Willis, Lydia Fish

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WILLIS, Lydia Fish

Born April 1709, Duxborough, Massachusetts; died 25 January 1767, Malden, Massachusetts

Daughter of Thomas Fish; married Eliakim Willis, circa 1738; children: three, all of whom died in infancy

Lydia Fish Willis was the only daughter among five children. She developed an "early taste for reading" which led her, according to the anonymous editor who collected some of her letters, to an acquaintance with "authors, polite as well as religious." An unnamed friend reported that "she excelled most of her sex in a relish for works of genius…."

Unidentified family difficulties in 1734 led Willis to seek employment outside her home, despite recurring health problems. She confided to her brother in a letter dated 13 September 1734 that she could not tell him "how shocking it is to think of leaving home, to go I know not where!" It is not clear from her extant letters whether she actually found employment.

Willis' father died in 1736, her mother in 1737. She married a minister, perhaps the following year, and lived in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, and later in Malden, Massachusetts, where her husband was called to parishes. She bore three children, a daughter who died in infancy and twin sons who were stillborn.

At the request of Eliakim Willis, after his wife's death in 1767, 21 of Willis' letters were collected and published in a memorial volume, Rachel's Sepulchre. Materials about Ann Stockbridge and Sarah Page were added to the 1788 edition. This second edition was intended to provide a female audience with examples of women "who were an honour to their sex." The editor offers the letters that "the ladies in other countries, by these examples [may] be fir'd with a laudable ambition to excel."

The published letters are generally melancholic, recording grief, sickness, family deaths, and spiritual struggle. They are apparently only a limited selection from among the papers she left at her death. The editor's selection criteria are not specified, so the collection may reveal more about the editor than Willis.

Willis excuses her occasionally self-pitying tone by writing to her brother that "it is not in my power to assume a language foreign to my heart, or to dissemble…my griefs so handsomely, as I could wish, if thereby I might be entertaining." The letters portray an unhappy woman who struggled with depression, a woman who felt that her life was "made up with blots and blurts." The source of her melancholy was unclear, even to Willis: "Don't think it an act of the will, but attribute it to the weak government of my passions.—If I murmur, it is at I don't know what."


Cowell, P., Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1650-1775 (1981).