Edward Bellamy was said to be his mother’s favorite son following the death of his oldest brother, Packer, but his biographers describe her as stern and somewhat cold. What do we know about their relationship, and about Maria Bellamy as a mother?
According to those who knew her, Maria Bellamy was formal and intellectual, but also respected and kind. Her father had had an impact on her character and interests. Believing in education for women—a still uncommon viewpoint in the early 1800s—Reverend Benjamin Putnam sent his daughter to a female academy where she read Latin and Greek and developed her passion for learning. She in turn encouraged her children to read (though only nonfiction books that met with her approval), and she discouraged idleness. Said her granddaughter, Marion, “She herself never sat down herself without a book or a piece of needlework or darning.” Maria also disapproved of artificiality and made sure that religious education was an integral part of her boys’ upbringing. In fact, she held more conservative religious beliefs than her minister husband.1
Descriptions like these paint a picture of Edward’s mother as a stereotypical, strict New England parent who was focused on raising a respectable family with good morals. By contrast, while Bellamy focused on serious social issues, we know from his lighter short fiction and anecdotes from his daughter’s memoir that he had a sense of humor and a likeable personality. The fact that he made a career of writing fiction when his mother disapproved of novels also implies that they were two very different people. Yet Frances Willard’s 1889 interview with the famous author of Looking Backward suggests otherwise: “As he started to go I said, ‘It seems to me you are your mother’s boy: is that the case?’ ‘I was always thought to be like her in mental and spiritual constitution,’ was his smiling answer.”2 What could Edward have meant by this?
A handful of surviving letters from Maria to Edward help answer this question and offer a glimpse of her personality. On a trip abroad in the early to mid-1850s3, for example, she wrote two letters to her middle sons—“dear little Freddy & Eddy”—that demonstrate her love and concern for all her children: “Whenever I see little children in the street, I almost stop and kiss them because they make me think of my own dear little ones at home.” She addresses Frederick’s fears that her ship “would tip over” by saying “it did not for the Lord is on the water just the same as on the land” and reminding the boys to say their prayers and “ask the Lord to take care of their Mama and Aunty and bring them home safely to their precious little ones.” The letters demonstrate patience and kindness as a parent as well, such as in this attempt to manage Edward’s expectations about receiving a particular souvenir from her trip: “I think very often about what Eddy wants me to bring him when I see a great many pretty little lambs playing in the warm sun together. But you know if I should put one in the trunk it would die, so I do not see how I could bring it, for you know it is too far to carry it in my arms.”4
Later correspondence, written in the 1880s, shows that she remained close with Edward and updated him on the family news when they were apart. She tells him about getting the family settled on vacation; his daughter Marion’s recovery from whooping cough while in Westerly, Rhode Island; and that she is getting over her own illness after he sent her a letter expressing his concern about her health. While she was exact with her instructions (“[Emma] will probably find a spectacle case [to send Maria’s glasses in] in the upper small drawer on the left hand side of my Bureau”) and forthright about her concerns (“I have always heard that railroad riding is irritating to the bowels when they are sensitive”), another small yet telling sign that Maria wasn’t entirely as formal as has been implied is her use of nicknames. Just as she referred to “Freddy,” “Eddy,” and “Charley” in her letters to her sons, she writes about “Bobbie,” Edward’s nickname for his son, Paul.5
Considering these letters alongside what we know about Edward Bellamy, then, his comment to Frances Willard begins to make sense. While he did not inherit his mother’s strong faith in God, he still believed in living by a clear moral standard and following the instruction to “love thy neighbor”—a theme that runs throughout his writing. And while the way they engaged with their children may have been different, we know from Maria’s letters, the baby book that Edward kept for his son, and his daughter’s memoir that both were involved and loving parents who had firm ideas of the types of people their children should become.6 Combined with their shared intellectual curiosity and concern for others, it becomes clear that they were indeed alike “in mental and spiritual constitution.”
- Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944) 24-7; Sylvia Bowman, The Year 2000 (New York: Bookman Associates, 1958) 16-7; Marion Earnshaw, “The Light of Other Days,” n.d., Marion Bellamy Earnshaw Collection, 97-8.
- Frances E. Willard, “An Interview with Edward Bellamy,” Our Day, Vol. IV, No. 24 (December 1889).
- While the letters are not dated, they reference Edward’s younger brother, Charles (born in 1852), and suggest that Frederick and Edward are not yet old enough to be able to read the letters on their own. Frederick, born in 1847, was three years older than Edward, so Maria was likely abroad sometime between 1853 and 1855.
- Maria Bellamy to Frederick and Edward Bellamy (“My dear little Freddy & Eddy”), undated; Maria Bellamy to Frederick and Edward Bellamy (“My Dear little sons, Freddy & Eddy”), undated.
- Maria Bellamy to Edward Bellamy (“My dear Ed”), undated; Maria Bellamy to Edward Bellamy (“My dear Ed”), June 2, [1880s]; Maria Bellamy to Edward Bellamy, Sunday P.M.
- See this blog post for more information about Edward Bellamy as a parent.