Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward 1844 - 1911
March 11, 2008
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward 1844 - 1911 was an American author and social reform activist. Elizabeth was an advocate of homeopathy and she once characterised her principle causes as ‘Heaven, Homeopathy and women’s rights’:
”I am uncertain whether I ought to add that I believe in the homeopathic system of the therapeutics. I am often told by skeptical friends that I hold this belief on a par with the Christian religion ; and am not altogether inclined to deny the sardonic impeachment! When our bodies cease to be drugged into disease and sin, it is my personal impression that our souls will begin to stand a fair chance; perhaps not much before.”
Phelps often advocated homeopathy:
In a letter addressed to Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, she overtly declares:
“I am a devout homeopathist”
… Phelps’s works serve in some instances as catalogues of the diverse options at which women with medical vocations could aim. Among these alternatives, there existed homeopathic schools also known as “Eclectic schools”, where the theories of its founder, the German Samuel Hahnemann were learnt.
Predominance was given to the belief that illness was very closely connected to the spirit, so that “what occurred inside the body did not follow physical laws”. Besides, homeopathy emphasized sympathetic and individualized attention on the part of the doctor towards the patient…
Many high-class women preferred homeopathy instead of conventional Medicine, something that they might have inherited from the 18th- century aristocratic medical practice, which promoted personal treatment and contact with the patient more than the action of drugs.
This preference on the part of the feminine sphere for homeopathy can be noticed in many of Phelps’s articles, but also in her fiction; in Doctor Zay, the male patient is happy to be treated by a homeopath only to satisfy his mother, and not because he prefers this kind of medical practice:
“My mother will be so glad! … She would never have been able to bear it, if I had died under the other treatment. Women feel so strongly about these things. I am glad to know that –for her sake– poor mother”…
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward wrote Dr. Zay, which tells the story of a homeopath who attended the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women. Marie Zakrzewska was affectionately known as Dr. Zak to her colleagues. I wonder……
Phelps obviously knew William Wesselhoeft as a manuscript of Dr. Zay is in Yale University Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Doctor Zay. Autograph manuscript, heavily corrected, 1881-82. Inscribed to Doctor William Wesselhoeft, thought to be the model for homeopathic Doctor Zay.
This attraction in turn led to an interest in homeopathic medicine, because this alternative tradition was more accepting of female practitioners. Women saw those traditions which encouraged women to become healers as more likely to be concerned with women’s issues.
Spiritualists were exceptionally outspoken in favor of women healers, which was a major cause for the great appeal they held for female patients… While not all proponents of women doctors had ties to Spiritualism, a number of them shared the conviction that women were innately qualified to heal… Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, a homeopathic physician, felt that there were few vocations more appropriate for women than medicine… (I do not believe Phelps was a homeopathic physician - interesting error though!)
Living in Boston, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had many neighbours who were homeopaths or advocates of homeopathy, including Julia Ward Howe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Clemence Sophia Lozier and Louisa May Alcott.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward was the author of fifty-seven volumes of fiction, poetry and essays. Phelps gained recognition from prominent literary figures such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and John Greenleaf Whittier, when ”The Tenth of January,” a story she wrote about the death of scores of girls in a mill fire in Lawrence, MA in 1859, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Personal experience and strong belief also led her to write about the problems and treatment of women. She gained popularity through the publication of The Gates Ajar (1868), a novel offering a comforting view of the afterlife to women who had lost loved ones in the Civil War.
Much of her writing was concerned with social issues and women’s rights. Given these concerns, it may seem strange that among her numerous publications, Phelps wrote several poems and three short stories on Arthurian themes. However, when one considers the manner of her retelling of the Arthurian tales, particularly in her fiction, they seem of a piece with her other work.
Her approach in her fiction is to translate the inhabitants of medieval Camelot into a nineteenth-century setting. Her Lady of Shalott (in ”The Lady of Shalott”) is a sickly seventeen-year-old girl living in a slum and supported by her sister who earns a poverty wage doing piece-work. When the mirror through which she views the world is broken by street urchins throwing rocks, she succumbs to her harsh environment and dies.
The story is a deromanticization of one of the most romantic characters of nineteenth-century literature. Her Galahad (in ”The Christmas of Sir Galahad”) is a man who, despite his love for another woman, remains faithful to his wife though she is “crazy” and “takes opium” and though she only occasionally returns to his home. Not until after her death does he marry, on Christmas Day, the woman he loves.
And her Arthur, Guenever, and Launcelot (in ”The True Story of Guenever”) are a carpenter, his wife, and a boarder they take in; and her story about their relationship is an exploration of the position of a woman in marriage in the nineteenth century.
The story is distinctive because of the pointed way in which it reacts against Alfred Lord Tennyson’s image of Guinevere groveling on the convent floor. Phelps makes it clear that the story is told from a woman’s perspective and that is why it is “the true story of Guenever.”
Phelps was certainly aware of and capable of presenting these characters in their traditional settings. She does just that in her three Arthurian poems, ”The Terrible Test,” ”Elaine and Elaine,” and ”Guinevere,” all of which were reprinted in her collection Songs of the Silent World (1891). continue reading: