Monday, July 26, 2010
Everybody Hates Leah?
I’ve written about Maggie Fox on this blog, and I’ve written about Kate. But I haven’t said much about the third Fox sister – the one variously described by reviewers as controlling, domineering, mercenary, manipulative, and overbearing: Leah Fox Fish Brown Underhill.
Leah was the oldest of the Fox siblings. She grew up in poverty, and her father was absent through most of her childhood. She married Bowman Fish at the age of fourteen, had one daughter (Lizzie), and was subsequently abandoned by her husband. She married Calvin Brown under tearful circumstances, although it didn’t turn out the way you might think. Her third husband, Daniel Underhill, was a wealthy man who gave Leah the life of comfort she’d always dreamed of.
Leah was the mastermind behind the rise of spiritualism. She managed her sisters’ careers and their money. In Maggie Fox’s own words (from her 1888 confession): Katie and I were led around like lambs. Mrs. Underhill gave exhibitions. We had crowds coming to see us and she made as much as a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars a night. She pocketed this. Of course, by the time Maggie made this statement, she’d had a falling out with Leah and was taking her revenge.
On the surface, history paints Leah as all of those adjectives I listed above, and yet common sense suggests that she would not have been very successful at promoting her sisters, her cause, and herself if she was not also personable. People liked Leah and trusted her, and no matter how bitterly Maggie complained about her later, it cannot be denied that Maggie depended on her sister’s guidance for many years. It was Maggie’s romance with Elisha Kane that originally drove a wedge between them. Leah did not believe that Kane’s family would ever accept Maggie – and Leah had a realistic and almost prophetic grasp of the matter.
In We Hear the Dead, I tried to portray Leah as more than a greedy manipulator, and it seems as if some readers did see the good in her. A recent review commented that, as eldest sibling, Leah employed a tough love philosophy while trying to take care of everyone in her family. I also received the following comment about Leah in an email from a reader: I admired her for her strength, ability to persevere in all situations, ability to care for her family as a woman of that time, and the way she was a mother figure where her mother was lacking.
Fellow writers may understand when I say that, while I was writing about Leah, I sometimes could hear her voice in the back of my head – explaining her behavior, defending actions that looked, on the surface, to be harsh. History has not necessarily remembered her kindly, but I think that the real Leah was probably doing the best she could … for herself, yes, but also for her sisters.