of necessity, dull, and I was in nowise unfavorably affected by the title, "Memoir of Mary Twining." There proved to be something to me singularly quaint and charming in this little sketch, something fresh and new in this voice from bygone years. The subject of the memoir attracted me powerfully, both from the simplicity and naturalness of her own words, and the freedom and occasional depth of both thought and expression, in a day when freedom and thinking for one's self were less the fashion of New England maidens than they have since become. Or, it may be that the Editor, notwithstanding an occasional stiffness and apparent want of sympathy, has so well done his work, has understood so well what to give us and what to keep from us, that the reader's interest is skilfully fostered from the start. Be this as it may, I have not been able to resist the temptation to write, myself, a little of this memoir and its subject, to make a little wider, if I may, the public who have been told the story of this life. Not that it was an exciting or an eventful one, though lived in stirring times, but as I have already said, it seems to have a certain charm which should not be left forgotten in country garrets or unnoticed in second-hand bookstores. With no further apology for this review of it, I shall let the book, as far as possible, speak for itself.

Mary Twining was born in Middleport, Massachusetts, June 27, 1757. Her father fought with Colonel Washington in the French and Indian War, and subsequently under General Washington in a later disturbance. Her mother was a granddaughter of one of the early colonial governors. Mary seems to have come naturally enough by fine impulses and good breeding.

"It is not," says the conscientious biographer, "from any vain Partiality for high-sounding names, or any poor Pretense of good blood, which were most out of place in this our Republic, made so by the Genius and enduring Fortitude of all classes of Men, that I claim for Mary Twining stately Lineage, but that when such Accidents fall in the lives of Human Beings, it is not a thing to make light of, but worthy of study in its Results. Besides which is General Washington none the less a Good Soldier in that he is a Gentleman."

I suspect the traditions of a loyal Englishman had not been wholly eradicated from the mind of this biographer by a few years of plebeian institutions. With equal truth he goes on, however, to say that what was "of an Importance swallowing up the Lesser Matter of Lineage and Station, Richard Twining was an upright and a God-fearing man, and Mary, his wife, patterned in all things after the Behaviour of her godly Ancestor." Either Richard or Mary, his wife, must have something "patterned" after a liberal and occasionally self-willed model, else whence came the spice of independence in the little Mary's character? She was an only child, and only children were probably in the middle of the eighteenth very much what they are in the close of the nineteenth century,—little beings allowed greater liberties, and burdened with heavier accountabilities, than where there are more to divide both. There are several incidents told of her childhood, not particularly remarkable, perhaps, but showing that her mind and her imagination were alive. She was not by any means a precocious child; her mind was but little, if at all, in advance of her years. If one may judge from detached anecdotes and descriptions, she showed no more than the receptivity and quickness natural to a bright and somewhat unusually clear intellect. Through all these anecdotes there runs a vein denoting what is less common in childhood than a certain precocity,—a keen sense of justice. She appears to have reasoned of many things, usually taken by childhood for granted, and assented to their results only if they seemed to her childishness just. If after life showed her that the affairs of this life can be but seldom regulated according to the ideas of finite justice, she never seems to have lost a certain fairness of judgment and opinion, which is rare in one of her sex and circumstances. When five years old, her mother, wishing her to give up a pet doll to a little crippled friend, told her that sympathy should suggest her doing it; that it was a privilege to make another happy; that it was selfishness to prefer her own pleasure of possession to that of another. But Mary listened unmoved to these arguments. Nevertheless the struggle was not a long one. With a good grace, after a few moments of silence, she carried the doll to her unfortunate friend. "Mamma," she said soberly, "she shall have it, for it is right that she should. I feel it. I shall have many things that she can never have."

For the logic of five years it was no small thing to have settled this question in this way. It would take too much time and too much space to dwell on the anecdotes of her childhood. Indeed, the biographer does not linger on them long himself.

"It is meet," he says, "to speak of these early Years, not from a desire to show that there was aught in the Childhood of Mary Twining remarkable or unnatural, that should be the Cause of Wonder or Admiration. But the rather that there may be evinced the Presence, even in the Germ, of certain Qualities of Soundness of Judgment and of Thoughtfulness unusual in a Female, which grew with her Growth, and which were in later Years, developed into stronger Traits by no unnatural means."

In 1773 she was sent away to a school in which she remained three years, varied by occasional visits at home. She made several friends here, and here, for the first time, kept a methodical and somewhat extended diary. From this diary her biographer makes copious extracts. In fact, from this period the memoir is chiefly made up from her several journals, in whose continuity there are now and then large gaps, with occasional notes. I shall make less copious extracts, principally those bearing upon that matter of which we always, more or less consciously, seek traces in the lives of individuals, distinguished or obscure, the love story. But first for her school life, into which few whispers of sentiment penetrated. It was no fashionable boarding-school to which she was sent, attended by young ladies whose dreams of what they will soon be doing in society monopolize the hours nominally devoted to literature and the sciences. An old friend of her mother opened her house to a few representatives of those families with whom she was acquainted, where, under the best teachers the country afforded, they were trained in such acquirements as were prescribed by the canons of the day. On the fifteenth of September she says:—

"I have been something more than a week at the good School which my kind Parents have chosen for me. There seems, after all, to be little doing here. The few exercises in Mathematics, and the selections from the works of the most Highly Endowed of the Authors of England appear to me to be the most Profitable. As for the matter of Embroidery, I worked with Patience, ten years ago, a Sampler which was not considered discreditable, and it seems to me that of the multiplying of Stitches there is no end, and it were, perhaps, as well to go no farther. My daily Practice on the Spinet, may, perhaps, be the means of giving Pleasure at some Future Time, but it is the Occasion of but little Benefit in the Present, and of the Future can we be never certain."

The question of profitableness of a good many of her employments was often in her mind during these three years. She cannot help feeling that there are times when it is hard to contentedly fold the hands over even the worsted marvels of a "not discreditable" sampler. A year later, she says again:—

"More Practice and more Embroidery this afternoon. There are those of my Companions who ask nothing better than such unvarying Exercises. In them they find room for the employing of their Imagination and their Spirit. I wonder if it be so great a Fault in me, that I find them wearying. It is not that they are in themselves so distasteful, as it is that there seemeth much work waiting to be done, which a woman's Hands might well do, were it not reckoned somewhat unseemly."

"Her's was a somewhat restless Soul," says her biographer, "perplexing itself with Questions which it was not for her to answer."

Yes, with questions with which many a restless woman's soul has since perplexed itself, and which are now only beginning to attain solution. It is pleasant to find, in these early times, when we fancy New England maidens well content with their spinning and bread-making, hints that there were enterprising spirits who thought the prescribed round a too narrow one.

She finds some fault with one of her teachers for being too lenient with her.

"I received no Reproof," she says, "to-day when I most Richly deserved it. A Disturbance in the Hour for Study was entirely of my own making, but the Person who is Master at that Hour refused, with Persistence, to see it. I made it most evident, but he remarked, with a frown for a less Offender, that he should hold Mistress Twining excused. I shall find Occasion to address him on this Subject, for if I receive due Credit for that which I do that is Well Done, I shall show no unwillingness to bear the Brunt of my Superior's Displeasure for what is Ill Done. Moreover, I will not have it otherwise."

"It were better," is the brief comment, "it were better had Mary Twining shown more Regret for what she herself confesses was ill done, rather than that she should take upon herself to correct the Faults of those towards whom she was somewhat lacking in Reverence." But it is droll enough to fancy the scene—the pretty schoolgirl gravely rebuking her delinquent master for the too great partiality her own bright eyes had won for her. Poor man! His was no sinecure. To hold rule over a parcel of unruly girls, with the graces of one so tugging at his heartstrings! His path might at least have been spared the thorn of having his fault denounced by the very voice that had done the mischief.

During the last year of her stay she writes less. Did the objectlessness of this education of hers pall upon the energy of her nature more and more? Or was her woman's heart preparing the way for the answer to this restless questioning? It is only now and then that we catch a glimpse of this development, which was singularly mature and singularly free from restriction.

"I have read many Tales," she says, "how true, in my small Experience, I know not, of the aptitude of Women, particularly those young women whose characters are in a state of most Imperfect Development, to yield in matters essential to their best Happiness to the Opposing Wishes of Parents and Guardians. I speak of those Matters, perhaps not the most fitting for the Speculations of a but Partially-schooled Maiden—Love, and the Choosing of a Husband. While in these matters, as in all others, the Wishes of Wise and Fond Parents and Guardians are the only safe Guides for a young and Untrained Spirit, there are other Cases where Injustice and a Desire to Rule are but slender Grounds for the exercise of Authority. I know that my Boldness in this Opinion cannot pass even my own mind unchallenged, but when I read of Unwilling Maids forced to the very Church Door or Languishing under unmerited sternness, and Yielding up their own Happiness, and that of another (though he be a Man) into the Hands of an unwise Judge through inability to resist such unloving Pressure, my Nature rebels against it. It would seem to me cause for a Glad and an Unfaltering Resistance. For a Husband is, after all, a Matter for a Maid's own choosing."

"The beaten path," says the biographer, "had ever but little attraction for Mary Twining. It had been well had she been less fain to seek Opportunity for a Lawful Resistance to Bonds. It seemeth ever to the Young that such opportunities are not long in coming."

It was not only from the consciences of the colonial fathers that the stirrings of independence went forth. Apparently there was a spirit abroad that breathed now and then from the lips of but partially-schooled maidens. Still, it is not unruliness, this protest of a young and independent spirit against the slavishness now and then upheld in certain forms of literature. There is little revolutionary, after all, in Mary's sentiment that "a Husband is a matter for a Maid's own choosing."

But we must pass over the last few notes of her school life. At nineteen she left school forever.

"I am about to leave this little Life of School," she writes, "for a larger Life of Home, and mayhap a Taste of that Life which is called of the World. And if I be not now, at the age of Nineteen years, equipped for the change and able to comport myself with a becoming Discretion and Dignity, then such equipment is not to be found within these Four Walls or in daily Practice of Music and Mathematics. Which, though I be filled with no over-weening Distrust of my own Capabilities, seemeth to my eyes of some Doubt and Difference of Opinion."

"On a certain day of June," her biographer goes on to state, "Mistress Mary Twining was placed in the Coach which should take her a Two Days' Journey to her Father's House. She was in Company with an old and Reverend Gentleman of friendly Disposition, who was well known to her Father and held in excellent esteem of him. The Fairness of a Maid is but a vain Toy, but," declares this most staid biographer, with a refreshing candor, "as it is a matter which is not without its effect on the Fortunes of many, it is not always to be passed over in the Silence which would befit a Sober Pen. Mary Twining's Hair was of a golden Colour and wound itself in small, and not always tidy, Rings about her Neck and Forehead. Her eyes were of a darker appearance than is common, and her Mouth, though not without a certain Winsomeness, gave Promise of a Firmness of Opinion and an Independence which was perhaps but a Sign of the Times, which her small and shrewdly-set Nose did not deny."

I more than suspect that, disclaim it as he may, our discreet biographer was in nowise loath to dwell a little on this vain toy of Mary's personal appearance. I even fancy that he was tempted to employ greater latitude of expression, which only his stern sense of his responsibilities led him to reject, in the description of that uncompromising mouth, not to mention the spice of naughtiness involved in that nose so "shrewdly set."

Not an unattractive picture in the coach window, this June day, is this of Mary Twining, in her big poke bonnet, white kerchief and short-waisted gown. And who is this, who, coming at the last moment, springs into a vacant place at her side, under the very eyes of the reverend old gentleman, her father's friend? The three-cornered hat which he doffs with ceremonious courtesy to the fair vision before him, the powdered queue, the high boots with jingling spurs, the sword at his side, are not unpicturesque items in our nineteenth-century eyes. Were they likely to be so in the eyes of this nineteen-year-old maiden just out of boarding-school?

"As it happened," says the biographer, "there went down the same day, and by the same Coach, one of the young Aids of our General. He was a personable Youth, and the Arrangement of the many Fripperies of the Costume of a young Gallant did naught to take away from the Face and Figure which Providence had accorded him. It were better had he or Mary Twining chosen another Time for the Journey."

Neither, probably, did a natural timidity of disposition do aught to lessen the impression which a personable young man has it in his power in any century to make upon a fair and observing girl. Mary herself says:—

"There rode down with us a young gallant of most holiday Appearance, but not ignorant withal of the working days of a Soldier. It was not long before he had entered into Conversation with Mr. Edwards, who had knowledge of the young Man's Parents, from which Conversation I learned something of himself, though most modestly told. He would fain have opened the Way for me to join in my Guardian's Questioning, but I bore in Mind the Unseemliness of an unwarranted Acquaintanceship, and sought rather to avoid than to court the Glances which he was not over cautious in sending in my Direction."

"A Maid's avoidance," observes the biographer, "of a Youth's Glances, is not of that Nature that is the Cutting off of all Hope."

And Fortune, too, was not of so perverse a disposition in this June weather as she is sometimes. For, on the second day, when probably glances, so conscientiously evaded, had become but the accompaniment of spoken words, there was an accident. The coach, as coaches are apt to do, was upset, and its occupants "made haste rather as they could than as they would," to leave it. In the confusion and tumbling about of heavy boxes Mary might have been badly hurt, had not the young gallant, quickly springing to his feet, caught her as she was thrown forward by a second lurch of the unwieldy thing, and, lifting her up, carried her out of the way of falling luggage and struggling horses to a place of safety.

"He lifted me as though I had been but a Feather's weight, showing a Strength which is indeed Goodly in the Sons of Men," says Mary demurely, "and which was most grateful in the Stress and Confusion, and in its display most Timely, though perhaps," she adds, with delicious frankness, "he was not over ready to put me down that he might hasten back to be of further help."

"My Bonnet was awry," she continues, "my Hair in sad confusion, and my Face a Milkmaid Red, so that I said with but little Grace, 'Sir, I fear you have found me a grievous Weight.' Whereupon he answered me that so light was my weight, that his Heart was the Heavier for the Putting of me down, which was a Conceit not reasonable but most kindly intended. Whereon I thanked him, and he vowed such a Burden would he gladly carry to the World's End had he but Leave given."

Another picture not unpleasant to the mind's eye, the overturned coach, the esteemed guardian of the youthful beauty delaying a little in its immediate neighborhood, perhaps to secure the safety of some precious package, the farm laborers in the green adjacent fields dropping their tools and running forward to help, the outcry and confusion, and apart, in the summer sunshine, the handsome fellow with the flashing sword by his side, listening with bent head and admiring eyes to the thanks which Mistress Mary, with her untidy hair and lifted eyes, was tendering with "but little Grace."

"Such chance meeting of the Sexes," says our astute commentator, "where appear what is most commanding in the One and most dependent in the Other, are but ill advised. The Uttering of such vain proffers as the carrying the Burden of Mary Twining to the World's End, and other Foolishness, hath then a Savour of Reality which concealeth the vain Delusion."

We have delayed too long over these extracts, and though I am tempted to delay yet longer, so quaint is the contrast between Mary Twining's youthful and feminine pen and that of her critical biographer, I pass on to a time some months after her arrival home. Indeed, she writes little in the interval. The coming into a new and wider circle, the adapting herself to new conditions, leave her scant time for writing. There is a rapid noting of events, for it was an eventful time,—the mention of a few distinguished names, and that is all. But in order to follow the thread of Mary Twining's romance, we must pause at the account of a ball given to one of General Washington's regiments at a time before the rigor of war had quenched all thoughts of merry-making. It was not her first ball. She had mixed freely in society, and had measured herself with the men and women about her,—always an interesting experience to the free, unprejudiced and thoughtful girl.

"It was a joyous Scene enough," she writes, "but I myself not quite in the Humour for such Junketing. I had a gloomy Fancy that Reason would not dismiss, that in these Troublous Times there were Things outside of the Ball room Door, striving to enter, which having done, they would have proved of singular Inappositeness. None the less I danced with those who solicited me in due Form, and gave Heed to little else than the manner of the Solicitation. Not that there was Lack of Goodly Partners, but I was mindful of nothing beyond the Observance of the Courtesies of the Occasion. The only Annoyance of which I was sensible was the marked Attention of my Cousin Eustace Fleming, who is but recently come into this our Part of the Country, and claimeth Relationship. He is a most excellent Young Gentleman, but one who is likely to weary me with his over Appreciation of my own Qualities. It is but a Sign of my Stubbornness and Unregeneracy of Heart that, in that he is most approved and commended of my Parents, he wearieth me the more. I was fain to tell him, when he asked me a third Time to join the Dance, that there were fairer Maidens in the Hall who would be less loth to accord him the Favour, but as this would but have drawn from him a laboured compliment to my own Person, I prudently refrained."

It was in the weariness of this very encounter that, looking up, she saw approaching her the hero of her adventure in the coach, the impulsive youth whose former foolishness had won for him the semi-disapproval of our commentator. It seems possible that the gloomy fancies of shadowy things outside lightened a little, and the war ceased to be a background only for shapes of evil.

"It required not the space of a moment for me to recognize him, though his Attire had changed with the Circumstance, but as my Father's Friend, Mr. Edwards, had not deemed it of sufficient Importance to mention our former Rencontre, it now seemed to me useless to publicly recall that Incident. Particularly as being now duly presented to me in the Presence of my Parents, and with due Vouchers of his Credit, our Acquaintance could make such Progress as we should mutually consider profitable."

Prudent Mistress Mary and delinquent Mr. Edwards!

"After the Cotillion for which he had asked the Honour of my Hand, he led me to my Seat, but by a somewhat indirect Route. Upon my remarking upon which, he found Occasion to say that all Ways were short to him now after traversing the long and difficult one which he had followed that he might gain Admission to my Presence. I, laughing, said that my Presence were hardly worth such effort in Gaining, and that it was generally attained with more Ease, and he, replying with a Grace of Manner it were impossible not to remark, said hastily that he was well aware that he had found it easier to enter than he should to again forsake it."

"And so on with such Vanities," says the biographer, "as pass Current with young Men and Maidens in their shortsighted Enjoyment of the moment, and with which Mary Twining was but too fain to dally."

Yes, and so on, the old story. For there follow the frequent meetings, known and not unapproved of by the watchful parents, the half confessions, the vague wonderment, and at last the pledge given and received, and Mary Twining became the affianced wife of the handsome young officer. All this we trace in her journal, with satiric comments, now and then, of the Editor; but it is all so familiar that we will not dwell on it, pretty as it is. Only one shadow seems to have fallen on the lovers,—that of Mr. Eustace Fleming, the worthy cousin, whose importunities in the ball-room so tired the patience of Mistress Mary. The parentally favored candidate for Mary's hand, he finds it, evidently, too hard to give it up without a struggle. With a lack of that wisdom unfortunate lovers find it so hard to supply, he disturbed their interviews, forced himself on Mary's society, yet with no insolence and no self-betrayal that could lead to an outbreak. He is apparently a self-contained, and not a bad man, who finds it impossible to see that he is beaten. Of this period I make one or two extracts from Mary's journal, and then go on to the end.

"If I once marvelled at the yielding of those weak Women who find it easier to relinquish the Happiness that they find in the Love of Those bound to them by mutual attraction, than to contest the matter with all Dignity, Forbearance, Firmness and Patience, how much the more do I marvel now at their Shortsightedness! Were he, whom I gladly call my Betrothed, to be the Victim of Oppression or of Malice, it would seem to me but the throwing down of the Glove—a challenge to Battle, rather than a demand for Submission. Methinks it were not as a Suppliant that I should stoop to pick it up. But why talk of fighting, who am a peaceful Maid, who would labour, were it but Honourable towards her dear Country, to remove the Sound of Battle far from her Lover. For indeed he is more ready to fight than am I to have him. He would see an Opportunity to strike a Blow in my Cause where is none, so anxious is he to draw his Sword in my Behalf. Indeed so excellent an Opinion doth he entertain of my Person and my Mind and my Conditions, that he would not be long in finding one who should most justly contest the same. Heaven send that he may hold to the Opinion and forget the Wish to make Proselytes!

"It would seem that some men were created but as a sort of Makeweight, who, without active Hindrance, make it more difficult to row one's Boat up the Stream of Life. Of such kind is my Cousin Eustace Fleming. His most mistaken Admiration of me (for that in him is a Mistake which in Another is but a most fitting and a most reverenced Creed) serves but to make a Let and Hindrance where my satisfaction is concerned. I would that he could more easily learn the Lesson I have been at such Pains to mark out for him."

"It were vain," is the comment on the last passage, "to expect a Recognition of sober worth in the Day of Love and Ambition. And Mistress Twining, after the manner of her kind, pays but little Heed to lasting Affection before the Time comes when it shall be of Use to Her."

The wedding day approaches. Mary Twining does not lose her independence, though, woman like, she seems to enjoy losing herself in the love lavished upon her. Here and there are passages which show that in the warmth of her romance she thinks and judges and acts for herself, as she did in her school days. Mary Twining will never merge her individuality in that of another, however dear to her.

The entries grow briefer and more infrequent, as the month fixed upon for the marriage draws near. It is to be in June,—two years from that June when she rode down by coach, in the care of her father's friend.

"The day is fixed for the twenty-seventh of June," is the last entry but two in her journal. "Two years ago, Fate gave my Life into his Hands. At least, in giving it to him a second Time, Fate and I are at one."

The next entry is a month later. It is simply the statement,—

"May 24th. I have done my Cousin Eustace wrong." Then on—

"July 27th. And I am but twenty-one!"

And June comes and goes, and there is no word on her bridal day, no breathings of her new happiness from her ready pen. Is the book closed? Yes, but her biographer has a word to say.

"On the twenty-seventh of June, Mary A. Twining became the wife of her Cousin Eustace Fleming. Their Betrothal was but a short one, but in the eyes of her judicious Parents, there was no unseemly Haste. It had long been a cherished wish of their Hearts, and Eustace Fleming was a young man of Promise and of rare Discretion."

There it ends. The record of Mary Twining is finished. With Mary Fleming he has nothing to do. But where is the girl of ripened understanding, of freedom of thought, of directness of purpose? We do not know, for our biographer does not tell us. Was there a tragedy, and were the details too heart-breaking for even the stoical Editor to maintain his critical attitude?

Where is the gallant cavalier with his picturesque devotion, and his vain toys of pretty speech and gesture and his fiery and over-weening love and admiration for Mistress Mary Twining? He seemed to me a brave and loyal sort of young fellow enough. I cannot tell. Put the quaint old book back on the shelf, and let her romance rest again. But notwithstanding her husband of such promise and rare discretion, I cannot help sighing, "Poor Mary Twining!"

Fate and she had a difference, after all. And she was but twenty-one!