In my book, Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia, I profile the life of an important Philadelphia writer, Agnes Repplier.
Repplier was born in 1855 in Philadelphia and went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Eden Hall, in Philadelphia's Torresdale section. She was a headstrong, independent, mischievous girl, a sort of lady-like version of a male juvenile delinquent. As a result of her behavior (extremely tame by today's standards) she was expelled from Eden Hall, although her mother came to the rescue and enrolled her in the Agnes Irwin School. Unfortunately, she was expelled from the Irwin school as well. Life was not starting out well for little Agnes.
Little Agnes took a perverse pleasure in being bad, and so at age 11 she started smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes, a brand she would smoke until the end of her life. Her first book, In Our Convent Days (1905), Repplier recounts what her days were like in that strict convent school where, after daily morning Mass, the students were only allowed to speak French to their classmates at the breakfast table.
"At that Spartan meal...even had we been able or willing to employ the hated medium [French], there was practically no one to talk to. By a triumph of monastic discipline, we were placed at table, and at church, next to girls whom we had nothing to say;-good girls, with medals around their necks, and blue or green ribbons over their shoulders, who served as insulating mediums, as non-conductors, separating us from cheerful currents of speech...."
There was little time for recreation at Eden Hall. It also didn't help matters any that the school was unheated in winter.
When Repplier looked back at her days there, she (half in jest) wrote that her big Eden Hall accomplishment was learning to smoke. Along with her small circle of friends, they obtained these cigarettes from one of the girls' brothers, who apparently smuggled them in.
"But the role of rebel was a dangerous one in a convent school in the 1860's, especially when one was only fourteen," writes George Stewart Stokes, whose biography of Repplier (Agnes Repplier, Lady of Letters) was published in 1949. Repplier was expelled from Eden Hall after her second year there. "Just why Agnes should have been singled out of all the little rebels there at the Sacred Heart is not altogether clear," concludes Stokes.
The life of a non-student didn't thrill Agnes either. Before her mother enrolled her in the Irwin school 9in downtown Philadelphia) she had to contest with what she called "stupid, monotonous, everlasting home duties."
The ever precocious and impossible-to-please Agnes found the Irwin School "a dull matter of daily trips back and forth, of stupid evenings under the lamplight at 2005 Chestnut Street [her home], of endless tasks about the house in free time. " She wanted to return to the convent school, but she could not, and she was not happy. It certainly did not help that Miss Irwin was also a friend of her mother's, meaning that the spotlight would be on her every move.
A clash of wills occurred when one of her Irwin teachers gave her a book to study and Agnes refused to read it. She not only refused to read it, she threw it on the floor. Her reward for this act of defiance was expulsion.
At 16 years old, she then embarked on a serious course of self education, perfecting her French and Latin, reading and rereading Horace, and then trying her hand at becoming a writer by submitting stories, small articles and poems to various Philadelphia newspapers. She later achieved some success when she submitted pieces to the Catholic World and then, after many attempts, into the pages of The Atlantic Monthly.
It was a long process, but in the end she was living the life of a writer.
As Stokes writes: ""Every morning, promptly at nine, Miss Repplier would proceed to her study and take her place at a tidy desk watched over by a portrait of Keats after Severn's sketch. Though she had heard and read that some authors wrote their best at night because of the thought-conducive quiet, Agnes Repplier found that for herself the morning was the most propitious time of all."
When a Catholic priest suggested that she should stick to the essay form rather than write fiction, Repplier took the priest's advice and eventually came to be called 'the Dean of American essayists," "a shy Catholic version of Ralph Waldo Emerson," and "the American Jane Austen." She would also write a number of notable biographies. Among the most praised works are Mere Marie of the Ursulines, Pere Marquette, and Junipera Serra. Perhaps her most important book is Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1898), written for Macmillan's Travel Series. By 1900, she had won the admiration and respect of Edith Wharton, poet Walt Whitman, and novelist Henry James.
"There isn't a writer in the country who hasn't been trying to achieve the perfection of style of the distinguished Miss Repplier," Edith Wharton said to her after their 1906 meeting in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Repplier lived in Philadelphia all her life, but she felt under appreciated in her home town. In her book Philadelphia: The Place and the People, she wrote: "The Quaker City lacks that discriminating enthusiasm for her own children...which enables more zealous towns to rend the skies with shrill paeans of applause." She goes on to say, "if mistaking geese for swans produces sad confusion...the mistaking of swans for geese may also be a serious error. The birds either languish or fly away to keener air." What Repplier had in mind were those Philadelphians who left the city for more welcoming environments.
Repplier's writing career lasted 65 years, yet in order to experience the fullness of her reading public's appreciation, she had to travel to Boston. Stokes, for instance, had this to say about Repplier's treatment in her home town:
"If her head had been understandably turned by Boston, it was swiftly unturned again by Philadelphia. Back home, she was merely Agnes Repplier, a relatively insignificant writer living quietly west of the Schuylkill. Here she found no open-arms reception and this in spite of her 'triumph' in Boston. Here she found only obscurity, the obscurity, she felt, that is Philadelphia itself."
Repplier never married, but she had a cat named Agrippina. "Cats like quiet people. They heartily approve of a sedentary life. Cats are without morals," she wrote," and they are perfectly democratic. Dogs are snobs, preferring a mate of their own class. But as for cats, any old tom in the alley will please them. Consider Agrippina. She had a black lover, an alley lover. But he suited her. She was completely satisfied with him even if he had never seen the inside of a decent home. Agrippina was democratic. And Agrippina was the best of all."
Stokes, commenting on Repplier's unmarried state, writes, "Her life was to be singularly free of all considerations involving the heart rather than the head." She wasn't actively looking for a husband or a lover, either. As Stokes observed, "She not only offered men no encouragement--her wit and cleverness were generally far too brilliant for all but the hardiest-- but she may have frightened more than she attracted."
At some point in her career, she met the poet Walt Whitman and, according to Stokes (who interviewed Repplier some years before her death in 1950), "she found him a most astounding old man, though very simple, kind, and hospitable."
The fact that Whitman was boarding in Camden when they met, was for Repplier a most depressing reality. She felt that being a boarder was one of the most depressing ways anybody could live, and added that the reason why the great poet had such difficulty in getting along in life could be traced to his living in a city like Camden.
"What is...Camden?" she reportedly said to Stokes.
Yet Repplier traveled to the poet's boarding house and on that first meeting the poet did his gracious best: he served her whiskey in a china toothbrush mug, having no shot glasses on hand. Stokes writes that Agnes drank the drink "heroically," and then goes on to quote her thoughts about the condition of Whitman's rooms.
"His little room was littered with old newspapers, so that one lighted match carelessly discarded would send him into another world."
She also felt that while Whitman wrote a few great lines of poetry worth remembering, most of it was not worth remembering. As Stokes concludes, "She recognized that he [Whitman] always had the courage to be just what he wanted to be, that he never allowed anything to interfere with his life, and this she found an admirable quality. But she felt him to be an incurable poseur. He loved his indecency, she insisted, clinging to it with almost embarrassing ardor."
During her lifetime, Repplier turned down artist Thomas Eakins when he approached her about painting her portrait. She was afraid of Eakins' "uncompromising realism." In explaining her refusal, she said that as a tall thin woman, she'd probably have an easier time with Eakins than she would if she had been born "dumpy."
No column about Repplier would be complete without listing a few of her quotes.
"It is not because the city is big, but because it draws to its heart all things that are gay and keen, that life in the streets is exhilarating. It is short of birds, but that is a matter of more concern to the city's cats than to the city's inhabitants."
"Sufficiency, security, and freedom are not the exclusive ideals of the United States. We may be as good as we are great, but our distaste for sincere and searching criticism blurs our national vision."
On Books: "If they are somewhat antiquated and out of date, I have no wish to flout their vigorous age. A book, Hazlitt reminds us, is not, like a woman, the worse for being old."
On love: "Violent love cannot subsist, at least cannot be expressed, for any time together on both sides."
"Men and women who have a pressing job on hand (Florence Nightingale was all job) cannot afford to cultivate the minor virtues."
"An historian without political passions is as rare as a wasp without a sting."
On work: "The combination of solitude and stillness are fortune's great gifts."
On religion and politics: "There is nothing so abhorrent or so perilous to the soul of man as to be ruled in temporal things by clerical authority."
Agnes Repplier died on December 15, 1950, and after a Solemn High Requiem Mass at Saint John the Evangelist Church on 13th Street in Center City, Philadelphia, she was buried in the churchyard. Her obituary stated, "Friends are requested not to send flowers."