A Celebration of Women Writers

"Something About Frances Browne, The Author" (1816-1879)
From: Granny's Wonderful Chair (c. 1857) by Frances Browne. New York: The Saalfield Publishing Company, 1928.


They say there are children who never an hour
Have played in the meadows or hunted a flower;
Little gray eyes that never have seen
The skies grow blue, and the grass grow green;
Little round ears that never have heard
The rapturing, capturing song of a bird.
I think no child can happier be
Than just a little girl like me.

                         Gertrude Heath

When the poet wrote these lines, she might well have had in mind the author of this book. For Frances Browne was one whose eyes had never seen "the skies grow blue, and the grass grow green." When she was only eighteen months old smallpox left her blind.

Frances was born in the little town of Stranolar, in the County of Donegal, Ireland, in the year 1816. At that time, there were few schools for normal, well children and none at all for the blind. Frances' parents had twelve children and were very poor, so they could not have a private teacher for their little blind girl. But she was determined to learn. Her brothers and sisters went to school, and in the evenings studied their lessons aloud. Frances listened carefully. Then, in the stillness of the night, she lay and repeated to herself all the things that she had heard. You see she had to depend on her ears and her memory.

Once she heard the children reading about Christopher Columbus–how he had sailed west in hope of reaching Asia, and how he would have succeeded if the continent of North America had not lain between. Night after night she puzzled over this. How could he reach Asia, which lay east, by sailing west? Then she took her trouble to a kindly neighbor who explained about the earth being round. And when she thought it over that night she understood the great mystery.

One of this young girl's greatest pleasures was in books. There were no libraries for three counties around Donegal and few people owned books. However, these few were glad to lend their copies to Frances that her brothers and sisters might read to her. In a family of twelve children there was much work to be done and, as they were poor, each child had his appointed task. To gain time for them to read to her, Frances did the household duties assigned to them. To keep them willing, she bribed them with stories of her own invention.

Ireland, as you know, is the home of the fairies. They always try to help good people who are in trouble and especially good children. I wonder if they didn't whisper some of Frances' stories to her.

When she was about fourteen, she began to write verses and soon had quite a number. Then a friend read some of the great Homer's work to her. She felt that her own was so inferior that out of contempt for it, she tore up her manuscripts. At another time she heard one of the poems of Byron. She admired it so much that she despaired of ever writing anything half so good and determined never to try again.

But one day someone read some simple Irish verses to her and she knew that she could write that kind and that people would enjoy them as she had enjoyed these.

That was the beginning of her work as an author. She had poems published in the magazines of her day and a few years later a book of verse was issued.

This gave her courage and the inspiration to make her own way in spite of her great handicap. Taking her sister as her secretary she went to Edinburgh to write for the periodicals. She was kept busy and out of her meagre earnings, for the pay was little, she always sent something for the support of her mother in Ireland.

Sometimes she wrote for grownups, but it was when she wrote for children that she did best. For she was always at home with the fairies.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom