Chesebrough, Caroline

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Born 30 March 1825, Canandaigua, New York; died 16 February 1873, Piedmont, New York

Wrote under: Caroline Cresebro'

Daughter of Nicholas G. and Betsey Kimball Chesebrough

Caroline Chesebrough attended Canandaigua Seminary and taught English at the Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, New York, from 1865 until her death in 1873. She wrote novels and short stories for both adults and children, publishing them in daily newspapers and magazines such as Knickerbocker, Putnam's, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Appleton's Journal. Chesebrough's work can be classified as domestic-sentimental and highly moralistic. Some of it depicts seduction and betrayal (The Children of Light, 1853), but most of her fiction portrays women as agents of moral regeneration. Peter Carradine (1863), probably Chesebrough's best work, falls in the latter category. It opens with a conflict between the schoolteacher, Miranda Roy, and the school's patron, Peter Carradine. Roy has disciplined one of Carradine's favorite students, and he decides to dismiss her. Roy's position as a female teacher is tenuous and Carradine succeeds in removing her; to overcome her resistance he has her pupils vote on her exposition. The novel make a strong statement, with its setting grounded in a social milieu in which teaching was the only respectable employment for middle-class women.

Chesebrough explored a variety of religious experiences in her fiction. The Foe in the Household (1871) depicts Delia Rose's secret marriage to a man outside her Mennonite sect and the disastrous consequences of this act. The setting of the short story, "Victory and Jacqueline," is France; the conflict is between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. In Victoria (1856), Chesebrough attacks the Calvinist who bases his religion only upon justice, not mercy. She contrasts Calvinist justice with the compassion found in such women as Mercy Fuller (Peter Carradine), whose aid to a family in distress is subtle but powerful.

For Chesebrough wisdom does not come from the intellect but from dreams which tell of a better world to come. God speaks through these dreams to the sleeping mind which was previously closed by the intrusion of the outside world. Women are the source of this knowledge and thus possess a power uniquely theirs and uniquely female.

The "True Woman" of the 19th century is presented in Chesebrough's fiction. She is merciful, long-suffering, pious, composed, and forgiving. She is never angry, vengeful, passionate, or egotistical. She might be initially poor or orphaned, but is usually rewarded for her spiritual goodness.

Chesebrough's fiction for children is primarily allegorical and features orphans who live in poverty and rural, remote settings. Death and loss are frequent events in these stories, and here, too, the female is the agent for moral regeneration. Even though Lucy Fitzhugh is an orphan raised without Christian instruction, she eventually brings spiritual enlightenment to Gamp's Island (The Fishermen of Gamp's Island, 1865). Her stories at times capture a child's traumatic religious awakening as in "A Story of a Cross," where young Fanny wonders at night what will be her affliction while watching the shadows of crosses formed on her bedroom wall shaped by the canes of a rose bush outside her window.

In Chesebrough's fiction the women are the primary characters and possess superior qualities. Although she wrote in a period that spans the Civil War, no mention is made of this or other political events. Her focus is on the spiritual world within and not on the social world without. Except for Peter Carradine, her fiction projects an inner world in which women reign; characterization replaces events. Although Chesebrough's work offers some interest to the critic of American culture, it must be remembered that the cult of true womanhood represented in her fiction might have no relationship to the realities of 19th-century American women.

Chesebrough's novels and short stories remove the reader briefly to a world of female moral superiority where the male is incomplete without his spiritual complement. Calvinism, the religion of justice, is replaced by a religion of mercy in a society feminized by writers like Chesebrough. It is a world of camphor, of family Bibles, of fainting couches, and of moralistic, allegorical fiction.

Other Works:

Dream-land by Daylight (1851). Isa, A Pilgrimage (1852). The Little Cross-Bearers (1854). Susan, The Fisherman's Daughter (1855). The Beautiful Gate, and Other Stories (1855). Philly and Kit (1856). The Sparrow's Fall (1863). Amy Carr (1864). The Glen Cabin (circa 1865).


Baym, N. Women's Fiction (1978). Brown, H. R., The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (1940). Douglas, A., The Feminization of American Culture (1977). Papashvily, H. W., All the Happy Endings (1956).

Reference Works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).