Refinement and Romance

Chapter 3: The French Connection

chapter illustration

Pencil drawing by Orra White of Napoleon's second wife, Marie-Louise, as she imagined her. Napoleon married Marie-Louise only for an heir that his first wife and true love, Empress Josephine, could not give him. Image courtesy of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

News from abroad reached even the little towns of the Connecticut River Valley. In 1814, while still regaining his strength, Edward wrote a play about Napoleon Bonaparte’s banishment to Elba, called "The Emancipation of Europe or the Downfall of Bonaparte: A Tragedy." He cast himself in the role of Alexander, Emperor of Russia, and Orra as Napoleon's wife, Marie-Louise (or Maria-Louisa). Amateurish as it was, the cast of characters involved half the town and performances were enthusiastically received. In his autobiography, Hitchcock disparaged the play as the crude product of his youth, but admitted that their rural audience had enjoyed it. And surely he was pleased at the chance to spend time with Miss White.

Aside from amateur theatrics, the flirtation took other forms. Edward and Orra peered through the telescope together and spent days in the fresh air of the forests and fields surrounding the town—with a proper chaperone, of course—collecting flowers and other plants. For both of them, enlarging personal knowledge of nature was a kind of sacrament, a way to demonstrate and deepen appreciation for God's creation. The outdoors gave them a place to talk freely about botany and astronomy and to debate the fine points of religion, especially when Orra underwent an "awakening" experience that confirmed and strengthened her religious commitment. Orra was outgoing and cheerful, where Edward could be prone to depression, possibly resulting from his perpetually delicate health. The easy flow of conversation must have been exhilarating, as each half of this pair began to realize how well matched they were.

Next chapter: A Spiritual Crisis

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