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"... there is no appeal but mutual love and trust."
May 26, 2008 8:01 PM   Subscribe

RelationshipFilter, 1873. An online archive of letters from a wife to her husband, which include an intimate look at their relationship crisis.

Emma Spaulding Bryant wrote these ten letters to her husband, John Emory Bryant, in the summer of 1873... The letters describe Emma's visits to a doctor in Cleveland for "uterine difficulties" that had been ailing her for some time. Although we do not have her husband's letters to her from this period, it appears that he accused her of adultery with the doctor and berated her for not being obedient to him. Many of Emma's letters from this period have markings in red pencil, presumably made by John to highlight the sections of her letters that he found suspicious. Emma's responses to John's accusations are indignant, and she rebuts each of his points eloquently and emphatically.

Because these letters are unusually frank for this time period, they reveal much about the relationships between husbands and wives in this era, and shed light on medical practices that were often kept private.
posted by amyms (37 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
DTMFA.
posted by tkolar at 8:16 PM on May 26, 2008 [4 favorites]


Wow, she rose right up with a fury after that Saturday letter. What an amazing find. It really is a window right into a real relationship of that time period, thank you for sharing. I think it's really interesting by the time it was all over, she specifically asked him to taboo the subject, and swore they should never speak about it again because she had said everything she possibly could as best as she could in the letters.
posted by headspace at 8:30 PM on May 26, 2008


DTMFA

Dumpeth thine most foresakeable amour!
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:55 PM on May 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


she specifically asked him to taboo the subject, and swore they should never speak about it again
A good tactic if you're guilty.
posted by tellurian at 9:06 PM on May 26, 2008


In all my life I have never been grossly insulted until now -- and that by my husband.

Do not dare to write me again, or expect ever to receive another line from me until you can assure me of your unlimited confidence in me and feel sincerely repentant for the terrible things you have said to me. I have never lived with you on other terms than those of the most perfect love and trust and equality.


Wow, this sounds exactly like an exchange with my now ex-husband.

He was deployed in the sandbox from late 2001 until early 2003. If I knew how to do the tiny font thing, I would (and I was a way good wife during that time).
posted by blessedlyndie at 9:07 PM on May 26, 2008


Great post. What I wouldn't give to read the husband's letters.
posted by LarryC at 9:07 PM on May 26, 2008


Fantastic find, thanks for posting this.
posted by applemeat at 9:14 PM on May 26, 2008


What I wouldn't give to read the husband's letters.

Me too!
posted by amyms at 9:23 PM on May 26, 2008


Very interesting.. I'd like to hear more about his time with other women, sounds like she has suspicions.
posted by bluejayk at 9:23 PM on May 26, 2008


Love to hear the husband's responses - interesting that it was her letters that were saved, ostensibly by him, while his letters were lost, whether by chance or purpose.
posted by arnicae at 9:40 PM on May 26, 2008


Yes arnicae, she wrote: "Please destroy this letter because I do not think it wise to keep letters that speak of disease of a intimate nature." She probably destroyed his and he ignored her request.
posted by tellurian at 9:53 PM on May 26, 2008



eh, why does everyone assume that the husband is in the wrong? what, no woman has ever cheated on her man when he was out of town? most relationships i've ever been in, visiting the home of someone of the opposite sex, alone, was pretty much a no-no, for either of us. as much in consideration for the other partners feelings as for anything else (but also in light of everyones human failings, avaoiding temptation, etc)

lord knows if i went to some strange woman's house for dinner, twice, while my gf was out of town, some suspicions would have been voiced. and i *definitely* question the motivation of dr. invite-someone-elses-wife-over-to-dinner-while-he's-out-of-town.

personally, i'm far from convinced she's innocent - she very well could be, but who could say for sure? fwiw, i've been cheated on, and had irrefutable proof, and the reaction from the lady in question was quite a bit like emmas - indignation at the accusation, how dare you say that, never talk about this again, etc, even though she was incontrovertibly lying through her teeth.

just saying, like.


come to think of it, perhaps i'm assuming too much in thinking everyone's dtmfa's are directed at emma here!
posted by messiahwannabe at 10:50 PM on May 26, 2008


These are amazing.

Please destroy this letter because I do not think it wise to keep letters that speak of disease of a intimate nature.

But I felt a little guilty reading them. Surely their author would be livid if she'd known?

I once had a job putting archival material online — letters, photographs, diaries. None was quite as intimate as these, but it was often pretty clear that I was choosing to publish (and, myself, to read) something intended to be private. "The dead have no right to privacy," they say in that business. Maybe. I loved (and still miss) that line of work, but I got out of the habit of keeping personal papers around during that time.
posted by enn at 11:06 PM on May 26, 2008


These papers were scanned with Sharp JX-330 and Agfa Arcus II color flatbed scanners with Adobe Photoshop on a PowerMacintosh 7600/200.

Speaking of 1873...
posted by bicyclefish at 11:08 PM on May 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


He was lucky to have her; she, on the other hand, was not so lucky, and it is truly terrible and wrenching to see her brought so abruptly and cruelly to a realization of her misfortune.

She says something in the letter dated Aug. 7 I do not understand:

You do not even call our baby by my name, and yet you profess at the worst to fear that I have only been a helpless victim in the hands of a bad man. This utter lack of love for me -- this perfection of selfishness is harder for me to bear than your insulting suspicions have been.


Is she saying 'you don't even use terms of endearment for our baby that you do for me, and yet you profess...'?
posted by jamjam at 11:17 PM on May 26, 2008


Did you receive a letter from me urging you to get nasal douche like one which I have.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:29 PM on May 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Please destroy this letter because I do not think it wise to keep letters that speak of disease of a intimate nature.

The irony. I guess the Internet tops every letter-publishing disaster she could have ever dreamed of.
posted by uncle harold at 11:46 PM on May 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


The irony. I guess the Internet tops every letter-publishing disaster she could have ever dreamed of.

Can you imagine if Emma and John had lived in the Internet age, and had been members of Metafilter, and had posted dueling AskMe questions?
posted by amyms at 12:08 AM on May 27, 2008


Can you imagine if Emma and John had lived in the Internet age, and had been members of Metafilter, and had posted dueling AskMe questions?

Numberless New England supermarket soda aisles could not contain the fury.
posted by maxwelton at 1:16 AM on May 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


This is incredible. Thank you so much.

Now, my darling, in true honest love let me remind you of the confidence I have had in you, and the confidence (or lack of it) that you have returned me for it. In all your social relations with ladies I have always trusted you fully -- have never allowed circumstances which even seemed suspicious to make me doubt your honor -- have been ready to believe that I was mistaken, that circumstance lied -- anything but to believe you false.

If I even had doubts of any lady the fact that she was a trusted friend of yours has been sufficient for me to battle against those doubts and refuse to entertain them. Whenever you venture to visit any lady -- to be with her alone at night -- or under any circumstances without first "consulting me" I do not reproach you with lack of obedience or falsity to your duties as a husband. There should be no chains in love (those pertain to slavery instead).


What a douche.
posted by nonmerci at 4:13 AM on May 27, 2008


Is she saying 'you don't even use terms of endearment for our baby that you do for me, and yet you profess...'?

Maybe she's quoting David Allen Coe.
posted by dammitjim at 4:22 AM on May 27, 2008


Is she saying 'you don't even use terms of endearment for our baby that you do for me, and yet you profess...'?

Per the biographical information, both mother and baby are named "Emma" so wouldn't one expect him to "call our baby by my name?"
posted by pasici at 4:38 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post—thanks, amyms,
posted by languagehat at 6:13 AM on May 27, 2008


Men should really not be OBGYNs. Great find though I always love seeing how "modern" sensibilities were really around so long ago.
posted by skepticallypleased at 6:52 AM on May 27, 2008


What I wouldn't give to read the husband's letters.

It's your lucky day -- I found one of them in my attic. Here's the transcription:
Dearest Bitch,

I know your screwing that doc. I can totally tell by your letters that he's gettin all up in your hoochie, and your lovin it. And what kind of woman goes to see a doc at 7 at night? A ho, that's who. Damn, woman! Is it to much to ask to keep your legs together for a little while?

If you want a syringe, buy it yourself, you cheating ho.

Yours,
John
posted by pardonyou? at 7:05 AM on May 27, 2008


What a fascinating collection of letters. My only criticism is that they are very inaccurately transcribed -- I'm not an expert in nineteenth-century American handwriting, but I think I can do better than the archivists at Duke; e.g. in the letter of 16 August 1873, an important passage in which Emma examines her behaviour and asks herself if she's done anything wrong:

I have been quite isolated since I left you from the [..] of any man who was in the least sparkling or vivacious in his manner - so seldom either since I left on before have any [..] that I enjoyed this Dr.'s society (the little that I have of it) and enjoyed the rides - you know how much company and surroundings exhilarate me: and so as I said, I had enjoyed the Dr. (it's not in a lackadaisical manner at all) and the slight attraction that he had shown me - and it was [..] that [..] I had written you and told you that I felt half [..] with myself that I should first tell and [..] in the [..] of any man away from you. That is what I have done there was wrong is anything was - for these "I am willing to be forgiven".

Which should read:

I had been quite isolated since I left you from the society of any man who was in the least sparkling or vivacious in his manner - so seldom either since I left or before had any rides, that I enjoyed the Dr's society (the little that I had of it) and enjoyed the rides - you know how much company and surroundings exhilarate me: and so, as I said, I had enjoyed the Dr. (tho' not in a lackadaisical manner at all) and the slight attention that he had shown me - and it was precisely that that I had written you and told you that I felt half vexed with myself that I should find zest and relish in the society of any man away from you. That is what I have done that was wrong if anything was - for that "I am willing to be forgiven".

The differences are pretty crucial -- e.g. there's all the difference in the world between saying that the doctor showed her some 'attention' (which any gentleman might show to a lady) and that he showed 'attraction' (which would imply that her husband had reason to be suspicious).
posted by verstegan at 7:13 AM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


I want to reserve my assumption of asshattery on behalf of the husband, but what the hell kind of asshat picks up a red pencil to read his wife's letters?
That and the whole thing of him frequently running off to be a politico and leaving her without cash to support herself and their kid. Asshat.
posted by Billegible at 7:32 AM on May 27, 2008


why does everyone assume that the husband is in the wrong? what, no woman has ever cheated on her man when he was out of town?

Well, in this case, the woman in question had an ulcerated cooch. I don't think she was feeling frisky at the time.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:55 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


My only criticism is that they are very inaccurately transcribed -- I'm not an expert in nineteenth-century American handwriting, but I think I can do better than the archivists at Duke
Not to get all invested in this ancient imbroglio (I must admit, I only read the transcripts to start off with). After reading verstegan contribution, I've had a look at the scans of the letters and what's dodgy is that there is no doubt the doctor wrote them, not Emma, they're intelligible.
posted by tellurian at 8:08 AM on May 27, 2008


intelligible
unreadable
/lame doctor note joke
posted by tellurian at 8:27 AM on May 27, 2008


the woman in question had an ulcerated cooch
"For ten years or more I have suffered from this weakness, to your distress as well as mine"
What was it, I wonder?
posted by tellurian at 8:29 AM on May 27, 2008


Something a deft finger could diagnose and a couple of weeks of medicine could cure.
posted by tellurian at 8:42 AM on May 27, 2008


Thanks for clearing that up for me, pasici.

She had two miscarriages before Emma, and says in one of the letters the ulcer was between the uterus and the floor of the vagina; maybe it was a fistula. (I beg your pardon, Emma Spaulding!)
posted by jamjam at 8:55 AM on May 27, 2008


My Darling Hubbie:

Allow me to suggest that correspondence by telegraph is both public and expensive.


Unlike the internets, which is public and cheap!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2008


jamjam: I had not thought of fistula 1, 2 (aware though I thought I was via MetaFilter). The sponge that the doctor placed twice a day went zooming over my head. I also beg her pardon.
posted by tellurian at 9:59 AM on May 27, 2008


I was actually wondering if it might not be simple incontinence due to weak vagina/pelvic floor muscles (don't know the official terms, but its a problem for women, especially as they get older). A fistula is really serious, and I doubt could be cleared up. But simple excercises can help with muscle tone.

About the privacy issue:
I'm a historian - I'm completely biased. But privacy is for chumps. Who doesn't want to be famous? I want to be famous. And since I'll never do anything worthy of being famous, then I will happily keep all of my letters and diaries and hope that one day they might be interesting.

More seriously - it's about knowing our human past. Without invasions of privacy, we just can't know how people thought and lived. This kind of personal stuff is just personal stuff to the person who wrote it, but hundreds of years later, it's like gold. It's an insight into real people in a distant country we can never go to. And it doesn't hurt them - they are dead (and I'm all for locking stuff up for 100 years or more), and either they are in oblivion or they are in heaven (in either case they should not be worried about it). Understanding that distant country is important - it teaches us what is new about our world, and what isn't.
posted by jb at 8:03 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking about the comment I made yesterday, and I don't think I really expressed myself correctly.

Maybe I do feel a bit guilty, reading such personal letters as these by Mrs Bryant. She wouldn't have liked it, and wanted them destroyed. I've met living people who have expressed basically the same feeling, and I've struggled to explain to them why it's different when you have the curtain of time between you. It does feel like an invasion of privacy, but....

I'm trying to explain in words (and failing) as to why I feel that but. My husband (also a historian) feels it to. He describes it this way - that everyone is dead. They really are past these moments; they cannot be hurt or embarressed. But their experiences are also part of our patrimony, the shared inheritance of humankind.

And the more personal, and also the more ordinary, the more valuable. We have so many impersonal sources which tell us what speeches a politician made, how much tax the Exchequer took, what a philosopher thought about the relationship of the individual and the state. But we have so few sources that tell us about how husbands and wives related to each other, what people ate for breakfast, how they were examined by doctors. And these are such a big part of life as well - a bigger part, maybe, for the majority of us who aren't politicians, kings or philosophers.

I only had time to just quickly scan these letters, but what I took away from them was nothing to do with any titillation at her circumstances. I felt sympathy for her illness, anger at her husband's accusations, and pride/awe at her clear sense of her own worth at a time for which we are often told that patriarchy ruled. There was one particular passage that I read aloud to my husband, where she up and ordered her husband that he was never, ever to lecture to her on the male being the absolute head of the household. And for a moment, I had such a strong sense of a woman who, though raised in a patriarchal society, also knew her own being, and made up her own mind.

It gave me an insight to what has been called the "hidden transcript", the ways in which the surface and public story of history doesn't explain everything. It was a patriarchal society, that is of no doubt, but also one in which the authority of husbands was not unlimited or unquestioned. I don't think it is about feminism - I don't think she was that political about it - but about individual agency and thought.

Yeah, so I wish I could tell Mrs Bryant that part of me is sorry that I invaded her privacy when she didn't want me to, but the other part of me isn't sorry at all, because if I hadn't, I would never have gotten to know her as a person, just a bit. And in knowing her, know the past just a bit more.
posted by jb at 12:43 PM on May 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


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