One of the most intriguing members of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore was Clara Newman Turner—known in the minutes as “Mrs. Sidney Turner”—who served for several years on the Board of Managers and appears frequently in the minutes as a presenter and commenter on others’ presentation. The sleuthing of Jill Fury, one of my students, revealed that Turner was the cousin of no less than Emily Dickinson–and had in fact grown up with Emily in Amherst after being left an orphan.

Clara Newman Turner
Clara Newman Turner (1844-1920), in The Kennel Club: A History and Record of Its Work (London: Kennel Gazette, 1905).

Clara and Emily apparently remained close for many years. Clara visited Emily and her sister Lavinia in Amherst every year, even after she married Sidney Turner in 1869 and moved to Connecticut. According to Clara’s niece and apparent namesake, Clara Newman Pearl, the famously reclusive Emily actually left her Amherst home to comfort Clara after her husband passed away a decade or so later. Clara Newman Pearl describes the visit thus:

“A slight figure wrapped in an old squirrel-lined circular flew up the steps and into the house. A rusty crepe veil fluttered in the wind as she hurried to my aunt’s side. It was the first time that she had been out of Amherst for twenty years, and she was the center of attraction as long as she stayed. My fifteen year old curiosity made me ask why she did not leave Amherst more often. I remember well her reply. ‘Because, my dear, I do not like to travel. One sees so many people and things that one does not wish to see.’” (Qtd. in Richard B. Sewell, Life of ED, Vol. 2, p. 266)

Some years after Sidney passed away, Clara Newman Turner ended up in Baltimore, first living at the old Altamont Hotel, and then at the Cecil apartments, which are still located at the corner of Eutaw St. and Dolphin Ave. Here, she would have lived near several other WLCB members, including longtime secretary Lydia Crane, who lived just around the corner, and it’s likely that that’s how she became a member of the Club.

Clara was not just a reader of Emily’s poetry. She also wrote poetry herself. Jill discovered the title of a book titled Mail from Nowhere, and after contacting several librarians, we located a single copy in the Houghton Library at Harvard. The Houghton digitized the self-published, privately printed volume, and it’s now available for anyone to read.

Front cover/wrapper of Mail from Nowhere
Front cover/wrapper of Mail from Nowhere (published before 1900?), by Clara Badger Newman Turner (Mrs. Sidney Turner), Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The Houghton digitized the self-published, privately printed volume, and it’s now available for anyone to read.

Clara, as a confidant and correspondent of both Emily and Lavinia Dickinson, almost certainly received the handwritten poems Emily enclosed in fascicles and circulated among family and friends. The title and dedication page of Turner’s book itself evokes the privately circulated fascicles, and it is tempting to think of the poems in this book being written as responses to poems by Emily (and which ones?).

Dedication page of Mail from Nowhere.

The poetry included in Mail from Nowhere, like Dickinson’s poems, tends toward short, balladic verse structures and frequently touches on religious subjects. Unlike Dickinson’s, however, Turner was far more confident in her faith, and also frequently treated domestic subjects including marriage, motherhood, and widowhood, which were almost entirely absent from her cousin’s poems.

While her poetry was far more conventional than her cousin’s, Clara Newman Turner was nevertheless capable of ironic introspection, and her poems frequently express a faint (or sometimes not so faint) disappointment in life and in woman’s lot. The deflating aura of January 2nd– the second-sleepiest day of the year, according to a newly released study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, after January 1–prompts me to share two poems from Turner, both included in Mail from Nowhere as well as in our anthology of works by the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, Parole Femine: Words and Lives of the WLCB. Enjoy–and happy new year, or Jan. 2, or … whatever.

The New Year

Thou hast opened thine eyes to a new, strange thing;
Thou hast opened thine ears to hear bells ring
     To the birth–to the birth of a year.
Thou hast opened thine heart with those who pray;
The dear old year is a yesterday;
     A new, strange thing is here.

To-morrows are all bound close together,
With their varied suns, and winds, and weather.
     Can any one–any one know?
We sometimes wish, “If we only knew!”
We only say, “Happy year to you!”
     And pray it may be so.

January the Second

January First promised to protect me.
January First has gone away and left me;
Me–January Second, at the head of all this train!
Indeed you’ll never catch me in such a scrape again!

I can’t live many hours; “I feel it in my bones,”
The sad responsibility of all these other ones
Tugging at my heels as tho’ their lives depended
On their getting right along as soon as mine was ended.

It’s the way with lots of things–They’re sort of in the way
If they claim a single minute beyond their little day.
You’re January Second till the Third comes up apace.
And then you just step down and the next one takes your place.

We all just have to face it, and have our little day,
Without a single question as to any other way.
We’re on the top a little while, and people read us through,
And then we’re gone, and laid aside, the best that we can do.

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