The real-life Elizabeth Slater did not leave Mount Holyoke in disgrace to marry her beloved George Rogers; the couple were united at sunset in the South Hadley village church on June 18, 1896, during the college’s commencement ceremonies. Miss Slater, then, could not have had Bertha Mellish as a pupil in her Greek classes; she had settled with her new husband in Exeter, New Hampshire by the time Bertha entered Mount Holyoke as a freshman.
“You haven’t any idea how stupid and uncultivated and unappreciative and coarse I am.”
But Elizabeth and George’s mutually self-flagellating correspondence was just too rich a resource to pass up. I could not resist the strange pride they displayed, these two rebellious Puritans, as they toted up their faults and failures, the almost voluptuous pleasure they took in wrestling with their over-developed consciences. “Oh I cannot help being simply disgusted with myself,” wrote Elizabeth, “You haven’t any idea how stupid and uncultivated and unappreciative and coarse I am.” To which George replied: “I wish I could give my life to you all at once and then be done with it forever, it is so aimless and bitter and empty. But your life is bound up in mine and the end of mine would bring unspeakable pain to you.”
I am relieved to report that George and Elizabeth seem to have found success and, at least for a time, happiness together. They had two daughters, Constance and Katherine. Elizabeth died in 1918 at the age of fifty-three (I wonder now, if influenza took her), the year before Constance graduated from Wellesley. George, after forty-two years as a teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, died in 1936.
Judging from her letters, Elizabeth Slater was miserable at Mount Holyoke College and President Mead played no small role in her unhappiness. In a letter to George, for example, Elizabeth describes in great detail a small but complicated incident in which, to make a long story short, Mrs. Mead, knowing the accusation to be false, charged her with greedily appropriating a flower that, according to the president, was meant for someone else. But Elizabeth’s first and perhaps more egregious transgression was to give a little scream of delight when zoology professor Cornelia Clapp displayed the blossom at the breakfast table, a response that, according to Elizabeth, “Mrs. Mead tho’t rather undignified & didn’t approve of, for she had a slightly peculiar expression as she looked at me. I was conscious at once of having been childish, & so, uncomfortable.”