Saturday, May 28, 2011

Trials at Home: The Sorrowful Tale of Nacy Shippen, part 7

As if the strain of being separated from her child were not enough, Nancy was juggling other major difficulties in the winter of 1783-4. Three additional stresses were taking their emotional toll: she had a sick mother, estranged husband, and old flame to worry about.

Nancy's mother had been in fragile health since before Christmas, and she was often confined to her bed. "This morning I set in [my mother's] Chamber; & read to her. She has been sick for some time but is getting better," wrote Nancy on December 26th (before sadly acknowledging her daughter's second birthday). On Febuary 2, she wrote:

At eleven was much alam'd by my Mammas being taken suddenly ill...The symptoms of extream illness was so alarming yt I dispatch'd every body out of the house for papa who happen'd to to out yt evening. He came. She continued ill all night but recover'd towards Morning.

Though her father was a physician, nursing was women's work in the 18th century, and it was left to Nandy to ease her mother's discomfort in any way possible.

Nancy was often cut off from her friends by this situation because she could not easily leave the house while she was tending to her mother. "My dear Mammas health prevents me from seeing any body," she moaned to her diary. At least all of this time alone together seemed to build a stronger relationship between mother and daughter. They spent hours together when her mother was well enough to converse but not necessarily get out of bed. Often Nancy read aloud to fill the time. Other times they "had a great deal of conversation." Now she was beginning to see her mother not just as a parental figure, but as a person. "She is a woman of strong sense, & has a Masculine understanding; a generous ear, & a great share of sensibility."

Even in May, when she returned from her visit to the Livingstons in New York City, Nancy's mother was no better. She described her mother as being "in a very distressed situation." Mrs. Shippen was moved to a house in the country (near Germantown, PA) to convalesce. But only a week later, the situation had worsened both phyically and mentally:

Mama had a very bad night I was with her the greatest part of it. Towards morning being much fatigued I laid down at the foot of her bed, & fell fast asleep. She waked me in the morn'g by calling me...she beg'd me to hear her last request for she was not long for this world....would have sent to [Mount Peace] for my grand-papa but sawa plainly that her health was no worse, only her spirits much affected, & her imagination disorder'd.


The Frenchman Louis Otto (at left) was still a lingering presense in Nancy's life too. This was undoubtedly a bright spot in Nancy's life, but must also have added an emotional complexity: a dear friend, in whom she'd once professed a serious romantic interest was now back in her life while she was still married to the tyrant she'd left him for. How confusing!

They sometimes met alone in the Shippen parlor, once again playing the harpsichord and singing as they had when they were courting. "We sat alone about ten minutes & said very little, what we did say was upon friendship," she wrote in April just before she was to leave for New York. When her father came into the room, Louis Otto stayed only long enough to keep up appearances and then left.

In December they had shared some sore of intimate conversation when Louis Otto had come to tea. The letter he sent her that night was full of the old romantic language. "I thank you a thousand times my dear friend for your advice so full of Wisdom & experience...With how much tenderness do you deal with me!" he wrote her. She began to write often of her anticipation of seeing him or noting his visits. At the end of March she noted: "Received a letter this Evening from [Louis Otto]."

In May, Nancy moved out in the country with her mother when she received a visit from Louis Otto. It was to be a farewell: "I had not seen Leander for so long a time that I had a great deal to say to him; he told me that he sett off for Europe in a fortnight & then I lose in a manner a friend..."

Now without her Louis Otto, Nancy was left with her mother in the countryside feeling alone and abandoned by her friends and family.

All the while, the relationship with Nancy's husband Henry Beekman Livingston was becoming increasingly foul. His behavior was bordering on the bizarre at times. In November Nancy was too afraid to leave her father's house when she heard that Henry was slinking around Philadelphia incognito:

Sunday--I passed this day at home. I do not think it prudent to go out as I hear [Henry] is in Town...the other Evening somebody disguis'd came to the door and ask'd for me; he was told I was out--he ask'd where I slept--he was told...He ask'd several more questions concerning me & then left the house.

So there was Nancy, hiding in her house while the servants ran interference. Whatever had last passed between them had left Nancy outright "terrified at the Idea of seeing him." His rages had finally left her afraid her "life [would] be in danger!"

His two surviving letters from this period also show that he alternated betwee deliberately ignoring her and threatening her. His biggest leverage was the legal right to take baby Peggy away from her forever.

Nancy spent much of her time trying to divert attention from the persistent woes of her reality. Visits with friends and parties continued to fill the pages of her journal. But gradually, the trial at home and the extended absense from her beloved toddling daughter began to wear Nancy down. "Felt dull and disagreeable, very low spirited & out of humor--wherefore are there days that, given up to melancholy without knowing the cause, we are a burden to ourselves?" These words seem characteristic of depression.

What solutions could Nancy hope to find? The conditions of the marriage now had Nancy afraid for her safety and, worse that of her daughter. But divorce might give her one more chance to be with Louis Otto, but the social stigma was considerable, and if Louis Otto would not have her, she and her daughter would be left as dependents in her father's household. The road ahead looked increasingly muddy.

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