The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Alice B. Neal
Engraved in London from a Drawing by W. H. Furness Jr.
ALICE B. NEAL.
The banks of the Hudson seem destined to become classic ground. Not a few of our most distinguished writers, men and women, have either lent their genius to the celebration of its beauties, or have themselves drawn inspiration from its mountain breezes. The name of Alice B. Neal is now to be added to the list. Born in 1828, in the city of Hudson, she may have owed her early love for the beautiful to the romantic scenery by which her childhood was surrounded. If there be any truth in the theory of physical influences upon the mental, we may in like manner trace something of the enduring energy with which she has met her many trials to her subsequent dwelling upon the hardier soil of the granite State. Her education was finished in New Hampshire, where she gave early indications of intellectual superiority.
An apparently trivial incident of the school-room led to a most romantic issue, and fixed indeed her course in life. In a sportive hour, her schoolmates challenged her to try her success before the world with some of those compositions which had so excited the admiration of the school. The challenge was accepted, and a tale was at once despatched to Joseph C. Neal, who had then just established the “Saturday Gazette.” It was entitled “The First Declaration,” and signed “Alice G. Lee.”
Mr. Neal was then in the prime of his days, and one of the acknowledged arbiters of taste in literature. His decision as to the rejection or the acceptance of the story was watched with eager eyes by the merry young coterie. How those eyes must have sparkled to find in a subsequent Gazette, not only the tale published in full, but the following editorial comments:
“Taking it for granted that our literary department for the week will receive an attentive perusal, we shall be mistaken—much mistaken, ladies—for to your peculiar appreciation of the beautiful and refined we appeal, particularly in the present instance—if the reader does not agree with us in our estimate of the merits of the charming original sketch, published in our present number, from the pen of Miss Alice G. Lee.
“‘No offence to the general, or any man of quality,’ as Cassio has it; but though second to none in our admiration of ‘Fanny Forrester,’ it would be injustice not to say, that ‘The First Declaration’ will compare, without injury, to any other production of the kind that has adorned of late our periodical literature. How it may affect others we cannot tell; but it is to us like moonlight on the flowers when the weary day is done, or like music on the waters, to meet with a sketch so replete with playfulness, yet so delicately marked with Coleridge’s ‘instinct of ladyhood.’ There is genius, too, and originality, in its naiveté—a nice and feminine perception of the beautiful, with an ability to portray it, which cannot fail of its purpose whenever it is thus executed.”
The matter did not end here. The new author continued to contribute to the Gazette. A correspondence ensued, which led to the entertainment on his part of a deep and warm regard. Discovering at length, accidentally, that “Alice G. Lee” was a fiction, and that the real lady was Miss Emily Bradley, now returned to her own home on the Hudson, he immediately sought her acquaintance, and in December, 1846, received her hand in marriage, and brought her to Philadelphia, which has been her home ever since. At his request, she resumed, and she still retains, the endeared name of “Alice,” by which he had first known her.
This union, so romantic in its origin, was doomed to a sad and speedy termination. In July, 1847, the hand of death left Mrs. Neal a widow, at the early age of nineteen. Experience shows, in the moral world if not in the physical, that the coarsest plants are not always the hardiest. This delicate flower, so tenderly fostered and so fragrantly blooming, beneath the genial influences that surround the parterres of city life, now that it was exposed to the blast, seemed suddenly to resume the hardihood of its mountain birth. With a courage that might do honour to an experienced matron, this widowed girl decided at once to assume the editorial duties of her deceased husband, and thus not only avoid eating the bread of dependence, but also win the dearer privilege of ministering to the comfort of her husband’s now childless mother. To this excellent woman, now seventy-two years of age, with a filial piety like that of Ruth to Naomi, she has said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Since the death of Mr. Neal, the two ladies have continued to live together, the younger gracefully acknowledging that the rich stores of experience, the varied reading, fine taste, and judicious counsels of her aged companion, have more than compensated for her own more active exertions.
Her first literary effort, after her mournful bereavement, was to superintend the publication of the third series of “Charcoal Sketches,” by her late husband. She has since then, besides her weekly editorial labours in the Gazette, written several books for children, and contributed largely, both in prose and verse, to our leading Magazines. “Helen Morton” appeared in 1849 under the auspices of the Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union, and was well received. It has been followed by “Pictures from the Bible”, and a sequel to “Helen Morton,” called “Watch and Pray.” She is at present engaged upon a series of juvenile books, the first of which, intended for boys, and entitled “No Such Word as Fail,” is already completed. Of her works of a different kind, the first that has assumed the book form is the “Gossips of Rivertown, or Lessons of Charity.” Her other tales in Godey, Graham, and Sartain, would make, if collected, two or three volumes of the size of the “Gossips of Rivertown.”
Mrs. Neal is still one of our youngest writers, and what is of most favourable omen, shows in her writings constant signs of improvement. In the language of a contemporary critic, who writes on this subject con amore, and whose opinion we make our own: “Her poetry has more maturity than her prose; for the gift of song comes to the bard, as to the bird, direct from Heaven. Polish and metrical correctness may be added to genuine poetry; but it is doubtful whether the fount be not as pure and sparkling at its first gush, as when quietly flowing on in a deeper stream. Mrs. Neal’s prose compositions are continually improving, and the knowledge, which, with her uncommon industry, she is constantly acquiring, will enlarge her sphere of thought and illustration; and better yet, the religious tenor of her writings shows that she is guided by principles which will strengthen her intellect, and make her, we trust, in after years, an ornament and blessing to our famed land.”