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HomeLife In the BerkshiresConnections: Elizabeth Sedgwick’s...

Connections: Elizabeth Sedgwick’s Lenox ‘Culture Factory’

"A woman of great force and integrity,” Elizabeth Sedgwick was also “modern” in her desire for her girls to be well educated and well rounded.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

This is the story of two nineteenth century Berkshire women: one whose connection to the County was solid and impactful; the other whose connection was possibly tangential.

Elizabeth Buckminster Dwight was born into a prominent Stockbridge family in 1801. The men in the family were major land owners, political representatives, officers and gentlemen. Their sons were well educated and their daughters, including Elizabeth, received a reasonable education for a nineteenth century woman.

In 1819, when she was 18 years old, Elizabeth Dwight married Charles Sedgwick. Born in Stockbridge in 1791, Charles was ten years her senior. His was an equally prominent family, and the sons of the house were equally well educated. It was considered a propitious match. Charles and Lizzie’s future seemed both bright and predictable. They would live out their days as eminent citizens of Stockbridge.

They did not. Instead they made two unusual decisions. In 1821, Charles accepted the position of Clerk in Lenox. They left Stockbridge, and moved to a house roughly where Springlawn is today. Then in1828 Lizzie went to work. She opened Mrs. Sedgwick’s School for Young Ladies. She called her school, alternately “The Hive” and “The Culture Factory.” The school operated continuously until Lizzie’s death in 1864.

There were approximately twelve pupils at a time; eight living in the Sedgwick household and four in an adjoining cottage on the grounds. Later, there were more students and some – or perhaps only one – would live off the grounds. Some young ladies who attended Miss Sedgwick’s wrote about their experiences. Through them we learn that, “the little school house was in the garden [behind the house].”

The school day opened with “Mrs. Sedgwick reading a chapter from the Psalms or the Prophets…her demands upon the scholars intellects were moderate but she insisted upon good recitation and clear understanding [of what was memorized].”

The girls studied rhetoric (art of effective writing/speaking), physiology (biology), ethics, philosophy, and history. The girls were required to memorize and recite Shakespeare, and the great Shakespearean actress (and Lenox neighbor) Fanny Kemble stopped by the school often and read Shakespeare aloud to the girls.

catharine sedgwick
The writer Catharine Sedgwick often read Shakespeare to the students at her sister-in-law’s School for Young Ladies.

Mrs. Sedgwick was described as “a woman of great force and integrity.” She was also “modern” in her desire for her girls to be well educated and well rounded. She was also modern in allowing the girls to roam around Lenox in twos without chaperons. Of course, this was years before the glitz of the Gilded Age and far from a crowded resort, Lenox was “a simple rural village.”

Students of the school included Charlotte Cushman, Alice Delano, and Ellen Emerson. Cushman became an actress equivalent in fame and stature to Meryl Streep today. Ellen was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter. Also attending was the granddaughter of President Van Buren. In short, for three decades it was a successful school drawing young ladies from the “best families.”

Charles’ sister Catharine Sedgwick joined the household, her literary salon in her wake. As South Berkshire attracted more and more of the literati, the household in Lenox became ever more a cultural center and for her students, “a cultural factory.”

And who was the person with the possibly tangential relationship to the Berkshires? Jennie Jerome. Miss Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill, was the mother of Winston Churchill. Others reported Jennie was among the students at Mrs. Sedgwick’s school. In support of the notion, it is the type of school her family would have selected for her and her connection to the Berkshires goes back to her great great grandfather Samuel. He lived on Prospect Hill Road from 1728 –1796. Furthermore, in a red and white house still standing on “Courthouse Hill” (Old Stockbridge

Jennie Jerome.
Jennie Jerome.

Road today) something was found in the attic: a wood framed slate with “JJ” carved into it. The house was the residence of the Episcopal Reverend Justin Field. Students attending Mrs. Sedgwick’s did board with him. Is the slate, therefore, physical evidence that Jennie was one of them? Possibly but there is a difficulty: Jennie was born in 1854. The school closed in 1864. Would her parents have sent so young a girl away to school?

There is an indisputable connection between our Berkshires and the great Winston Churchill through a great-great grandfather. But is there the closer connection to his mother? Not proven.

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