Imagining Adeline: Family Diary Inspires Plainfield Woman’s Novel

Friday, April 11, 2014
In 2009, Helen Taylor Davidson of Plainfield sat down with the diary of her great-grandmother Adeline Elizabeth Hoe with the intent of transcribing it.

That would have been ambitious enough, but she went a step further. She dove into the deep end of imagination and wrote a novel that begins where her great-grandmother’s diary leaves off. Both the novel and the annotated diary were published at the end of last year as Prelude, a Novel and the 1854 Diary of Adeline Elizabeth Hoe.

Adeline Elizabeth, called Addie by her family, started the journal in the spring of 1854, when she was 17. The daughter of Richard March Hoe, a well-known manufacturer and inventor of the era, Addie lived comfortably with her three sisters, father and step-mother in a house in lower Manhattan. For the next six months Addie set down, in a neat but slanting hand, the events of her life, from sewing and cleaning and caring for her siblings to musical recitals, dances and travels during the summer to farmland north of the city and in New Jersey.

“I think they had a pretty interesting life for the time,” Taylor Davidson said.

The diary is a recitation of facts, names and places, but it draws a discreet veil over Addie’s emotional life, which frustrated Taylor Davidson at times. “When I saw those points in her life where there were unexplained passages, I wanted to know what they were. If only she could have said what they were. Why doesn’t she expand upon it?”

Although slavery and abolitionism were the heated subjects of the day, Addie Hoe made no mention of them. Hers was a life of relative ease, not scarcity. Even so, she was in mortal dread, as were all people of that era, of such diseases as cholera, typhus and measles, which make frequent appearances in the journal.

“I tabbed up the references to diseases,” Richard Davidson said. In a six month period, Addie mentioned diseases 21 times, and death three times. Relatives and friends get sick, take to their beds, hover between life and death and either recover, or don’t.

Taylor Davidson tried a number of years ago to transcribe the journal but hadn’t gotten beyond a few entries once she realized how time-consuming it was to read the faded ink, decipher Addie’s handwriting, and then type up the entries.

In 2008, after years of living in Ohio, Idaho and Maine, Taylor Davidson returned with her husband Richard to Plainfield, to the same house where she’d grown up. It was designed in 1896 by the noted Cornish Colony architect Charles Platt. She is the younger sister of Steve Taylor, former New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, and first cousin on her mother’s side to Peter Burling, the former state senator who lives in Cornish. Novelist Sarah Stewart Taylor of Hartland is a niece.

In the interest of posterity, Taylor Davidson again turned her attention to the diary.

“It was a responsibility to family history to transcribe it,” said her husband, who collaborated with her on the transcription and annotation.

As she read through the journal, Taylor Davidson began to notice that one name recurred frequently: Joe Stewart. He came and went often from the house on lower Broadway, but there was no clue as to who he was or what he did. So Taylor Davidson began to imagine that perhaps Addie took a special interest in him, and he in her.

“I think I was so perturbed about not knowing more about Joe Stewart, that I just had to fill it in,” Taylor Davidson said.

Once she began throwing Joe and Addie together she determined that the great issues of slavery and disunion would also make their way into the story. So Stewart became an abolitionist who helps African-Americans escape slavery on the Underground Railroad, and Addie became a convert to the Abolitionist cause. Taylor Davidson weaves into this narrative elements from the journal.

Because Addie left so much unsaid, Taylor Davidson had ample room to maneuver as a novelist.

After six months, Addie Hoe stopped writing in her journal. No one knows why it ground to a halt. “It fades away toward the end,” said Richard Davidson. “Was she sick and tired of keeping a diary, or was there a sadness?”

Also unknown is the fate of Joe Stewart. Addie married DeWitt Clinton Lawrence, the scion of a prominent New York family, and the marriage was not a good one. “It’s sad, like a Jane Austen novel that doesn’t end happily,” Taylor Davidson said.

Addie Hoe Lawrence died in 1883 at age 47, of unknown causes. Also unknown is her burial site. Taylor Davidson felt a few points of connection with her great-grandmother — both pianists and great readers — but the divergences are greater than the similarities.

“In the time in which she lived, women were so circumscribed by what they could do,” she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.