The word “Victorian” used to be synonymous, not so very long ago, with repressiveness and prudery. These days we know that there was a whole lot more going on beneath those hoopskirts than met the eye. And in recent decades, the rise of the Steampunk aesthetic has been providing young girls with spirited role models in the form of Victorian women who traveled the world as journalists or explorers. Some of these can be found in graphic novels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; others in history books.
Among these real-life female adventurers of the late 19th century was Mary Hallock Foote, a woman born to a well-educated Quaker family in Milton in 1847 and raised on the shores of the Hudson River. The Hallock home was a hub of culture and intellect and distinguished visitors, including an aunt who was an abolitionist and suffragist.
Young Mary – known as Molly – attended the Female Collegiate Seminary in Poughkeepsie, a precursor of Vassar College. In 1864 she entered the new Cooper School of Design for Women in New York City, and quickly established a reputation in the publishing business as a fine artist, specializing in drawing directly on wood to create woodblock prints. She was commissioned to illustrate works by Longfellow and Whittier and an influential 1877 edition of The Scarlet Letter.
At the age of 29, Mary Hallock fell in love with and married Arthur De Wint Foote, a young mining engineer beckoned by career opportunities on America’s frontier. “No girl ever wanted less to ‘go West’ with any man, or paid a man a greater compliment by doing so,” she wrote in her autobiography, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. But go West she did, and made the best of it, raising three children while writing and illustrating articles and essays for prestigious Eastern magazines such as Century, Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly and Harper’s Weekly. At times she was the family’s sole breadwinner, following Arthur from Leadville, Colorado to Deadwood, South Dakota to Boise, Idaho to Morelia, Michoacán in Mexico and eventually to Grass Valley, California as he sought work with mining and irrigation projects.
Mary Hallock Foote’s observations, from a cultured woman’s point-of-view, of the rough life of the turn-of-the-century American West soon began to take the form of novels and short stories. Her best-known works included Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp (1883), In Exile and Other Stories (1894), Coeur d’Alene (1894), The Prodigal (1900), The Desert and the Sown (1902), A Touch of Sun and Other Stories (1903), Royal Americans (1910), The Valley Road (1915) and The Ground Swell (1919).
She also continued with her work of illustrating other authors’ pieces set on the frontier, along with her own. In 1893 she was chosen to judge chalk, charcoal, pastel and other drawings for the Chicago World’s Fair Columbia Exposition, and elected the following year to the National Academy of Women Painters and Sculptors. In her day she was acclaimed as the “dean of women illustrators,” while her frontier stories were held in as high esteem as those of her contemporary Bret Harte (who was born in Albany, incidentally). And wherever the Foote family lived, Molly’s homesteads served as salons for the local intelligentsia and political activists, as the one where she grew up in Ulster County had been.
After her death in 1938, Mary Hallock Foote’s reputation faded. Then, circa 1970, word got around that historian Rodman Paul was planning to resurrect her hitherto-unpublished memoir, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. Inspired by her story, novelist Wallace Stegner sought and gained the Foote descendants’ permission to use her extensive correspondence as material for a new roman à clef, which he promised would not identify its real-life source. Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, won high critical praise along with the 1971 Pulitzer Prize. It was later revealed that long passages of it had been lifted directly from Mary Hallock Foote’s letters and journals. And not all the surviving members of the Foote family were pleased with some of Stegner’s exercises in dramatic license, including having the Molly character’s daughter Agnes – who died from natural causes in real life – perish by drowning while neglected by her mother during an adulterous tryst.
Perhaps it’s time that the adventures of this bold, brave, prodigiously talented Hudson Valley native be rediscovered, in her own words and pictures!