The comings and goings at a New England homestead for the better part of seven decades, recorded in the diaries and correspondence of one persevering woman.
Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1714–1817) lived, from early childhood until her death, at Forty Acres, the family manse in the lush Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. Fatherless since the French and Indian War, and deprived of full motherly attention thanks to her surviving parent’s opium addiction, she assiduously kept a lifelong journal filled with lots of devout musings and bits of current events. After no recorded courtship, she was married, had two children and a score of grandchildren. Through the Revolution and the War of 1812 and all the days before and after, she documented clothing made and “tafety” purchased, threats of war and fear of disease, scriptural readings and reflections, visitors and lodgers, servants and slaves, construction and renovation, knitting and churning, dueling and cheese-making, births and deaths and all other quotidian matters of 18th-century America. It’s as commonplace as laundry on Monday. One woman’s story, it is quite circumspect. Midway, the entries turn melancholy and troubled, with no hint of a cause. (Carlisle supposes a philandering husband, and why not?) In its quaint orthography, it is all quite agreeable, but there is only a negligible peek at the human condition. With sincere Calvinism, it is more contemplative than action-packed. Depth of feeling and complexities of relationships must be surmised. “What lies with great weight on one’s mind, is apt to get into the pen,” wrote Elizabeth to her daughter. But as the story flows through the years, stolid and steadfast as a New England stone fence, it never ignites or surprises. Good Mrs. Phelps, an exemplary wife and mother, prayerful and serious, was not, in truth, an especially gifted writer.
Daily doings in early America researched and detailed; for the general reader, life at Forty Acres may inspire forty winks.