How various and how strange are the events of life. What unexpected changes occur in the course of a few short years, or even months. How little I dreamed one year since, that I should ever make a voyage to China. To China, that far distant land, which so few of my country women, or even ladies from any other clime have ever visited.”
So began the first diary of Caroline Hyde Butler-Laing (1804-1892), documenting her novel, tumultuous trip between the Battery of New York City and Guangdong (then referred to as Canton), China. Caroline was at the time Caroline Hyde Butler, wife of Edward Butler, a merchant trading in tea and silks with the country of their destination. Caroline was a devoted mother of four and a soon-to-be prolific writer, contributing stories to Graham’s and other ladies’ magazines. She went on to publish a handful of successful children’s books, many of which are featured as manuscript drafts in the Butler-Laing Family Papers, held at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at New-York Historical Society.
At the time of her diary entry, however, Caroline was concentrating on her health. She had fallen ill earlier in the year with consumption, a disease of the lungs commonly known today as tuberculosis. Caroline accompanied Edward on his business voyage in the hopes that the long days of fresh ocean air would cure her of the affliction that had taken both her father and more recently, her sister Harriet. Caroline stepped on the ship Roman on October 11, 1836, and did not return until early 1837, but the change of scenery did her well; she recovered fully.
She also brought home with her fresh inspiration. In the following diary entry, Caroline describes the animosity and curiosity that a “sailor dog” and a bear cub exhibited for each other during her journey:
Friday October 28.th Lat. 34.39N. Long 4032 W. Distance 1772 miles. 15 days out. […] The Bear has been brought on deck to day, and is cutting his capers in grand style. His Bear-ship is very young – only about nine months old, and having been caught when small, has been brought up with children, and is therefore very docile, but extremely mischievous. I have often heard the expression “As clumsy as a Bear” but I had no idea of the awkwardness of their movements. It is laughable, to see the creature standing on his hind legs, shaking his head and paws, as if for a dance, and so clumsy! He seems willing to scrape acquaintance with Sailor the dog, and has tried to coax him to a Hug several times, but Sailor only growls in return, and seems to say, ‘You keep your distance, I’ll keep mine’.”
Caroline would later incorporate the experience into Little Anne Leslie, a morality tale told in her compilation of children’s stories, The Ice King, and the Sweet South Wind, published by the Boston publisher Phillips Sampson & Co. in 1851. Two drafts of The Ice King are found in the Butler-Laing Family Papers, heavily edited and stained with Caroline’s inky fingerprints.
O I take your meaning friend,” answered the dog, “here is my paw upon it. But until then let us try to make our voyage together pleasant. Our natures it is true are very unlike, and our education has been very different, yet I do not see why we cannot study to make ourselves agreeable and friendly. Ah Bruin,” the dog continued with a melancholy shake of his head, “I have lived long enough to know that there is not too much comfort in the world, and I have learned too that we make a great deal of our unhappiness ourselves. I shall thereafter make it my rule to conform as much as I can to whatever situation I am placed in. Once more I say Sir Bruin, since we are compelled to live together, let us try to make each other happy. Give us your paw!”
After Edward Butler died during the cholera epidemic of 1849, Caroline was left with nine children; six still lived at home. She persevered despite tragedy, and with her characteristic, intrepid optimism, increased her writing to supplant her income and support her family. She published several successful children’s books, including The Ice King and The Little Messenger Birds, or, The Chimes of the Silver Bells. An old friend of her husband, Hugh Laing, offered Caroline much-needed empathy and companionship during this time, and they soon married in 1851. She and her children moved to Brooklyn and lived at 16 Clinton Street.
At 65, Caroline took on her next adventure: she journeyed to Rome by steamer, a no-doubt incredible change from the sailing adventure of her youth. Though she wrestled with her “old enemy, sea sickness,” Caroline made it to Italy in one piece and filled ten notebooks of her two-year experience visiting her daughter, Harriet Denison Butler Read, in Italy. She was present during the Capture of Rome, which unified Italy under a monarchy and ended the 1,116-year reign of the Pope over the Papal States, on September 20, 1870. She wrote on that day, “Oh it is grand, this terrific reverberation of cannon echoing over all the seven hills of Rome! People are running hither and thither, every window is filled with heads. I observed men secretly clapping their hands and exchanging words of congratulation that the Italians will soon capture Rome.” Caroline would pen a manuscript of Italian history upon her return to the United States, including an edition for children.
Caroline H. Butler-Laing died in 1892 at 88-years-of-age in Brooklyn. Her life was full and long, and the papers she left behind, in various diaries, books, and letters are a fine example of the old adage, “Write what you know.”
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.