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Window into the Past

A few weeks ago I took a chance – I bought an 1830s Friendship Album, basing my decision on the fact that it had a Vermont connection, and on a few half-page photographs of individual signatures. No indication in the description of the album’s size, nor even how many pages were written up.

It turned out to have twenty-four separate inscribers; a fair number of blank pages; and a set of etchings that actually turn out to be the same scenes as a friendship album tied to western New York, purchased earlier this year. Vermont scenes would have been NICE.

But I knew – thanks to work the seller had done – that the Friendship Album had belonged to ELIZA PHELPS of West Townshend, Vermont. And I knew, thanks to my own researches, that the Phelps family had left a document trail behind. Little did I realize, though, how MUCH of a trail had been left by the girls – three sisters, of whom Eliza was the eldest – nor where the items had ended up being deposited.

I wish I could say that the Phelps of Townshend and the Albees of Rockingham and Springfield came across each other. Dora’s diary seems not to mention anyone of the name PHELPS.

The interesting “thing” is that the Phelps sisters write a LOT about their schooling, and hint at those known to them – male and female – who, after finishing their education, took to the classroom as teachers. This, predominantly, occurs in the 1840s, so a good twenty years prior to the schooling and teacher preparation that Isadore Albee made record of in her diaries. However, the Friendship Album gives abundant evidence for the mindset of parents – and female students – a generation before, and that window into the past is important for a greater understanding of the life-sketch Dora left behind of her experiences in Springfield, Vermont (during and after the Civil War) and farther afield. Because of this slight affiliation, you’ll be hearing more about Eliza Phelps and her family. If only a batch of Albee letters would turn up! Letters help make sense of items like albums and diaries.

Published by Janeite Kelly

My ties to Jane Austen began about the time I "discovered" England, British movies & TV (thanks, PBS, CBC), and cups of tea with a nice Marks & Spencer digestive on the side. A solo trip to London, when aged nineteen, segued into a weekend in Cornwall (home of Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham's Poldarks) -- which resulted in a missed flight home.... Those three weeks abroad undoubtedly brought into my life women like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, Somerville and Ross, the Brontës, Mrs Trollope, Jane Welsh Carlyle, Dorothy Wordsworth, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler (collectively, The Ladies of Llangollen), and -- of course, Jane Austen. I joined JASNA in the fall of 2006 when my research meandered down an Austen-path; and I spent two months during the summer of 2007 in Winchester, transcribing diaries & letters relating to Emma Smith (aka: Mrs James-Edward Austen-Leigh, 1801-1876) and her friend, neighbour, "sister of the heart" and eventual sister-in-law, Mary Gosling (aka: Lady Smith, 1800-1842). Several articles written since this trip appear in JASNA's journal, PERSUASIONS / Persuasions On-Line, and LOCAL PAST, the Newsletter of the Alcester and District Historical Society (Warwickshire, England).

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