Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Helen Melville in Boston, November 1843

Mr. Macready as Macbeth
London, England: Published by M. & B. Skelt [between 1840 and 1850]
Folger Shakespeare Library - Digital Collections - Folger Imaging Department

While Herman Melville was at sea in 1841-1844, his sister Helen Melville enjoyed long visits with Judge Lemuel Shaw and family in Boston. Over time Helen became good friends with Shaw's daughter Elizabeth aka "Lizzie," Herman's future wife Elizabeth Knapp Shaw Melville. The New York Public Library has six of Helen's letters from Boston in the Augusta Melville papers. Not counting one from Lansingburgh dated October 10, 1841 with news about the grand time she and her brother Gansevoort had in Lenox, Berkshire County, Massachusetts partying with the Sedgwicks, Shaws, and Charles C. Ingham the portrait painter; and two from Lansingburgh on January 24 and 28, 1843. Lizzie in turn made multiple visits to the Melville family in Lansingburgh, New York. 

Helen Melville's six letters from Boston in the Augusta Melville papers at NYPL are dated

  • January 24, 1842
  • February 16, 1842
  • March 7, 1842
  • November 27, 1843
  • December 1, 1843
  • January 14, 1844
Below is my transcription of the 4-page letter Helen wrote Augusta from Boston on November 27, 1843. I chose this one for the unique reminiscence of "poor Herman" and his mimicry of the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth; for the interesting allusions to Fanny Elssler (Helen spelled the Austrian surname "Ellsler") and her Boston disciple Fanny Jones; and to verify Helen's mentions of another "Miss Shaw" in the house, not her friend Lizzie. Also I wanted to double-check Helen's reference to the character of Ophelia after I found it given as "lonely Ophelia" by John Bryant in the second volume of Herman Melville: A Half Known Life (Wiley Blackwell, 2021) at page 1139. 

At first glance it might look like "lonely" but Helen's word can only be lovely. The third letter is "v." Giving due credit to the "enormously fat, red necked, red armed, and red faced" Mrs. Anderson as a "good actress" and believable Lady Macbeth, Helen viewed her matronly physical appearance as disqualifying for the role familiarly known as "lovely Ophelia." (Then again, Mrs. Anderson, daughter of manager William Pelby and actress-artist Rosalie French Pelby, would always be Ophelia since that was her first name.)

Helen and company saw Macready and Mrs. Ophelia Pelby Anderson in Macbeth, and Fanny Jones the ballet dancer, at the National Theatre, then located on the corner of Portland and Traverse streets in the West End. The Tremont Theatre where Fanny Jones used to perform had been sold to Boston Baptists and would be converted into a church known as Tremont Temple. The final dramatic performance at the Tremont Theatre had taken place in June 1843, as recalled in The Bostonian Volume 1 (Boston: 1894-5). 

Hershel Parker tells about Helen and her developing intimacy with the Shaw family in chapter 15 of Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 1, 1819-1851 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). See page 302 for specific quotes and discussion of the letter transcribed herein. 

Comments and corrections are welcome any time! 


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Melville (Griggs), Helen" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1835 - 1863.

Boston, Nov. 27th 1843.

Dear Gus,

I received your letter duly, a day or two after it was written, and was delighted to hear from home, for it was so long since I had had tidings from our little village. Your first two pages were very interesting to me, and Lizzie too, for she wanted very much to know how our two cavaliers bore the intelligence of our sudden departure. As to writing Jeanie, I don't know what to think about it; ask Mama what she would advise me to do. 

Macready the tragedian is has been here for a fortnight. The first night he played "Macbeth", and Mrs. Shaw sent out and bought tickets for all the young folks of the house including Miss Shaw who was to matronise us, and George Nourse who was to be our escort. We went in great spirits, all the first people of the town were there and Macready's performance was admirable. I have not been to the theatre since Fanny Kemble performed in Albany, so it had all the charm of novelty added to its other attractions, and I passed a delightful evening. The next evening we went to a small party at Mrs Dow's, Lizzie's Aunt, had dancing, a pretty little supper, oysters, ice-cream, and West India fruits, some fine music, and though there were not more than fifteen of us, we never got home until nearly twelve o'clock.

The next day Lizzie was taken with a dreadful toothache, and we were obliged to decline an invitation for the evening, as I did not wish to go alone. On Saturday morning of the same week, Kate Minot called and invited and invited us to a small party there; but the weather was very stormy. Lizzie was confined to her chamber, Miss Shaw was at Cambridge and the Judge & his lady, could not go on account of the recent death of a cousin. So I wrote a little note to Kitty in the afternoon, setting forth my numerous reasons for changing my mind, and staid at home to comfort Lizzie. 

On Monday morning Miss Mary Bigolo [Bigelow] called to know if I would come and take tea with them very sociably. I went and passed a delightful evening. There were three other young ladies, all with  their fancy work, around the table. I like Mrs. Bigolo, better than her daughters; the eldest one is the picture of Kate Yates. I never saw two people so much alike not only in person, but in mind and manners & disposition, too from what I can see. 

The same morning I arrived a pretty note from Miss Catharine Scholl Scollay, inviting me to meet the family party there, on Thanksgiving evening. No one but the large family circle, and "she looked upon me as a member of the family." As the invitation was given nearly a fortnight beforehand, she must have been desirous that I should accept it. I have had another since from Madam Heyward and may have still another before the day comes. Am I not in request?

On Wednesday evening of last week, Lizzie & I attended a party at Mr. Wales in Winter Street, and the next morning as she was threatened with another siege of toothache, I prevailed upon her to have it taken out. I had some difficulty in persuading her to "screw her courage to the sticking place", but at last succeeded, and she has felt quite happy since. The same evening Judge Shaw & his wife went out to make a long call upon some friend, and Lizzie and I sat in her room, where she preferred remaining for fear of taking cold in the "aching void", which the dentist had left in her mouth: when I was summoned down stairs to receive a gentleman, in about ten minutes another entered, and then still another, until Mr. Dow (Lizzie's Uncle) a very agreeable man, and Lemuel, I had five gentleman to entertain, all alone, but I flatter myself I did the honours of the house, to the satisfaction of all. They all laughed a great deal the next day, at the "gentleman's levee", I had held. 

One of the gentlemen was the Mr. Curtis who had called with Guert, he came with Guert's compliments to appoint another day for our navy yard expedition. We had fixed upon one the week before, but Mrs. Shaw lost a cousin & her funeral came upon the same day & hour; I could not bear the idea of going, especially as Mrs. Shaw disapproved of Lizzie going at that time; so I sat down the day before, and wrote Guert a very cousinly epistle, setting forth my reason for postponing our appointment, and hoping it would make no difference to him. We went this morning, & have just returned, Lizzie & I escorted by Mr. Thornton & Lemuel Shaw, but the particulars must be reserved for the next letter, for as Lizzie said we had a "most felicitous time". Guert came over with a Man of War's boat, five pr of oars only think! & Mr. Curtis. And Guert was as kind and polite as possible. 

On Friday morning early, I received a sweet note from Mrs Charles P. Curtis, saying that they were going to procure tickets for the Theatre that evening, and would be happy to see me at dinner at 5 o'clock.  
Boston Daily Atlas - Friday, November 24, 1843
I accepted the invitation, you may be sure very gladly, went about half past four, dined by candle light, and rode to the Theatre, saw Macready again and was as much delighted as the first time; he is a most splendid actor. Unfortunately, the Manager of the Theatre, will not allow Miss Cushman, a distinguished tragic actress who accompanies him, to support the female characters, for fear it should injure his own daughter Mrs. Anderson. She is rather a good actress, but is an enormously fat, red necked, red armed, and red faced matron, who does very well as the stately Lady Macbeth, but makes a ridiculous figure as the "gentle Desdemona" or "lovely Ophelia". Her neck is as fat and red as a pulpit cushion, and the last time we sat in the box next to the stage, I had a full view of her, and in the most exciting parts, her complexion became so pitiably suffused, that I could not bear to look at her. The witch scenes were admirably got up, and when dancing about the "cauldron of hell-broth," one of the horrid creatures, puts in some terrible contribution, and enjoins it "to make the gruel thick & slab", I could not help thinking of poor Herman, who made it a favorite quotation, and talked about the "pilot's thumb, wrecked as homeward he did come", "eye of newt, toe of frog", &c.

The Witches in Macbeth
Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803-1860)
Image Credit: The Wallace Collection

Mrs Curtis is a very sweet woman, and her husband is so intelligent & agreeable, that I quite like to go there. Aunt Scollay is very kind to me, and so is Miss Catharine. They are a delightful family.

Macready has a companion, a Mr. Ryder of Drury Lane, London, who takes the second characters. As MacDuff in the last scene, he and Macready go through a fencing match, and the former runs the latter his sword most furiously--under the latters arm, and deals him his deathblow. It is a most thrilling affair, and I was glad when the curtain dropped and my wearied eyes had rest. In the box opposite to us sat the Minots & Miss Sedgwick, who had arrived that afternoon. After the play, "Fanny Jones", a famous danseuse, who was attached to the Tremont Theatre came out upon the stage, danced one of Fanny Ellsler's dances, and beautifully, too, she took lessons of the "divine Fanny", when she was here. And she is grace itself. "Though 'sooth to say", now that my curiosity has been gratified, I never desire to see another public dancer, for it is most certainly an unfeminine display and I blushed for my sex, when I saw her with petticoats so brief, that they scarcely covered her knees, performing all kind of impossible feats and capers, for the amusement of a pit crowded with men, and the boxes with gaping spectators. Now dear Gus, I must stop for I have promised Lizzie a small space, and all the rest of my news I must postpone until the next letter. Guert says he is going to Waterford in about a week and will take my commands. I received a long letter from Gansevoort last week, & answered it immediately as he desired. All our Aunts send love to Mama & the girls, and believe me dear Gus, with love to dear Mama and all at home your own loving and devoted sister


 My dear Gus,

I can only add a few lines to Helens already lengthened epistle to inform you of the universal propriety & decorum with which she conducts herself, to the admiration of all beholders, except myself, and I laugh in my sleeve whenever mother holds her up as a pattern which I am to endeavor to imitate, for I think to myself it is easy enough to be a pattern when you have no temptation to do evil. Oh dear! Helen has not left me half room enough. With love to all believe me yours with Love, Lizzie. 

My letters are terribly egotistical, but I somehow cannot help it. Give my love to Mr. Peebles and the Knickerbackers, and Mrs. Ives. Tell dear Mother I will write to her next.

I have half a thousand calls to return to day, so excuse the haste with which this is written.

* * * 

Letter from Helen Melville to Augusta Melville - November 27, 1843 - page 3 of 4
via NYPL Digital Collections

Related posts:

  • Pantomime with mock pier mirrors seen by Helen Melville at the Boston Museum

1 comment:

  1. In an earlier age, these letters would have been published in the old Extracts.