White, Eliza Orne (1856–1947)

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White, Eliza Orne (1856–1947)

American novelist and children's author . Name variations: (pseudonym) Alex. Born on August 2, 1856, in Keene, New Hampshire; died on January 23, 1947, in Brookline, Massachusetts; daughter of William Orne White (a Unitarian minister) and Margaret Eliot (Harding) White; granddaughter of portrait artist Chester Harding; attended Miss Hall's School for Girls in Roxbury, Massachusetts; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

As She Would Have It (1873); Miss Brooks (1890); When Molly was Six (1894); A Little Girl of Long Ago (1896); A Lover of Truth (1898); John Forsyth's Aunts (1901); Leslie Chilton (1903); A Borrowed Sister (1906); The Enchanted Mountain (1911); The First Step (1914); The Blue Aunt (1918); Peggy in Her Blue Frock (1921); Diana's Rosebush (1927); Sally in Her Fur Coat (1929); The Green Door (1930); Where Is Adelaide (1933); Anne Frances (1935); Helen's Gift House (1938); I: The Autobiography of a Cat (1941); Training of Sylvia (1942); When Esther Was a Little Girl (1944).

Eliza Orne White wrote over 40 books, the most popular of which were aimed at young girls, despite lacking the educational background that might be expected of a such prolific author. Born in 1856, she attended public schools in Keene, New Hampshire, and a boarding school in Massachusetts, but childhood illnesses interrupted her studies; eye trouble caused her to miss a year of school when she was 14, and an attack of typhoid two years later prevented her from graduating. Nevertheless, as a child of educated parents—her father William Orne White was a Unitarian minister who had graduated from Harvard, and her mother Margaret Harding White , the daughter of portrait painter Chester Harding, had attended Elizabeth Palmer Peabody 's school—she developed a strong interest in writing. Her father frequently read aloud to her from Homer, Spenser, and Dickens (whom they also heard lecture during one of his visits to the U.S.), and her mother encouraged her in and was delighted by all her creative efforts. Margaret White also had longtime connections to friends in literary circles. Young Eliza was especially fond of her mother's close friend Lucretia Peabody Hale , whose serialized stories would later be published as the popular Peterkin Papers, and perhaps as a result of her influence Eliza wrote a series of romance stories around age 11. By age 18, she had begun writing short stories for publications including The Christian Register and The Atlantic Monthly, using the pseudonym "Alex." White traveled with her family for a year in Europe when she was 20, and upon her return moved with them to Brookline, Massachusetts, into a house that became her lifelong home.

White's first serious venture into writing books was a novel for adults, Miss Brooks, published in 1890. Although she continued to write literature for adults, her most popular works proved to be those aimed at children. Between 1894 and 1944, she wrote 29 children's books, chiefly for girls between the ages of six and ten, drawing on her own happy childhood memories for much of her vivid writing. A Borrowed Sister (1906), for example, grew out of her memory of the arrival of her beloved younger sister Rose, whom her parents had adopted when White was nine years old. "The good thing about imagination," she once wrote, "is that it defies time and bridges the gap between childhood and what to the uninitiated seems like age." Her work frequently explored middle-class family relationships in New England in various historical contexts, using what then seemed charming characters and a gentle sense of humor to tell her simply plotted stories. (Like those of many popular writers of her time, her books have not aged well.) Among the rare exceptions to her domestic stories focusing on well-behaved little girls was 1941's I: The Autobiography of a Cat, one of four books she wrote about cats.

White became totally blind in the late 1910s, and deaf not long thereafter, but continued to write. Her final book, When Esther Was a Little Girl, was published in 1944, just three years before her death from arteriosclerosis at age 90.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1972.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1967.

Pendergast, Sara, and Tom Pendergast, eds. St. James Guide to Children's Writers. 5th ed. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1999.

Linda S. Walton , freelance writer, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan

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