Sunday, March 15, 2009

Isabella Nevins

I spent Friday with the James Murray Robbins papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Nestled among the business letters and school schedules, I found the most manipulative letter I have ever read. Isabella Nevins is writing to her younger sister (the letter is undated, but probably dates to the 1770s).

Here is how it starts out — no date, no "Dear Elizabeth," — just off to the races:
Whence cumes it my D[ea]r Sister that when one has most to say they often find themselves least able to speack and w[ha]t Justice for not answering my last of the 15th Desembr I could dwell on the disagreeable subject a wholl Day, & then conclude unkind Sister, thus to desert me when all comfort fail’d; & all friends ablandoned  me,
It's a little hard to parse, but basically, Isabella is scolding her sister for not replying to her letter. She continues,
it was throw no Imprudance of my own that I am strip’d of all that could make life tolerable, it is the finger of God that bears hard upon me, — Permiting, or comanding, still he of his wisdom suffers us to be humbled. my children has brought me to want, & Providence has hethertoo wink’d at my distruction, 
I love that: "wink'd at my distruction."
The Death of my Dr & well beloved Husband, — The youthfull folly’s of my young son James, — the unhappy Marrage of my lovely Daughter — & her worthless Husband Abbandonen her, — My eldest son not Applying to business — but spending the prime of his Life in Idelness, has want of Health, etc. & now last of all Oh hevy stock his Brother, my young Son, the hope of my Old Age, ye desire of my Eyes is taken away from me for ever, true he had faults, but I saw them with a Mothers Eye, & his youth plead strong in his behalf — Aless, Trouble, on Trouble persued me, Sorow, on Sorow Overtook me Want lade hold of me, & dispare thretend my totel overthrow, nor could my greatest speed outrun the aprotching danger, nor gratest care defend me from the humbling strock: Say I My Sister is their among ye Groop of your Acquaintance one more wratched then myself — but that Religion forbids — I shuld long since have took up Arms against a sea of troubles & by opposing  eded them, 
I realize that Isabella Nevins has had a tough life. Still, recounting the litany of sorrows that must have been very well known to her sister (we'll soon learn that this is not the only letter of this genre Isabella has composed) seems a little over the top, especially the Hamlet quotation there.
But my Good, my Guarden Angel, whispers me that I shall see better Dayes, thow I now weep &; write, &; writ, &; weep, I doubt not but my tears will sune be dry’d away, I fear I have been troublesome — I tould you too much in my last of my sufferings to which you did not indulge me with an answer when I so earnestly implord your intrest with my Brother send that money which would then in some shape have relived the most destres’d Widow that ever yet exested . . .
Again, scolding the sister for not replying to her last letter. If you read the whole letter without pausing for my asides, it becomes fairly apparent that Isabella has positioned her sister's unresponsiveness as the capstone to all her earthly troubles. Allow me to diagram her letter in shortened form:
  • You never write.
  • All the world, up to and including God, is against me.
  • Let me remind you of all my sufferings.
  • I'm contemplating suicide.
  • And still, you never write.
Am I being overly unsympathetic toward Isabella? Perhaps. After all, she's been through a lot.

But wait, what's this? A postscript!
P:S I have brock open thos Letters to acknolege recept of yours by Miss Murrow who delivered the Muney you was to give her in charge for me it came in a Good time, & I am much oblig’d to you
I am left wondering — if you wrote a doleful letter scolding your little sister for not writing or sending you money, but before you sent the letter, you received a reply from her that included the money you requested, why would you still send the letter?

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