When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her because she wasn’t married and could not be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.
Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.
Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.
Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.
So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband, average children and life of housework.
There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).
In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:
My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)
In shady paths, serene, content I grew,
Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:
When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,
Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:
“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”
I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–
The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.
The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,
And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”
In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.
But god-like still he waited long and sought.
Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams
of high renown, with cries to him I fled.
And now, serene, content, with him I roam
In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.
Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.
Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.