Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (pen name; neé Mary Gray Phelps; married name Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward; also wrote under the pen name Mary Adams. August 31, 1844 – January 28, 1911) was an American writer.

Her mother, Elizabeth Wooster Stuart Phelps, published a popular series of children’s books (the Kitty Brown series), under the pen name H. Trusta.

After her mother died of brain fever shortly after the birth of her third child, in 1852, eight-year-old Phelps adopted her name, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, which she would continue to use both in her personal and professional life.

Phelps had an upper-class education and attended Abbot Academy and Mrs. Edwards’ School for Young Ladies. At thirteen, she published her first short-story in the periodical Youth’s Companion, and started to publish regularly in Sunday School publications.

In 1861, her father became an invalid, and she had to devote most of her time to keeping house for him. He encouraged her to continue writing in her spare time, and she wrote a popular series of children’s books, “Gypsy”, whose tomboy heroine is said to have influenced Louisa May Alcott and Susan Coolidge.

In 1864, Phelps’ first piece of adult fiction was published in Harper’s Magazine. Her break-through into literary fame came a few years later, in 1868, when she published the novel The Gates Ajar (1868), which was a best-seller in the United States and in England and was translated into several languages. The Gates Ajar (1868) occupies second place among the novels that were best-sellers in the XIX century, only behind Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Mark Twain wrote a parody of The Gates Ajar (1868) in the short story Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, published in Harper’s Magazine in December 1907, and published in book form, with some revisions, in 1909.

Phelps wrote 57 fiction books, more than 150 short stories, as well as poetry, plays, essays, and articles. Her work earned praise from Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Emily Dickinson’s literary correspondent and friend) and Lucy Stone, and she corresponded with Longfellow and Harriet Prescott Spofford, among others. Phelps was the first woman to lecture at Boston University, in 1876, in a series titled “Representative Modern Fiction”.

She was an advocate of women’s political, economic and legal independence, as well as of the causes of temperance, antivivisection, and labour. As early as in 1873, in the pamphlet “What to Wear?”, she urged women to burn their corsets: “Burn up the corsets! … No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”

In her controversial novel The Story of Avis (1877), inspired by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), Phelps boldly portrays the demands of marriage as detrimental to women’s careers and artistic aspirations.

In 1888, Phelps broke her professed desire to remain a spinster, and married Herbert Dickinson Ward, a journalist seventeen years her junior. She was 42, and Herbert was the son of her friend and publisher William H. Ward. Phelps and Herbert collaborated on three religious novels – The Master of the Magicians (1890), Come Forth (1890), and A Lost Hero (1891) -, but their marriage is said to have been unhappy. The couple lived separately for most of their lives and had no children.

Phelps died of heart failure on January 28th, 1911. She was 66.

Her work remained largely forgotten for most of the 20th century. In her autobiography, Chapters from a Life, first published in McClure’s Magazine, in 1896, she had stated: “Write, if you must; not otherwise. Do not write, if you can earn a fair living at teaching or dressmaking, at electricity or hod-carrying. Make shoes, weed cabbages, survey land, keep house, make ice-cream, sell cake, climb a telephone pole. Nay, be a lightning-rod peddler or a book agent, before you set your heart upon it that you shall write for a living… Living? It is more likely to be dying by your pen; despairing by your pen; burying hope and heart and youth and courage in your ink-stand.

Books

  • Ellen’s Idol (1864)
  • Gypsy Breynton series (1866–1867)
  • Mercy Gliddon’s Work (1866)
  • The Gates Ajar (1868)
  • Men, Women, and Ghosts (1869)
  • The Trotty Book (1870)
  • Hedged In (1870)
  • The Silent Partner (1871)
  • What to Wear (1873)
  • Poetic Studies (1875)
  • The Story of Avis (1877)
  • An Old Maid’s Paradise (1879)
  • Sealed Orders (1879)
  • Doctor Zay (1882)
  • Beyond the Gates (1883)
  • Songs of the Silent World (1884)
  • The Madonna of the Tubs (1886)
  • Jack the Fisherman (1887)
  • The Gates Between (1887)
  • The struggle for Immortality (1889)
  • A Lost Hero (1890, with her husband)
  • The Master of the Magicians (1890, with her husband)
  • Come Forth (1891, with her husband)
  • Austin Phelps, A Memoir (1891)
  • Donald Marcy (1893)
  • A Singular Life (1895)
  • Chapters from a Life (1896)
  • The Story of Jesus Christ (1897)
  • The Supply at Saint Agetha’s (1897)
  • Within the Gates (1901)
  • Trixy (1904)
  • Walled In (1907)
  • The Whole Family (1908, together with a group of other authors)
  • Jonathan and David (1909)
  • The Empty House and Other Stories (1910)

Anthologies

  • The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers, ed. Mike Ashley (2009)
  • Venus en las tinieblas: Relatos de horror escritos por mujeres, ed. Antonio José Navarro (2007)
  • Two Friends: And Other 19th-Century American Lesbian Stories by American Women Writers, ed. Susan Koppelman (1994)
  • Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales by American Women Writers, ed. Alfred Bendixen (1985)
  • Avenging Angels: Ghost Stories by Victorian Women Writers, ed. Melissa Edmundson (2018)
  • Old Maids: Short Stories by Nineteenth Century U.S. Women Writers, ed. Susan Koppelman (1984)
  • Companions of Our Youth: Stories by Women for Young People’s Magazines, 1865-1900, ed. Jane Benardete and Phyllis Moe (1980)
  • Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, 1852-1923, ed. Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton (2020)

About her

  • Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1829-1870, by Nina Baym (1978)
  • New England Local Color Literature: A Woman’s Tradition, by Josephine K. Donovan (1983)
  • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, by Carol Farley Kessler (1982)
  • Grenzü Die fiktionale weibliche Perspektive in der Literatur, by Ruth Nestvold-Mack (1990)
  • “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion”, by Christine Stansell, Massechusetts Review 13 (1972), pp. 239-56.
  • Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Edward T. James (1971)
  • ‘Where Lies Her Margin, Where Her Text?’: Configurations of Womanhood in the Works of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, by Jennifer A. Gehrman (1996, PhD dissertation)
  • American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Lina Mainero (1981)
  • The Life and Works of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Victorian Feminist Writer, by Lori Kelly (1983)
  • Provisions: A Reader from Nineteenth-Century American Women, Judith Fetterly (1985)

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