Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Old Peabody Pew by Kate Douglas Wiggin

81. The Old Peabody Pew: A Christmas Romance of a Country Church
by Kate Douglas Wiggin
fiction, 1907
third book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
Kindle book, 49
finished, 12/22/11

Because I read this on the Kindle, my 'copy' doesn't have this old cover, but isn't it wonderful!

I read perhaps her most famous book seven years ago, and jotted down these words.

'Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm 1903
By Kate Douglas Wiggin
Recorded Books read by Barbara Caruso
Fiction A

This was wonderful and as fresh as if it were just written. It felt a bit like Anne Of Green Gables, and Pollyanna. Rebecca's family is very poor, and she is given the chance for an education by going to live with two old maiden aunts. The young girl has a wonderful, cheerful outlook on life. I have a sense that all these books were written about a girl who could be an example to the reader. She isn't without troubles and problems, yet she remains steadfast and optimistic. Even as a grown woman, I found myself learning from her. Well written with memorable, real characters.'

I found The Old Peabody Pew to be equally so. It is a lovely, enjoyable Christmas romance. We meet the Dorcas Society, a group of 'excellent women' as Barbara Pym would have described them. They care for the material needs of the church, the Tory Hill Meeting-House in Edgewood, Maine, doing as much of the work themselves as possible, and getting a few excellent men to do what they cannot. Kate Douglas Wiggin founded The Dorcas Society of Hollis & Buxton Maine, and was its first Honorary President. There is a short article about it here. The Old Peabody Pew is performed as a fundraiser each year in the very church named in the story, the Tory Hill Church. I'd love to attend this annual event.

The pre-Christmas project in our story is cleaning the pews and putting in as much carpet as they could afford. They put in a stretch of rug down the aisle, and then go to work on their own family pews. They talk as they go about their work, and the reader gets to know the various personalities, and some of the town stories. Kate Douglas Wiggin doesn't turn her writer's eye away from the sadnesses of life, but she also offers humorous aspects. Mrs. Burbank notes that
"indeed, most of those who once owned the pews or sat in them seemed to be dead, or gone away to live in busier places."
To which Lobelia Brewster replies:
"I've no patience with 'em, gallivantin' over the earth. I shouldn't want to live in a livelier place than Edgewood … We wash and hang out Mondays, iron Tuesdays, cook Wednesdays, clean house and mend Thursdays and Fridays, bake Saturdays, and go to meetin' Sundays. I don't hardly see how they can do any more 'n that in Chicago!"
We also learn that Lobelia 'would not have considered matrimony a blessing, even under the most favourable conditions.' But the Widow Buzzell sees life quite differently. Speaking of her late husband she says,
I used to think Tom was poor company and complain I couldn't have any conversation with him, but land, I could talk at him, and there's considerable comfort in that. And I could pick up after him! Now every room in my house is clean, and every closet and bureau drawer, too.
The Peabodys of the title are all dead now, except the son Justin, who is one of those who moved away looking for more opportunity. Mrs. Burbank has recently sent him a request for a contribution for church repairs at an address in Detroit. Justin tried to live in Edgewood. He worked the farm and though he did everything right, he 'could not make the rain fall nor the sun shine at the times he needed them.' He had a terrible time with crows and various insects.

The women have spoken of him as being weak, by offering this information, the reader learns that he did make an honest attempt before heading west. Yet even there, after he's earned some money, he invests it and loses it, showing us that maybe there really is something called bad luck and that it happens even to good people who try. The news is full of people in our own time who have worked all their lives and now have no job or house.

Our heroine is Nancy Wentworth, a thirty-five year old schoolteacher; a kindly, cheerful person with a hidden melancholy, for she is in love with Justin. The descriptions of their relationship from ten years earlier show readers that we are in a very different time and place. Love was expressed quite modestly and innocently in such a society in those days. Nancy recalls a time when she sat in the Peabody pew with her friend, Justin's sister Esther.
Justin sat beside her, and she had been sure then, but had long since grown to doubt the evidence of her senses, that he, too, vibrated with pleasure at the nearness. Was there not a summer morning when his hand touched her white lace mitt as they held the hymn-book together?
And after his two years of trouble with the farm, when he was downtrodden and leaving Edgewood, he says upon parting.
"You'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy."
And to her these words were 'a promise, simply because there was a choking sound in Justin's voice and tears in Justin's eyes.' Nancy 'lived for' this phrase all the years since. Then she receives two anonymous letters listing meaningful verses from the Bible which raise her hopes that they might be from Justin.

Nancy tells the women that she will clean and carpet the Peabody pew rather than her own because it is more visible in the church, and also in honor of her friend, Esther. She comes back after her supper, and does her work alone in the church. At least she believes she is alone.

I dearly loved this book. You may read it online here.
Many of her books are also available here, as well as on Kindle.

This is my third (adult) book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.


  1. I love the cover of this old book! Sounds wonderful too.
    Your baklava recipe has the same ingredients but the cooking time is quite different! Mine was a little to brown. I do love it so...I make a pig of myself. My husband says its not that great and then I catch him sneaking pieces. He is so funny! Merry Christmas!

  2. It does sound beautiful, and I had to laugh about the "they can't be doing more than that in Chicago" bit!
    Also, it makes a nice change reading about love and romance not in the over-sexed descriptions so many authors nowadays think they have to use in order to please their readers. I am by no means a prude, but sometimes I get fed up when it has nothing to do really with the story but is just there to make a book more "saucy". When I want saucy, I know where to get that.

  3. I have heard about this book for heave inspired me to read it.

  4. Peggy, I really must make baklava much more often!

    Librarian, I've heard one twenty-something of my acquaintance saying they wished they had grown up in a different time.
    This is a truly wonderful story.

    Sarah, have you read any of her other books? Was it you who told me about Mother Carey's Chickens?? Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is lovely, too.

  5. Sounds like a lovely book.
    There is an endowed pew in an Episcopal church in the western part of the state...I saw it last month. The funds from the endowment help to support ministries of welcome within the church...and also, I think, the hot breakfast provided to local high school children.

  6. It is a really lovely book, Margaret. What a nice story about that pew.

  7. I remember loving Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as a child, but had no idea the author wrote for adults as well as children. This sounds really delightful - I've downloaded it from Project Gutenberg and am looking forward to reading it.

  8. Our niece lives in Buxton, Maine! I think I would like the characters in this book. Small town Maine people can be so funny without meaning to be, but they are certainly down-to-earth.

  9. Barbara, that is so great! I wonder if she has read this.


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