Friday, May 6, 2016

Rebecca Gratz's Romance. 4. The Letter

(This narrative thread begins here.)

On vacation in New York State in the summer of 1805, Rachel Gratz, who idealized her older sister, wrote Rebecca to ask her to write a character sketch of herself.  Rachel was probably looking for some guides to conduct without having to solicit advice directly.  She received something more than she expected.

The letter, dated August 11, 1805, which I have excerpted below, lacks the usual salutation -- the first indication that Rebecca is in the midst of an emotional breakdown.  She begins:

 "My character Rachel--yes you shall have it--but do not expect exalted virtues--strength of mind or humility--I have stronger passions than you expect--and weaker resolution....
....I have been a whole week in the most acute agony anticipating a misfortune which has fallen on me and which perhaps may crush my happiness for life--When a little exertion and address might have relieved me from its danger--it was brought on in the first instance by compassion and a wish to spare the bosom of another the pain of disappointment..."
"....God gave me understanding enough to have been better--but a disposition too perverse to profit by it...but adhering too much to the wayward impulse in my own bosom--when the enjoyment of the present conceals the sting of future sorrows.  I press'd on from year to year ...and often quite unconscious till on the brink of a yawning gulph my affrighted soul appall'd--and sorrowing retreats despairing ever to acquire the path to peace....affected modesty more fatal than vanity a thousand times, more curst than coquettes' wiles deludes the judgment--& misleads the heart--its consequences I now must suffer."
 "....I see a bleeding heart my perfidy has wounded...till I see a countenance in smiles which now deep gloom invades, a brow tranquil, torn now with blasted hopes & bitter disappointment--the beauty of creation's finest work here I despoil'd--the seat of reasonable desires in the heart of man--"
She ends her letter to Rachel by addressing the deity: "But thou oh God! has not harden'd me in sin.  Thou willst lead me back to virtue--strengthen in my heart the love of thy holy command.  'Honor thy parents'--'Reverence thy God' shall my soul find grace and be gather'd with my fathers in the day of trial--where thou willet accept my penitence and extend thy Mercy--for the sake of thy faithful servants whose law I will obey."
Rebecca has done something which has hurt someone badly, but she omits the what and the who.  We must suppose that Rachel, better acquainted with the situation, could fill in the holes.

This is my interpretation:  Rebecca had received a proposal of marriage from a man with whom she had been in a relationship  for years ("I pressed on from year to year").  The only candidate is Samuel Ewing.  She had accepted his proposal ("out of compassion"), changed her mind, and then postponed telling him for days, afraid to face the general condemnation which her actions would provoke.  When she did make her refusal, she had to face up to pain she had caused Ewing. Implicit in the prayer at the end is the motive for her change of mind:  it was a matter of religion and she could at least feel that, faltering as her decision was, it was ultimately the correct one.

There is so much not said here -- I could speculate forever on family influence, for example -- but essentially I take Rebecca at her word.  Her commitment to her religion was authentic.

However, there is a great lack of candor in this letter as to her feelings for her suitor.   I do not think that she accepted him "out of compassion," or that an "affected modesty" led to a misunderstanding between her and Ewing about the nature of their relationship.  What could cause a kind, usually thoughtful,  religious young woman to lead a man on for five years?

She loved him, of course, and couldn't bring herself to let him go.  As we shall see in the next post, two years later she finally confessed.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Philosophical Society.)

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