Gateway to the Classics: The Seven Sisters by Jane Andrews
The Seven Sisters by  Jane Andrews

Memorial of Miss Jane Andrews

Born Dec. 1, 1833. Died July 15, 1887.

PERHAPS the readers and lovers of this little book will be glad of a few pages, by way of introduction, which shall show them somewhat of Miss Andrews herself, and of her way of writing and teaching, as an old friend and schoolmate may try to tell it; and, to begin with, a glimpse of the happy day when she called a few of her friends together to listen to the stories contained in this volume, before they were offered to a publisher.

Picture to yourselves a group of young ladies in one of the loveliest of old-fashioned parlors, looking out on a broad, elm-shaded street in the old town of Newburyport. The room is long and large, with wide mahogany seats in the four deep windows, ancient mahogany chairs, and great bookcases across one side of the room, with dark pier-tables and centre-table, and large mirror,—all of ancestral New England solidity and rich simplicity; some saintly portraits on the wall, a modern easel in the corner accounting for fine bits of coloring on canvas, crayon drawings about the room, and a gorgeous fire-screen of autumn tints; nasturtium vines in bloom glorifying the south window, and German ivy decorating the north corner; choice books here and there, not to look at only, but to be assimilated; with an air of quiet refinement and the very essence of cultured homeness pervading all;—this is the meagre outline of a room, which, having once sat within, you would wish never to see changed, in which many pure and noble men and women have loved to commune with the lives which have been so blent with all its suggestions that it almost seems a part of their organic being.

But it was twenty-five years ago that this circle of congenial and expectant young people were drawn together in the room to listen to the first reading of the MSS. of "The Seven Little Sisters." I will not name them all; but one whose youthful fame and genius were the pride of all, Harriet Prescott (now Mrs. Spofford), was Jane's friend and neighbor for years, and heard most of her books in MSS. They were all friends, and in a very sympathetic and eager attitude of mind, you may well believe; for in the midst, by the centre-table, sits Jane, who has called them together; and knowing that she has really written a book, each one feels almost that she herself has written it in some unconscious way, because each feels identified with Jane's work, and is ready to be as proud of it, and as sure of it, as all the world is now of the success of Miss Jane Andrews's writings for the boys and girls in these little stories of geography and history which bear her name.

I can see Jane sitting there, as I wish you could, with her MSS. on the table at her side. She is very sweet and good and noble looking, with soft, heavy braids of light-brown hair carefully arranged on her fine, shapely head; her forehead is full and broad; her eyes large, dark blue, and pleasantly commanding, but with very gentle and dreamy phases interrupting their placid decision of expression; her features are classic and firm in outline, with pronounced resolution in the close of the full lips, or of hearty merriment in the open laugh, illuminated by a dazzle of well-set teeth; her complexion fresh and pure, and the whole aspect of her face kind, courageous, and inspiring, as well as thoughtful and impressive. The poise of her head and rather strongly built figure is unusually good, and suggestive of health, dignity, and leadership; yet her manners and voice are so gentle, and her whole demeanor so benevolent, that no one could be offended at her taking naturally the direction of any work, or the planning of any scheme, which she would also be foremost in executing.

But there she sits looking up at her friends, with her papers in hand, and the pretty business-like air that so well became her, and bespeaks the extreme criticism of her hearers upon what she shall read, because she really wants to know how it affects them, and what mistakes or faults can be detected; for she must do her work as well as possible, and is sure they are willing to help. Her sister Emily has made all the lovely little pictures for illustration, except the chamois which her friend Mrs. Harriet Hale copied from her ivory paper-folder, and the Esquimau sled, which Mr. Hale, her life-long friend, drew from a cut in "Kane's Arctic Explorations." (By the way, the little picture of Louise in "Each and All," with her knitting, always seemed to me very much like a daguerreotype of Jane at the age of twelve or thirteen.) "You see," says Jane, "I have dedicated the book to the children I told the stories to first, when the plan was only partly in my mind, and they seemed to grow by telling, till at last they finished themselves; and the children seemed to care so much for them, that I thought if they were put into a book other children might care for them too, and they might possibly do some good in the world."

Yes, those were the points that always indicated the essential aim and method of Jane's writing and teaching, the elements out of which sprang all her work; viz., the relation of her mind to the actual individual children she knew and loved, and the natural growth of her thought through their sympathy, and the accretion of all she read and discovered while the subject lay within her brooding brain, as well as the single dominant purpose to do some good in the world. There was definiteness as well as breadth in her way of working all through her life.

I wish I could remember exactly what was said by that critical circle; for there were some quick and brilliant minds, and some pungent powers of appreciation, and some keen-witted young women in that group. Perhaps I might say they had all felt the moulding force of some very original and potential educators as they had been growing up into their young womanhood. Some of these were professional educators of lasting pre-eminence: others were not professed teachers, yet in the truest and broadest sense teachers of very wide and wise and inspiring influence; and of these Thomas Wentworth Higginson had come more intimately and effectually into formative relations with the minds and characters of those gathered in that sunny room than any other person. They certainly owed much of the loftiness and breadth of their aim in life, and their comprehension of the growth and work to be accomplished in the world, to his kind and steady instigation. I wish I could remember what they said, and what Jane said; but all that has passed away. I think somebody objected to the length of the title, which Jane admitted to be a fault, but said something of wishing to get the idea of the unity of the world into it as the main idea of the book. I only recall the enthusiastic delight with which chapter after chapter was greeted; we declared that it was a fairy tale of geography, and a work of genius in its whole conception, and in its absorbing interest of detail and individuality; and that any publisher would demonstrate himself an idiot who did not want to publish it. I remember Jane's quick tossing back of the head, and puzzled brow which broke into a laugh, as she said: "Well, girls, it can't be as good as you say: there must be some faults in it." But we all exclaimed that we had done our prettiest at finding fault, that there wasn't a ghost of a fault in it. For the incarnate beauty and ideality and truthfulness of her little stories had melted into our being, and left us spell-bound, till we were one with each other and her; one with the Seven Little Sisters, too, and they seemed like our very own little sisters. So they have rested in our imagination and affection as we have seen them grow into the imagination and affection of generations of children since, and as they will continue to grow until the old limitations and barrenness of the study of geography shall be transfigured, and the earth seem to the children an Eden which love has girdled, when Gemila, Agoonack, and the others shall have won them to a knowledge of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God.

I would like to bring before young people who have read her books some qualities of her mind and character which made her the rare woman, teacher, and writer that she was. I knew her from early girlhood. We went to the same schools, in more and more intimate companionship, from the time we were twelve until we were twenty years of age; and our lives and hearts were "grappled" to each other "with links of steel" ever after. She was a precocious child, early matured, and strong in intellectual and emotional experiences. She had a remarkably clear mind, orderly and logical in its processes, and loved to take up hard problems. She studied all her life with great joy and earnestness, rarely, if ever, baffled in her persistent learning except by ill-health. She went on at a great pace in mathematics for a young girl; every step seemed easy to her. She took every thing severe that she could get a chance at, in the course or out of it,—surveying, navigation, mechanics, mathematical astronomy, and conic sections, as well as the ordinary course in mathematics; the calculus she had worked through at sixteen under a very able and exact teacher, and took her diploma from W. H. Wells, a master who allowed nothing to go slip-shod. She was absorbed in studies of this kind, and took no especial interest in composition or literature, beyond what was required, and what was the natural outcome of a literary atmosphere and inherited culture; that is, her mind was passively rather than actively engaged in such directions, until later. At the normal school she led a class which has had a proud intellectual record as teachers and workers. She was the easy victor in every contest: with an inclusive grasp, an incisive analysis, instant generalization, a very tenacious and ready memory, and unusual talent for every effort of study, she took and held the first place as a matter of course until she graduated, when she gave the valedictory address. This valedictory was a prophetic note in the line of her future expression; for it gave a graphic illustration of the art of teaching geography, to the consideration of which she had been led by Miss Crocker's logical, suggestive, and masterly presentation of the subject in the school course. Her ability and steadiness of working-power, as well as singleness of aim, attracted the attention of Horace Mann, who was about forming the nucleus of Antioch College; and he succeeded in gaining her as one of his promised New-England recruits. She had attended very little to Latin, and went to work at once to prepare for the classical requirements of a college examination. This she did with such phenomenal rapidity that in six weeks she had fitted herself for what was probably equivalent to a Harvard entrance examination in Latin. She went to Antioch, and taught, as well as studied for a while, until her health gave way entirely; and she was prostrate for years with brain and spine disorders. Of course this put an end to her college career; and on her recovery she opened her little school in her own house, which she held together until her final illness, and to which she devoted her thoughts and energies, her endowments and attainments, as well as her prodigal devotion and love.

The success of "The Seven Little Sisters" was a great pleasure to her, partly because her dear mother and friends were so thoroughly satisfied with it. Her mother always wished that Jane would give her time more exclusively to writing, especially as new outlines of literary work were constantly aroused in her active brain. She wrote several stories which were careful studies in natural science, and which appeared in some of the magazines. I am sure they would be well worth collecting. She had her plan of "Each and All" long in her mind before elaborating, and it crystallized by actual contact with the needs and the intellectual instincts of her little classes. In fact, all her books grew, like a plant, from within outwards; they were born in the nursery of the schoolroom, and nurtured by the suggestions of the children's interest, thus blooming in the garden of a true and natural education. The last book she wrote, "Ten Boys Who Lived on the Road from Long Ago to Now," she had had in her mind for years. This little book she dedicated to a son of her sister Margaret. I am sure she gave me an outline of the plan fully ten years before she wrote it out. The subject of her mental work lay in her mind, growing, gathering to itself nourishment, and organizing itself consciously or unconsciously by all the forces of her unresting brain and all the channels of her study, until it sprung from her pen complete at a stroke. She wrote good English, of course, and would never sentimentalize, but went directly at the pith of the matter; and, if she had few thoughts on a subject, she made but few words. I don't think she did much by way of revising or recasting after her thought was once committed to paper. I think she wrote it as she would have said it, always with an imaginary child before her, to whose intelligence and sympathy it was addressed. Her habit of mind was to complete a thought before any attempt to convey it to others. This made her a very helpful and clear teacher and leader. She seemed always to have considered carefully any thing she talked about, and gave her opinion with a deliberation and clear conviction which affected others as a verdict, and made her an oracle to a great many kinds of people. All her plans were thoroughly shaped before execution; all her work was true, finished, and conscientious in every department. She did a great deal of quiet, systematic thinking from her early school-days onward, and was never satisfied until she completed the act of thought by expression and manifestation in some way for the advantage of others. The last time I saw her, which was for less than five minutes accorded me by her nurse during her last illness, she spoke of a new plan of literary work which she had in mind, and although she attempted no delineation of it, said she was thinking it out whenever she felt that it was safe for her to think. Her active brain never ceased its plans for others, for working toward the illumination of the mind, the purification of the soul, and the elevation and broadening of all the ideals of life. I remember her sitting, absorbed in reflection, at the setting of the sun every evening while we were at the House Beautiful of the Peabodys at West Newton; or, when at home, gazing every night, before retiring, from her own house-top, standing at her watchtower to commune with the starry heavens, and receive that exaltation of spirit which is communicated when we yield ourselves to the "essentially religious." (I use this phrase, because it delighted her so when I repeated it to her as the saying of a child in looking at the stars.)

No one ever felt a twinge of jealousy in Jane's easy supremacy; she never made a fuss about it, although I think she had no mock modesty in the matter. She accepted the situation which her uniform correctness of judgment assured to her, while she always accorded generous praise and deference to those who excelled her in departments where she made no pretence of superiority.

There were some occasions when her idea of duty differed from a conventional one, perhaps from that of some of her near friends; but no one ever doubted her strict dealing with herself, or her singleness of motive. She did not feel the need of turning to any other conscience than her own for support or enlightenment, and was inflexible and unwavering in any course she deemed right. She never apologized for herself in any way, or referred a matter of her own experience or sole responsibility to another for decision; neither did she seem to feel the need of expressed sympathy in any private loss or trial. Her philosophy of life, her faith, or her temperament seemed equal to every exigency of disappointment or suffering. She generally kept her personal trials hidden within her own heart, and recovered from every selfish pain by the elastic vigor of her power for unselfish devotion to the good of others. She said that happiness was to have an unselfish work to do, and the power to do it.

It has been said that Jane's only fault was that she was too good. I think she carried her unselfishness too often to a short-sighted excess, breaking down her health, and thus abridging her opportunities for more permanent advantage to those whom she would have died to serve; but it was solely on her own responsibility, and in consequence of her accumulative energy of temperament, that made her unconscious of the strain until too late.

Her brain was constitutionally sensitive and almost abnormally active; and she more than once overtaxed it by too continuous study, or by a disregard of its laws of health, or by a stupendous multiplicity of cares, some of which it would have been wiser to leave to others. She took everybody's burdens to carry herself. She was absorbed in the affairs of those she loved,—of her home circle, of her sisters' families, and of many a needy one whom she adopted into her solicitude. She was thoroughly fond of children and of all that they say and do, and would work her fingers off for them, or nurse them day and night. Her sisters' children were as if they had been her own, and she revelled in all their wonderful manifestations and development. Her friends' children she always cared deeply for, and was hungry for their wise and funny remarks, or any hint of their individuality. Many of these things she remembered longer than the mothers themselves, and took the most thorough satisfaction in recounting.

I have often visited her school, and it seemed like a home with a mother in it. There we took sweet counsel together, as if we had come to the house of God in company; for our methods were identical, and a day in her school was a day in mine. We invariably agreed as to the ends of the work, and how to reach them; for we understood each other perfectly in that field of art.

I wish I could show her life with all its constituent factors of ancestry, home, and surroundings; for they were so inherent in her thoughts and feelings that you could hardly separate her from them in your consideration. But that is impossible. Disinterested benevolence was the native air of the house into which she was born, and she was an embodiment of that idea. To devote herself to some poor outcast, to reform a distorted soul, to give all she had to the most abject, to do all she could for the despised and rejected,—this was her craving and absorbing desire. I remember some comical instances of the pursuance of this self-abnegation, where the returns were, to say the least, disappointing; but she was never discouraged. It would be easy to name many who received a life-long stimulus and aid at her hands, either intellectual or moral. She had much to do with the development of some remarkable careers, as well as with the regeneration of many poor and abandoned souls.

She was in the lives of her dear ones, and they in hers, to a very unusual degree; and her life-threads are twined inextricably in theirs forever. She was a complete woman,—brain, will, affections, all, to the greatest extent, active and unselfish; her character was a harmony of many strong and diverse elements; her conscience was a great rock upon which her whole nature rested; her hands were deft and cunning; her ingenious brain was like a master mechanic at expedients; and in executive and administrative power, as well as in device and comprehension, she was a marvel. If she had faults, they are indistinguishable in the brightness and solidity of her whole character. She was ready to move into her place in any sphere, and adjust herself to any work God should give her to do. She must be happy, and shedding happiness, wherever she is; for that is an inseparable quality and function of her identity.

She passed calmly out of this life, and lay at rest in her own home, in that dear room so full of memories of her presence, with flowers to deck her bed, and many of her dearest friends around her; while the verses which her beloved sister Caroline had selected seemed easily to speak with Jane's own voice, as they read:—

Prepare the house, kind friends; drape it and deck it

With leaves and blossoms fair:

Throw open doors and windows, and call hither

The sunshine and soft air.

Let all the house, from floor to ceiling, look

Its noblest and its best;

For it may chance that soon may come to me

A most imperial guest.

A prouder visitor than ever yet

Has crossed my threshold o'er,

One wearing royal sceptre and a crown

Shall enter at my door;

Shall deign, perchance, sit at my board an hour,

And break with me my bread;

Suffer, perchance, this night my honored roof

Shelter his kingly head.

And if, ere comes the sun again, he bid me

Arise without delay,

And follow him a journey to his kingdom

Unknown and far away;

And in the gray light of the dawning morn

We pass from out my door,

My guest and I, silent, without farewell,

And to return no more,—

Weep not, kind friends, I pray; not with vain tears

Let your glad eyes grow dim;

Remember that my house was all prepared,

And that I welcomed him.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  |  Next: The Ball Itself
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.