Sunday, August 19, 2018

Genevieve Genevra Fairfield

Genevieve Genevra Fairfield (b. New York City, 1830; d. Washington, D.C., 5 February 1912)

Frontispiece to Irene (1852)
There can be few literary families as ill-fated as the Fairfields. The father was Sumner Lincoln Farifield (1803-1844), editor and poet, author of such volumes as Cities of the Plain (1828) and The Last Night of Pompei (1832), the latter of which Fairfield sent to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel The Last Days of Pompei came out two years later.  Fairfield stoutly maintained that Bulwer-Lytton had plagiarized from his work. In American Authors 1600-1900 (1938), Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft note that "Fairfield was subject to spells of insanity and all his poetry shows the effect of his morbidity and bitterness.... He had few friends, and his poetry, at times reaching a high level in early American literature, is now little read" (p. 261). Fairfield's mental health broke down around 1836-37, and his wife wrote in The Life of Sumner Lincoln Fairfield (1846):
From this fatal period commenced the decline of the poor poet ... It was not long before his constitution began to suffer from severe attacks of epilepsy. The exposure and suffering to which he became inured brought on a complication of diseases which lasted  during life. For the last five years of his life he was unable to make any exertion whatever for the support of his family, which consisted of five young children. (p. 58)
The mother was Jane Fairfield, née Frazee (c.1804-c.1863). She met Sumner Lincoln Fairfield in July 1826, as he returned to America after some months in England.  They were married on 20 September 1826, and soon after she moved in with her husband and his mother, all their household furnishings were seized for debt. After their first child Angelo died on 11 May 1832, at the age of four years and three months, the doctor told the parents that a post-mortem examination of the child's brain had disclosed that "probably at twelve years of age your son would have fallen into fatuity"  (The Autobiography of Jane Fairfield, p. 96). They were told to "be grateful that your son has gone to rest" (ibid).

Jane realized that she had to step up and find ways to provide for her family, soliciting advance subscriptions for her husband's publications, and arranging the financing for their monthly magazine venture, The North American Magazine, which debuted in November 1832. It was retitled The North American Quarterly Magazine in 1835, suspended in 1837, and revived and sold in 1838.  Jane Fairfield published two books, The Life of Sumner Lincoln Fairfield (1846), which includes a large selection of her husbands poems; and The Autobiography of Jane Fairfield (1860).

Besides their first child who died very young, they had five other children.  The two elder daughters were Genevieve Genevra Fairfield  (b. 1830) and Gertrude (b. 1832). Their birth-years have been confusingly interchanged in various reference works, though in their mother's two books it is clear that Genevieve was the "eldest daughter" and Gertrude the younger. Little is known about the subsequent children, which (according to the 1850 U.S. Census) included Ellen (aged 15, thus born circa 1834-35) and Elizabeth (aged 12, thus born circa 1837-38).  The final child was evidently a boy, Eugene.

Genevieve's first book, Genevra: or, The History of a Portrait (1851) was published anonymously, as "By an American Lady / A Resident of Washington City." In her Autobiography, Jane noted that Genevieve "gave to the novel her own name. She had both the following, Genevieve Genevra. She preferred Genevra, on account of its easy pronunciation" (p. 190), though her mother always referred to her as Genevieve.  The book took her a little less than a year to write, and after its publication Genevieve continued to write and paint.  She sent copies of her book to many notables, and received praise in various letters from Eugene Sue, Henry W. Longfellow, and Fitz-Greene Halleck, among others. Jane Fairfield published these letters in her Autobiography.

Genevieve put together a second book, and secured a publisher, but what came out is something rather different.  The book is called Irene: or, The Autobiography of an Artist's Daughter and Other Tales (1852).  The title story is not by Genevieve but by her sister Gertrude, and it takes up some two-hundred and sixty-some pages of a volume comprising three-hundred and eighty-three pages. In an "Authoress' Notice" it reveals that:
In consequence of an unavoidable delay in the completion of a Novelette, by Miss Genevieve Genevra Fairfield, which was originally designed to conclude this work, Miss Gertrude Fairfield, her sister, will supply its place with 'Irene.'
The other one-hundred and twenty-odd pages include two items by Genevieve, a novella "The Vice President's Daughter" (ninety pages) and a short story "The Wife of Two Husbands" (twenty-five pages).  The book is dedicated to Eugene Sue as "the greatest of living authors and the most elegant man of his time." The front matter includes the text of a letter from Sue accepting the dedication.

This was apparently the last of Genevieve Genevra Fairfield's publications. (Some sources list another undated publication entitled "The Inkeeper's Daughter" but this has not been traced.) She was soon courted by the English immigrant William North (1825-1854), who was then emerging as an interesting and promising writer and journalist.  But according to her mother, Genevieve insisted that she would never marry, and though she enjoyed North's company (as did her mother), she spurned his offers of marriage.  In the end North committed suicide by swallowing prussic acid on 14 November 1854, some saying he was sick of the poverty of the life of a journalist, others that he was frustrated by disappointed love. Both are probably true.

By the winter of 1859, Genevieve, whose own mental balance had long been erratic, was put into the West Philadelphia Insane Asylum by her mother.  After some months she seemed to have recovered, and was released for a short while, before she broke down and was committed again.  Sometime in the 1860s (perhaps after the death of her mother) Genevieve was transferred to Washington D.C.'s Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeth's Hospital), where she spent the rest of her life, dying on 5 February 1912.

Gertrude Fairfield fared no better than her sister.  On 6 May 1853, in New Orleans, she married Francisco Xavier Vingut (1823-1857), a Cuban immigrant who was a Spanish professor at the City University of New York from 1848 until his death. Vingut was a prolific writer and editor. With his wife, he edited Obras de don Jose Antonio Saco (1853).  Gertrude (as Gertrude F. de Vingut) also edited Selections from the Best Spanish Poets (1856) and wrote Naomi Torrente: The History of a Woman (1864). They had one daughter. After Vingut's death, Gertrude married George Carter Barrett (1838-1906) on 30 November 1865. Barrett was a well-known and distinguished judge, for many years on the New York State Supreme Court. Barrett adopted Gertrude's daughter (Gertrude Josephine Vingut Barrett, 1857-1888) and was devoted to her.  Gertrude and Barrett had their own daughter, Angela Carter Barrett (1867-1891).  After the deaths of both of her daughters, Gertrude experienced some sort of mental derangement, and was put into a private asylum in Lindenhof, Coswig, Saxony, run by Dr. R.H. Pierson. At the time of her husband's death in 1906, Gertrude had been institutionalized for several years.  Her husband's will left a trust fund of $25,000 for the care of his "afflicted wife." Gertrude reportedly died in Lindenhof in 1912.

Judge Barrett evidently had some literary aspirations, which brought about some public discord with his wife.  In December 1883, Walleck's Theatre in New York put on a performance of a play entitled "An American Wife," authored by Barrett. A letter from Gertrude F. Barrett, sent from Florence, Italy, and dated 22 December 1883, was printed in New York newspapers beginning on January 9th 1884, claiming that the play was a collaboration, with Gertrude writing the serious portion of the play and her husband writing the comedic part. Judge Barrett maintained that he was the sole author of the play (though he admitted that his wife contributed to another of his plays from 1876 entitled "The Watchword: A Comedy in Five Acts").  Another newspaper noted that "there is only one thing about the play of any importance just now, and that is that the public is thoroughly tired of it and everything connected with it." (The Evening Star, 12 January 1884).

Genevieve and Gertrude's brother Eugene is also reported to have been institutionalized.

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