Izzy Bird, impressing her hosts
Izzy Bird, Mrs Grundy

Izzy Bird, hard, greedy life

Isabella takes a minute in this letter to describe her hosts. She is still in “canyon,” waiting for a guide to get her to Estes Park.*

Mr Chalmers came to Colorado from Illinois nine years previous. He nearly dead from consumption but the clear air perked him right up. He is operates a lumber mill and “tall, gaunt, lean, and ragged, and has lost one eye. On an English road, one would this him a starving or dangerous beggar. He is slightly intelligent, very opinionated, and wished to be thought well informed, which he is not.”

The family belongs to the strait-laced Reformed Presbyterians, a “narrow and unattractive religion, which I believe still to be genuine, and an intense but narrow patriotism, are the only higher influences” on his life. Which sounds pretty darned familiar in America, 120+ years on.

Of Mrs C, the is less flattering. Isabella tells her sister that Mrs C “looks like one of the English poor women of our childhood — lean, clean, toothless, and speaks, like some of them, in a piping disconnected voice, which seems to convey a personal reproach.”**

The family includes a grown-up son who works in the mill with the father; a “girl of 16, a sour, repellent-looking creature with as much manners as a pig; and three hard, un-child-like younger children.”** Some of that hardness, she reckons, is because of the poverty. But she also puts her finger on something that has been a feature of American life since its inception. It’s this “hard greed, and the exclusive pursuit of gain, with the indifference to all that does not aid in its acquisition, are eating up family love and life throughout the West.”

Which is easier to say when you come from a relatively well-off English family but, still. She’s hit a nerve.

“You will now have some idea of my surroundings,” Isabella writes. “It is a moral, hard, unloving, unlovely, unrelieved, unbeautified, grinding life. These people live in a discomfort and lack of ease and refinement which seems only possible to people of British stock.”**


* She will get there, I promise, and it is glorious. But we are still in the slack time.

** It isn’t, of course, like this everywhere.


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