[Although Lydia Sigourney is obviously an American author, and this website is a resource for British culture and history, she appears here for several reasons: She represents an important part of the long-forgotten Anglo-American tradition of women's writing, her works resonate with works of writers like Christina Rossetti and may have influenced them, and her work is so little known one is unlikely to encounter many mentions of it elsewhere. GPL]

Lydia Howard Huntley was born in Norwich, Connecticut on September 1, 1791, to Ezekiel Huntley and Zerviah Wentworth. Their only child, she was named after her father's first wife, Lydia Howard. Ezekiel married Lydia Howard right after participating in the Revolutionary war and she died of tuberculosis before their first anniversary. Three years later, he married Sigourney's mother Zerviah.

Two very different portraits of Lydia Sigourney: a photograph (an albumen print) by Matthew Brady and a stipple engraving by George Parker of a Painting by C. Ingham. From the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (image id nos. 482976 and 482975). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Lydia had many fond memories of her father and mother whom she esteemed a great deal. When she began to be successful as an author, she determined to take care of them, refraining from marriage. In her words:

I had . . . reason for avoiding serious advances. My mind was made up never to leave my parents. I felt that their absorbing love could never be repaid by the longest life-service, and that the responsibility of an only child, their sole prop and solace, would be strictly regarded by Him who readeth the heart. I had seen aged people surrounded by indifferent persons, who considered their care a burden, and could not endure the thought that my tender parents, who were without near relatives, should be thrown upon the fluctuating kindness of hirelings and strangers. To me, my father already seemed aged, though scarcely sixty; and I said, in my musing hours, "Shall he, who never denied me aught, or spoke to me otherwise than in love-tones, stretch forth his hands in their weakness, 'and find none to gird him?'" [241]

We can see much of what inspired Lydia Sigourney in the above passage. Her main themes included old age, death, responsibility, religion—a strong belief in God and the Christian faith — and work.

She was influenced greatly by her childhood relationship with her father's employer, the Widow Lathrop. "Sometimes, Madam Lathrop would invite the little child from across the hall into her parlor.... Seated in her cushioned armchair ... the old lady would ... hand [Young's Night Thoughts] to Lydia, who would read in a clear voice from 'The Consolation,' while Madam Lathrop ... indulged in mournful reverie.... Hours like these fostered in the girl the sentimentality that was to be her principal recourse in later years" (Haight, 4-5).

After her friend Madam Lathrop died in 1805, Lydia was sent to visit Mrs. Jeremiah Wadsworth, one of the widow's old acquaintances, in Hartford, Connecticut. This visit put her in contact with Daniel Wadsworth. Daniel helped her set up a school for girls, arranging for his friends' daughters to attend (Haight, 9). In 1815, he also helped her publish her first work, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse, arranging the publishing and performing the initial editing himself. Sigourney described Wadsworth as her "kind patron" and said that he "took upon himself the whole responsibility of contracting publishers, gathering subscriptions, and even correcting the proof sheets" (325). She went on to say that "He delighted in drawing a solitary mind from obscurity into a freer atmosphere and brighter sunbeam" (325-6).

On June 16, 1819, she married Charles Sigourney, and after her marriage chose to write anonymously in "leisure" time (Haight, 33-34). It was not until her parents were in dire need and her husband had lost some of his former affluence that she began to write as an occupation. When she was referred to as the probable author of the anonymous Letters to Young Ladies, By a Lady she admitted authorship and from there began to write openly as Mrs. Sigourney (Haight, 35).

In the years since her influence waned after her death, Lydia Sigourney has often been slandered and made the point of ridicule. Much of her writing is referred to as "hack work" by Haight, her only biographer. Her influence has been attributed to her relationships with wealthy powerful people of her day and good business sense. Kolker points out that much of the criticism has come from modern ideas of finding a personal voice through poetry while Sigourney's avowed intent was to benefit others (66). This purpose would mean that she had no need to find a personal voice.

Her influence was tremendous. She inspired many young women to attempt to become poets. According to Teed,

As a dedicated, successful writer, Lydia Sigourney violated essential elements of the very gender roles she celebrated. In the process, she offered young, aspiring women writers around the country an example of the possibilities of achieving both fame and economic reward. [19]

Rev. E.B. Huntington wrote a small consideration of Mrs. Sigourney's life shortly after her death. He pointed out that her success was not necessarily due to her prowess as a writer but more perhaps "because with [her] gifts and [her] success, she had with singular kindliness of heart made her very life-work itself a constant source of blessing and joy to others. Her very goodness had made her great. Her genial goodwill had given her power. Her loving friendliness had made herself and her name everywhere a charm" (85). By that eulogy, she is most appropriately remembered.

References

Haight, Gordon S. Mrs. Sigourney, The Sweet Singer of Hartford. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930.

Huntington, Rev. E.B. "Lydia H. Sigourney." Eminent women of the age, being narratives of the lives and deeds of the most prominent women of the present generation. Hartford, Conn., 1868.

Kolker, Amy Sparks. The Circumscribed Path: Nineteenth-Century American Poetesses Diss. University of Kansas, 1999. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1999. 9941646.

Mattheu, Elizabeth-Christina. "Britannia's Poet! Graecia's Hero, Sleeps! ...": Philhellenic Poetry by Women, 1817-1852. Diss. University of Athens, 2001. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2001. 3015876.

Sigourney, Lydia Howard Huntley. Letters of Life. New York, 1867.

Teed, Melissa Ladd. Work, Domesticity and Localism: Women's Public Identity in Nineteenth-Century Hartford, Connecticut. Diss. University of Connecticut, 1999. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2000. 9949129.


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Last modified 16 February 2008