All of the English professors at Berry College have their individual passions and interests that fulfill them in their research pursuits; sometimes, those same pursuits take them to beautiful and interesting places. Most recently, Dr. Christina Bucher traveled to Florence, Italy in June and she was gracious enough to write the following short piece on the experience as well as sending in just a few incredibly beautiful pictures of the sites she saw.
What could be better than traveling to a European city to present a paper on a woman who always wished to visit there? I was fortunate on June 6-8, 2013 to travel to Florence, Italy, to do just that at the Transatlantic Women II: Women Writers Abroad Conference. The conference was sponsored by the Margaret Fuller Society, the Catharine Maria Sedgwick Society, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society. In addition to diverse, interesting, and enlightening papers, the conference also included a visit to the English cemetery in Florence, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried; a lavish dinner at the Palazzo Borghese, which made me feel like I’d been dropped down into the middle of an Edith Wharton novel; and a reception at Il Palmerino, the country home just outside of Florence that was once the home to the noted writer, Violet Piaget, who is better known by her male pseudonym, Vernon Lee.
What made the experience even more meaningful and exciting is that my work was about a woman with local Georgia connections. Born in South Carolina in 1862 but moving to Rome, GA, in 1868, Anna McNulty Lester was a painter and teacher at several women’s colleges in the South in the late 19th-century. In 1897, she left the teaching profession and at the age of 35 went to Paris to study painting. Her sister, Edith Lester, a gifted pianist, had already been studying music in Berlin for several years, supported financially by Anna. Anna’s story, largely based on her own letters and diaries, has been told in two creative non-fiction works by her great-niece, Susan Gilbert Harvey: Tea with Sister Anna: A Paris Journal (2005) and Postmarks: the Summers of ‘98 (2010). Susan is well-known in the Rome arts community, both for her bold visual and performance art from the 1970s-1990s and the two books she has written; she provided immeasurable help as I was working on the project.
In my paper, I explored the way that Anna Lester’s travels in Europe challenged several of the notions of the genteel, wealthy Southern family and culture she grew up in -- simply by traveling to Paris to study art, including drawing from nude models, both male and female (which was verboten in the U.S), and traveling alone about Paris. Of particular interest to me was how the distance and subsequent heavy correspondence back to the states reveals that Lester maintained a somewhat secretive relationship with a mysterious Mlle. Henriette Ballu, a fellow teacher at Augusta Female Seminary (now Mary Baldwin College). Mlle. Ballu encouraged Lester to make the journey to Paris and the letters between them, coded as “Jonathan” and David,” reveal that theirs was at the very least a romantic friendship, at a time when such friendships were beginning to be looked upon “suspiciously” with the advent of the work of the sexologists who were drawing attention to homosexuality. Moreover, while in Paris, Lester struck up a friendship with two “Scottish girls,” as she refers to them – Frances Blaike and Amy Steedman -- who were clearly partners; Blaike’s comical cartoons of the three women’s adventures/misadventures provide insights into their friendship. Sadly, suffering from tuberculosis, Anna returned to Rome, GA in December of 1898. Before she made the decision to return to Georgia, however, she contemplated staying abroad, particularly because she yearned to visit Italy, especially Florence, and see and study the paintings there. On November 27, 1898, shortly before she is to sail for home, she notes in her journal, “Miss Steedman has some pretty sketches in Watercolor of places in Italy. Oh, I did want to go to Italy so much!”. I am so pleased that in presenting the paper at this conference, I did, in some small way, finally take her there.
Christina G. Bucher
Associate Professor of English, Rhetoric and Writing
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