World of Elizabeth James Seelye: Female Culture in Upper Middle Class Victorian America

Susan Erb, Colby College


"The World of Elizabeth James Seelye," is a study of a particular upper-Middle-class Victorian woman, based on a collection of her correspondence in Miller Library at Colby College. Elizabeth lived from 1833 until 1881, she spent her childhood years in Albany, New York. and her marital years in Amherst Massachusetts. Her letters to and from female relatives and close friends describe the female experience from a woman's perspective. The letters represent a highly structured "female network'" of life-long, loving friendships among mothers, daughters. sisters. cousins, schoolmates, and close friends. Elizabeth's experience demonstrates how the female network through support and mutual affection, gave a sense of order, dignity, and purpose to the lives of the individual women. The values, attitudes, and expectations of these uppermiddle- class women are expressed in discussions of education, religion, sickness, child-rearing, literature, and social rituals. But their thought and behavior must be considered in the context of Victorian America, because the female network was a product of Victorian social structures. Traditional history has long professed that the lives of upper-middleclass women were of little value in understanding Victorian America. This study is evidence of how their experience is central to understanding Victorian family and society.