Margaret Sutton Briscoe was born at the end of the Civil War–December 1864–in Baltimore, MD, the daughter of a wealthy doctor, Samuel W. Briscoe and his wife, Cornelia Dushane Blacklock Briscoe. Although she had no memories of the war or slavery, the War marked an immense change in her extended family’s fortunes (the Briscoe family owned the large Sotterly plantation on the Chesapeake Bay), and she had strong memories of Reconstruction. Briscoe’s father died when she was two years old, and she, her mother, and infant brother moved in with her maternal grandfather and his wife. According to Briscoe, her grandfather and step-grandmother doted on and clearly preferred her brother. She was educated at home by private tutors and later lamented the fact that she had not gone to school or studied at college, something that “wasn’t done” in the circles she grew up in.
As a young woman, Briscoe moved to New York City where she worked for publishers and wrote prolifically. She published many short stories, plays, and serialized fiction in periodicals such as Harper’s Bazar, The Outlook, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly during the last 15 years of the 19th century and the first 10 years of the 20th century. She also published six short story collections or novels, some of which were compilations of stories that appeared first in periodicals. Copyright has lapsed on these books, and all but one has been digitized and are available for free on the Internet Archive or Google Books.
Briscoe married Arthur John Hopkins (AC 1885) in 1895 and gave birth to a daughter, Cornelia Dushane Hopkins in 1896. She moved with her husband to Amherst, MA, where he was a professor of chemistry at Amherst College. She continued to publish under her maiden name after her marriage, although stopped sometime in the early 1910s. In both New York City and later in her life in Amherst, Briscoe Hopkins was very definite about her identity as a Southerner. Her writings drew heavily upon Southern themes and dialects, and she called herself a Southern woman.
We hold both the Arthur Hopkins Papers, and the Margaret Sutton Briscoe Papers, along with several other writings about her: a thin volume entitled, Gusto, Thy Name was Mrs. Hopkins: A Prose Rhapsody, and an essay by Janet Morgan about her that was delivered about 15 years after her death at a Tuesday Club meeting (the Tuesday Club is an Amherst women’s literary club that has been around for more than a century).
Everything that I’ve read by and about her makes me want to know more. Both Gusto… and the Tuesday Club essay were written by people who knew her in her later, post-publishing life. Both describe her as a woman of strong opinions, well known in the Pioneer Valley of the time, who served as an unofficial counselor to whom Amherst College deans would send their problem students.
Robert Francis, the author of Gusto… was a young poet who Margaret Sutton Briscoe took under her wing and who lived with her and her husband for two years. He writes of her, “Professor Hopkins used to say with a twinkle that a job which to anyone else would be a one-man job was always, for Mrs. Hopkins, a two-man job… If she were doing the actual work herself, she wanted someone to stand by and be consulted… If another person were doing the actual work, Mrs. Hopkins supervised and superintended,” (pg. 13). According to Francis and the essay by Morgan, Amherst’s chief of police was a frequent recipient of her consultations, to whom she would ask or give advice. Francis also relates an incident in which Briscoe ran into Mrs. Coolidge, recently the first lady of the United States, while out shopping: “…she said to me casually while handing me various bundles: ‘Oh, I just ran into Mrs. Coolidge, and I said to her, “Mrs. Coolidge, what shall I get Mr. Hopkins for lunch?” And she said, “Pork chops. Pork chops, by all means,’” (pg. 25).
Several other interesting facts about Briscoe:
- She and Dr. Hopkins were world travelers whose adventures included being shipwrecked in the Adriatic, a short shop in Lisbon, Portugal, that coincided with an armed revolution, and camel rides in Egypt. After their return to the United States, Briscoe gave lectures about her experiences in Egypt.
- She was acquainted with Mark Twain and attended his 70th birthday party in December 1905 at Delmonico’s in New York City.
- She ran an antiques shop, specializing in pressed glass, out of the Amherst College-owned house that she and Professor Hopkins lived in. The house was moved to make way for the Kirby Theater, and all of the Hopkins’ belongings, including several rooms worth of glassware, were packed and put in storage during the move. The house now stands at 58 Woodside Avenue.
Briscoe’s colorful life appears to have fallen below the radar of academic scholarship thus far, but her newly processed papers will offer more avenues of study. These include unpublished novels by Briscoe, along with her unfinished memoirs, which she was working on at the time of her death.