December 18, 2013

Constance Latimer: perfect contentment

Emma C. Embury, then a popular magazine contributor, intended to write a short novella to help raise funds for the establishment of a school for the blind in Brooklyn, New York. She didn't think her efforts were good enough, however, so she opted to write a full-length collection which would raise funds after the school was already established. In her preface, dated December 18, 1837, she apologized for the delay but made it clear her aim was not fame for herself but money for the institution:

It is now published to aid the funds of one of the most valuable institutions ever founded; and though the author's ability be far from equalling her will, she can only hope that, by thus contributing her mite, she may induce others to give of their abundance.

The book, Constance Latimer; or, The Blind Girl, with Other Tales, appeared in early 1838. On its title page, its dedication page, and in its preface, Embury made it clear it was written for the benefit of the New-York Institution for the Instruction of the Blind.

The title character of Embury's story, Constance Latimer, is herself blind. She lost her vision as a young child due to scarlet fever after seeing her brother's body when the same disease killed him. It was the last scene she ever saw. Despite her physical limitations, however, Constance is spiritually pure. The image of a perfectly moral and beautiful girl, happy with her life (even when a friend regains her lost eyesight), was an image Embury wanted to cultivate to arouse sympathy. The character's father is a wealthy man who inherited the family business — and noting his wealth is important as the book was publishing during the Panic of 1837 and that Embury solicited funds for the Brooklyn school specifically from wealthy families. Constance seems to have an enhanced emotional awareness to make up for her lack of vision, and she ultimately represents a perfect, unchallenging figure of antebellum femininity.

Her father, however, comes down with an illness and sacrifices the family fortune. He travels to England to protect what assets he can, leaving his wife and daughter behind. To raise enough income for them to survive, Constance becomes a music teacher at the Brooklyn School for the Blind. Her father could not be more proud:

Once more contentment smiled upon the longtried family. Adversity had awakened the noble feelings which had slumbered in the hearts of all, and the voice of prosperity could not again lull them to sleep. To a mind filled with knowledge, and a heart pure as the dream of infancy, Constance now added a consciousness of mental power, a reliance on her own resources, and a piety which taught her that the shorn lamb, which had been sheltered from the pelting of the pitiless storm, would find the wind of future years tempered by the same benevolent hand. Her days are still gliding on so calmly, that she scarcely feels their current; and though the silver blossoms of the grave are strewn upon the temples of her parents, she still wears the garland of youth upon her sunny brow. The absence of all tumultuous passions has preserved the childlike purity of her countenance; and if ever perfect contentment dwelt in the breast of mortal, her home may be found in the heart of the blind Constance Latimer.

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