Darusmont, Frances (DNB00)

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DARUSMONT, FRANCES, better known by her maiden name as Frances Wright (1795–1852), philanthropist and agitator, was born at Dundee, 6 Sept. 1795. Her father, apparently possessed of independent means, was a man of considerable accomplishments and strong liberal feeling, who circulated Paine's ‘Rights of Man’ and translations of French political writings in his native town. At the age of two and a half she lost both her parents, and was brought up in England by a maternal aunt. Entirely by her own studies and reflections, as she asserts, she worked her way to her father's political and religious opinions, and at the age of eighteen wrote a vindication of the epicurean philosophy in the form of a little romance, entitled ‘A Few Days in Athens,’ published, with the temporary suppression of some chapters, in 1822. It is a graceful and sometimes powerful exercise of rhetorical fancy. At the time of its composition she was in Scotland, where she remained for three years, chiefly occupied in studying the history and condition of the United States in the library of the university of Glasgow. She had been fascinated by Botta's history of the American revolution, which seemed to realise her ideals of Greece and Rome; so curiously had her education been conducted that, while able to read Botta in the original, she was obliged to turn to the atlas to satisfy herself that such a country as the United States really existed. In 1818 she sailed for America with her younger sister, and spent two years in the States. Her letters home were collected and published in 1821, under the title of ‘Views of Society and Manners in America.’ They represent the prepossessions rather than the observations of a mind more quick than penetrating, more inquisitive than sagacious; their general tenor was, however, counter to a mass of ignorance and prejudice, and their effect was on the whole salutary. While in America she had produced a tragedy, ‘Altorf,’ which was acted in New York on 19 Feb. 1819, and published at Philadelphia with a preface predicting that America ‘will one day revive the sinking honour of the drama.’ It is in many respects a fine piece, full of effective rhetoric and stirring situations. From 1821 to 1824 Frances Wright lived in Paris, where she enjoyed the friendship of Lafayette and of many of the French liberal leaders. In 1824 she returned to the United States, eager to attempt the solution of the slave question. She purchased a tract of land on the river Nashoba, in the state of Tennessee, about fourteen miles north-west of Memphis, and settled negro slaves upon it, in the confident hope that they would in a few years by their labour work out their liberty, and that the southern planters would follow her example. This generous vision could only result in disappointment. The land was inferior and unimproved; the negroes, released from fear of the lash, worked indolently under an ex-Shaker overseer; the planters were entirely uninterested, and Frances Wright herself broke down from overwork and exposure to the sun, and after a severe attack of brain fever was ordered to Europe. The slaves were ultimately liberated and sent to Hayti. While in Europe Frances Wright made the acquaintance of Mrs. Shelley, to whom she addressed some highly interesting letters, showing that her ultimate schemes went further than the redemption of the blacks. ‘I have devoted my time and fortune,’ she says, ‘to laying the foundations of an establishment where affection shall form the only marriage, kind feeling and kind action the only religion, respect for the feelings and liberties of others the only restraint, and union of interest the bond of peace and security.’ On her return to America, after winding up the affairs of the Nashoba settlement, she took up her residence at New Harmony, Robert Owen's colony in Indiana, where, with the assistance of Robert Dale Owen, she conducted a socialistic journal. In 1829 she delivered a course of lectures in the chief cities of the union, pointing out the degree in which the United States, notwithstanding their free constitution, had hitherto disappointed the hopes of advanced reformers, and excited great opposition by the freedom of her attacks on religion. The novelty of a female lecturer in America, where they are now so plentiful, ‘caused,’ says Mrs. Trollope, ‘an effect that can hardly be described.’ ‘She came on the stage,’ when Mrs. Trollope heard her at Baltimore, ‘surrounded by a body-guard of quaker ladies in the full costume of their sect.’ This was in August 1830, when Frances Wright was on her way to Europe. She returned in 1833, and between that year and 1836 delivered numerous courses of lectures on social questions, especially slavery and female suffrage, of which latter she was one of the first advocates. They produced considerable impression, and led to the formation of ‘Fanny Wright societies.’ In 1838 she was again in France, and married M. Phiquepal-Darusmont, whose acquaintance she had made at New Harmony, and by whom she had a daughter. The union was unfortunate, and resulted in a separation, which had not, however, occurred when, in 1844, she visited her native town to realise a legacy left by a relation. On this occasion a short biography of her, afterwards reprinted separately, appeared in the ‘Dundee Northern Star.’ She was but little before the world in her latter years, partly on account of ill-health and suffering from an accident on the ice. She died at Cincinnati 2 Dec. 1852. It is to Frances Wright's lasting honour that she was almost the first to discern the importance of the slavery question, and to endeavour to settle it on a basis of amity and good feeling, to the mutual advantage of all concerned. Her scheme was undoubtedly visionary, but its errors sprang from the characteristic weaknesses of a generous mind. There was much miscalculation in her plans, but no fanaticism. It is much to be regretted that she did not make the peaceful abolition of slavery the one purpose of her life. Her general crusade against established institutions and beliefs damaged the cause she had originally most at heart, involved her in much obloquy, and has led to her being most unfairly ignored by the historians of the abolition movement. Few have made greater sacrifices for conviction's sake, or exhibited a more courageous independence; but, as Mr. R. D. Owen justly says, ‘her courage was not tempered by prudence, and her enthusiasm lacked the guiding check of sound judgment.’ Her estimate of her own powers, he intimates, did not err by excess of humility. She had great personal advantages. ‘Her tall and majestic figure,’ says Mrs. Trollope, ‘the deep and almost solemn expression of her eyes, the simple contour of her finely formed head, her garment of plain white muslin, which hung around her in folds that recalled the drapery of a Grecian statue, all contributed to produce an effect unlike anything that I had ever seen before, or ever expect to see again.’

[A miniature biography of Frances Darusmont was published in her lifetime (1844), professedly from notes of her conversation taken by the editor of a Dundee newspaper. It presents, however, unequivocal internal evidence of being written in English by a Frenchman, or translated from the French; from other indications it may be suspected that M. Darusmont had a hand in it. Another short biography, which we have not seen, was published by Amos Gilbert, Cincinnati, 1855. See also R. D. Owen's Threading my Way, pp. 264–72; Mrs. Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans, i. 96–100, ii. 76, 77; T. A. Trollope's What I Remember.]

R. G.