Born 25 February 1708, Boston, Massachusetts; died 26 March 1735, Medford, Massachusetts
Daughter of Benjamin and Jane Colman; married Ebenezer Turell, 1726; children: four, all died young
Jane Turell's father was minister of the innovative Brattle Street Church and an influential figure in Boston's cultural and religious life. Like the fathers of other notable 18th-century New England women, Colman carefully attended to his daughter's education, so that by the time Turell was four she had amassed amounts of knowledge remarked upon by her father's peers. She began writing poetry under her father's guidance when she was about eleven years old. Throughout her life, Colman remained her mentor in spiritual and literary matters, partly through a lively, intimate exchange of letters and poems.
Turell's husband, a Congregationalist minister, had a pastorate in Medford, Massachusetts, where the couple settled. Of their four children, three died in infancy; one survived to age six. Turell suffered from bouts of illness and depression for many years and died at age twenty-seven.
Turell wrote poetry and prose throughout her adolescent years, and her poetic ambitions were not diminished by domestic duties and pregnancies. Her reading ranged from divinity to history, medicine, public debates, and poetry. After her death, her husband wrote a short biography, interspersed with selections from her works, to illustrate her talent and piety. He wished her life and work to serve as examples for young New England women. First published in Medford in 1735 as Reliquiae Turellae et Lachrymae Paternal, the slim volume contains correspondence, diary extracts, short religious essays, and verse—the only extant samples of Turell's writing. Unfortunately, because he published her work to illustrate her piety, her husband excluded material, such as her humorous verse, that he judged unsuitable.
It is probable that, even before her death, Turell's works circulated in manuscript form among her friends and acquaintances, as was customary in 18th-century New England. She achieved enough contemporary fame as a writer to warrant a second edition of the biography, published in 1741 as Memoirs of the Life and Death of the Pious and Ingenious Mrs. Jane Turell.
Like many of her female contemporaries, Turell had no wish to compete with male writers or to be published; she wrote privately, discussing personal events and religious ideas. She read widely in the neoclassic English poets and copied their style, adapting it to her religious subjects. Even her eulogies of other writers find their meaning in religious themes. She praises the English moralist poet Elizabeth Singer because Singer attacked evil: "A Woman's Pen Strikes the curs'd Serpents Head, / And lays the Monster gasping, if not dead."
Turell's neoclassicism is evident in a poetic enticement to her father to pass the hot summer months in Medford. "An Invitation into the Country in Imitation of Horace " is exactly what the title indicates. She compares harsh city life to the joys of innocent country living, transforming her small New England village and rural domicile into a model Arcadia. She lures her father with pastoral descriptions of "soft Shades" and "balmy Sweets / of Medford's flow'ring Vales, and green Retreats" and an occasional New England touch: "Yet what is neat and wholsom…Curds and Cream just turn'd."
She again mixed the neoclassic, religious, and personal in what is perhaps her most moving work, a lament for her dead children, written during her last pregnancy. She recollects the pains of childbirth in vivid tropes, but ends the poem with a reaffirmation of faith in Christ, as she pledges her next child to God's service.
The major portion of Turell's verse consists of skillful paraphrases of psalms and canticles, which reveal her understanding of Puritan ideas and historiography. For example, she transforms Psalm 137 to dramatize the Puritan's experiences in the New World, changing a Babylonian landscape into American wilderness.
Most of Turell's prose pieces are simple meditations on religious subjects, often expressing doubts and fears over the state of her soul. In letters to her father, she repeatedly sought comfort from anxiety. Often, in more serene moments, she wrote short, essaylike letters to her younger sister, guiding her towards a life of virtue and pietry and advising her to abandon the frivolities of youth. Her prose works are thoughfully serious, although undistinguished in style and content.
Since only fragments of Turell's work are available, a thorough assessment remains impossible. Clearly, she imitated her father's style and ideas, and she followed the prescriptions of early-18th-century poetics. Religious themes are ever present, and abstractions and personifications are common in her poetry. Much of her later verse indicates a potential never realized.
Brooks, C., History of the Town of Medford (1855). Evans, C., American Bibliography (1912).