Where’s Felicity?: What’s Not in a Name in Colonial Virginia

Every so often, a historian gets an intellectual itch that needs to be scratched, an irksome question that just won’t go away, so off to the side goes the current project until something of an answer might be found to temporarily satisfy the curiosity.  And so it happened to me yesterday, after writing a blog post about #SaveSweetBriar.  In it, I referenced Felicity Merriman, the principal character of one of the most beloved American Girl books, created by my friend, Valerie Tripp, about a young woman who lived in Virginia during the age of the American Revolution.  Having a keen scholarly interest in the way that young people develop passions for the past (mine started with The Mystery of the Old Musket), I’m especially curious about the role that Young Adult and related fiction plays in that process and have been rather surprised by the number of adult women, whom are now themselves historians, interpreters, archivists, and at least one award-winning journalist (my wife), who can trace their interest directly to Valerie’s Felicity. (I’ll share a guilty secret and reveal that I own and have read all of the books, including “Felicity’s Mysteries,” and find them utterly charming.)

Except there is a problem.  As a historian of colonial Virginia, I could not recall having once come across anyone named Felicity.  Not one.  In fact, I couldn’t remember having ever seen any name like it in correspondence or ledgers or on a gravestone or anywhere else.  Given names like that are common enough in New England records and graveyards, deriving as they do, I believe, primarily from a sort of Puritanism fueled by hefty doses of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which resulted in such permanent reminders of the virtues that one should pursue to lead a good Christian life.  Consequently, names like Charity, Prudence, Mercy, and, yes, Felicity, can be found throughout 17th- and 18th-century New England.  But I could not think of one in colonial Virginia.

So, knowing that my loyalists will wait, I decided to take a look.  I just happen to have built up, over the last ten years, a sizable prosopographical database (using Zotero) that focuses on the men and women, free and enslaved, who lived in and around the Chesapeake between 1600 and about 1820 (that later chronological edge keeps slipping further and further into the 1800s).  Having already completed a broader study on male (free and enslaved) naming practices in the Chesapeake (to map birth legitimacy traits), I already had a model ready into which, in my search for Felicity, I could plug the female names and see what came out the other end, in a somewhat scientific analysis.

And I couldn’t find Felicity.  Or Charity.  Or Prudence.  In fact, the only, for lack of a better way to describe them, “New England” name in our entire household belongs to our dog, Mercy Otis.  Of 483 free females in my database whom had anything to do with the Chesapeake in the 17th and 18th centuries, only one — Fortune Randolph (a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s) — had a given name even close, and she had to be excluded in the end because she actually lived in Bristol, England, and never saw America.  Interestingly enough, a full 45 percent of them were named Elizabeth (which is actually the name of Felicity’s best friend in the books and comes from a family of good loyalists), followed closely by Mary (33 percent).  The next closest was a version of Anne (including Ann and Anna) at 12 percent.  The remainder are a wide variety of Susannahs, Lucys, Sarahs, Janes, etc.

Of course, the next question occurring to any historian is “why?”  Why such a tremendous difference in naming practices and, honestly, why so many named Elizabeth and Mary (more than three-quarters of the total)?  The easy and quick answer is also the most interesting: it’s a fantastic illustration of the striking cultural differences between the different parts of colonial America.  Religion is the most obvious difference, as my sample was comprised almost entirely of Anglicans, rather than Puritans or their Congregational successors.  There are other issues to go into–the use of diminutives, for example, such as Betsy and Molly, which seems to me to be a class matter–but they will have to wait.

As my loyalists are beckoning me, I’ll leave you with my findings, in descending order of occurrence.  Ladies and gentlemen, as Train would sing, meet (colonial) Virginia:

Elizabeth, Mary, Ann/Anne/Anna, Lucy, Martha, Susanna/Susannah, Jane, Sarah, Frances, Alice, Rebecca, Hannah, Maria, Margaret, Isabella, Charlotte, Dorothy/Dorothea, Ariana, Winifred, Judith, Catherine, Ursula, Priscilla, Ellen, Joanna, Christina, Agatha, Clara, Letitia, Edith, Amy, Eleanor, Lydia, and Pauline.       

Where There’s a Will, There’s No Way?: Saving Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar College has been recently likened to a setting from an American Girl book, which is true enough, I suppose.  It is, indeed, a beautiful and serene space, almost idyllic and out of time, one full of young women (and their horses) whom, by trying to better themselves, hope to better their world.  So it’s more or less the school that Felicity Merriman, and her Penny, would attend in a heartbeat were they alive (and real) in 2015.  And that’s a terrific thing; Sweet Briar is a safe place where girls are allowed to become women, and prepared to meet a world more contentious than they deserve.  And I can attest to that personally, as a former member of the University of Virginia faculty (and a UVa alumnus), I taught Sweet Briar students during summer sessions, and, as a historian and equestrian, have been to the college a number of times, and found the members of its community as bright, earnest, and engaging as any I’ve encountered at Brown or Harvard.  Not to slight Wellesley or Smith, both splendid places, but I think that Sweet Briar was made as much for the fathers of today’s Felicitys as it was for the modern Felicitys themselves.

That’s why, as someone quite familiar with the college, I was especially distressed to learn that it is to be shuttered like an English country house at the end of a shooting season when the current term comes to a close due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” but without the ceremony, one suspects.  Goodbye students, faculty, and staff (and equine residents)—the doors will be locked and keys likely turned over to lawyers and accountants come June by a vote of the Board of Directors.  To note that the decision appears abrupt is to muddy the picture.  Without a doubt, the school has been in serious financial trouble for some time.  The enrollment has dipped and the terms of the Will that created it, and current unrestricted endowment funds, do not lend its administrators much painless flexibility.  The writing was, as they say, on the wall, when the Board chose expedience over courage in washing its collective hands of the place, its 114-year history, its tens of thousands of alumnae—and the Directors’ responsibility to them all.

Other observers have reflected on this or that aspect of the story, as if it is already a matter for reflection, rather than for action.  Is it a harbinger of the fate of small liberal arts colleges across America?  What will the soon-to-be unemployed faculty and staff do in an already crowded academic job market?  And what about the horses?  Frankly, I’m not terribly concerned about any of that, except for perhaps the horses.  Colleges everywhere are in the midst of dramatic change to curricula and methods and staffing in order to remain both solvent and effective as institutions of higher learning, embracing, for example, digital and distance learning.  Even the seemingly most secure universities, such as my current institution, Harvard, are acting in bold and creative ways to expand and ensure their reach.  And Sweet Briar’s faculty might be considered as paid lower than their counterparts at other institutions, but with light class loads, little to no publishing requirements, a relatively low cost of living in the region, and an average salary still higher than the median national household income, I don’t think too many people, inside or outside of the “Ivory Tower,” are going fret much about their fates.

That brings us to the most important part of the Sweet Briar situation: the students—past, current, and, hopefully, future.  Having worked with a number of Boards of Trustees and Directors of different sorts, in my experience they are often an institution’s worst, but most pampered, enemies.  More often than not, they tend to know very little about their charges (other than what senior administrative staff allow them to know) and, an even more insidious factor, have no real, personal stake in whether their involvement results in success or failure.  In Sweet Briar’s case, the conclusion is painfully obvious, regardless of the names on the letterhead: this Board—not the faculty or staff or, most certainly, students—failed to discharge its responsibility, yet can simply walk away.  The students and staff are not so lucky.  Instead of immediately closing the doors of the school to, according to the Directors, save the students from a future of consistently lowering standards and a diminished experience, they should instead have admitted their own, personal defeat, resigned en masse, and turned over the leadership of the institution to a set of people with the vision, creativity, and willingness to implement the sort of change, however painful it might be in many quarters, that Sweet Briar requires–the college community itself, which includes the people of the surrounding area.

As my grandmother might have said, the President and Board came to the conclusion that the only way to open this nut was to use a hammer.  And what’s worse, it was done in the name of the students, who don’t seem to have had much say in the matter at all.  Sweet Briar has unique strengths that could be maximized and weaknesses that can be addressed (my grandmother, from whom I learned almost everything good and decent about life, would not have acknowledged that the word “insurmountable” even existed).  Again, other schools are facing similar challenges with nowhere near the same special qualities to help address them (the equestrian program alone is the envy of schools across the East Coast).  For example, more aggressive and creative marketing can target enrollment, and faculty can teach more classes that enroll part-time and non-traditional students, both on-site and online (which sure beats being unemployed).  To continue dispensing my grandmother’s old Chesapeake wisdom—if something is wrong, stop whinging and do something about it.  If that fails, pick yourself up, learn from the failure, and try something else.  But always try.  Where there is a will, there will be a way.  And as any rider whose horse has a big heart knows, no obstacle is entirely insurmountable.

For Sweet Briar, there is an unsurprisingly intense will, at least outside the current Board room, to make sure that its story does not end in 2015.  The #SaveSweetBriar campaign is just beginning and has developed encouraging momentum.  So I suggest that the current President and Directors be thanked for their time and sent on their merry way, leaving the college to those whom actually care about its future—and whom, if they cannot find a way, will almost certainly make one.

“My Servants Really Live Like Kings & Queens”: Below Stairs Intruding Above Stairs, ca1774

Downtown Abbey and its highly problematic depiction of the experience of servants at the end of the era of widespread bonded servitude has tended to color the opinions of many viewers about the nature of such lives.  More important is the reminder that it can, and should, provide us with that servitude was–and is–a spectrum as expansive as the Atlantic Ocean, from slavery at the clearest end to indentured apprenticeship and liveried valets at the murky other side.  Few topics are more deserving of the considered attention of historians and, yet, few subjects have such a dearth of primary sources to aid us, leaving theory and supposition as poor substitutes for thoughtful, because informed, analysis.  

That is a heavy appetizer for such a light main course, one provided by Laura Walpole Keppel, a younger, Georgian, nonfiction version of Maggie Smith’s splendid Dowager Countess of Grantham.  On this date in 1774, a year when George III was on the throne of Great Britain and George Washington attended more fox hunts than church services, Laura lamented, in a letter to her aunt, the lives of those below her stairs because of the problems they caused her above them.  The letter excerpt is of interest for many reasons, not least because it grants us the privilege of an unfiltered perspective on the outward lives of servants in Georgian England — and has nothing to do with Julian Fellowes.

What plagues servants are!  My upper ones all quarrel’d last week, such a piece of work, I thought I must have turn’d ’em all away, I did not sleep for two nights, for they discovered things of one another, that I am sure they are very sorry for, & I believe heartily repent having come to me in their passion.  At present tis blown over but if ever they quarrel again, my Ld has told ’em they shall ev’ry one be discharged in one day.  ’tis intollerable that ones life is to be made miserable by such wretches.  Indeed Charlotte’s maid (who was out of the quarrel) said truth, that they lived too well, & had nothing to find fault with, & therefore quarrel’d with one another.  & that is the true state of the case.  for my servants really live like kings & queens & are never scolded.