Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Biography, and being a detective/historian

One of my summer projects has been to begin working on writing a biography of Eliza Lucas Pinckney for middle grade readers. I wrote a little about it here, explaining why I decided to do this. I'm excited about this - I'm learning so much,not only about Eliza Pinckney and her time (1722-1793) but also about the process of biography writing.

I've read some great essays by biographers about writing biographies. I recommend the book Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, which is transcripts of a series of talks by American biographers about the process of researching and creating a biography. It's fascinating.

I'm now reading the first adult book I have about Eliza Pinckney. It's a biography written by a descendent of hers, Harriott Horry Rabenel, in 1898. Rabenel used lots of Eliza's letters for this biography, interspersed with other information and her own opinions. Reading it in 2017 is like trying to see the 18th century through a 19th century lens. Both Eliza and Rabenel include information that is difficult or incomprehensible without some further context. Sometimes Rabenel will explain things that Eliza writes about, but sometimes she doesn't and also adds 19th century information that needs explanation in the 21st century. Maybe I'll find that context in another source later on. I have a greater appreciation for historians now.

Eliza Pinckney is mostly known for her successful efforts to bring indigo planting to South Carolina. She was left in charge of her family's three plantations when she was 16 or 17 years old. Her father, an officer in the British military, had been called to the West Indies during one of the wars with Spain. She was passionate about botany and after trying for several years, she figured out how to grow indigo successfully, creating a hugely profitable crop for the colony.

Her life was much more than just indigo, however. She was an extremely busy young lady. She read, studied, taught her younger siblings, visited extensively with friends, and wrote many, many letters. She also married, had three children, and was widowed at a fairly young age, at which time she took over managing her husband's property.

I have been reading the letters that are included in the biography and I am struck by her lovely writing style. We have many of the letters because she copied nearly all of the letters she sent into a "letterbook." (Again, when did she have time for this?) Her writing style reminds me of Jane Austen, which makes sense as they are about the same time period. Here's an excerpt  from a letter written when the family spent several years in England:

"Poor dear Miss Carew! I am so very sorry her journey to Bath has been of so little effect, we have had such dreadful weather for her complaints. I long much to see her, and we shall certainly wait on yr. Ladyship and Sir Nicolas before we leave England..."

What a lively voice! After her beloved husband died unexpectedly, she wrote from South Carolina to her sons, who were in England at school. This time I was reminded of Charles Dickens (the spelling and punctuation is the original):

"How shall I write to you, what shall I say to you my dear, my ever dear children? but if possible more so now than ever, for I have a tale to tell you that will pierce your tender infant hearts; you have mett my children with the greatest loss you could meet with upon earth your Dear father the best and most valuable of Parents is no more."

We are so lucky to have these letters. They bring Eliza to life again in a way. I'm only surprised that no one else has written a modern biography of this interesting woman.


  1. This was a very interesting post. Not only did a I learn about Eliza, but I also learned about writing a biography. What fun to be able read her letters from the 1700s!

  2. What a fascinating project you have undertaken. And those letters -- I hope you can find more of them. I have one thought, which I hope you will address as well as you can in your book: since this was South Carolina, surely her plantations were worked by enslaved people. I wonder what about living with slavery can be found in her letters or anything written about her.

    1. Thank you and yes, I have been thinking about the enslaved people who worked her family's plantations. I know the family owned slaves, I know that Eliza taught some of the younger children. I haven't found anything yet about how she felt about it. Her biographer has an attitude that is probably typical of the 19th century - that if the enslaved were treated well, then it was okay. Obviously I'm not including that.

  3. Becky, you are exploring an interesting woman. It's great to see that strong women existed even in the 18th century and how exciting for you to bring her story to modern readers. Best of luck to you on this project.

  4. What a fascinating project you have undertaken. I have never looked into biography writing, but I have read a few and can appreciate the intense research necessary to write such a book. Good luck.