On this day: Agnes Repplier

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day in 1855, Agnes Repplier was born in Philadelphia.

At the age of ten, she was sent to boarding school at the Convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, at Eden Hall, in Torresdale, north of Philadelphia. She describes her two years at Eden Hall in her most famous book, In Our Convent Days, 1905.

In the chapter called "Un Congé sans Cloche", page 107, Agnes Repplier tells of a visit by Bishop James Frederick Wood to Eden Hall. He sang a funny song for the girls and granted them a holiday. The holiday, ten days later, was a glorious day of playing cache cache (hide-and-seek) on the vast campus, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine in a remote music room, and distributing the wrong laundry bundles to the other girls in the dorm.

Agnes Repplier was expelled after two years. Her mother wrote to her, telling her to drop her friendship with a girl whose mother had been divorced. The nun who read all the mail noticed that Agnes did not stop being friendly to the other girl, so she told the other girl of Agnes's mother's letter. The girl asked Agnes if it was true, and Agnes said no. She was caught in the lie and sent home.

For some pictures of Eden Hall, click here. See pages 450 and 451.

Next, Agnes Repplier was enrolled at The Agnes Irwin School. Here she lasted only three terms before being expelled. That was the end of her formal education, although after becoming a famous essayist, she received honorary doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Yale, Princeton, Marquette, and Columbia.

At home, her cruel mother continued to treat her badly. Once, when Agnes was fifteen and had blemishes on her face, her mother said, "You look like a leper who has had smallpox".

Agnes Repplier's niece, Emma Repplier, published Agnes Repplier: A Memoir, in 1957, telling the story of her aunt's childhood. Agnes loved the theater. The first play she saw was East Lynne. At Mrs. Drew's Arch Street Theatre, she saw Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Winkle, Charlotte Cushman in Guy Mannering, Maurice Barrymore in The Rivals, Adelaide Neilson as Juliet, and many other great stars of the day.

She began writing. Her father, who had been a successful coal dealer, lost his money. In 1870 the family lived at 2005 Chestnut Street, but by 1880 they had moved out to 4015 Locust Street. Agnes's mother urged her to write to earn money for the family.

Father Isaac Hecker, editor of The Catholic World told Agnes Repplier to concentrate on essays, not fiction. She appreciated his advice and followed it. Her essays, published in Life, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The Yale Review, McClure's, Harper's, etc., made her famous.

She met all the literary stars of the period, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Walt Whitman, etc.

Emma Repplier quotes Walt Whitman's comment about Agnes Repplier: "She strains for brilliancy, tries hard and harder and hardest until she gets her wit just where she wants it." And Henry James, in a letter, mentioned Agnes Repplier, "whom I liked for her bravery and (almost) brillancy". Page 100.

They were right. Her work hasn't held up. She knew it wouldn't. "Looking back on her life, she often said her success was greater than she merited, and she gave some of the credit for this to the era in which she lived. She doubted if any of her books would survive, and she contemplated this prospect with greater equanimity than is possible to her small host of admirers." Page 170.

When Agnes Repplier was very old, her mind began to fail. "Each year, when her birthday arrived on April first, the Philadelphia newspapers sent reporters to take her picture and ask the immemorial questions." The family put an end to the visits after Agnes's 87th birthday. "On her 90th birthday, the Philadelphia Record wrote, 'We hope it was a happy birthday, with a book, a pack of cigarettes and no reporters.'" Page 169.

Agnes Repplier died in 1950 at the age of 95.

Collections of Agnes Repplier's essays were published throughout her long career by Houghton Mifflin. Some may be read online.

Times and Tendencies, 1912.

Americans and Others, 1912.

More of her books may be found here.

Her biographies have held up better than the essays. Mère Marie of the Ursulines may be read online, and the biographies of Père Marquette, Agnes Irwin, and Jun'pero Serra are easily found in libraries.

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