Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains under Sail

This is a rather delightful book, based on the diaries and journals of women “sailors” accompanying their husbands on sea voyages. The women and the locations of their manuscripts (largely in maritime and historical museums) are listed in an Appendix. One assumes that most of these women were both educate and of a fairly independent streak for their times.

Chapter 1, “The Honeymooners” (p. 23-42). Almost all of the newly-wed wives cited in this chapter are described by Druett as readers, but unfortunately without specific examples or sources. There is one exception.

p. 27: According to the journal nineteen-year-old Alice Howland Delano kept on that wedding trip, however, she felt a trifle doubtful about the “social catch” she had married. “Last eve heard a dissertation on the qualitiesnecessary for a married lady,” she noted on the first Sunday of the passage, “but did not profit much thereby.” Rereading Byron’s “Prisoner of Chilon” suited her mood much better, she said. “Only five hours’ sleep last night,” she wrote, and worried that she was turning into an owl.

Chapter 2 concerns life at sea for these women, most of whom seem to have bookshelves in their cabins and access to plenty of books.

p. 63-65: In later years a piano—or parlor organ, or melodeon—was carried along, piano playing being particularly fashionable after 1850, when the great showman P.T. Barnum introduced the Swedish songstress Jenny Lind to the word. It was a fad that was helped along by the catchy tunes Stephen Foster was turning out at the time, “Oh! Susannah” in particular being roared out in ship’s cabins on all the seven seas. Reading was another enduringly popular way of passing away the hours, particularly in latitudes where the evenings were light enough to read on deck. Vast numbers of books, newspapers, and magazines were taken along and exchanged with other seafarers as the voyage progressed. In New York, the Loan Library for Seamen put books on board for the sailors, and Calista Stover testified that they were read eagerly by the captain’s family.

Many of the women noted the titles of the books they were reading, with well-thought out comments about the content. Understandably many took great interest in books written by other Victorian lady travelers, such as Abby Jane Morrell, who sailed on the exploratory schooner Antarctic in the early 1830s, and wrote a long dissertation about her experiences that sold better than her husband’s lengthier book. At about the same time, the English actress Fanny Kemble’s highly controversial account of her travels in the Americas, published under her temporary married name of Butler, merited a lot of criticism from patriotic seafaring wives. “Began reading Fanny Kemble’s journal or rather Frances Ann Butler’s,” wrote Mary Dow in June 1838. “She is a curious woman I should judge from her writings, not much refinement about it.” However, she added, “I do not know as we can expect much from a theatrical character. Some parts are very good, some witty, and some very foolish.”

Reading aloud was very popular too. Maria Murphy read David Copperfield to her children, and seven-year-old Jennie, in particular, was deeply interested—you would laugh to hear the indignant remarks bout David’s stepfather.” Even more successful were “Miss Alcott’s stories.”

Captains and wives even read aloud even when there were no children aboard, needing no better audience than each other. Somewhat eccentrically, George Dow chose to read out accounts of “distressing shipwrecks from the Mariners Chronicle” to his wife, Mary, on the eve of a storm in June 1838. “Oh! Dear,” Mary wrote, but George did not take the hint.

On July 1 the bark was beset with thick fog, so “more of his accounts of shipwrecks” were read. “I shall be glad when he gets through with it, Mary penned with a perceptible shiver. Two days later she recorded “sitting in the upper cabin on a cotton bale all day, wrapped in a blanket and cloak squaw fashion listening to hear George read more shipwreck accounts. He finished them today,” adding with even more palpable sincerity, “and glad am I.” It was a too-vivid reminder of the other challenges that lay in wait for unlucky lady mariners.

p. 107, illustrations of children’s books.

p. 116: When Mary Congdon was on the Caroline Tucker at the age of seventeen, her mother became very uneasy when the mate loaned her a copy of Byron’s poetry, and she would not allow her to read it.

p. 154: If there was piano, parlor organ, or harmonium on board, religious tunes were tinkled, and sometimes women sang hymns to themselves. On the Boston ship George Washington, for instance, Charlotte Page noted that “as it is Sunday, I have spent the day in reading and practicing sacred music.” The other recommended occupation was reading improving books, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These had limited appeal, however. Emma Pray tried to compromise by setting Sundays aside for rereading letters from home and penning replies, as well as catching up with her journal.

p. 155, notes that a sailor finished reading Old Mortality on the Sabbath, to the envy of his wife whose conscience forbade Sunday reading.

p. 172, on medical matters: A certain amount of hypochondria was inevitable, however. In January 1897 Maria Murphy noted that Shotgun was convinced he had diabetes. Then a few days later, he informed that he had leprosy, undoubtedly the result of overenthusiastic study of Dr. Thomas Ritter’s Medical Chest Companion for Popular Use on Ship-Board.