Elizabeth Stoddard (1823–1902) wrote most of her published fiction in the 1860s, during the turbulent years encompassing the American Civil War. While Stoddard’s novel The Morgensons (1862) is recognized as the neglected masterpiece of a strikingly original woman’s voice, the Books Unbound Summer 2015 series focuses on her short works of the decade—stories, poems, letters, and excerpts from her journalism and 1866 diary—and on the shorter novel Two Men, which was published two months after the surrender at Appomattox and deals with the themes of race and national identity.
“Part One: Mrs. Stoddard” takes its subtitle from her frequent byline “Mrs. R.H. Stoddard”. She was well over thirty when she began writing seriously, and at first wrote poetry in the shadow of her husband—who today is universally regarded as the lesser writer. Prose became a way for her to assert her independent voice. The distinctive quality of her novels was recognized by reviewers, but she was considered difficult and never won over a wide readership. In many ways, Stoddard embraced Victorian values, including the centrality of marriage. But her interest as a writer in marriage lies in the constraints it places on women and their self-fulfillment, and her ostensibly happy endings require the wife to submit to compromises.
The featured story is “The Prescription,” read by Lauren Robert. For its time, “The Prescription” (1864) was a frank depiction of domestic abuse by a domineering husband. Though listeners today are likely to find the ending unsatisfying, the first-person narrator finds a gateway for the emergence of an independent self through writing a diary.
The episode includes an excerpt from Stoddard’s own diary and two letters read by Sarah Torbeck, and two poems read by Erin Livingston. Heather Perry hosts, and executive producer Joe Crawford is guest announcer.
Special music comes from the Piano Quintet in F Minor of Johannes Brahms, written in the same year as “The Prescription” and published in 1865. The quintet was performed by Jorja Fleezanis, Wu Han, Ian Swensen, Ralph Kirshbaum, and Cynthia Phelps, and was recorded live at the Music@Menlo chamber music festival in 2005. The Books Unbound theme is by The Impossible Shapes.
“Elizabeth Stoddard and the 1860s, Part One: Mrs. Stoddard” was produced, written and edited by Cynthia Wolfe, with production assistance from Heather Perry, Sarah Torbeck, and Jack Hanek.