Woods, Caroline H.
WOODS, Caroline H.
Born circa 1840s; died death date unknown
Wrote under: Belle Otis
Stimulated by a restless curiosity about human nature, Caroline H. Woods observed, analyzed, and wrote about the people around her. If her two books, Diary of a Milliner (1867) and Woman in Prison (1869), can be accepted as autobiographical (which they claim to be), she opened a millinery shop after her husband died. A few years later her interest in reform led her to take the job of prison matron, which she kept until exhausted by overwork and lack of sleep.
In both books the author seeks to reveal the principles of human nature behind the personalities she meets; everyday encounters are material for generalizations and philosophical musings about her fellow women and men. But to a modern reader, her abstract cogitations are perhaps less interesting than her clear portrayal of her surroundings.
Diary of a Milliner humorously records the manners, eccentricities, and financial rituals of her predominantly middle-and upper-class clients. Her customers include the fussily pretentious woman who tries on every hat in the store without buying one, the "highway shopper" who custom orders a bonnet and then decides it is not what she wanted after all, the wealthy socialite who needs reassurance that she has purchased the most expensive hat in town, and the bold woman who just wants to "borrow" a mourning bonnet for a funeral. Woods has a quick-witted answer and apt sales psychology for dealing with every kind of client.
Woman in Prison, however, adopts a more serious tone, concentrating less on exposing the foibles of human nature than the shameful conditions in the women's section of the state penitentiary. Without condescension, her plain, unpretentious prose captures the personalities, feelings, slang, and behavior of the prisoners. Through the eyes of the new matron, we come to like and respect the inmates more than those in charge of them.
Woods' revelations about prison conditions support her assertion that if such institutions were open for public inspection, reform would inevitably follow. The small "stone dens" where prisoners live resemble the "low, narrow…cages of wild animals," where bedbugs, rats and mice, and colonies of insects freely gather. Because the prison master keeps the inmates busy doing contract work (mostly sewing) in the "shop," (which brings revenue to the prison's board of directors), he will not assign anyone to clean the cells. Prisoners also must sew and keep house for the master's family, while his wife receives a full-time salary as "Head Matron," without doing any work.
Other abusive conditions include long hours and minimal food—barely enough to keep the prisoners working. Punishment is arbitrary (inmates are not allowed to talk while working in the shop) and unrelated to the offense. Given the conditions Woods describes in Woman in Prison, one can easily see why she asserts that the prisoners leave the penitentiary more degraded and hardened in crime than when they entered the institution.
While the literary value of Woods' writings is slight, her clear rendering of two very different sides of American society will be useful to students of social history and psychology.
A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors Living and Deceased (1900).
—MELANIE M. S. YOUNG