Fanny Seward daydreams

October 10, 2014

When Frances Adeline Seward died of tuberculosis in 1866, at the age of 22, she left a surprisingly impressive legacy. She had campaigned for and known Abraham Lincoln; had attended Washington dinners; had left a lively diary describing life in Washington, DC; and had served as hostess at the receptions of an important American statesman.

And she had gotten in the way of a would-be assassin.

Because Fanny was the daughter of William Henry Seward (yes, the Seward of “Seward’s Folly”), Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Powell’s target the night Lincoln was assassinated. Nursing her father—injured in an accident nine days earlier—Fanny was in the room when Powell stormed in, having already battered her brother bloody. Some news stories have her getting in Powell’s way; a couple have him staying his hand on the verge of killing her. Her diary has her pleading with Powell not to kill her father.  Once Powell was captured, she helped to identify him.

Almost pathologically shy, Fanny was more comfortable at home with her family, her pets, her writing, and her books than she was in the public eye.  However, an interest in politics and a desire to help her father allowed her to overcome her shyness enough to act as hostess at Seward’s weekly receptions and to make a few public appearances.

Pets, writing, and reading converged in Fanny’s contributions to Robert Merry’s Museum.  From 1856 to 1858, Fanny wrote five pieces for the Museum.  She was a subscriber; several letters and poems written by Fanny were published in the Museum’s popular letters column.  All were published under the name “Pansy”:  flower-inspired names were popular among the Museum’s female readers.

Most of the articles Fanny wrote for the Museum were about cruelty to animals.  But among the last pieces was “The Elves of the Forest Center,” in which a young girl is honored by lions, tigers, and elves.  It’s a good example of a Mary Sue story:  a story featuring the exploits of an idealized young woman who is apparently an author insert.

My interest in Mary Sues was part of one of those larger projects I’ll never manage to finish:  a look at the way women represent themelves.  Mary Sue seems to embody what its creators wish they were:  more interesting, more wonderful, more loveable and loved.  In recent fan fiction, they go on wild adventures, saving the universe or the characters in beloved movies and television shows.  Nineteenth-century Mary Sues, however, are often less active.  Maia doesn’t really do much to be the focus of so much attention:  she just exists.

At the time Fanny wrote this story, she was about 14 and possibly coming to some realizations about her place in the family of a major politician.  Her father was a U. S. Senator, and the family was dividing its time between New York and Washington, DC.  (One of Fanny’s stories was about the family’s watchdog in New York, poisoned while they were in Washington.)

It’s tempting to look at “The Elves of the Forest Center” as a shy girl’s written daydream about a girl whose quietness and modesty are honorable instead of problematic.  Interestingly, Fanny seems to have erased her father’s more stressful situation in Washington, by erasing the father from Maia’s family.  Fanny’s own mother was bending under the pressures of being a politician’s wife and spending more time in New York; Maia and her mother living quietly in the forest probably reflects Fanny’s ideal life.  A young teen learning that much would be expected of her, imagining a young girl honored for doing nothing much at all.

[My thanks to Trudy Krisher for identifying this subscriber to the Museum.  Please buy her book:  Fanny Seward:  A Life (Syracuse University Press, 2014).]

The Elves of the Forest Center, from Robert Merry’s Museum, January 1858, pp. 11-12.

There lived a little girl, named Maia, with her mother, in a deep forest. As they had always dwelt in the same lone spot, the child had become accustomed to the solitude of the surrounding woods, and even loved the old trees that towered above her head.

So she was not surprised when, one bright morning, her mother said: “Maia, take thy little basket, and go to the forest centre, and fetch a few fagots and some nuts.”

Maia quickly put on her gipsy hat, bade her mother good-bye, and tripped away. She knew all the little birds and squirrels; she did not fear even the king of beasts, so gentle was he to her. And oh! when the young tigers leaped forth to meet her, she could not help setting her basket down, to take a nice tumble upon the soft moss. Then the old tiger and tigress came home, bringing four little lions to spend the day. So they carried Maia on their backs by turn, until they reached the forest centre, then, wagging their tails, they left her, all alone.

Hark! a rustling among the dry branches—only the wind or a squirrel in its nest—Maia began to fill her basket from a store of nuts, hidden in a hollow stump, and to tie up her fagots, for she must hasten; but soon she dropped her basket, the fagots were forgotten, for there, before her, were the little Elves of the forest; yes, the dear funny little Elves, whose history her mother had so often told her.

A little Elfin maid stole to her side, to see what she might be, and Maia was half tempted to seize the tiny creature, but something bade her not, so she only said: “Oh, how beautiful thou art!” At this the little Elf darted away, but soon returned to say: “Our king desires thee to come and feast with us, oh! great giantess!”

Maia, quite bewildered, followed the little maid, and soon found herself in the presence of the Elfin king, a tiny fellow, about as tall as her hand, and dressed in a robe of crimson velvet, spangled with diamonds. As she began to blush and courtesy, he said: “Maia, thou art a good child; we have watched thee, day by day; all the beasts of the forest love thee. They say, ‘So kind and gentle is little Maia, that we would not harm her.’ We, too, love, and will befriend, thee.”

He paused, and a little Elf came forth to dance. When the dance was finished, Maia sang a song about the Elves, which pleased the king very much; then all sat down to the banquet, which was composed of the most delicate food ever known. When all were done feasting, the Elves sang another song, after which Maia was again called by the king: “Here,” he said, leading forward the Elfin maid whom she had before met, “here is a little one for thee; guard her well, and she will be a faithful friend.”

“How can I repay thy kindness?” cried Maia; but before she could say more, she found herself in a beautiful little carriage, drawn by twelve robins, and at her side sat the maiden Elfletta, given her by the king. Soon she arrived at home, where she had long been expected; but where was the basket of nuts? where the fagots? Elfletta soon answered that question, by pointing to another Elf, who was seen in the distance, bringing them, and many other nice things.

But this good fortune did not make Maia forget her duties, and I am sure she set a good example for Elfletta, by rising early, and cheerfully performing her labors. At the forest centre the Elves were always glad to see her, and the tigers always glad to carry her there.

When she grew older, the little Elfin maid found a little Elfin man, and, as they loved each other, they were married. Then Maia’s good old mother died, blessing the dear daughter who had been a comfort to her in all her trials. And when Maia found grey hairs among her own dark tresses—when her hand failed, and she grew old and feeble, there had sprung up around her a little family of Elves—then did they befriend her, and she loved them more than ever.

Her eyes grew dim, she lay down to rest, and with her last breath blessed the little Elves. Upon the bed lay a cold form, with a calm smile upon the face; the heart did not beat, the eyes were fixed, the old woman was at rest, but was she there? No; in the sky were a host of angels—they bore the soul of Maia to its heavenly home.


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