Susan Benedict Fairfield Hill, 1836-1898
The Connecticut Magazine: an illustrated monthly
Volume 5, 1899, edited by William Farrand Felch, George C. Atwell, H. Phelps Arms, Francis Trevelyan Miller
SUSAN BENEDICT FAIRFIELD HILL was born in Danbury, Conn., November 15, 1836, where she lived until her marriage in 1856. Her taste for historical and genealogical research, her literary acquirements, her marked personality, and her ardent attachment to the home and state of her nativity well warrant a sketch of her chequered life in this magazine.
Her educational opportunities were limited, but she was a quick and ready learner, and a good reader. She inherited musical gifts from her father and played the church organ when quite young.
Her published reminiscenses of her youth, in the then old country village, reveal a strong love of nature, intense love of friends and companions, and a love and sympathy for animals which would have stocked a whole Society for the Prevention of Cruelty. At twenty she was married to Mr. George B. Fairfield, then a young merchant in New York city. In a few years they were settled with Mr. Fairfield's parents in Hudson, N. Y., the quaint old city of his birth.
Though spent with varying fortunes, her life for many years in the hospitable Fairfield mansion, opposite the Court House green, was a pleasant one. Her friendliness and graciousness could not but win for her, life long friends. The near Hudson and distant Catskills satisfied her great love of natural scenery.
Lett with but little means after the death of her husband, her only son having gone to New Orleans to seek his fortune on arriving at the age of manhood, she came back to the friends of her earlier years in Danbury.
While there she began writing letters in behalf of her son who was one of the supposed heirs of the "Townley Lawrence" estate in England — said estate being one of those immense British inheritances which from time to time dangle before the dazzled eyes of would-be heirs in this country. Mrs. Fairfield's letters were mostly answered by Mr. Alden F. Hill, also a claimant in the same estate, and at the time acting for its acquirement for the multitudinous American "heirs."
Mr. Hill became after a time so much interested in Mrs. Fairfield's correspondence, that he visited Danbury to make her acquaintance. The acquaintance ripened into marriage, and the twain sailed away to the British Isles to pursue together the "Ignis fatuus" of the Townley Lawrence estate. No tour of pleasure and sight-seeing was theirs, but working over dusty tomes, and ransacking record offices for missing links in ancestral chains. Of the shipwreck on the way across, and the story of their minute search, each has written interestingly, but the brevity of this sketch forbids quotation from her letters, or from the little book written by Mr. Hill showing that the whole quest was, and will always be useless. An honest conclusion not always reached by fortune seekers. This English trip of 1884 was the beginning of Mrs. Hill's interest in ancestral and genealogical work, and from that time ' search work" was her favorite occupation. Mr. Hill had been a great traveler — was a man of decidedly literary tastes — and probably his influence largely determined the direction of her pursuits. On their return to this country they settled down in a cottage on Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. There she spent several years until, (having already lost when abroad her only child) there came in quick succession about 1892 the deaths of her husband and her two brothers.
So, sadly bereaved, and no longer young, she found herself not only thrown on her own resources, but with the duty imposed on her, as she imagined, of carrying out the plans her husband had formed for developing "The Beach" on which their little farm was situated. One can hardly blame her for the futile attempt. Her Hampton home, standing midway between the famous "Boar's Heads," just south of Rye Beach, was indeed, " beautiful for situation." It stood on a slight elevation that sloped gently down to the ocean. A tiny lake, white and odorous with pond lilies during the summer months glittered on the south edge of the cottage grounds. On the north, a pine grove of many acres, whispered across the winding road that led through banks of wild roses to old Hampton village. Full in front, spread the wide blue expanse of the ocean rolling its great waves crested with foam on a perfect beach of smooth white sand.
No wonder that in her sense of loneliness, fearful of losing so exquisite a home, her sorrow found vent in verses that photographed the landscape around her, and whose composition acted on her tired nerves ''like dull narcotics, numbing pain." Among her fugitive pieces published in the Boston Transcript is the following :
BESIDE THE SEA.
"The dashing waves sweep in across the bar;
Low in the West goes down the eveningstar:
In arching purple heavens serene and far,
The white moon gleams.
Soft through the dusky pines the night winds moan;
Sweet voices of the night, so sad and lone,
Cannot you comfort me ? I miss my own,
Who only corne in dreams.
Waves dash and break upon the darkling shore;
Winds of the forest sing to me once more!
Mother Nature, take me to your breast.
In sleep so sweet, and deep, in perfect rest
That so I may Find strength to live my life another day."
Her last long visit to her native borne was when she was engaged to complete the unfinished "History of Danbury" left incomplete by the death of Mr. James Montgomery Bailey—the "Danbury News Man" as he used to be called. To her it was indeed "a labor of love." It was not only the natural and acquired aptitude for the work of historical and especially antiquarian research that made it a pleasant task—but to pursue the search in her native town after so long an absence—and among the friends of her childhood—to re-read the records and votes of the old settlers—to regather the local traditions of the historic town—to decipher the names and dates on the moss covered grave stones was to her a welcome toil of which she never seemed to grow weary. Her compilation, re-arrangement, and research added greatly to the volume and value of the History.
Fortunately she had exactly the faculty and training for that part of the work for which Mr. Bailey was least qualified and which was least congenial to him. Her style was easy and flowing—yet with due regard to brevity.
The history itself, embodying the long labors of both authors, rounded out by Mrs. Hill's careful revision, thoroughly illustrated by life - like pictures, has a variety and interest not often found in the town histories of the state.
It has deservedly received the highest encomiums from historical journals and the critics best qualified to pass judgment upon it.
In this most cursory sketch of a lifelong friend whose rare personality, sunny disposition, and bright intelligence we feel we have hardly outlined, we have omitted to speak of her many contributions to the local press wherever she resided. Her contributions were always welcome. Several of the editors for whom she wrote spoke of her death as of a personal loss. Her tribute to Mr. Bailey in the introduction to their mutual work is as tender as it is true and noble.
She died at Hampton, Sept. 25, 1898, of pneumonia after a very short illness and was laid to rest on the following Tuesday, beside the husband of her youth and their only son.
Perhaps the readers of the Connecticut Magazine will pardon us for reprinting with the change of a single pronoun the lines she wrote on Robert Louis Stevenson (her last work) published in the October number of the Connecticut Quarterly, 1898. They seem a fitting requiem for our friend.
"Home and at rest; oh, trees that guard her sleep,
Watch well the sacred treasure that you keep,
And starry sky with all your golden eyes,
Shine soft upon the summit where she lies
In slumber sweet—never to wake again
To all life's weariness and bitter pain.
We stand beneath the shadow of her tomb;
She dwells where flowers of thought immortal bloom,
Through spaces wide, her happy spirit strays,
And finds new wonders all the heavenly days."
A. N. B.
L. D. B.