Late last year, we received an intriguing message from novelist Jennifer Montgomery, who had recently read our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf and then discovered Something Rhymed.
Jennifer told us about a thesis project she’d completed at university about nineteenth and early twentieth-century books for American girls. As she researched, she told us, she kept stumbling upon literary friendships between the women who wrote these books. But since this was tangential to her thesis, she had to set these notes aside – until now.
Few writers owe as much to their university experiences as Jean Webster. Not only is her most famous novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, set at a woman’s college much like Jean’s beloved alma mater Vassar, but the main character draws heavily on Jean’s adventures with her best friend at university: her fellow writer Adelaide Crapsey.
Although Jean wrote stories while Adelaide focused on poetry, the two lively, rambunctious young women had much in common. When they weren’t collaborating on plays – in their sophomore year, their gleefully melodramatic comedy won a college drama competition – they careened around the countryside on their bicycles, debated vociferously in favor of women’s rights and socialism, and dreamed of spectacular literary careers.
But their paths diverged after they graduated in 1901. Jean swiftly met success. Her literary reputation built steadily novel by novel, until her seventh book Daddy-Long-Legs catapulted her to literary stardom in 1912. The novel, which is still in print today, is told through a series of letters written by a young woman much like Jean or Adelaide: a sprightly aspiring writer with feminist and socialist sympathies and a well-developed sense of fun.
Meanwhile, Adelaide’s career stalled. Although she continued to write poetry, family troubles and then ill health made it impossible for her to give single-minded attention to her work. Finally she received a devastating diagnosis: tuberculosis.
At the time, tuberculosis was considered a poet’s disease: a sign that the creative fires within were burning away the poet’s physical frame. But Adelaide had wanted to be a new kind of poet, just as she and Jean were New Women: robust and hearty, precise and scientific, not at all like the stereotype of the languishing early Victorian maiden or the sickly, emotionally overwrought Romantic poet. The diagnosis flew in the face of the identity she and Jean had built together.
Perhaps for this reason, Adelaide told neither Jean nor her family of her diagnosis. Instead, she joined in the celebrations of Jean’s meteorically successful new book. Their friendship remained strong despite their different life paths: the two friends decided to spend the summer of 1913 together.
They made ice cream, stayed out late (‘Adelaide and I nearly slept out-of-doors the night of the 4th,’ Jean wrote exuberantly), and worked together on a play, just as they had at Vassar. But this time, rather than writing a college drama, they were transforming Jean’s book for Broadway.
But the pace proved too much for Adelaide: she collapsed. Jean rushed her to the hospital, but at first she remained optimistic.‘I think at last – after 4 years of silly tonics and rest & fresh air & everything else that didn’t work – we are going to cure her up!’ she wrote.
But soon Adelaide could no longer hide her fatal diagnosis. Jean let go of dreams of curing her friend, and focused instead on making her last months comfortable: helping her family find a sanatorium, visiting her, and trying to find publishers for her poems. She knew, as only a fellow writer could, what comfort it would give her friend to see at least some of her work in print. When she managed to place Adelaide’s poem ‘The Witch’ in the magazine Century, Adelaide wrote to her in gratitude: ‘the thinnest blade of an opening wedge is the thing that counts now, and the times are all against us’.
The times were even more against them than Adelaide knew; barely a month after Adelaide wrote that letter, Jean rushed from the production of Daddy-Long-Legs to be at Adelaide’s deathbed. After Adelaide’s death, Jean fulfilled her final promise to her friend: she presented Adelaide’s book of poems to her parents. Adelaide had not wanted her parents to see the poems earlier because so many of them dealt with Adelaide’s suffering and approaching death.
Jean hoped to find a publisher for Adelaide’s poems, but within two years she too was dead: felled, like Charlotte Bronte, by complications of pregnancy. Instead, one of Adelaide’s former suitors shepherded the collection into print under the simple title Verse, complete with an introduction that described Adelaide as exactly the sort of sickly romantic poet she scorned.
Despite the inappropriate introduction, critics noticed the brilliant concision of the five-line cinquain form that Adelaide had invented, which she wielded to great effect in poems such as Niagara. Her poems are still reprinted in anthologies, just as Jean’s paean to their college days remains in print to this day. Despite their truncated lives, Jean and Adelaide fulfilled their most important Vassar dream: their words are still read over a century after their deaths.
We’re looking forward to sharing more of Jennifer’s research discoveries over the coming months.
If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.