Kirby, Georgiana Bruce

views updated

KIRBY, Georgiana Bruce

Born December 1818, Bristol, England; died 27 February 1887, Santa Cruz, California

Daughter of Francis and Mrs. Stradwick Bruce; married R. C.Kirby, 1850

The second daughter of her mother's first marriage, Georgiana Bruce Kirby was born three months after the death of her seaman father. Her childhood was a mixture of one happy year in the country, two years of formal education, and a number of years of deprivation in a small English seaport town. At fourteen Kirby became a governess for an English family who took her to France and later to Melbourne, Canada, where she taught school and learned the skills necessary for survival on the frontier. In 1837 she returned to London, where she obtained employment with the family of the Reverend E. S. Gannet, who brought her to Boston.

In 1841 Kirby joined the Brook Farm community at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, as pupil and teacher, initially to develop sufficient mathematical skills to obtain a teaching certificate. Eventually she took over the direction of the Infant School. Kirby readily embraced the liberal religious views of Brook Farm, where no formal religion was imposed. A rebel from early childhood, she found it difficult to respect "a Diety who had made such a botch of his universe." in her autobiography, Years of Experience (1887), she wrote: "How much I wished that the Almighty had been a mother, an infinite mother! She would never have planned an endless hell."

The radical social views of Brook Farm also appealed to Kirby. She enjoyed the intimate friendships, aesthetic pleasures, and intellectual contacts with people like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. H. Channing, and Theodore Parker. She developed an interest in mesmerism, hydropathy, and phrenology and espoused abolition, women's rights, and Fourierist reforms. Ultimately, she became so radicalized she believed revolution alone could effect social change.

When Kirby decided to leave Brook Farm, Margaret Fuller, who had become her closest friend, arranged for her to meet Eliza W. Farnham, the matron of the women's prison at Sing Sing. Farnham welcomed Kirby as her assistant, but, unable to endure the tensions of the work, Kirby left after a year. She endeavored to obtain a teaching assignment in the Midwest in order to help young blacks, but her strong abolitionist views made it impossible for her to keep a position. In 1850 Kirby moved to Santa Cruz, California, where, after living with Farnham for some time, she married R. C. Kirby.

A decade after her marriage Kirby began to write for publication. Her initial piece, "My First Visit to Brook Farm," appeared in the Overland Monthly in 1870. The narrative recreates the idyllic atmosphere of the early days at the farm. Kirby's use of fictional names and her alteration of some events lessens the historical value of the work. Later publications concerning Brook Farm also fictionalize the life to some extent. Kirby also wrote at least one short story, "A Tale of the Redwoods" (1874).

Transmission; or, Variation of Character Through the Mother (1879), Kirby's most unusual work, consists of what Kirby calls "self-evident propositions" concerning the power which the pregnant woman exercises over the fetus. Drawing on observations made during nearly 40 years, Kirby refutes the notion that the woman "merely nourishes the germ given by the father." She demonstrates, with many examples, that the mother's occupations and attitudes during gestation strongly benefit or impair the child's temperament and later actions.

Kirby's most extensive work is her autobiographical narrative Years of Experience, which recounts her life from her youth up to the point of her departure for the West. Although partially fictionalized, the work as a whole gives a good account of her life and thought. The book provides ample evidence for the remark of one Brook Farmer that Kirby was the most radical of them all.


Codman, J. T., Brook Farm: Historical and Personal Memoirs (1894). Curtis, E. R., A Season in Utopia: The Story of Brook Farm (1961). Farnham, E. W., California In-Doors and Out (1856). Stern, M. B., "Two Letters from the Sophisticates of Santa Cruz," in Book Club of California Quarterly News-Letter (Summer 1968). Swift, L., Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors (1961).