J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mystery of “Mrs. W——”

Yesterday I quoted Phillis Wheatley’s “Ode to Neptune,” published in London in 1773 with the subtitle “On Mrs. W——’s Voyage to England” and dateline “Boston, October 10, 1772.”

For readers seeking to identify “Mrs. W——,” the poem offers some internal clues:
  • Her last initial was W, of course, and she was almost certainly married and alive in October 1772.
  • Later the poem addresses her as “my Susannah.”
  • She was about to make a voyage across the ocean to the Thames River in England.
Given the first two clues, most people’s first guess is that Phillis wrote this poem to her mistress, Susannah Wheatley. Except that other evidence strongly suggests that Susannah Wheatley never went to England.

Phillis Wheatley almost certainly addressed her mistress in another poem titled “A Farewel to America. To Mrs. S. W.” But that was when Phillis was about to sail to London and Susannah was staying behind in Boston.

The next guess is based on notes in a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 book of poetry owned by the American Antiquarian Society. Beside the “Farewel” poem someone penned “Mrs. Susannah Wright,” and then a different someone penciled, “eminent for her Wax Works etc.”

Scholars agree that the “Mrs. S.W.” mentioned in “A Farewel” is Susannah Wheatley. So some have argued that the notes in that A.A.S. copy were actually meant for another poem—namely, “Ode to Neptune.” A woman named “Susannah Wright” who traveled to England in late 1772 would fit all the internal clues. However, no one has identified such a woman or linked her to the Wheatleys.

The “eminent for her Wax Works” line has prompted other interpreters to assert that Wheatley addressed her “Ode to Neptune” to Patience Wright (shown above), who indeed became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for her wax likenesses of people. Wright was in Boston in the early 1770s, and, like Wheatley, she created a tribute to the Rev. George Whitefield.

Patrick Moseley wrote a whole article in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (2011) about the relationship of Patience Wright and Phillis Wheatley as two women seeking sustenance and respect from their arts in the pre-Revolutionary British Empire. But there remain some inconvenient facts:
  • Patience Wright sailed for England in February 1772, months before Phillis Wheatley wrote her poem about “Mrs. W——” embarking.
  • Wheatley’s poem clearly addresses its subject as “Susannah.”
  • There’s no evidence Wheatley and Wright had any relationship aside from those notes in the A.A.S. copy, which have no source, get Wright’s name wrong, and are attached to a different poem written for someone else.
So here’s my contribution to Wheatley scholarship: The “Mrs. W——” mentioned in “Ode to Neptune” was Susanna Wool(d)ridge, daughter of London merchant William Kelly.

TOMORROW: Who?!

1 comment:

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

I'm on tenterhooks waiting for the denouement, John! Sure to be another Boston1775 classic!