‘To Communicate Energy’: Eliza Fenwick Cultures the New-World Child
In the spring of 1829, British author and teacher Eliza Fenwick (1766–1840) began advertising for the school for girls she was about to open in Niagara. As she had done when starting similar schools in Bridgetown Barbados, New Haven Connecticut, and New York City, she pitched her defining brand: her ability ‘to inspire [in her students] a taste for knowledge and to cultivate the power of acquiring it’ (Niagara Farmer’s Journal, 22 April 1829). What is noteworthy in Eliza’s ad is her emphasis on the teacher/student dynamic: a new-world variation on the educational philosophy she had been evolving over a 40-year period, beginning when she had been an up-and-coming young author in the heady days of pedagogical and political reform in 1790s London. As I follow Eliza’s moves from England to Barbados to North America, I’ll explain how she adapted her teaching to each new location and how, in concert with the communities of women with whom she networked, she was able to provide for herself and her family without male support. Unlike contributions by men—whose legacies are typically preserved in the public sphere (their names surviving on buildings or street signs or corporations)—cultural contributions made by women in the private sphere are harder to define and harder to sustain. Eliza’s innovative teaching, I’ll argue, did live on through the lives of the young people she taught in the early nineteenth century, surviving in the communities in which she lived and ultimately contributing to the development of the social fabric of those communities.