Chapter OneNoblest Girl
When Rosalie Edge spoke of her late start in conservation work, she mentioned Central Park, which she could see from her apartment on Fifth Avenue. In the 1850s landscape architects Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had designed the beloved New York greensward to transform eight hundred acres of naked granite and marsh into pastoral woods, meadows, and ponds. For the last thirty years of Edge's life, the tall Beaux Arts windows of her building refracted Central Park's green relevance into her gracious rooms.
Rosalie Edge-baptized Mabel Rosalie Barrow-had been brought up on Central Park's engineered version of nature. By the time of her birth on November 3, 1877, millions of trees and shrubs, vines and flowers of more than one thousand botanical species had been planted in the red soil ferried over from New Jersey. Dirt by the ton had been transported to the chosen site, for "a crowbar thrust anywhere into the ground would meet rock," Edge wrote. Her mother, Harriet Bowen Barrow, remembered the endless carts of earth drawn by draft horses lumbering up from the river dock to the future park.
What Edge saw of Central Park's virtuous beauty from her apartment could be deceptive. After heavy downpours, the New Jersey soil so laboriously excavated, transported, and deposited on Manhattan washed down the steep bank and entry drive on Central Park's perimeter. The Fifth Avenue sidewalk across from Edge's building would be caked in mud. She was piqued every time she saw men shovel the eroded soil into a truck, drive to the East River, and dump their wet load in.
CENTRAL PARK'S INFLUENCE on Edge's life, however, can be traced further into the territory of her memory, bounded on its far side by her childhood in the elegant carriage days of the early 1880s. This was long before she was drawn to wildness of either the manufactured variety or the natural type. The spectacle of New York's ruling class on parade made a deeper impression. Central Park was the place she visited with her family when she was a pampered child called Mabel clothed in ermine and velvet, and the birds she loved were the stuff ed ruby-throated hummingbirds that circled her white silk bonnet. The park was then "innocent of hard pavement. A good macadam was overlaid with earth-'dirt' as you say-and riders intermingled oft en with carriages on the drives-the little coupes, or heavy barouches drawn by big horses with silver-plated chains on their bridles, making music almost like bells. New York then was a proud city with a proud aristocracy."
Her British father, John Wylie Barrow, was a wealthy accountant, respected Orientalist, skilled horseman, and most wondrous of all, first cousin to Charles Dickens. With Mabel's penetrating blue eyes and mass of wavy dark hair, she was said to bear a "wonderful likeness" to her father, who, judging from the oil portrait of him painted in 1864, resembled Dickens.
According to Barrow family ritual, John Wylie, astride his favorite horse, Ottawa, arrived at the park ahead of the carriage that brought Harriet and the children. The groom followed a few paces behind Barrow leading Harriet's spirited white mare, Coquette. Mabel remembered how her mother, dressed in a slim black riding outfit, stepped down from the carriage and dramatically paused. Barrow did not permit her to mount her horse until, "imperious as a prince," he ran his handkerchief over the mare's neck and flanks to make sure she was clean and dry. Barrow scolded the groom if Coquette failed his inspection. Attentive little Mabel took mental note of her father's confident exercise of authority.
On one afternoon in April, the Barrows arrived at Central Park to see a procession heading to a statue of William Shakespeare in commemoration of the Bard's birthday. Leading the way was Edwin Booth, renowned Shakespearean actor and despairing brother of the assassin John Wilkes. As the Barrow party neared the Shakespeare devotees, Harriet's horse reared and pranced "like a ballerina" as though performing her old act in the circus that had previously owned her.
The walkers scattered, and Edwin Booth turned to regard Harriet Barrow and her white mare. "His face lighted with genuine enjoyment, and he was applauding and saying 'Brava! Brava!'" Harriet, however, was embarrassed by the scene she and Coquette had created. "John," she murmured nervously, turning toward her husband. Barrow beamed at his wife, who looked as confident on her mount as if she "were dancing the lancers in a ballroom." He sidled close but did not catch Coquette's bridle or try to stop the performance. As he leaned toward Harriet, Mabel could hear her father say, "It's beautiful. Enjoy it, dear heart."
LIKE OTHER MEMBERS of the city's social elite, the Barrows came to the park to see and be seen. John Wylie and Harrie, as Barrow nicknamed his wife, were "well- known to many people who never had the pleasure of meeting them," or so it seemed in the golden light of reflected childhood. Harriet's eyes were "china blue," and John Wylie was as handsome as his wife was lovely, according to Mabel. When dressed to go out in the evening in his velvet doublet, brocade knee breeches, with the ostrich feather bowing from his hat band, her father was "far superior to the fathers of the other little girls" she knew.
Their affection for each other was mutual and conspicuous. John Barrow called Mabel his "Noble Girl," even his "Noblest Girl," lest there be any doubt about her supreme place in his heart. She was the youngest of the five surviving Barrow children, and John Wylie's pet names for her contrasted with his collective references to her much older sisters, Margaret Dubois and Anna Evertson, and to her brother Archibald Campbell. In one letter to Mabel, they were described as her "subordinates."
"I cannot allow anyone to be disrespectful to the Noble Girl in her own house," Barrow wrote to Mabel in 1882 while he was away. She was four years old, and it seems she had complained to her father about sibling disobedience to her wishes that needed to be addressed when he returned. During another absence, Barrow wrote: "I hope your two maids continue to merit your approbation by their humility and obedience." Mabel was probably too young to read the letter herself; one of these obedient maids may have read it to her.
Since she loved animals, Barrow dutifully reported any he saw in his travels; alligators, cockroaches, cats, and dogs merited mention. He bought her canaries and parakeets to keep in the conservatory at home, where he raised orchids. Mabel once directed her nurse to inform her father that the silent canary had started to chirp again. Barrow wrote back that he was relieved the bird had "come to his senses again, and shown his appreciation for his fine new cage and elegant surroundings by singing in the proper manner." But there is no evidence she preferred birds over other creatures, such as her cat, Orange.
Mabel and her father observed their own Central Park ritual. When the rest of the family did not accompany them, he took her on pony rides and bought her ice cream. While away, he once wrote of how much he missed seeing her in the park "running about in the grass and directing and taking charge of things generally." It was an appropriate training ground for Mabel, at the tender age of five or so, to exercise her freedom of expression under her father's powerful auspices.
Although Mabel's early tendency to take charge charmed John Wylie, her sisters and her brother Archibald did not find it adorable. There was much quarreling and divisiveness among them. For confirmation of her superiority, the child Mabel kept her father's letters of devotion. The habit of preserving what mattered most to her had begun.
ON THE FAMILY'S Central Park outings, Mabel rode in the carriage with her three subordinate siblings. She had no memory of her elder brother, William Woodward, accompanying them. Mabel had no memory of William at all. He was already a student at Columbia College when she was two and left home soon afterward. When William married a woman his parents disliked, mention of the young man's name was forbidden in his mother's presence.
Three other Barrow daughters had died before Mabel was born, which explains the age gap between her and her older brothers and sisters. John Wylie and Harriet donated a marble altar to St. Bartholomew's Cathedral in their infants' memory; somber Harriet wore a locket with a portrait of one of them painted on it and a tendril of the baby's hair coiled within. Perhaps John Wylie overcame his own grief by devoting himself to Mabel, who robustly survived. He was forty-nine years old when this last daughter was born. Financially secure enough to semiretire, Barrow had both the time and the means to lavish his attentions on his youngest.
William, Margaret, Anna, and Archibald Barrow had been given middle names plucked from the family's distant past. Mabel's middle name, Rosalie, was of more recent origin and was tied to yet another tragic loss. Harriet Barrow's sister Mary Putnam had given birth to four babies, all of whom died before they were eight months old. A Putnam daughter had been baptized Rosalie. Mary was widowed shortly after the last child died. With no children of her own to raise, Aunt Mary busied herself with resurrecting her family's genealogical past rather than tending to the future.
Aunt Mary's genealogy efforts supported her sister Harriet Barrow's pride in their family's descent from illustrious Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, "the first Patroon of Rensselaerwyck in New Netherland" and a "merchant-prince of the Seventeenth Century, buying and selling precious stones and other wares, and a banker." In 1630 Kiliaen acquired his "great fief in the New World through his Lord-Directorship of the West India Company."
Almost three hundred years later, Harriet instructed her children Margaret, Anna, Archie, and Mabel to "remember [they] were all baptized in the Killaen [sic] Van Rensselaer bowl." It may have helped for the society-conscious Harriet to stress this fact to off set her husband's blood relation to the celebrated Charles Dickens. Harriet's ancestor was not as well known as Dickens, but at least he had been known for much longer. In the New York circles in which the Barrows traveled, old Dutch kin held their value better than more recent English ones.
Years later Rosalie Edge, who remained almost as conscious of her upper-class origins as her mother might have wished, conceded as much: "Recent biographies have all stressed his [Dickens] lowly origin and the mean beginning to his life," she wrote. "We have been reticent about proclaiming him our first cousin, removed by but one generation."
John Wylie shared his sister-in-law's passion for genealogical digging and delved well beyond his relation to Dickens. After tracing the Bowen-Woodward-Barrow lines, he discovered that he was related to his wife, who was his "fourth cousin, once removed" by way of Gaulterius Du Bois, another seventeenth-century Dutch progenitor. Du Bois came to New York to serve as a minister in the Dutch church. In America, Du Bois's son John married a woman named Jean McNeill. By tracing the McNeill-Du Bois off spring forward to his own day, John Wylie Barrow was pleased to confirm that he was not only blessed by close kinship to Charles Dickens. He was, as he had suspected back in England, also "a near relative" of the contentious American painter James McNeill Whistler. It is said that Barrow introduced himself to Whistler's mother, Anna, soon after he arrived in America, and according to Barrow family lore it was Anna Whistler who introduced this ambitious young Englishman to his future wife, Harriet Bowen Woodward.
BACK IN ENGLAND twenty years before John Wylie was born, his father, Thomas Culliford Barrow, had been responsible for initiating a far more significant courtship, at least as far as British literature would be concerned. Thomas Barrow introduced his pretty and petite sister Elizabeth to his friend and coworker in the Navy payroll office, John Dickens. Thomas's father, Charles Barrow, ran the office. It was a prestigious appointment and one in keeping with the Barrow family's bourgeois standing in wool manufacturing, musical instruments, and newspapers. John Dickens was of a much lower class than the Barrows and made considerable progress up the social ladder when he married Elizabeth Barrow in 1809. The Dickenses' son Charles was born in 1812. Decades later Charles Dickens's Barrow cousins of New York City still insisted that it was "generally considered that the great novelist's gifts were inherited" from Elizabeth Barrow's side of the family. Charles Barrow, however, was convicted of embezzlement from the Navy office not long after Elizabeth married John Dickens. Barrow testified in his own defense that he had only pocketed the money to support "the very heavy expenses of a family of ten children, increased by illness." The court was unsympathetic, and Barrow fled the country to avoid imprisonment. His crime and abandonment heaped shame and financial ruin on his family.
John Dickens lost his Navy office job and had trouble finding employment that paid enough to support the extravagant spending habits he had acquired in his marriage to Elizabeth. He borrowed heavily from his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow, and other Barrow family members and incessantly squabbled with them and his wife over money. When he did not pay his wine bill, John Dickens was sent to prison, which heaped more shame on the socially tarnished family. The misfortunes of the Dickens household provided an endless source of dramas for young Charles.
Through it all, Uncle Thomas Barrow remained on excellent terms with his talented nephew. Uncle Thomas, his wife, who was also named Harriet, and their son, John Wylie, lived above the bookstore on Gerrard Street that Dickens frequented, and Uncle Thomas was one of those who encouraged Charles to be both a serious writer and a reader. In subtle tribute to his uncle's influence, the lawyer Jaggers in Dickens's semiautobiographical Great Expectations lives on Gerrard Street, and his rooms are exhaustively detailed in the novel.
Dickens might have witnessed a grisly scene in Uncle Thomas's flat after Barrow broke his leg. The leg became infected and had to be amputated. "Where's my leg?" Uncle Thomas is said to have asked when he recovered from his unanesthetized swoon of agony. "Under the table," was the reply, according to Dickens, and the novelist's depictions of amputees and wooden legs may have been colored by what happened at his uncle's Gerrard Street flat. After Uncle Thomas recuperated, Dickens reminded him of how he had diligently behaved as his "little companion and nurse, through a weary illness."
AS CHARLES DICKENS'S popularity soared, little John Wylie Barrow, sixteen years younger than his cousin, was displaying another kind of family genius for language. By the time he was eight, he could read Dickens's serialized novels on his own, and at that age bought a copy of Homer from the Gerrard Street bookstore. John Wylie taught himself to read the Bible in Greek and won prizes at school for his translation ability.
At fourteen John Wylie was "obliged to go into an office" to support his family, presumably because his father, as an amputee, could no longer work. But the urge to study prodded the youth; he quit work and went to college in London and then in Heidelberg to learn Arabic and Hindustani. At twenty-three John Wylie abandoned "an early dream of entering the East India service" and pursued the study of Chinese, Latin, Italian, French, Russian, and German at the university. But again "a want of means and determination not to be dependent upon others" derailed his quest for formal education, and he never returned to it.
His knowledge of ancient Greek, "Hebrew, 'Chaldee' and the Talmud" was nonetheless extensive enough to win him an appointment as a secretary with the British legation to the Vatican. Though "warmly attached to the Church of England," John Wylie was granted access to the Vatican's closely guarded copy of the Codex Sinaiticus, one of Christianity's oldest texts.
German Lutheran scholar Constantine Tischendorf had discovered 129 leaves of the codex in a trash bin at St. Catherine's Greek Orthodox monastery in the Sinai Peninsula in 1844. Tischendorf wanted to present the original Greek manuscript dating from the third century to his Eastern Orthodox patron Czar Alexander II and accompany it with a Russian translation. He engaged Barrow to do the work, which was completed in time to celebrate the one-thousand-year anniversary of Christianity's arrival in Russia. Barrow received one of the five authorized copies of the codex from Tischendorf in return for his services, and Czar Alexander presented the young man with two egg-sized amethysts bearing the Romanoff seal.