The Lady of Godey's: Sarah Josepha Hale

by Ruth E. Finley
[Lippincott, $3.50]
EVERYBODY knows Godey’s Lady’s Book because reproductions of its fashion plates have for years decorated lamp shades and waste-paper baskets. Some betterinformed people are aware that it carried on for nearly half a century the great principle of feminine literature, of a mental pabulum fitted for women’s exclusive needs; a principle which survives to-day in flourishing periodicals, and in a desolating page of otherwise readable newspapers. But how many of us realized that its famous editor, Sarah Josepha Hale (a strong-sounding name that), was a pioneer business woman, a pioneer philanthropist, a pioneer feminist (without fuss or feathers), and a pioneer domestic economist whom the founder of Vassar College was happy to consult? When we add that she was largely responsible for the nationalization of Thanksgiving Day — that gastronomic rival of Christmas — and that she truly and actually wrote ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ which Mr. Henry Ford has misguidedly assigned to a male versifier, we wonder that the world should have waited this long for a complete and authoritative story of her life.
It waits no longer. Mrs. Finley’s ample volume makes amends for all delay. It is very good reading without the echo of the hard-fought battles which lent animation to Mrs. Dorr’s life of Susan B. Anthony, and without claim to being a great human document like Mr. Dakin’s astounding life of Mary Baker Eddy. Compared to these makers of history, Mrs. Hale was a mild and conservative lady, though she had behind her the authority of editorship which enabled her to play an important part in the fortunes of the unhappy great. To her Poe turned in his troubles (she unhesitatingly recognized his genius); to her he offered ‘The Oblong Box,’ which Mr. N. P. Willis had rejected for the New York Mirror; and in Godey’s Lady’s Book, amid genteel prose and tepid verse, surrounded by ‘housekeeping helps’ and prints of billowing crinolines, appeared in 1846 Poe’s masterly and thrice-terrible story, ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’
The fashion plates were the great feature of the magazine, and they keep its name alive to-day. No money was begrudged them. One hundred and fifty women, working often in their own homes, colored them neatly and delicately; and when we remember that the Lady’s Book reached in 1861 a circulation of 150,000, we realize what such work meant. Nor can it be denied that from time to time they presented very beautiful clothes. ‘Women,’ as Lord Frederic Hamilton observes, ‘were not then clad in oddments of material.’
Mrs. Finley has padded her book with a good deal of extraneous matter to give it the required rotundity. It is hard to see any connection between Sarah Josepha Hale and Queen Victoria’s errant uncles, but space is given to their denunciation. Even the ‘kindly Kent’ is not spared, nor Princess Charlotte, ‘the fair-haired daughter of the Isles,’ whom England loved and mourned. These raids across the borderland of history are beyond the purpose. Godey’s Lady’s Book, editedby the capable Mrs. Hale, would have been as proper, pure, and profitable had Queen Victoria never ascended the British throne.