An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman (review)

August 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm (books, diaries, entertainment, history) (, , , )

James Boswell sums up in one sentence his idea of good biography:

I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought.”

Susan M. Ouellette, who presents the entire extant diary of Phebe Orvis Eastman, first provides an adroit clarification of the diary, in a set of essays. The diarist, of course, never wrote with the intention of publication. Her thoughts are personal and private – and, at times, (well-labeled by the editor) cryptic. This layout, of essays then diary, guides the reader to pick up on the crumb-like indicators within the diary. Ouellette has uncovered a good deal of the life of Phebe Orvis Eastman — before, during, and after the diary, which makes for a rounded biographical profile. She also informs the reader about the era in which Phebe lived.

Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 tells of life on the American “frontier,” first in Vermont and then in the vicinity of Canton, New York. A young nation, the United States was still at war with England during Phebe’s childhood (she lived from 1801 to 1868). The geography of her diary is not the cosmopolitan perspective of Philadelphia, New York, or Washington; nor even from some great plantation. Thereby supplementing those perspectives, it enlarges our knowledge of young women in post-Revolutionary War America.

Phebe’s immediate family had staked claims and worked to clear the land and worked to create their community. (Vermont joined the Union as the Fourteenth State in 1791.) Phebe’s picture of rural Vermont, in the decades beyond that first settlement, offers readers first-hand experience of a growing, interconnected community. And through her move to a less congenial, even “wilder” frontier, Phebe’s own words involve us as witnesses to her personal pain and turmoil.

Phebe Orvis lived a somewhat carefree life as a young woman in Bristol, Vermont. Ouellette’s earliest chapter covers the tragedy of Phebe’s early life: Her mother died when Phebe was just a toddler. The baby’s age and gender (she was the fourth child, but the only daughter) resulted in her living not with her father and siblings, but with her aging maternal grandparents.

Readers of The Midwife’s Tale, featuring Maine’s Martha Ballard, will find a similarity here in the craft-skills taught to young women. Phebe Orvis is a weaver, spinner, and sewer; for instance, when Phebe writes of “Finished my web”, she is telling readers that she has yet again begun a weaving project. Such projects probably helped to fund the classes she took at the Middlebury Female Seminary.

Phebe Orvis is a serious student – and among the early cohort of women attending Willard’s establishment (though Willard herself had moved on by this time). Phebe’s “formal education” is unfortunately cut short, and readers feel her disappointment, and her reticence in doing what is requested of her: She moves to Parishville, New York, to help at her aunt and uncle’s Tavern. This transition led her to marry a man who was not her first choice for a life-partner. Ouellette uncovered in the diary the subtle “ceremony” of gifts exchanged (and ultimately returned), which points out a certain young man as Phebe’s prior attachment.

The Eastmans married in 1823; it is the marriage, the arrival of children, and the constant scratching for a living in New York, which concerns the remainder of the diary, which ends in October 1830. The blank pages that follow serve as silent testament that life went on, even if the woman writing could see no reason to spare the time to record more of that life. Phebe Orvis Eastman retained her diary, and even placed a few later inserts inside it. The diary meant enough to her, at the very least as evidence of early concerns and feelings, to have preserved it.

And others preserved it after Phebe’s death.

Special mention should be made of the late Mary Smallman, who encountered the diary after it surfaced again in Plattsburgh, NY. She transcribed the diary and dug about for information about the mystery diarist. Safe in her hands at a time when few put value on such manuscripts, Smallman ultimately deposited the diary and support materials with the Saint Lawrence County Historical Association (NY).

As with any primary source, records helped to fill out details, but aspects remain that can never truly be known. This book, with the diary in its entirety, ably supported by informative essays, is a window into early 19th century America. That its roots begin in Vermont makes it special to me, a native Vermonter, like Phebe. The physical world she knew nearly two hundred years ago can still be discerned.

Maps provide visuals for those needing to conceptualize the placement of Bristol, Middlebury, and Vergennes, Vermont; also, Saint Lawrence County, New York. An index is included. The size of the book – being both taller and wider than the average hardcover – somehow makes it a bit unwieldy; being produced in hardcover rather than paperback might have minimized that sensation. A tighter layout of the diary entries might have allowed for slightly larger type without increasing page count. Generous spacing between lines tries to compensate for the font and font size. Notes and a bibliography bring the book to 380 pages (Excelsior Editions, SUNY Press; $29.95).

Diaries, in general, are filled with the insignificant, and Ouellette has done the hard work of teasing out the significance behind the diarist’s little clues of life-events. This single volume diary indeed covers (as Boswell prescribed) “all the most important events” in the life of this Vermont girl, from her days as a single woman seeking education at the Middlebury establishment founded by Emma Willard; to her employment in New York, which brought her into the company of Samuel Eastman, whom she eventually married. The diary tells her story; the essays and finely-tuned editing makes Phebe’s history accessible to all readers.


Susan Ouellette, a history professor from Saint Michael’s College (VT), has written on Phebe Orvis Eastman over the decade that researches into the diary have taken. One of the more accessible (it’s ONLINE) is her article “Religion and Piety in the Journal of Phebe Orvis“, in the Vermont History magazine. The book An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 is the richer for this lengthy gestation.

See also:

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An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

May 13, 2017 at 12:22 pm (books, diaries, history, news, people) (, , )

More than a decade ago I worked on a typescript of a diary; this now has been turned into a book by the Saint Michael’s College (History Department) professor I used to work with, Dr. Susan Ouellette.

An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 tells – in her own words – the story of Phebe Orvis, born in Vermont and educated in Middlebury; her marriage to Samuel Eastman settled them in Upstate New York. So, geographically, the diary is much involved with the area near where I live.

Thanks SUNY for providing a review copy – it arrived in yesterday’s mail! So keep on eye out for my review.

It’s a HUGE book (10 x 7 format; 380 pages). Includes a half-dozen essays, that extract and expound on information from the diary; and then the entire journal transcription is presented.

Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

I include the Table of Contents:


Part I. “The sweet, single life”

1. “A delightful prospect of my Nativity”

2. “I conclude there are some strange intentions”

3. “rendered . . . more ignorant than others”

Part II. “New modes of living among strangers”

4. “perhaps the partner of his joys”

5. “Retired, much fatigued”

6. “He cumbers the ground no more”

Conclusion. “beneath the spreading Oak and Hickory”

The Journal

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Vermont: Reclaim History thru Re-creation

March 13, 2015 at 11:00 pm (entertainment, fashion, history) (, , )


 click to enlarge

If you’re in Vermont, check out this Town BrainTap event in Twinfield, Vermont on 8 April 2015!

A Talk and Trunk Show” by Justin Squizzero, with Eliza West – The aim is to showcase Early American Apparel, 1770 to 1815. I’ve seen Eliza West’s beautiful “Jane Austen” creations, and can say that anyone able to attend will not be disappointed. A $10 donation is suggested; a non-profit, proceeds are donated.

Check out the BrainTap website – as well as the recent 7 Days’ article: Reaping what was Sewn.

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Fabulous Find in Ludlow

August 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm (books, history, news) (, , , , , , , )

Last night’s newscast told of an historic “find” in Ludlow, Vermont:

(click picture to open video page at

The thrill of the find centers around PETER THATCHER WASHBURN, a Vermont hero of the US Civil War, and late in life 33rd governor of the state. Read all about the marriage ledger and Washburn at the United Church of Ludlow (scroll down to the story “Historic Record of Vermont Civil War Hero and Governor Discovered”).

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Irene Damages Vermont

August 30, 2011 at 10:03 am (news) (, , )

Very humbling, living in the Champlain Valley, to hear of the extreme devastation southern Vermont has undergone in the aftermath of Irene.

A college friend hailed from Chester – Chester is one of several places literally cut off: no one can get out or in, due to roads, bridges, etc etc.

The Bartonsville historic Covered Bridge got washed away, and Quechee’s covered bridge lost both its approaches.

Bennington and Brattleboro, two communities near the Massachusetts border, were under water.

Sad news continues to reach us:

Undoubtedly, some of the same regions hits with “historic” flooding this past spring were victims of the hurricane’s flooding: places like Waterbury, Montpelier (the state capital), and Barre. On the news last night was more the “aftermath”: quick-rising water that had by then departed — leaving a trail of devastation and mud.

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Vermont Bookworms

December 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm (books) (, , , , , , , , , )

Great article in our local “7 Days” magazine on bookstores — most of which sell used books (my personal favorites). I’ve been to most of them over the years. It’s always great fun to find a book you never ever knew about, sitting, dusty, on some piled upon shelf… But I have to admit that I internet book-look almost as much, intent on particular titles. The farthest away a book has ever come? Australia! That was a bio on Queen Charlotte (1976; the only one around really), by Olwen Hedley. She also wrote a terrific “biography” of Windsor Castle! (among other offerings, I see, when I search her name on [my favorite site])

In fact, up in St. Albans this summer, I stopped by The Eloquent Page; I hadn’t been in since their move into the present building. Found a great book in which WILLIAM GOSLING (Mary’s father) was mentioned!!!

Unless you seek, you never find books you didn’t know to be out there….

Enjoy the article — and patronize these shops, if you get the chance.

Queen Charlotte, of England – royal bookworm?

Read: Miss Smith meets the Queen Read the rest of this entry »

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Martha Ballard’s Diary

December 4, 2010 at 12:14 pm (books, research) (, , , , , , , , )

As I hone the earliest chapter of my book — which will set the tone for the whole, I pick up once again a book owned since 1990: A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary, 1785-1812.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won the Pulitzer for this history of Martha Ballard, Hallowell (Maine), and Ballard’s life as midwife.

I remember well finding this book. We used to have a small “family” bookstore not too far from where I lived in Essex (this, in the years before stores like Burlington’s Chasman & Bem and then the mega-mega Barnes & Noble in South Burlington). In its earliest years it was called The Little Professor; another branch (same owner? I’ve no idea) did once exist on Church Street, in Burlington — but I’m not sure it was still there at this time. In both shops, there were creaky wooden floors, the cash to the right of the door, and simple shelves along the walls and in the middle of the store.

In Essex, I always took a look at the foreign coins on sale in the case straight ahead from the door; bought a couple over the years: British shillings and old Irish pence. Then you came to the modest “History” section. Just four or five shelves, with room to display some books face on, while others just showed their spine-titles.

Crouched to look at the shelves nearest the floor is how I came face-to-face with Martha Ballard. Was it the title? Maybe it sat with its front cover peering straight at you. But I can bet it was the earliest book based on a diary that I purchased; as well, the earliest in which a woman from some historical period of the past was discussed.

Needless to say, my collection has grown since!

But it is interesting, as my book begins with Mary Gosling’s travels, in particular to Oxford, and I envision the hubbub of readying horses and carriages in the stables attached to a grand London home of a rich banker, to see that Ulrich begins with the mighty river of the Kennebec – frozen river, rushing river, spring freshets. There is much for a writer to learn in READING the writing of others.

So I close this brief mention of Martha Ballard, by including a link to a long-standing website in which the original diary — in transcription as well as in its handwritten form — can be seen: It is also a great opportunity for blog  readers to see an original diary!

Few realize that I wear many hats in this research: research “assistant”, transcriber, typist among them. Pick up any published book by a well established writer and there’s someone who helps find material, someone else who prepares material for the author. Sometimes I feel like a one-man band! Just wish I could pursue it 24/7. So this website is a wonderful opportunity for readers to see not only an original document, but what can be done with and to it. I sure wish I had the possibility of ‘enhancing faded ink’, as mentioned on this page. And as I’ve worked both with microfilm as well as original documents, the photos displaying glare retouched and shadows lightened shows what technology can do.

I have had such “technology” thoughts, when transcribing Augusta Smith’s 1798 diary (the Mark Woodford Diary) — she must have recorded IN PENCIL many of her petty purchases and wins or losses at cards, now only faint indentations on the page. Each gives information about life in English society at that moment, and is precious; I managed to decipher just a few — I’m sure “technology” could uncover more. Though few beyond me would revel in such ‘trivia’.

An interesting item to note is Ulrich’s discussion of earlier uses of Martha Ballard’s diary: an 1870 history of Augusta, Maine by James W. North; another History of Augusta by Charles Elventon Nash, in which “a third” of Nash’s 600-page book consisted of an abridgement of Martha Ballard’s diary (mainly birth/death information evidently); as well as a 1970s “feminist” history of midwifery. Each time Ulrich gives readers what those earlier authors thought of Ballard’s diary: “with some exceptions not of general interest”, “trivial and unimportant”, “filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes”. But life is “trivia”-filled and often not more than “daily chores”. Whenever I read about The Memoir of Jane Austen or Henry Austen’s short “biography” being negatively cited because they claim that Austen’s life was nothing more than “uneventful”, I ask myself: whose life IS truly “eventful”?? I could never say mine is. So what do present-day English professors really want Austen’s life to have been characterized as? Was Martha Ballard’s life “eventful”? To her, even the tragedies of her life were just everyday occurrences. But that can never remove from lives like hers, like Austen’s, like Mary’s or Emma’s, the human drama bound up in that very “trivia” of daily life.

Ulrich discusses how Ballard would be nothing more in the history books than a birth date, a death date and in between notations of marriage and children. But — because her diary was written, kept and still exists — she too exists.

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Rediscoveries – old item newly found

October 9, 2010 at 11:40 am (news, people) (, , , , , , , , , )

One newspaper article that recently grabbed headlines concerned a piece of FABRIC long kept at the Coolidge Museum in Plymouth, Vermont. Why was it news? Why is Kelly blogging about it? Read the article for yourself (from The Burlington Free Press):

PLYMOUTH NOTCH — Researchers at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth are learning new details about the night he became the 30th president of the United States  at his father’s Vermont home.
Historic-site officials were cataloging artifacts recently when a handwritten note by Grace Coolidge fluttered out of what had been believed to be a shawl.

It turns out the brown and white linen was the table covering in place on the night of Aug. 3, 1923, when Coolidge was sworn in by his father following the sudden death of President Warren Harding.

The note read: “Cover which was on the mahogany-topped table in the sitting room of father Coolidge’s house in Plymouth, Vermont on the night of August 3rd, 1923” and was initialed “G.C.,” said Amy Mincher, a collections manager at the site.

It had been thought that a green tablecloth with an embroidered border had been on the table that night.

The research was funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. The money allowed the site to hire Mincher to inventory and catalog the site’s holdings.

“Although many of the objects have been in the collection for several decades, this thorough analysis has yielded some important discoveries,” she said. Some 5,200 objects have been catalogued, according to the site.
My incredulity comes from the fact that this was owned by the museum, but never “investigated”; had the piece been mine, I would have known every inch of it, and found the note long, long ago!
Can you imagine coming across something of the Goslings, the Smiths like that? Some ‘artifact’ that a family member touched, wore, or owned. I’ve come across a few hints lately, and even a couple pieces with family connections and will augment this blog post in the next day or two, when I’ve a moment. Right now the sun is shining (a rare occurrence lately!) and I want to get out, maybe go book-looking.
In the meantime, read up about Grace Coolidge at the First Ladies website.
Here also is a link to the Coolidge site’s page on Grace Coolidge, and her letters. Must admit to having read a recent article on Grace and her correspondence with a friend she did not meet in person (for some years) in Victoria magazine that spurred on this idea of corresponding.
See some letters listed here.
* * *

So what items out there, besides portraits of course, have been found to have once been owned by the Goslings and Smiths; what items might have been alluded to, in letters or diaries (LOTS!).

A recent item that came to my attention is one that was gifted by Mary’s eldest brother William Ellis to his Oxford college, Brasenose. This was found in the 2004 book, A Treasured Inheritance: 600 Years of Oxford College Silver by Helen Clifford:

Writing about the Oxford days of William and his younger brother Robert, I find it curious that William attended Oxford, but seems never to have taken his degree. Am investigating why that might have been the case!

Anyway, was this a parting gift? He matriculated in 1812 (aged 17), was still at Brasenose when the family visited campus in summer 1814. By 14 July 1815, he would have obtained his majority, and perhaps left school to work in the family banking business. That I know so much about William, and yet so little, is very annoying.

He was obviously a passionate collector of art; not only had he commissioned portraits of his dogs, he owned other pieces — like this engraving of  The Widow, also be Edwin Landseer:

William Ellis Gosling also endowed schools, left money (in his will) to colleges and universities, and even for the organ of St. Dunstan’s in the West.

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Huff’s Vermeer & Austen

September 29, 2010 at 10:14 pm (news, people, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , , , , , , , )

This past Sunday, our JASNA chapter hosted current JASNA President Marsha Huff. She gave her noted talk comparing Johannes Vermeer’s artwork and Jane Austen’s artistry.

Two intriguing thoughts which were brought up during the talk include the observation that Mansfield Park (which Marsha thought had still to find its definitive screen representation) is a dialogue between events as seen by FANNY PRICE and events seen by EDMUND BERTRAM. Hmmmm…, I can’t say I ever noticed that! So must put MP on my list of to-be-read-soon books.

BTW, I did recently watch on YouTube the Rozema Mansfield Park. Wonderful to see Jonny Lee Miller, such a strong actor in both of his essays upon the Austen stage. Interesting to utilize Austen’s juvenilia; but a bit uncomfortable with the overtones assigned to Miss Crawford. And the actress who played Young Fanny — Hannah Taylor-Gordon — just made me think how wonderful she might be cast as my Emma — but more on my dream-casting of a film in some later post.

You can read about Rozema, Mansfield Park, and Fanny Price at

One Vermeer picture that grabbed my attention concerns a LETTER-READING Lady, how appropriate! As Marsha spoke about the work, discussing how Vermeer had made changes to it (discernible thanks to x-ray technology) and compared it to the “cancelled chapters” of Persuasion, one began to see how all artists  work until it pleases themselves. Sometimes we are our hardest critics!

Thank you, Marsha, for coming to Vermont and sharing your thoughts on Austen, Vermeer, art and writing. Marsha even had a few complimentary thoughts on my Mary & Emma research. Always nice to be noticed.

Vermeer spent his life in Delft; the closest I ever travelled to that was Brugge, 123 miles to the south and in Belgium rather than The Netherlands. My mother and I were there in May, and even that early in the year the light was phenomenal! How well I recall wanting to tour the city with its lights on, but I had to wait until 11 p.m. — and even that late in the evening the sky was only dusky.


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