"… Instead of writing you a formal note upon beautiful lace paper, I must reply on common paper and in simple language and tell you with much regret why I cannot make one of your Belle Assembly on Tuesday evening. But first to your note. It did not reach me until last evening … and then in rather a singular way. I was walking up to Charles Lowell's and met a number of workmen returning from their daily tasks when one of them left his companions and coming up to me said, Miss Lowell, I have a paper for you which Mrs. Toby desired me to leave at your house. Who the said Mrs. Toby was my memory did not serve me to designate. I took it expecting to see a Bill for some little repairs I have been making. When to my astonishment I found it to be an envelope to some note which altho torn and dirty, came evidently from some Elegante of taste and fashion. I put it into my pocket and pondering over it as I went along came to the conclusion that it was from you before I reached there. Not doubting that altho I had not received a note I was not forgotten. And now my dear Mary I must again thank you for your consistently kind remembrance of me and repeat again that I regret refusing any request of yours but to be consistent myself I must say Nay to every invitation to a large party I may receive. I broke the resolution to perform a duty but the experience from those two deviations had only confirmed me in the opinion that my decision is right. There is a fitting time for everything under the sun and if we were more frequently governed by the sage Maxims of the wisest men that ever lived we should not so often see the lamentable Mistakes which the Vanity of poor human nature induces us to commit. I reverently thank the superintending power which has guided and guarded me on this point by letting me feel what a very little cipher I am. I have not seen you dear Mary since that almost breathless moment of anxiety when our dear Mary's life seemed suspended upon such a slender thread. Let us be truly grateful to that good and gracious being who has granted her to us as a blessing for (we hope) a long time to come. Mr. Sparks' engagement!! I am rejoiced at his success as he has so often referred to it as a thing that would make him happy and yes, what a contrast to that lovely spiritual and refined being he once called his own. The Lady has distinguished talents, which led into a right direction by such a mind as Mr. Sparks may become ornamental and valuable in Society…"
"Craigie House", once the headquarters of George Washington during the Revolution, had been owned by Washington's Apothecary General. At his death, his widow was forced to take in boarders. One of these was historian Jared Sparks, future President of Harvard, who lived there while preparing his now-classic biography of Washington. Another was poet and Harvard Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who later became owner of the house, where he would write, Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, and the Courtship of Miles Standish. Still another was the writer of this letter, Sarah Champney Lowell, aunt of poet James Russell Lowell. Her correspondent was Mary Eliot, wife of Samuel Atkins Eliot, then Mayor of Boston, and mother of another future Harvard President.
As for the subtle gossip in the letter, Jared Sparks, Miss Lowell's former fellow-boarder, the Unitarian Minister who became Harvard Professor of History and the university's President, was a widower who had just become engaged to Mary Crowninshield Silsbee, 29 year-old daughter of a rich sea captain and U.S. Senator. Some said the young lady's only accomplishment was having "reigned" in Washington society during her father's term of office. Hence Miss Lowell's fulsome praise of 'distinguished talents" and "ornamental" potential, a far cry from Sparks' first "lovely spiritual and refined" first wife.
A letter with many links to the "top drawer" of Boston society in the 1830s. (Inventory #: 30757)