Friday, July 17, 2015

Ellen Arthur: " A Woman Jane Austen Would Have Understood"

Having recently finished reading Dear Mr. Knightley in which the main character compares everyone she meets to characters from classic literature, mostly Jane Austen's work, it was fun to see this comparison brought out in a First Lady biography.

Ellen Arthur, who doesn't have her own biography, is described in Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves, as "a woman Jane Austen would have understood." Why? Because her world revolved around her family and she was cheery and proper.

Ellen was the only child of a southern aristocrat, haughty and domineering mother and a father who was a sea Captain who had explored the entire Amazon river. When her father died at sea, Chester, who was an attorney and a close friend of Ellen's cousin, took care of the family's financial and legal affairs.

Ellen and Chester were married October 25, 1859 in New York City. Both Chester and Ellen had expensive tastes and Ellen was described as an elegant hostess. She must have been a charming guest too since an acquaintance remembered during her once a year visits how she smiled sweetly, talked kindly, and even remembered the servants names. She was socially aware of her obligations. If only she had lived to become First Lady she would have really thrived in this role!

During the Civil War, Chester had a brief military career for the North while Ellen "quietly but firmly" supported the south. 

Chester's routine was to stay up late with the guys smoking, drinking, talking politics, until 2:00-3:00 am, come home and go to bed, get up at 1:00 pm to go to work and begin this routine again.

All while Ellen is home tending the children.

Needless to say, there was tension in their marriage.

In 1880, after 20 years of marriage she caught pneumonia either from the exhaustion of having just returned from France to bring home her mother's remains, or from waiting out in the cold in January waiting for a carriage ride.

In Gentleman Boss, it says that Chester stayed at her bedside until she died. However, Carl Anthony says in Susan Swain's new book that he was away in Albany in business when she died. He was governor of New York at the time.

In either case, Ellen's death, at age 42, deeply grieved Chester. He regretted his treatment of her.  He never married again. 

When he was president, he donated a window to St. John's Episcopal Church in her memory and required that it be placed on the south side of the church which he could see from his private quarters at the White House.

This is the window, "to the glory of God and in memory of Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur: Entrance into life January 12, 1880

Daily he had fresh flowers brought to the White House to be placed beside her photo.

It would have been fascinating to have Ellen as a first lady. She seemed born and bred for the role. 

And we can see from Chester's life to treasure our spouse while they are here. We may not always have them.

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