The Way of Duty:   A Biography of Mary Fish

The woman about whom this biography was written died near the end of the Regency, and she never set foot in England in her life. Despite its rather dour title, this is one of the most vivid and intimate biographies of anyone I have ever read. Yet Mary Fish was not a prominent citizen or a powerful public figure. Nor was she married to one. Mary was an ordinary woman who lived among ordinary people. The kind of woman about which very little is known, because few such women left behind any record of their lives. But, unlike many other women of her era, a great deal is known about Mary because her youngest son did become a prominent man. He revered his mother, and kept her private papers, ensuring their survival into modern times.

The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America was researched and written by the husband and wife team of Joy Day and Richard Buel, Jr. Sadly, Joy Buel has since passed away, but this biography still remains as a testament to her scholarship and skill as a writer.

Mary Fish was born on 30 May 1736, in Stonington, Connecticut, at the time, part of the British Colonies in North America. Her parents were the Reverend Joseph Fish and his wife, Rebecca. Though the Reverend Fish was the pastor of the church in Stonington which descended from that of the Puritans, he was a kind and loving father. He saw to it that both Mary and her younger sister, Rebecca, got a good education, first, at home with him and later, at a school in a nearby town. They were never harshly disciplined and both were allowed to choose their husbands, neither of them were forced into arranged marriages. Their parents wanted them to marry men they loved and respected, though this was not always the case with marriages at this time.

Because she married a man who lived at some distance from Stonington, Mary wrote frequent letters to her parents and her sister after her marriage. This began a lifetime of writing, both letters and an ongoing journal, which continued throughout her life. It is from this material, much of which has survived, that Joy and Richard Buel were able to compile the facts of Mary’s life. However, her life was influenced by many of the events which took place over the course of her life. The Buels set her experiences in the context of the wider world so that Mary’s biography not only provides a picture of the life of an ordinary woman and her family, but also how that life was shaped by the events through which she lived.

Sadly, Mary was widowed in her mid-thirties, with young children, at the death of her first husband, John Noyes. Though a number of men courted her, she was in no hurry to give her hand, in part because she valued the freedom she had, but also because she had learned the importance of loving one’s life partner. Despite various hardships, Mary was able to give her hand where she gave her heart. And, though Mary did not think it so, fortunately for us, her courtship with her second husband was conducted in part via letter, many of which also survived. The Buels quote generously from both Mary’s letters and those of her future husband, giving us a wonderful view of how a mature couple courted in the America of the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Fortunately for us, though not for Mary, her second husband, Gold Selleck Silliman, had business which took him from home periodically. He also served as an officer in the Continental military during the American Revolution. He was even kidnapped and imprisoned by the British until a prisoner trade could be arranged which included his release. This part of Mary’s biography gives us a very clear picture of how the war affected the families of those who served in the military, and even those who lived in the path of the British as the war progressed across the country. These events also resulted in quite a number of letters written between Mary and her new husband, many of which have also survived.

There is no doubt this second marriage was a love match for both parties. The letters the two exchanged, even those they knew would by read by the British officers holding Mary’s husband, clearly show their love and devotion to one another. And, if you read between the lines, it is clear that Mary very much enjoyed the physical aspects of her marriage and was eager to continue them as soon as her husband returned to her. Their letters are romantic, even playful and light-hearted at times. Long passages from their letters are quoted in the book, giving readers a real taste of true love between a husband and wife and how they expressed their feelings to one another.

Heartbreakingly, Mary was widowed again in her mid-fifties. By then, her youngest children by Gold Silliman were in their teens, but due to the heavy financial burdens placed on her husband during the war, his estate was nearly insolvent at his death. Mary, who was determined that her two youngest sons would have a college education, worked hard to maintain what remained of the estate as their inheritance. She also managed to send both of them to Yale University, where both graduated. Her youngest, Benjamin Silliman, first read the law, but eventually accepted the position of the first professor of chemistry at Yale. He went on to a long and distinguished career at Yale. It was also Benjamin, who gathered and cataloged as many of his mother’s papers as he could, thus ensuring their survival. Her sons by John Noyes also retained some of her papers, which also survive. Both were consulted by the Buels to tell the story of Mary Fish’s life.

However, lest you think Mary’s story ended with the education of her sons, followed by a brief retirement, such was not the case. Though many friends of her generation had passed away, at the age of sixty-eight, in 1804, Mary married again, to Dr. John Dickinson, a widower of seventy-three. It seems to have been a companionable marriage, since both enjoyed entertaining family and friends in their home. They also enjoyed traveling around Connecticut to visit their various children and grandchildren. However, since Mary and John spent little time apart, there is no substantial correspondence between them which would shed light on the intimate details of their lives. Mary was widowed for the third and final time at the age of seventy-five. After that, she traveled between the homes of her many children, caring for and teaching her many grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren. She lived through the War of 1812, which, fortunately, had less impact in the Connecticut area than had the War of Independence. Mary Fish Noyes Silliman Dickinson died on 2 July 1818, at the age of eighty-two, survived by many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mary Fish endured a number of vicissitudes in her life, but she found within herself the courage and strength to deal with them, in large part, leaning on the strong faith instilled in her by her parents to see her through. She was fortunate in her marriages, young love in her first, passion in her second, and companionship in her third. In all cases, it was her choice to marry, and she was lucky never to regret any of her choices, not something all women in the eighteenth century could claim. And we know so much about her life because so many of her letters and other papers survived due to the care of her descendants.

Mary Fish was born during the reign of George II, in what were, at the time of her birth, colonies of Great Britain. She died as a citizen of the new United States during the Regency of the man who would become George IV. Though Mary lived her life in Connecticut, her life could well be the model for other middle class women who lived in rural communities in Great Britain at that time. Such a woman could have been the mother or grand-mother of a young person who would have lived during the Regency. For authors seeking the details of the life of women who lived in rural England during the Georgian era, the life of Mary Fish is an excellent resource. Though Mary Fish lived a somewhat sheltered life as a child and, initially, as a young wife and mother, she was not isolated from life and was not a helpless or frivolous woman. She adored her second husband and it is clear they enjoyed all aspects of married life, honestly and without any embarrassment. Their letters may well serve as inspiration for any author seeking to develop an accurate view of married love between the parents or grand-parents of a Regency character. However, above all else, the biography of Mary Fish is a well-written and inspiring story of the life of an ordinary woman who lived a long, rich, fulfilling and eventful life.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to The Way of Duty:   A Biography of Mary Fish

  1. what a fantastic resource! and what an amazing woman. Truly one who is a model for the independant American woman

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The book was originally published in the mid-1980s, which is when I first read it, while I was in grad school. It was one of the research books I truly enjoyed reading. When I happened to run across it again at the library a few weeks ago, though it is about an American woman of the eighteenth century, I thought that many who are interested in the lives of women before and into the Regency would find it a great read. Especially since it is all true and the Buels were very generous in quoting from the original source material.

      So many things happened to Mary and members of her family during the course of her life that Regency authors will find a plethora of curious details which might be woven into a romance or three.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • It is number 1,673 on my wish list

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          You better start wishing for extra time, so you will be able to read all those books!

          =^..^=

          • To be fair, this is the joint wish list with the husband, and some of the books on it are pamphlet sized publications on specialist sorts of subjects… I ought to get around to organising it into Ought to have, Useful to have and Want to have. As I have no interest in the differences between a SkF18 ausferung A and an Skf 18 ausf. B I can ignore half the list. And there are novels on there too [like Deflowering Daisy as I wait for it to come into paperback!]
            As a matter of interest, not that it would affect country folk so much, I was reading some research that has been done, that has discovered that if the nose gets very cold, the mucus membranes within it stop protecting as well against the incursion of pathogens, and so getting cold may in fact cause one to catch a bug that would otherwise be resisted, which I thought was pretty interesting.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              The information about the cold nose is very interesting. Some years ago, I happened upon a medical study that stated that neither cold nor damp could, in themselves, cause illness. Only germs could do that. But nothing was said about the fact that cold could lower the nose’s ability to protect the body from bugs. Thanks for sharing that.

              =^..^=

              • I should also have thought that being unable to get warm would lower the body’s defenses generally, since any strain on the homeostasis of the body is going to generally lower the resistance to disease. Which is one of the reasons for the typhus outbreak in 1816, the year without a summer, people were hungry and cold, were not washing because it made them colder, and were huddling together in close proximity sharing the lice which carried what is also called gaol fever. And fear and depression add their mite to the lack of wellbeing. Mary’s very positive outlook was probably as much of a reason behind her long and healthy life as anything else; and her happiness with her husbands. Happiness really does make you live longer….

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                You have gone way beyond me at this point. I pretty much hate anything to do with medicine and healthcare, so I avoid that stuff as much as I can. The information I came across on the power of cold and damp happened by accident and I did not pursue it.

                However, I do agree that happiness can extend life, I have known a couple of people who seemed quite healthy, but just seemed to crumble when they lost someone very close to them.

                Regards,

                Kat

  2. elfahearn says:

    How interesting. Imagine how tough her immune system must have been to survive so long during that era. The cold, the damp, the lack of antibiotics and all of her pregnancies. Truly, it’s amazing. I’m going to check out that biography. It sounds terrific.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Life was not fraught with disease in the America of the eighteenth century. Mary and most of her family had smallpox inoculations, so they were protected against the most deadly disease in the colonies at the time. Because they lived in rural communities, they were not exposed to many other diseases, so they were at low risk. Neither cold nor damp are a threat to people with a strong constitution, they are just uncomfortable. Most people did a lot of physical labor which kept them in fairly good shape and able to withstand colds and other minor bugs. The main threat to women at that time was childbirth, but, barring any complications, a healthy woman would usually survive. Even so, the infant mortality rate was still close to fifty percent. Sadly, Mary was not immune to that.

      The Way of Duty has been reprinted several times and should be available in most libraries or through used book stores. It is well worth the effort to seek it out.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. seamustheone says:

    As soon as I saw Silliman I knew how it would end! I have come across Benjamin in researches into the History of Science – the geological area in particular. He started “Silliman’s Journal” later “The American Journal of Science” which still thrives as a geological journal – often with chemical flavour, for Silliman was a chemist initially (check him with Wikipedia). Its lovely to see that back story – as they say now.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, if you have not yet read his mother’s biography, you will not know that he knew nothing about science when he took the job. Benjamin ran into Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale, while out on a walk one day. Benjamin was considering taking a job as a tutor in North Caroline and asked Dwight’s advice. Dwight offered Silliman the position of chemistry professor at Yale on the spot. When the young man demurred, explaining he had no education in science, Dwight told him that his students would know nothing, either. It was Dwight’s opinion that Silliman was a bright young man who could educate himself. It was only necessary that Silliman keep a lecture or two ahead of his students. Silliman did not want to go so far from home, and was talked into taking the job. He threw himself into the study of science and the rest, as they say, is history.

      Regards,

      Kat

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