Tuesday, March 12, 2019

American Feminist vs. Risorgimento General, 1862

Turin was an exciting place for foreign diplomats in the years following the establishment of the united kingdom of Italy in 1861.  The Risorgimento, both a political and a cultural movement, brought Italy’s political, intellectual, and social leaders to the new capital in the north. (Rome, the putative capital, remained under the control of the Catholic Church, with French support, until 1870).  As the new nation’s leaders debated how to address the many unresolved questions of Italian nationhood, Turin became a haven for Italian aristocrats, former revolutionaries, intellectuals, and visitors from America and Britain.  It was in this stimulating environment that George Perkins Marsh and his second wife, Caroline Crane Marsh, found themselves after George’s appointment by President Lincoln as the first U.S. Minister to Italy in 1861.

Caroline Crane Marsh (1816-1901) was a woman of enormous talents and intellect.  Fluent in German and conversant in many other languages, she was a poet, translator, and eventually her husband’s biographer. Her diaries in the Marsh Papers at the Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont, provide ample evidence of her engagement in the social and intellectual life of Italy, as well as the vital role she played in the diplomatic mission advising her husband and hosting visitors.
Caroline Crane Marsh in Italy, 1860s.

Caroline Marsh enjoyed debating issues of current interest with her guests, and was not afraid to make a reasoned rebuttal to an opinion with which she differed.  As an advocate for women’s rights she greatly influenced her husband and offered her feminist views freely to others.  In March 1862, for instance, she relished the opportunity to respond to remarks on the education of women made by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian general and future prime minister.  She recounted the incident in her diary on March 15:

Saturday [March] 15 [1862]

Visitors few but all acquaintances, with many of whom I begin to feel myself quite familiar.  To my great satisfaction General Menabrea, by repeating the remarks he made to me some weeks since at the opera, gave me an oportunity [sic] to say a few words on the other side of the question.  The graces in woman and a devotion to her family duties were all that were required to her perfection.  “But,” I said, “what is there left for us if nature has not gifted us with graces, if we have no family to which to devote ourselves or if ill health deprives us for long years of all social enjoyments and of the strength necessary to attend to household matters? With thousands of women one or more of the suppositions are stern facts.  You would deny us all those mental rescources [sic] with which wide knowledge furnishes you—you would leave us to count our beads under such circumstances, but you would leave us nothing else.”  I then told him that I thought nature had made wide differences between men and women and that it should be the object of education to bring them nearer together rather than to increase these differences, and finished my speech by a quotation from St Clement’s advice to his clergy “teach your men to be modest, your women to be brave.”  The General seemed much amused and quite inclined to pursue the discussion, but we were interrupted by the coming of a new set of visitors.

Italy had been home to an unusual number of woman scholars in the Renaissance and female literacy had once been higher than in most of Europe.  By the nineteenth century, however, these advantages had been lost.  Caroline Marsh encountered in Italy a society in which the social expectations for women of all castes were more tightly drawn than in America, and where few recognized the value of female education.  In citing her “suppositions,” moreover, she spoke from experience: for much of her life she suffered from an undiagnosed illness that gravely affected her eyesight and often left her unable to walk more than a few steps at a time.  Clearly, she used this time to perfect her mind.

Caroline’s views on women’s roles, as expressed in her diaries, are explored more fully by David Lowenthal in his 2008 article in the Journal of Social History (see below).  She continued to keep her insightful diaries until at least 1880.  When George died in 1882, he left little money to his family, but his life-long passion for books had produced a 12,000-volume library of great value that would soon find its way to the University of Vermont. Frederick Billings, a lifelong friend of Marsh’s and an 1844 alumnus, purchased the books from Caroline for $15,000 and donated them to UVM, along with funds to build a new library. In the late 1880s Caroline Marsh donated George’s papers to the University, establishing one of our most important research collections.  Her diaries and other papers, which have received less scholarly attention than her husband’s, were given to UVM in 1958-59 by Lowenthal (1923-2018), the eminent geographer and Marsh biographer.  We recently received Dr. Lowenthal’s papers, containing additional Marsh materials.


Lowenthal, David. "The Marriage of Choice and the Marriage of Convenience": A New England Puritan Views Risorgimento Italy. Journal of Social History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Fall, 2008), pp. 157-174.

Lowenthal, David.  George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of conservation.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Crane, Elizabeth Greene. Caroline Crane Marsh: A life sketch.  n.p., n.p., after 1901.

Marsh, Caroline Crane. Wolfe of the knoll, and other poems. New York: C. Scribner, 1860.

Marsh, Caroline Crane.  The Hallig: or, The sheepfold in the waters: a tale of humble life on the coast of Scheswig: with a biographical sketch of the author. Translated from the German of Biernatzki by Mrs. George P. Marsh. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1856.
Marsh, Caroline Crane. Life and letters of George Perkins Marsh, comp. by Caroline Crane Marsh.  New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1888.