Articles/Essays – Volume 03, No. 2

Storybook Grandmothers | Don Cecil Corbett, Mary Fielding Smith: Daughter of Britain, and Olive Kimball B. Mitchell, Life Is a Fulfilling

Mormon history is full of tales about formidable women, bearing the stamp of true matriarchs despite petticoats and plural marriage. The present biography of Mary Fielding Smith is written by one of her descendants and is a hagiographic work typical of Mormon biographical writing. 

A certain aura surrounds Mary because of her position in Church history as the widow of the martyred Patriarch and because, unlike some of the Smith widows, she chose to cast her lot with Brigham Young and the majority of the Church when they moved West. Moreover, the fact that she was the mother of the sixth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who remembered her as one of the greatest influences in his life though she died when he was only fourteen, makes the temptation to inquire into her life and personality irresistible. The problem is that it is very difficult to write a biography about one whose distinction is the quality of her inner life when she has left so little to delineate its scope and depth. Her public life, as is attested by those who knew her and seems proven by the scarcity of sources, was modest and restrained. 

Mr. Corbett has tried to make up for this lack by using the testimonials of those who remembered Mary Fielding Smith; by using the journals of Joseph Fielding, her brother, and the memoirs of Mercy Thompson, her sister, in addition to the writings of other members of the Fielding family who remained in England; and by interspersing all with substantial digressions into the Church history that directly or indirectly may have affected Mary. He is thus forced to assume many things about his subject (for example, the intellectual climate of her English home), such assumptions not necessarily being bald fiction but of so general a nature that Mary never really emerges as a whole personality. Her race into Salt Lake valley against the hostile captain of her company comes as a relief, for the single incident reveals that she was capable of spite—a human quality for which Mr. Corbett’s previous eulogies have not prepared us. 

Many of Mr. Corbett’s sources are secondary. He relies considerably upon Essentials in Church History and the Life of Joseph F. Smith by Joseph Fielding Smith, in addition to a number of short biographical sketches of prominent Latter-day Saints appearing in Church periodicals and other works. His primary sources include the journals and memoirs mentioned above plus a number of letters, only two of which were written by Mary herself. Therefore, unless additional materials can be found by systematic and exhaustive research, it would seem that Mary Fielding Smith must remain an almost legendary heroine. 

Mr. Corbett has included an index and pictures in his work. Of special interest are colored portraits of Hyrum Smith, the Patriarch, and Mary, reproduced in print for the first time. 

The second work, by Mrs. Olive Kimball B. Mitchell, is also on the theme of the exemplary pioneer woman. Mrs. Mitchell has written the life of her grandmother, Sarah Diantha Gardner Curtis, a task that many of us with a loving, courageous, and virtuous grandmother wish we had the nerve to undertake. Her problem, like Mr. Corbstt’s, was that of finding sufficient solid information. In order to solve it, Mrs. Mitchell has not only turned to the general history of Utah and of southern Arizona, since the Curtis family pioneered near Tombstone, but has added a fictional dimension that attempts to bridge the gaps in Sarah Diantha’s personal story. Conversations, feelings, and possible day-to-day events are imagined and reconstructed. While this is not an entirely unrecognized device in writing biography, it would have been useful if the reader could have been supplied with footnotes and bibliography in order to follow the “live show.” Mrs. Mitchell may have felt that the technical apparatus of history writing would detract from her story. Nevertheless the absence of such can only add to the wonder of the reader, since she has named as president of Mexico the governor of the State of Sonora and has made Sonora’s capital, Hermosillo, the capital of Mexico. Further, the citation of sources might have helped students of Utah history who will be interested in Mrs. Mitchell’s statement that Sarah Diantha was married in “the Endowment House in St. George, . . . January 17, 1870,” and that in 1881 her husband took a second wife in the same room. Since the dates for the construction of the St. George Temple are 1871-1877 and since the only Endowment House commonly referred to in L.D.S. history was in Salt Lake City, if Mrs. Mitchell is correct, both assertions should stir further inquiry into the performance of Mormon marriage ceremonies in this period. Generally, the work might have been considerably improved by more careful proofreading and checking of historical sources. 

The narrative is somewhat uneven, consisting of chunks of history and folklore alternating with chunks of family anecdote and sentimental reconstructions of the past. The activity of the mining towns of Tombstone and Bisbee and the troubles with Apache Indians and outlaws swirl around the Curtis Ranch but only slightly affect the hard-working, thrifty, and devout Mormons. Elements of real drama emerge in the struggle of the Curtis family against drought, erosion, and the encroachments of the Boquillasey Nogales Water Company—a twenty-five-year battle that ended in defeat for the Curtises. However, this drama is neglected in favor of the sensational events happening around them. It is only in the latter part of the story, when Mrs. Mitchell is obviously relying upon her own memories, that Sarah Diantha begins to shape into a believable woman and the reader shares somewhat in Mrs. Mitchell’s deep feeling for her grandmother, for the beautiful and cruel Arizona countryside, and for that other Paradise Lost, the Curtis Ranch. One wonders if fictionalizing does not, after all, do an injustice to the pioneer we wish to honor by imposing modern values on the past.

Mary Fielding Smith: Daughter of Britain. By Don Cecil Corbett, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1966. xxii, 310 pp., $4.50. 

Life Is a Fulfilling. By Olive Kimball B. Mitchell, with sketches by the author. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1967. 267 pp., $4.95.