White, Eliza Orne
WHITE, Eliza Orne
Born 2 August 1856, Keene, New Hampshire; died 23 January 1947, Brookline, Massachusetts
Wrote under: Alex
Daughter of William O. and Margaret Harding White
Eliza Orne White grew up in an intellectual and artistic household; her father was a Unitarian minister in Keene, and her mother was the daughter of the self-taught portrait artist, Chester Harding. Lucretia Hale, author of The Peterkin Papers, was an old school friend of White's mother and visited the family each year. Though a happy and active child, White was apparently not a completely healthy one, for her education in the public schools of Keene was twice interrupted by illness: at fourteen she missed a year of school because of eye trouble and at sixteen suffered an attack of typhoid, which ended her public school education, although she later spent a year at Miss Hall's School for Girls in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
A prolific writer (she wrote 41 books, 29 of them for children), White began at age eighteen to publish children's stories under the pseudonym "Alex" in periodicals such as the Christian Register. Her first story for adults, "A Browning Courtship" (Atlantic, July 1888), is a witty social comedy based on the craze for Browning societies during the later years of the 19th century. Her first book for children was When Molly Was Six (1894), an episodic rendering of the life of a little girl, her older brother, her mother and father, and her young unmarried aunt. Each chapter is self-contained, and the book's unity is provided by the clearly defined and consistent characters.
The conception and execution of character, along with an eye and an ear for humor, are White's greatest strengths in both her books for children and those for adults. None of her stories are heavily plotted, but their virtues are clearly summarized by the reviewer of Miss Brooks (1890), who wrote, "The fortunes of a few interesting persons are followed…. As a study of social life, it shows capital observation and shrewd insight…." Whether White's children's books are historical (as is A Little Girl of Long Ago, 1896, based on stories of her mother's life) or contemporary (as is The Blue Aunt, 1918, concerned with the home front manifestations, such as rationing, of World War I), whether they are grounded in autobiography (as is A Borrowed Sister, 1906) or are purely imaginative, White's books nearly always focus on New England families and realistic relationships between children and adults.
The families in White's children's books are clearly middle class. The fathers are doctors, businessmen, and artists; the children are aesthetically and morally sensitive, although they are liable to lapses in judgment out of which the episodes grow. In Ednah and Her Brothers (1900), for example, the children decide to make wine, so they pick the grapes their father had intended to sell, put them in tub, and stomp on them. The father is naturally displeased, but he quickly comes around to see the humor of the episode, and the children are forgiven.
The function of the adults in these books, then, is to protect the children from the dangers to which inexperience makes them subject. Beyond that, the adults are basically indulgent, charged with finding ways to let the child's natural goodness express itself. They invariably support children's activities, respect their humanity, and encourage their use of imagination. White's conception of the ideal relations between children and adults is perhaps most clearly expressed in her description of Lucretia Hale: "Aunt Lucretia…was the most perfect companion for any child. She never made you feel you were an inferior."
White had a long and productive life. Her last book, When Esther Was a Little Girl (1944), appeared 70 years after her first collection of short stories, and it is filled with interesting experiences and good, humorous characters, most drawn from White's childhood. Although by the end of her life she was very deaf and had been totally blind for nearly 30 years, she never lost her imaginative vision or her ability to write natural-sounding dialogues. She once wrote, "The good thing about imagination is that it defies time and bridges the gap between childhood and what to the uninitiated seems like age."
As It Should Be (1873). As She Would Have It (1873). Winterborough (1892). The Coming of Theodora (1895). A Browning Courtship, and Other Stories (1897). A Lover of Truth (1898). John Forsyth's Aunts (1901). Leslie Chilton (1903). An Only Child (1905). The Wares of Edgefield (1909). Brothers in Fur (1910). The Enchanted Mountain (1911). The First Step (1914). William Orne White: A Record of Ninety Years (1917). The Strange Year (1920). Peggy in Her Blue Frock (1921). Tony (1924). Joan Morse (1926). Diana's Rosebush (1927). The Adventures of Andrew (1928). Sally in Her Fur Coat (1929). The Green Door (1930). When Abigail Was Seven (1931). The Four Young Kendalls (1932). Where is Adelaide (1933). Lending Mary (1934). Ann Frances (1935). Nancy Alden (1936). The Farm Beyond the Town (1937). Helen's Gift House (1938). Patty Makes a Visit (1939). The House Across the Way (1940). I: The Autobiography of a Cat (1941). Training of Sylvia (1942).
Moore, A. E., Literature Old and New for Children (1934).
Junior Book of Authors (1934). NAW (1971). NCAB (1906).
Horn Book (Apr. 1955).
—KATHARYN F. CRABBE