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Preston, Harriet Waters

PRESTON, Harriet Waters

Born 6 August 1836, Danvers, Massachusetts; died 14 May 1911, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Daughter of Samuel and Lydia Proctor Preston

Harriet Waters Preston received her education at home and later, during a prolonged residence in Europe, became an accomplished linguist. Her final years were spent in the New England area.

Preston contributed reviews and critical articles to magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, attempted several experimental fictions, and became a recognized scholar through her many excellent translations of Provençal literature and other subjects. Although her five novels about New England life and customs have been dismissed as negligible, as a whole they are competent fictions combining Preston's intellectual interests with a type of regionalism somewhat reminiscent, at times, of Sarah Orne Jewett's fictions.

Aspendale (1871) and Love in the Nineteenth Century: A Fragment (1873) might be called "essay-novels." Aspendale illustrates Preston's ideas on friendship between two women, and Love in the Nineteenth Century presents Preston's commonsensical program for establishing a workable love relationship. Liberally interspersed throughout these two novels are Preston's astute critical evaluations of numerous authors and her ideas on national types, tradition, "modern" music, marriage, and feminism. The second novel also includes a long discussion on the deficiencies of male writers' fictional portraits of women and a prediction that when women writers finally "dare" to speak their minds freely, a "new order of things in fiction" will result.

Much more conventional in plot and character development are Preston's later novels of manners. Is That All? (1876), a study of smalltown New England courtship and social rivalry, was one of the earlier selections published anonymously in the Robert Brothers' "No Name Series," an innovative publishing project designed to allow readers to judge fiction solely on its intrinsic merits rather than on an author's established reputation. Probably her best novel, although somewhat superficial in some respects, Is That All? seriously strives to develop a new kind of heroine—the older society matron as a viable, admirable type.

In The Guardians (1888), written with her niece Louise Preston Dodge, Preston tried to bring a new, sensible realism to the well-worn genre of the 19th-century women's novel. Using the conventional plot based on the erring ways of the orphaned heroine, Preston seriously analyzes the deficiencies in the education of young women. She also explores the character-building effects of duty on the handsome but weak New England hero who must assume the responsibility of guardianship for the two orphaned sisters, undergo the horrors of the Civil War, and finally give up his claim on the affections of his grownup ward.

Preston's highly regarded work as a translator and editor reflects her interest in the lives and writings of famous women. She made notable translations of Sainte-Beuve's Portraits of Celebrated Women (1868), The Writings of Madame Swetchine (edited by Count de Falloux, 1870), and Memoirs of Madame Desbordes-Valmore (edited by Sainte-Beuve, 1872); and she coedited The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900). Preston's scholarly reputation was ensured with her translations of Provençal literature, a subject she also wrote about in Charles Dudley Warner's Library of the World's Best Literature (1897). She also translated and wrote critical articles on Roman life and writers.

The recognition Preston earned as a translator-critic has not been accorded to her novels. However, Preston's minor but quietly realistic fictions reveal a technical competence as well as some interesting experiments with and ideas about genre, women's roles and images, and New England life.

Other Works:

Mireio: A Provençal Poem by F. Mistral (translated by Preston, 1872). Sea and Shore: A Collection of Poems (edited by Preston, with M. Le Baron Goddard, 1874). Troubadours and Trouveres: New and Old (translated by Preston, 1876). Biography of Alfred de Musset by P. de Musset (translated by Preston, 1877). The Georgics of Virgil (translated by Preston, 1881). A Year in Eden (1887). The Private Life of the Romans (with L. Preston Dodge, 1893).


Preston, C., Descendants of Roger Preston of Ipswich and Salem Village (1931).

Reference works:


Other references:

Boston Transcript (15 May 1911).


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