November 15, 2010

A will that might have subjugated an empire

Juno Clifford, a novella, was published in 1855, attributed only to "A Lady." That lady was, in fact, 19-year old Louise Chandler Moulton — an up and coming writer from Boston (originally from Connecticut, where she was educated alongside Edmund Clarence Stedman). Moulton had only recently published her first book of poems and, hoping to get advice, she contacted a more established woman writer to get an opinion.

In a letter dated November 15, 1855, Sarah Helen Whitman wrote to Moulton: "It is a very fascinating story, eloquently related." Whitman was, for a time, one of the most famous woman poets in the United States (more recently overshadowed by her involvement with Edgar Allan Poe) so her compliments rank highly. "You have all the qualities requisite for a successful novelist," she wrote, "and some very rare ones, as I think." The Providence, Rhode Island-based writer was so taken by Juno Clifford that she wrote and published a review of it.

But Whitman did not offer praise exclusively. In the book, Juno unofficially adopts a boy only 12 years younger than she. They separate for a time but meet again when he has grown up — and she falls in love with him. On the anniversary of her husband's death, Juno reveals her love and is immediately scorned; he thinks of her as a mother. "In a paroxysm of despair," she fell to the floor and began "tearing out her magnificent hair by handfuls." Whitman thought the scene a bit much and also noted, "there is a lavish expenditure of love scenes in the latter part of the book."

Whatever the flaws, the book is well-written, particularly for such a young author. Moulton's prose style flows very easily and pulls in the reader from its first page:

Juno Clifford stood before the mirror of her richly furnished breakfast parlor... It was ten o'clock. Men, whose business hours had commenced, were hurrying to and fro in the street — the city was teeming with life and turbulent with noise, but the hum only stole through the heavily curtained windows of that lofty house on Mount Vernon street, with a subdued cadence that was very pleasant. It was a lounging, indolent attitude, in which the lady stood. In her whole style of manner there was a kind of tropical languor, and it was easy to see that she was seldom roused from her habitual calmness. And yet there was something in the curving of her dainty lips, the full sweep of her arching brows, nay, in every motion of her hand, which told of a slumbering power; an energy, resistless in its intensity; a will that might have subjugated an empire.

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