Forbes, Esther (1891–1967)

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Forbes, Esther (1891–1967)

American historical novelist and short-story writer. Name variations: Mrs. A.L. Hoskins. Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1891; died in Worcester, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1967; youngest of five children of William Trowbridge (a judge) and Harriette (Merrifield) Forbes (a historian and author); graduated from the Bradford (Massachusetts) Academy, 1912; attended the University of Wisconsin, 1916–1918; married Albert Learned Hoskins, Jr., in 1926 (divorced 1933).

Esther Forbes was uniquely qualified to write about the history of her native New England. One of five children of an old and respected Eastern family, she was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1891, and spent much of her childhood in the family attic, poring over ancestral manuscripts and dusty books. She was encouraged in these early explorations by her mother Harriette Forbes , a noted researcher and the author of Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them (1927).

Esther attended the University of Wisconsin for two years before leaving to aid the war effort as a farmhand in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Returning to New England after the World War I armistice, she joined the editorial staff of Houghton Mifflin and worked in her spare time on her first novel, O Genteel Lady! (1926). In 1926, following her marriage to Albert Learned Hoskins, she traveled abroad and continued to write. By the time of her divorce in 1933, she had published her second book A Mirror for Witches (1928) and had established her reputation as a historical novelist.

Forbes focused on New England in both her novels and nonfiction and was known for her meticulous research and vibrant, well-drawn characters. In her early works, she was preoccupied with the development of heroines of various types and fates. O Genteel Lady! concerns a Boston editor and writer of the late 19th century who gives up her writing, and her love for an adventurer, to marry a staid Harvard professor. In A Mirror for Witches, set in the late 17th century, the heroine Doll Bilby has a love affair with a "devil" and dies an accused witch in a Salem prison. (One of Forbes' ancestors was accused of witchcraft and died in a Cambridge jail.) The title character in Miss Marvel (1935) is a spinster who leads a romantic inner life depicted in letters to an imaginary lover.

Forbes reached the height of her fame in 1943 with the publication of a book for children, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, which captured that year's Pulitzer Prize for History. Reviewer John Chamberlain claimed the book went "straight to the heart of life in old Boston without sacrificing an iota of universal quality." Close on the heels of this success came Johnny Tremain (1943) which won the Newbery Medal. Both books reflect Forbes' interest in individuals caught up in important historical events. Written during World War II, the books also reveal her immediate concern with the nature of human freedom in the context of war. A third children's biography, America's Paul Revere (1948), like its distinguished predecessors, won critical acclaim and continues to be a standard in juvenile literature.

Esther Forbes was honored as the first woman member of the American Antiquarian Society and was also a member of the Society of American Historians and the American Academy of Arts and Science. She died on August 12, 1967, while working on a study of witchcraft. In her obituary in The New York Times, she was referred to as "a novelist who wrote like a historian and a historian who wrote like a novelist" and was praised as "one of the most exciting and knowledgeable authors on the Revolutionary War." Forbes' last published work, Rainbow in the Road (1954), was adapted as a musical in 1969.


Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 22. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Kunitz, Stanley J. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.


The Richard Hutchings Goddard Library at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, holds an uncatalogued collection of Forbes' papers from 1906 to 1967, including manuscripts, historical notes, and essays.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Forbes, Esther (1891–1967)

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