And now for some concluding thoughts from Jeanne McDougall about her encounter with Hannah Weld. If you’ve missed the previous two posts about Hannah and her mother Mary, click here to get caught up.
What can you say after experiencing such an extraordinary epistle? My reading for the day came to a full stop; any day in life where you learn something new, or make a friend, is a good day. This had been both.
February 21, 1799 wasn’t the only day in her life that Hannah Weld wrote a letter, or her only letter in the AAS collection – there are three, as well as a letter from daughter Hermione to daughter Mary. Awareness of the Weld women should only become greater thanks to the recent acquisition of Hannah’s portrait by AAS. Ashley Cataldo, working at the desk that afternoon, offered to show me, and I eagerly waited for the image to materialize on the computer screen.
There are fewer than a thousand words in Hannah’s February letter from so long ago to allow a comparison of the scribal portrait to the one in oil. I don’t know how to make a qualitative statement about how many words a picture paints, but what the image reveals tends to confirm what the text suggests.
The profile gazing purposefully toward some unknown point in the distance belonged to a woman prosperous enough to be neatly clothed and well-fed, though not so “well” as to appear unhealthy or suggest extravagance, a woman who enjoyed oysters and a good laugh, shared apples and anecdotes, and lived her life in the midst of company, alive to danger, and loving her children. Her bright eyes reveal curiosity, intellect, even wit – and something else, for the lines encircling them came from a lifetime of smiling, a subtle smile captured by the artist and still playing about her lips two centuries after the original went to sleep, not unlike that other smile so admired in the Louvre.
Had we never had the ability to know Hannah by anything more than this image, we could not have helped but feel a warmth, even a kinship. But we have so much more, because she took the time to tell us.
I love Hannah Weld. And I’m glad her letters survived, to tell me why.
If you would like to contact Jeanne directly with any questions or comments about her posts, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanne Eller McDougall is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Southern California, writing a dissertation entitled, “‘Fit to be sung in Streets:’ the mobilizing power of political song in pre-revolutionary British Colonial North America, 1750-1776.” She is a USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Fellow and a Michael J. Connell Foundation Fellow at the Huntington Library for 2011-2012.