Monday, April 18, 2016

A Budding Scarlett O’Hara in Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Va. postmark from March 24, 1850.
Collecting old letters is fascinating because they allow a personal glimpse into the past. Moreover, in letters and diaries, people often reveal feelings and aspects of themselves not found in more formal kinds of writing.

Letters are valued for their combination of association and content. Examples of associations are letters by George Washington or about the Civil War. Content implies dramatic information, say a soldier's account of a battle, as well as letters written with flair and style. 

The first page of Nell's letter—excerpts below…
A letter with personality to spare was written in 1850 by sixteen year old Eleanor (Nell) Meade to her sister Charlotte at City Point, Virginia now part of Hopewell, about 20 miles southeast of Richmond. Written home from Nell's boarding school in Richmond, the letter is filled with charm, humor and irony, but at every moment one senses Nell's determined will, the iron fist within the velvet glove. 

Home School was a Young Ladies' boarding school run by a Mrs. Minor in Richmond.
Although no dire events were transpiring, the way Nell reports it, there was never a dull moment. The letter starts out recounting the apparently serious illness of a teacher, Miss Hayman. The problem comes with the substitute, the appropriately named Miss Grubb,

one of these dictatorial persons it is so hard to mind; as Miss Steward said she is a person of very limited education, in hearing us she counts the most insignificant things a miss, faults marks have been very common this week….I just escaped having one, and got seven in deportment, the first time I have had anything but nines since I came here. No mind, I will pay her for it, if I live.

"I will pay her for it if I live---"

"My other dress is going the way of all flesh"

"I have nothing on earth to wear"
The main part of the letter concerns Nell’s new wardrobe. While she states that she is content to make over her old clothes, she then goes on to specify her exact needs (“I want everything pink this summer”), underlining her requests with the sad story of her old bonnet:

…as for my walking bonnet, it got so covered with coal dust, that one evening I saw it, and thought most certainly it was some bodies old mourning bonnet…I thought a little blowing would help it, but at the first puff, the house was so full of clouds of dust, that everybody getting choked, came running to see what was the matter, and found me puffing and blowing at my bonnet. Two or three days after that the crown fell out, and there was an end of my lovely bonnet.

The end of the bonnet.

Eleanor softens her tone a bit with a request that her mother instead of Charlotte should come to visit her, as her mother needs a little vacation. However, if we wish to second-guess Nell’s motives, perhaps she was thinking that a shopping spree in Richmond was more likely to take place with Mother in tow than with Sister.

I had rather have Ma, because she stays at home so much, and it is my private opinion, publicly expressed, that after a while it will be impossible to move her, and a trip to Bolling Hall would be very beneficial.
A sharper tone returns to the letter with Nell’s characterization of Garnet, who

sits by me at table; whenever she gets almost enough to eat, she turns to me and says 'I’m almost happy.' It is a pretty hard matter to make her happy I can tell, she can devour more bread than any one I ever saw, it is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

It is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

Even today many boarding schools prescribe a Spartan regime as being good for developing character. At this point we can easily imagine Nell’s feeling on the subject:

I received a letter from Mildred day before yesterday, she is going to school in Staunton to Mr. Philips, who has thirty five boarders, and they make up their own beds, and sweep their floors every evening. I would not have to do it for a heap.

 I would not do it for a heap.

Nell intersperses her commands and tart observations with so much charm and wit that after a short while we feel as if we are part of her circle, enjoying her confidences. Her talent for writing raises her letter far above the ordinary, plodding letter home from school. She obviously added a lively element to the Home School crowd, and her sense of playfulness is nowhere more apparent than in her closing lines: 

“…believe believe me ever your loving, affectionate, attached, devoted, beautiful, lovely, intelligent, economical, tired--- sleepy--- Sister--- Nell.”
The Meades are a well-documented family, the bulk of their papers archived at the University of North Carolina. We can trace what happened to Nell, Charlotte and the others mentioned in this letter, but for now I would like to leave Nell as she was, a nascent Southern Belle on a Spring day in 1850.

(All photos and original documents property of the author.)