The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Eliza Leslie/Autobiography
LETTER TO MRS. ALICE B. NEAL.
My Dear Friend:
I was born in Philadelphia, at the corner of Market and Second streets, on the 15th of November, 1787, and was baptized in Christ Church by Bishop White.
Both my parents were natives of Cecil county, Maryland, also the birthplace of my grandfathers and grandmothers on each side. My great-grandfather, Robert Leslie, was a Scotchman. He came to settle in America about the year 1745 or ’46, and bought a farm on North-East River, nearly opposite to the insulated hill called Malden’s Mountain. I have been at the place. My maternal great-grandfather was a Swede named Jansen. So I have no English blood in me.
My father was a man of considerable natural genius, and much self-taught knowledge; particularly in Natural Philosophy and in mechanics. He was also a good draughtsman, and a ready writer on scientific subjects; and in his familiar letters, and in his conversation, there was evidence of a most entertaining vein of humour, with extraordinary powers of description. He had an excellent ear for music; and, without any regular instruction, he played well on the flute and violin. I remember, at this day, many fine Scottish airs that I have never seen in print, and which my father had learned in his boyhood from his Scottish grandsire, who was a good singer. My mother was a handsome woman, of excellent sense, very amusing, and a first-rate housewife.
Soon after their marriage, my parents removed from Elkton to Philadelphia, where my father commenced business as a watchmaker. He had great success. Philadelphia was then the seat of the Federal Government; and he soon obtained the custom of the principal people in the place, including that of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, the two last becoming his warm personal friends. There is a free-masonry in men of genius which makes them find out each other immediately. It was by Mr. Jefferson’s recommendation that my father was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. To Dr. Franklin he suggested an improvement in lightning rods,—gilding the points to prevent their rusting,—that was immediately, and afterwards universally adopted.
Among my father’s familiar visiters were Robert Patterson, long Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, and afterwards President of the Mint; Charles Wilson Peale, who painted the men of the revolution, and founded the noble museum called by his name; John Vaughan, and Matthew Carey.
When I was about five years old, my father went to England with the intention of engaging in the exportation of clocks and watches to Philadelphia, having recently taken into partnership Isaac Price, of this city. We arrived in London in June, 1793, after an old-fashioned voyage of six weeks. We lived in England about six years and a half, when the death of my father’s partner in Philadelphia, obliged us to return home. An extraordinary circumstance compelled our ship to go into Lisbon, and detained us there from November till March; and we did not finish our voyage and arrive in Philadelphia till May. The winter we spent in our Lisbon lodgings was very uncomfortable, but very amusing.
After we came home, my father’s health, which had long been precarious, declined rapidly; but he lived till 1803. My mother and her five children (of whom I was the eldest) were left in circumstances which rendered it necessary that she and myself should make immediate exertions for the support of those who were yet too young to assist themselves, as they did afterwards. Our difficulties we kept uncomplainingly to ourselves. We asked no assistance of our friends, we incurred no debts, and we lived on cheerfully, and with such moderate enjoyments as our means afforded; believing in the proverb, that “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
My two brothers were then, and still are, sources of happiness to the family. But they both left home at the age of sixteen. Charles, with an extraordinary genius for painting, went to London to cultivate it. He rapidly rose to the front rank of his profession, and maintains a high place among the great artists of Europe. He married in England, and still lives there.
My youngest brother, Thomas Jefferson Leslie, having passed through the usual course of military education, in the West Point Academy, was commissioned in the Engineers, and, with the rank of Major, is still attached to the army. My sister, Anna Leslie, resides in New York. She has several times visited London, where she was instructed in painting by her brother Charles, and has been very successful in copying pictures. My youngest sister, Patty, became the wife of Henry C. Carey, and never in married life was happiness more perfect than theirs.
To return now to myself. Fortunate in being gifted with an extraordinary memory, I was never in childhood much troubled with long lessons to learn, or long exercises to write. My father thought I could acquire sufficient knowledge for a child by simply reading “in book,” without making any great effort to learn things by heart. And as this is not the plan usually pursued at schools, I got nearly all my education at home. I had a French master, and a music master (both coming to give lessons at the house); my father himself taught me to write, and overlooked my drawing; and my mother was fully competent to instruct me in every sort of useful sewing. I went three months to school, merely to learn ornamental needle-work. All this was in London. We had a governess in the house for the younger children.
My chief delight was in reading and drawing. My first attempts at the latter were on my slate, and I was very happy when my father brought me one day a box of colours and a drawing-book, and showed me how to use them.
There was no restriction on my reading, except to prevent me from “reading my eyes out.” And indeed they have never been very strong. At that time there were very few books written purposely for children. I believe I obtained all that were then to be found. But this catalogue being soon exhausted, and my appetite for reading being continually on the increase, I was fain to supply it with works that were considered beyond the capacity of early youth a capacity which is too generally underrated. Children are often kept on bread and milk long after they are able to eat meat and potatoes. I could read at four years old, and before twelve I was familiar, among a multitude of other books, with Goldsmith’s admirable Letters on England, and his histories of Rome and Greece (Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights, of course), and I had gone through the six octavo volumes of the first edition of Cook’s Voyages. I talked much of Tupia and Omiah, and Otoo and Terreoboo—Captain Cook I almost adored. Among our visitors in London, was a naval officer who had sailed with Cook on his last voyage, and had seen him killed at Owhyhee—I am sorry the name of that island has been changed to the unspellable and unpronounceable Hawaii. I was delighted when my father took me to the British Museum, to see the numerous curiosities brought from the South Sea by the great circumnavigator.
The “Elegant Extracts” made me acquainted with the best passages in the works of all the British writers who had flourished before the present century. From this book I first learned the beauties of. My chief novels were Miss Burney’s, Mrs. Radcliffe’s, and the Children of the Abbey.
Like most authors, I made my first attempts in verse. They were always songs, adapted to the popular airs of that time, the close of the last century. The subjects were chiefly soldiers, sailors, hunters, and nuns. I scribbled two or three in the pastoral line, but my father once pointing out to me a real shepherd, in a field somewhere in Kent, I made no farther attempt at Damons and Strephons, playing on lutes and wreathing their brows with roses. My songs were, of course, foolish enough; but in justice to myself I will say, that having a good ear, I was never guilty of a false quantity in any of my poetry—my lines never had a syllable too much or too little, and my rhymes always did rhyme. At thirteen or fourteen, I began to despise my own poetry, and destroyed all I had. I then, for many years, abandoned the dream of my childhood, the hope of one day seeing my name in print.
It was not till 1827 that I first ventured “to put out a book,” and a most unparnassian one it was—“Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes, and sweetmeats.” Truth was, I had a tolerable collection of receipts, taken by myself while a pupil of Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school, in Philadelphia. I had so many applications from my friends for copies of these directions, that my brother suggested my getting rid of the inconvenience by giving them to the public in print. An offer was immediately made to me by Munroe & Francis, of Boston, to publish them on fair terms. The little volume had much success, and has gone through many editions. Mr. Francis being urgent that I should try my hand at a work of imagination, I wrote a series of juvenile stories, which I called the Mirror. It was well received, and was followed by several other story-books for youth—“The Young Americans,” “Stories for Emma,” “Stories for Adelaide,” “Atlantic Tales,” “Stories for Helen,” “Birth-day Stories.” Also, I compiled a little book called “The Wonderful Traveller,” being an abridgment (with essential alterations) of Munchausen, Gulliver, and Sindbad. In 1831 Munroe and Francis published my “American Girls’ Book,” of which an edition is still printed every year. Many juvenile tales, written by me, are to be found in the annuals called the Pearl and the Violet.
I had but recently summoned courage to write fictions for grown people, when my story of Mrs. Washington Potts obtained a prize from Mr. Godey, of the Lady’s Book. Subsequently I was allotted three other prizes successively, from different periodicals. I then withdrew from this sort of competition.
For several years I wrote an article every month for the Lady’s Book, and for a short time I was a contributor to Graham’s Magazine; and occasionally, I sent, by invitation, a contribution to the weekly papers. I was also editor of the Gift, an annual published by Carey & Hart; and of the Violet, a juvenile souvenir.
My only attempt at anything in the form of a novel, was “Amelia, or a Young Lady s Vicissitudes,” first printed in the Lady’s Book, and then in a small volume by itself. Could I begin anew my literary career, I would always write novels instead of short stories.
Three volumes of my tales were published by Carey & Lea, under the title of Pencil Sketches. Of these, there will soon be a new edition. In 1838 Lea & Blanchard printed a volume containing “Althea Vernon, or the Embroidered Handkerchief,” and “Henrietta Harrison, or the Blue Cotton Umbrella.” Several books of my fugitive stories have been published in pamphlet form,—the titles being “Kitty’s Relations,” “Leonilla Lymnore,” “The Maid of Canal Street” (the Maid is a refined and accomplished young lady), and “The Jennings’ and their Beaux.” All my stories are of familiar life, and I have endeavoured to render their illustrations of character and manners, as entertaining and instructive as I could; trying always “to point a moral,” as well as to “adorn a tale.”
The works from which I have, as yet, derived the greatest pecuniary advantage, are my three books on domestic economy. The “Domestic Cookery Book,” published in 1837, is now in the forty-first edition, no edition having been less than a thousand copies; and the sale increases every year. “The House Book” came out in 1840, and the “Lady’s Receipt Book” in 1846. All have been successful, and profitable.
I am now engaged on a life of John Fitch, for which I have been several years collecting information, from authentic sources. I hope soon to finish a work (undertaken by particular desire) for the benefit of young ladies, and to which I purpose giving the plain, simple title of “The Behaviour Book.”
- U. S. Hotel, Phila., Aug. 1, 1851.