“I suppose you had to give your real name to the publishers.”

Clarissa Goodell, April 21, 1866

There is an old adage that writers should write what they know. Lavinia Goodell took that advice to heart. She often drew on her personal experiences for her short stories, and she clearly based some of her characters on herself, her friends, and her family. Sometimes her keen powers of observation hit a bit too close to home. A case in point was her story, “A Psychological Experiment,” which appeared in the June 1866 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The protagonist of “A Psychological Experiment” is a young woman named Kate who describes her brother-in-law as “a minister, yet the most thoroughly selfish, disagreeable man in his family I ever knew.” She supposes that her sister must have been a “dreamy, imaginative girl … who made up a glorious ideal all out of her own brain,” but after marrying the man a decade earlier discovered that he viewed her as a “very convenient article of household furniture.” Kate says she has “studied him for a curiosity, as a naturalist would study a peculiar fossil, and I can’t find anything in him but what is coarse, and selfish, and narrow.”   Kate told her friend:

If he was a drunkard I could undertake him with some hope of success. He might have a large, generous nature, something that you could appeal to, to lead him up to a higher life. But a professed teacher of righteousness, as an expounder of the will of God, one who  doubtless considers himself at the pinnacle of virtue, when he hasn’t in reality the faintest conception of the meaning of the word, how are you to get at him? I have a missionary spirit toward him, but I don’t now how to go to work.

When Kate’s friend suggests that she “tell him the truth in kindness,” Kate boldly writes the man a letter pointing out his failings as a husband and challenging him, “Why can you not change? Why can you not become noble, manly, generous, strong – living above self, forgetting self, trying to make others happy?” Although stung by Kate’s words, the man ultimately takes them to heart. He not only becomes a caring husband and father, he treats his wife to a glorious present: a new sewing machine. By the end of the story, the man’s marriage has been put to rights and, as an added bonus, because of the sewing machine purchase, Kate lands herself a husband. (The full story may be found here.)

Harper’s Magazine paid Lavinia $25, which was a handsome sum, for the short story. While her family was excited about her newfound literary success, they – particularly her mother – were worried that the story hit too close to home because Lavinia’s older sister, Maria Frost, was married to a minister who perhaps shared some of the personal qualities of the fictional Kate’s brother-in-law.

 Lavinia’s mother wrote her:

I suppose you had to give your real name to the publishers. The girls are asking to see what you wrote. I hope you have not said anything very bad in representing a certain character because the people in this family will all know about it. When M. was here last she wanted everything kept still.

The surviving Goodell family correspondence does not reveal whether Lewis Frost read the short story or, if he did, his reaction to it.

In another bit of life imitating art, it appears that Lavinia spent the money she received from Harper’s to buy her sister a sewing machine. Around the time the story was published, Lavinia wrote Maria:

I am so glad you received your machine all right. Did the directions come with it? I think you will not find difficulty in working it. I visited all the principal ware rooms and liked this machine quite as well as any I saw. I am glad it pleases you. I have felt as if I owed you a machine ever since I didn’t succeed in selling “Rose Sherwood” for you, because I know you were calculating to get one with the proceeds. I obtained it very reasonably, so don’t worry…. I have lots of money – consider myself independently wealthy.

Fifteen months later, Lavinia was working for the Harper brothers, alongside the venerable Mary Booth at the newly minted Harper’s Bazar magazine.

Sources consulted: Clarissa Goodell’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (April 14, 1866; April 21, 1866;) Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (June 5, 1866); “A Psychological Experiment,” by Lavinia Goodell, published in the June 1866 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

1 comment

Steve Bates

Oh my! In his autobiographical “Family Stories”, William Goodell Frost, Lavinia’s eldest nephew, shied away for the most part from unflattering observations of family members. Fiction, as Lavinia demonstrates, is sometimes a better way to address uncomfortable intimate truths. And so, I have an insight into an aspect of the possible character of my 2X great grandfather that was not otherwise handed down. Thanks.

Leave a Reply