Mary Jane Goodwin was born on Lincoln Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Isaac Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammatt Goodwin, on February 25, 1831. She was the youngest of seven children, and the sibling closest in age was her brother John Goodwin. Jane’s parents were both descended from Mayflower Pilgrims and early settlers of New England, and their daughter inherited the family pride in their ancestors. Isaac was a founding member of the American Antiquarian Society and even delivered a dedicatory address there, and several accounts list him as an avid collector of Pilgrim memorabilia and documents, from which Jane and her brother drew many of their family stories (if only I knew where these existed today!). Elizabeth (Eliza) Hammatt Goodwin was also something of an historian, especially an oral historian of family lore, and Jane would later turn her mother’s stories into works such as A Nameless Nobleman (1881).
Many accounts describe Jane’s early education, and I have found her name on the rosters as a student at the Bakersfield Academy and Literary Association in Vermont, nearly 200 miles from her Boston home, suggesting that she had literary ambitions from an early age (and that she was fairly independent!). Indeed, some biographical sources mention Jane’s early publications; however, I have not found any to corroborate these claims. By the age of nineteen, Jane married Loring Henry Austin on June 19, 1950. Within a year, their first child, Lilian Ivers Austin, was born, followed by LeBaron Loring Austin in 1853. Isabelle Trecothick Austin was born and died in 1854, and their last child, Rose Standish Austin, was born in 1860, a year after Jane had published her first collection of short stories, Fairy Dreams.
For the first decade or so of their marriage, the Austins were a family of some means. But somewhere around 1865, the family’s financial situation seems to have deteriorated. City directories in Lowell, Massachusetts, from 1866-1870, indicate that Loring was clerking in the post office and boarding in boarding house. An 1888 edition of Current Literature, a periodical that published literature and articles on authors and other publishing details, featured an essay on Austin that notes that Loring “lost his once large fortune, [so] the Austins live quietly” (477). Although homeowners in Concord, perhaps through 1870, it seems that the Austins never owned property again, choosing instead to live at boarding houses in different locations throughout the year.
This lifestyle seems a little odd for anyone acquainted with the nineteenth century obsessions with home and domesticity. Yet various clues in her letters suggest that Jane was not particularly domestic. Boardinghouse life would have not only removed her from the daily cares of managing a household, but also offered her a good deal of freedom and social connections. She seemed to enjoy traveling and moving from city to city. In addition to an extended trip to Florida, Cuba, and Haiti with her friend Mrs. Frank Leslie, her letters also indicate that she took trips to New York, Prince Edward Island, Nantucket, Chicago, and, more vaguely, trips “out west.” The Austins spent winters in Boston, where Jane would conduct research, sometimes at the Boston Athanaeum, and where she could be closer to her church. Summers were often spent in Plymouth, where she would also conduct research, both formally and informally, by examining landmarks and visiting with other Plymouth families to share stories of their ancestors.
Austin’s writing may have provided most of the family’s financial means. I have a list that I’ve accumulated of over 70 short stories that she published, and this list is simply the result of adding titles to the list as I’ve run across them. I’ve not yet specifically tried to search for more, but I will someday. And quite a few of her novels started out as serial novels in magazines like The Galaxy. This meant she would receive payment twice: first from the serial publication and then again when the same story was bound and sold as a book. Really savvy women writers, like E.D.E.N. Southworth, could even quadruple their earnings by printing in an American and a British magazine and then an American and a British edition of a novel. Austin also earned extra money by reading manuscripts for publishers to help them decide what was worthy of publication, suggesting that she had a fairly good eye for what would sell and what the public wanted/
If she was in fact writing to earn a living, her output varied at times. From 1864 to 1870, she published eight novels (two of these were dime novels). This production is especially interesting given that her children were quite young during this period, and Loring may have been working away from the home. But then she only published two more between 1871 and 1880. Did the family’s financial picture improve, and she took a much-needed break? Certainly much has been written about her friend Louisa May Alcott’s frenetic writing pace, but Austin’s sales never came close to matching Alcott’s.
Austin seemed to return to writing with gusto after that period, and she published 11 more novels between 1881 and 1892, along with a collection of previously printed short stories. Another manuscript was published after her death, in 1901, and there is a handwritten manuscript in the archives at the University of Virginia that I believe is unpublished. Her oeuvre varied greatly; she wrote fairy tales and novels for children, regionalist fiction, sensational/Gothic style fiction, historical fiction, and even a novel of manners. Unlike a writer such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who strove to master a particular kind of style, Austin experimented and always seemed to try new styles and story lines.
There are two consistencies among most of her fiction. One is that she frequently portrayed strong female characters and insisted on their role in the center of many of her stories. Those female characters are typically reflective of nineteenth century ideals of womanhood, but many of them are independent and reject gendered norms. The other is that she had a great interest in history, and she loved to set her fiction in faraway times and places. But she was a stickler for details and strove for a sense of accuracy; there’s even a letter in which she’s proving to an editor that a “cuttle fish,” which she described in a novel, is “authentic” and should not be cut from the story.
Austin was obviously well-read and educated, and she must have been a curious and lively person. She maintained some close friendships throughout her lifetime, most notably with Mrs. Frank Leslie, and it seems that she enjoyed a happy marriage, based on accounts in letters or magazine descriptions. The most poignant clue about their relationship is found in a letter Jane wrote to a friend in which she recalls happier times and then writes, “alas the world is
changed to me since then—that dear companion of my whole life has gone and with him much of the strength and interest of what is left.” Death records show that Loring died in Boston at 2 Linwood Square at the age of 71 on February 12, 1892, just before Jane’s sixty-first birthday. The cause of death was listed as “Valv. Disease Heart” and on a second line underneath, “Bronchitis.”
Austin also indicated in the letter that she was only recently recovered from cholera morbus, a serious illness from which it seems she never fully recovered. Jane Goodwin Austin died on March 30, 1894, at the age of sixty-three. The cause of death is listed as “Dilatation of Heart” on the death records, and her address was listed as 2 Linwood Square, Roxbury. Various sources had noted her illness in the weeks preceding her death, including Charles Wingate’s regular column in The Critic, dated March 3, 1894.
Austin’s funeral was conducted at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church on Florence Street in Boston, near where she had been living with her daughter on Linwood Square. The Boston Daily Globe described the funeral as being “crowded to the doors with sorrowing friends,” including “many well known lights of the literary profession, all imbued with the same spirit of loving regard and kindly remembrance for the one who had passed away.” A description of the flowers indicates the extent of Austin’s social and professional connections, including Houghton Mifflin and Co, the Woman’s Press Association, the Daughters of the Revolution, and Mrs. Frank Leslie.
The list of honorary pallbearers includes familiar New England names such as the Honorable Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Honorable H.O. Houghton, Professor W.W. Goodwin, Benjamin Marston Watson, Reverend Edward Everett Hale, Reverend W. B, King, Frank B. Sanborn, and Ebenezer Gay. Of especial interest is the fact that women also served as honorary pallbearers, including Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, president of the New England Women’s club; Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton, representing the Browning society; Mrs. William Lee, representing the Daughters of the Revolution; and Miss Helen M. Winslow, president of the New England Woman’s Press Club. The fact that Austin had honorary female pallbearers was mentioned in newspapers as far away as San Antonio, Texas.
My research here is compiled from a mix of sources printed in Austin’s own lifetime and archival sources. I’ve also relied, to lesser extent, on the few brief, modern biographies of Austin, such as the Guide to Literary Masters, American Women Writers, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. To date, I’ve visited the American Antiquarian Society, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Library of Congress, and the University of Virginia, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to acquire scans from materials at Barnard College, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Arizona, and the New York Public Library.
For a bibliography of Austin’s novels and short story collections, click here.