Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman

If you use the words "Rebecca Gratz" and "Matilda Hoffman" to search the internet you will come up with more than 300 hits (on Google), most of which will assure you that Matilda died in Rebecca's arms. This is one of those Tall Tales about Rebecca. Here is the real story:

When Rebecca's best friend Maria Fenno married Josiah Ogden Hoffman of New York, she also became the stepmother of his children by his first marriage. Matilda, born in 1791 and therefore ten years younger than Rebecca and Maria, is the one who appears most often in their correspondence.

This is because Matilda's father decided in 1804 to send her to boarding school in Philadelphia and asked Rebecca to look after her while she was there. Rebecca, who already was acquainted with Matilda and her "gentle sensibility," enthusiastically accepted the responsibility. "You may be assured," she wrote Judge Hoffman, "every attention the most affectionate sister would pay shall be proffered her." She also suggested that Matilda stay at the Gratz's for a time before starting school to "give her an opportunity of becoming acquainted with my family as I wish her to look upon us as friends and our house as a home." (Rebecca's initial excitement at being able to help a young friend would blossom into a lifelong avocation in which she played "Aunt Becky" to the children of friends and relatives visiting in Philadelphia.)

During the school terms for the next sixteen months, Rebecca's letters to Maria are full of the clothes and shoes she has purchased for Matilda (with an accounting of the expenses), outings they've been on and weekends spent at the Gratz house. In the spring of 1806, Maria wrote that Rebecca must bring Matilda home because one of her favorites, Washington Irving, was just back from Europe. Irving had studied law in Judge Hoffman's law office from 1802 to 1804 and had been a frequent visitor at their house.

Irving became again a familiar presence in the Hoffman household, resuming his role as the "fun" older brother to the siblings. His new friendship with Rebecca and her family would grow through visits in Philadelphia and New York. In the late spring of 1808, he must have seen and heard a great deal of Rebecca when she came to New York to help Maria care for her sister Harriet Fenno Rodman who was dying of tuberculosis. Rebecca nursed Harriet for more than a month at the Hoffman house which Irving visited often.

In September 1808, after Rebecca had returned to Philadelphia, Miriam Gratz, her mother, died after a four-day illness. No other event in Rebecca's life would ever cause her such pain. She took to her bed in the days after, and she let her charitable work slide. An officer of the Female Association wrote her in November encouraging her to return to her secretarial duties. In December her brother Hyman voiced his continuing concern "for [her] health and spirits" to Maria Fenno Hoffman.

By this same autumn of 1808, so terrible for Rebecca, it was generally acknowledged that Washington Irving had fallen in love with Matilda Hoffman. Judge Hoffman, who liked Irving and who thought that Matilda was mature enough to contemplate marriage, offered his consent -- if Irving would settle down to a job and provide financial security for his daughter. Irving applied himself to the law and planned a life with Matilda.

In February 1809 Matilda came down with a cold which quickly turned into tuberculosis. In the surviving letters from this period, no one in the Hoffman family asks Rebecca to come nor does she suggest it. Both Maria and the Gratz's must have been extremely anxious about Rebecca's physical and emotional fragility, and Rebecca may also have realized that she was unfit for nursing yet another terminally ill loved one, the third within a year.

So, as Washington Irving himself related, Matilda was gazing at him when she died. Rebecca's absence from her bedside, however, does not mean there was not an affectionate relationship between Matilda and her. The two, a decade apart in age, were not "best friends forever" as they are usually depicted; they were more like a nurturing young aunt and a loving niece. During Matilda's illness her older sister wrote to Rebecca, "She talks much of her dear Becky...[and] said she had been very happy in her dreams for you had been with her."

After Matilda's death Rebecca sent a message to Washington Irving through Maria, hoping that it would be some consolation to him, knowing "all [Matilda] felt of earth-born attachment was his."

It is easy to see how Rebecca's nieces and great-nieces, in piecing together their aunt's life from memory, could confuse her nursing of Harriet Fenno Rodman with Matilda's very similar illness of the following year. Consciously or unconsciously, they also may have preferred the version which involved Washington Irving's fiancee because it bound Rebecca and Irving together in a way that gave greater credence to the story that his description of her to Scott was the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe.

(Rebecca's letter to Judge Hoffman is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress. The letter from Matilda's sister Ann is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society, and Rebecca's to Maria is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. The letter from the officer of the Female Association is among the papers of that organization in the special collections at the Haverford College Library.)

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