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Mrs. Calvert's Reading Pleasure

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by Paula Novash

In Rosalie Calvert's time, it was not uncommon for women to leaf through volumes of poetry or browse in travel journals and biographies. This was a fairly recent social development, however. Before the Renaissance, books were the province of the religious male. But as literacy increased between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, they became available to the secular and female. People began to read for pleasure as well as piety.

Reading habits changed further as more people learned to read silently. In previous centuries, teaching methods included speaking words aloud in order to understand their meaning. Reading aloud was slow and externalized, silent reading was easier, faster, and had a more immediate impact on the inner life. Reading became a private activity, an opportunity for personal reflection.

As an eighteen year-old living with her parents at Strawberry Hill, two miles from Annapolis, young Rosalie suffered from boredom and isolation. Reading became a favorite amusement for her and her mother, particularly English romance novels, a popular diversion in Annapolis where bookshops were well-stocked. In a note written in 1796 to her brother, Charles, she complained that her mother had taken her current novel and was reading it day and night, even on Sunday. Mrs. Stier defended her action by stating she wasn't reading "for the pleasure of the very tender English amours, but in order to learn English."

Romance novels were reaching the height of their popularity and between 1796 and 1806 they accounted for one-third of the books published in England. Gothic tales were fantastic and gruesome, stories of murder, rape and incest. Unfortunate heroines wandered through creepy crypts and secret passageways. Character development was minimal; bizarre adventures in fantastic settings provided the appeal.

An excerpt from Edeliza, by E.W., published in 1802, offers a typical example:

"As they entered the vault beneath, Edeliza gazed fearfully round; a phosphoric flame blazed round the pillars that supported the broken arches, from which in beautiful variety hung innumerable forms of crystalline spar, transparent as the dew-drop in the rays of morning, and glittering with the faint light that filled the cavern. The scene was at once sublime and terrible, but the mind of Edeliza was awake only to sensations of horror, and she uttered a loud and piercing shriek, as the strong arm of her mysterious guide drew her forcibly along the subterraneous passage."

Drawing on memories of the many romance novels she had read, in an 1809 letter to her brother, Charles, during his stay at the family's Cleydael Castle, Rosalie asked: "After you have read all the romances about apparitions and trap doors, don't you shudder passing by those towers and winding staircases in the dark?"

As Mistress of Riversdale, reading for Rosalie became a respite from the demands of the plantation and her growing family. In an 1805 letter to her father a review of her daily activities included reading--most often in the late morning after seeing to her household.

In response to an offer from Charles to send her some new music, in an 1808 letter to her brother, she informed him that her leisure time was minimal. "I hardly have time to read a little every day, which is more interesting and amusing than music and restores me to a good humor when sordid household cares have irritated me...Music makes me more sociable, but good reading makes me happier and more content with our daily existence."

In the same letter she expresses her admiration for the works of the Swiss poet, Salomon Gesner, and goes on to extol the writings of Thomas Moore, however, with a serious reservation:

"But though he is my favorite, I cannot pardon him for the way he speaks of the immortal Washington. It was not Apollo but Midas who inspired him when he attempted to portray that great man."

A year earlier, Rosalie had sent four books of Moore's poetry to Charles, with a caveat. "You should be fascinated by his simplicity of style and language," she assured him. "... but you may find some of the poems too freely expressed." Of the same poems, she wrote to her sister Isabelle, "I urge you to read and tell me what you think of them, but don't give them to Louise." Louis van Havre, Isabelle's daughter, was sixteen at the time.

Moore (1779-1852), of diminutive build, was a grocer's son from Dublin. Upon being introduced to Thomas Jefferson by Anthony Merry, the English Minister to the United States from 1803 to 1806, he appeared so small in stature and youthful in appearance that the president, mistaking him for a boy, did not address him---a snub that Moore never forgot.

As a native of Ireland, Thomas Moore was an unlikely toast of Regency England. His political forthrightness was objectionable to some. Yet Moore's verses and prose were acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He wrote a celebrated Life of George Gordon, Lord Byron, another favorite of Rosalie's. Among Moore's most enduring poems are "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and the witty "The Time I've Lost in Wooing," the first two verses of which are:

The time I've lost in wooing
In watching and pursuing
The light that lies
In woman's eyes,
Has been my heart's undoing,
Though Wisdom oft has sought me,
I scorned the lore she brought me
My only books
Were woman's looks
And folly's all they've taught me.

Rosalie treasured her reading time, savoring the all-too-rare periods of privacy and quiet. But for her, reading had a social dimension as well. The practice of the time was to share books with friends. It was not uncommon for the privileged to own books--by the end of the 18th century, 63% of the home inventories in Maryland mention their presence--but extensive collections were rare. To her brother, Rosalie wrote, "You know how books travel in this country (much to the detriment of their covers), but it is an excellent idea. The expense of a complete library would be too great, so everyone purchases several new volumes each year, and they are loaned around and their merits discussed, which clears up the estimates on both sides."

"Have you read Corinne, by Madame Stael-Holstein, Rosalie asked her brother in the same letter, "an extremely interesting new romance? I should like to be able to send it to you." The mention of Corinne, a novel about an aristocratic heroine in conflict with society, comes up again in an interesting way. Eight years after her remarks to Charles, Rosalie charmingly thanks her sister Isabelle for sending the book to her--politely refraining from mentioning that she had already read it.

As the Calvert children and their van Havre cousins grew, Rosalie and her siblings sent books as gifts. Charles contributed albums on architecture and artwork, Isabelle a travel library and magazines, and Rosalie volumes by two of her favorite poets, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

Charles seems to have come up trumps in a gift he made to Rosalie in 1816. She thanked him for works by Racine, Molière, and Corneille. "Molière makes me laugh often, but I am nearly afraid of taking up Racine, for once begun, cannot put him down, I prefer him to anything I have ever read in French."

Jean Racine (1639-99), his predecessor Pierre Corneille (1606-84), and Molière (born Jean Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-73) were the three great dramatists of 17th century France. Racine's most enduring works are seven great tragedies, among them Phedre, his masterpiece. Corneille, who considered the younger Racine a rival, also wrote classical verse tragedies, of which Le Cid is perhaps best known. Molière's forte was high comedy and farce, and he was also a formidable actor and director. The Misanthrope is perhaps the most famous of his satirical plays. The works of these playwrights, so enjoyed by Mrs. Calvert, are still performed all over the world.

As all readers do, Rosalie searched for meaning in the words of the books she read. Grieving the death of her daughter, Marie Louise, in 1809, she ,used a literary reference in a letter to her sister. "I am going to try to be cheerful now," she wrote, ". . . Let us do all the good we can and submit ourselves with humility to the decrees of Providence, and we will probably be happy here, and certainly hereafter. I am rather of the opinion of Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best." (The entire quotation "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds," is from Voltaire's Candide.)

In this poignant passage, Rosalie called upon the words of Voltaire to help express what she was feeling and make it universal. Here she was in the best of company. Discovering a thought or experience that resonates, seeking a literary companion, finding solace in shared thoughts--these were the rewards of Mrs. Calvert's reading experience.


Abrams, A. H., editor, Norton Anthology of English Literature (W.W. Norton and Co., New York, N.Y. 1979).

Callcott, Margaret Law, Mistress of Riversdale (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD 1991).

Chartier, Roger, editor, A History of Private Life, Vol. III (Harvard University Press, Boston, MA 1989).

Foster, Augustus John, Jeffersonian America, (San Marino, CA. 1954).

Harkavy, Michael D., editor, American Spectrum Encyclopedia (American Booksellers Association, New York, N. Y. 1991).

Spector, Robert D., editor, The Candle and the Tower (Warner, New York, N. Y. 1974).

(Paula Novash is a free-lance writer and a docent at Riversdale).

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