Lee, Mary Elizabeth

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LEE, Mary Elizabeth

Born 23 March 1813, Charleston, South Carolina; died 23 September 1849, Charleston, South Carolina

Daughter of William and Elizabeth Lee

A tireless perfectionist striving constantly against illness, Mary Elizabeth Lee reveals in her life and writing a reflective solitude within the family circle. Her father practiced law and served briefly in the state legislature while her mother cared for Lee and her several brothers and sisters. Lee developed very early a dedication to books and educated herself at home, except for a short period at school from 1823 to 1825. An extremely sensitive child, Lee preferred home to society, leaving school because of emotional depression and later secluding herself because of a lengthy, debilitating illness of an undetermined nature. Lee independently learned French, Italian, and German, beginning to translate and to write for publication in 1833. Sarah Josepha Hale comments on her "sleepless" application, and Mary Forrest notes her determination "to maintain herself in strict independence"; certainly Lee's diligence is impressive.

Like many women authors of her time, Lee began to write in verse, not turning to prose until the 1840s. Her early poems first appeared in Caroline Gilman's The Rose Bud (later The Southern Rose) as did brief essays primarily on moral or scriptural topics. However, Lee soon began to write for a wide range of journals and annuals, adding translations of both poetry and fiction, particularly from the French and German, to her productions. In 1845 alone, her work appeared in Graham's Magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, New Orleans Miscellany, Philadelphia Courier, Token, Gem, Gift, Mr. Whitaker's Journal, Southern Literary Messenger, and Orion Magazine.

Lee's verse, both original and translated, is conventionally sentimental and generally focuses on traditional subjects: death, religion, motherhood, nature, love, history, and chivalry. Her poems are unusual, however, in their emphasis on other-than-romantic love. Thus, in "Smiles," Lee writes about the joy of an infant, a mother, a man, a warrior, and a dead youth, but omits the lovers' smiles. Similarly, in the dramatic "Choice of Flowers," three children and their mother defend their preferences, but even Julia, in her choice of the rose, says nothing of romantic love. Rather, Lee prefers filial devotion and stresses through her speakers and characters the role of the woman as a mother and a teacher.

Also unlike her contemporaries, Lee gradually moved from lyric towards narrative poems and grew increasingly comfortable with dramatic poetry, run-on lines, slant rhyme, and blank verse. "The Winter's Evening Fire Side" suggests her developing skill as does "The Church by Moon-Light," in which she rhymes "stood" and "flood" and uses a natural enjambment effectively to sketch her subject with detailed objectivity. Her late poems occasionally reveal a controlled emotionalism. Still capable of writing "Sonnet.—To My Pen," in which she apostrophizes "Thou delicate and pearly wand of thought!" Lee is also capable of "Summer's Eve.—A Fragment," in which she emphasizes the philosophic implications of nature's imperfections in strong blank verse.

Social Evenings; or, Historical Tales for Youth (1840) seems a natural development from Lee's growing interest in narrative and in women's maternal and educational roles. Written for a prize offered by the Massachusetts Board of Education, the children's work offers eight "evenings," each consisting of a moral introduction and a national tale. "The Stolen Boy" is subtitled "An Austrian Tale," while "The Good Protestants" is "An English Tale." The stories are rather sentimental and moralistic but reveal Lee's continuing literary development in their sharp detail and occasional humor.

The editor of The Poetical Remains (1851) notes Lee's levity and includes in his biographical sketch excerpts from letters that the modern reader may find more satisfying than her published work. He writes that "she seemed, in her correspondence, to fly to the personal details and affectionate intimacies of domestic life, as a relief from the more constraining formalities of publication." Had Lee lived longer, she might have revealed in both poetry and prose the imaginative sprightliness and acute observation her letters and late work sometimes promise.


Reference works:

Daughters of America. FPA. LSL. NCAB. Woman's Record. Women of the South.

Other references:

SoQ (Oct. 1842).