Uptown Girl in the Social Settlement: Richard Harding Davis’s “Eleanore Cuyler”

In 1892, Richard Harding Davis published the book Van Bibber, and others, which includes a rather cynical depiction of an uptown woman’s experience in social settlement work. The woman, Eleanore Cuyler, is depicted as a social work dilettante, who enjoys the dramatic and showy moments of her good works, like when she presents legislation about kindergartens. Before entering settlement work Eleanore imagines herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, bringing solace and health to the needy.

Davis was a writer, war correspondent,  journalist, and the son of Rebecca Harding Davis, who wrote the novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861).

Richard Harding Davis (From PBS.org)

Van Bibber, and others includes the story “Eleanore Cuyler” about an uptown woman from high society who is dedicated to her freedom as a single woman of means and refuses to marry or even commit to any of her suitors. When her dearest friend Wainwright asks her to marry him, she is forced to decide: except his offer and turn her back on her freedom or reject him and remain independent. She rejects his proposal and Wainwright, leaves for work in the London theater. After some time casting about in a melancholy state, Eleanore determines to throw herself into work in the College Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, against the advice of her mother and doctor.[1] Eleanore feels “mentally tired” and decides that she needs a “change of air and environment, and unselfish work for the good of others, and less thought of herself” (Davis 104). She leaves her posh home uptown to live in the College Settlement, but the more romantic work of “a Father Damien[2] or a Florence Nightingale” goes to women who are “wiser” and whose pleasant and practical demeanor baffle her. Eleanore had envisioned herself visiting prisoners and nursing the ill, but the women who run the settlement have seen many would-be social workers come and go; therefore, Eleanore is relegated to less heroic tasks, like reading the Bible in German to an elderly woman and helping with a summer vacation program for working-girls out on Long Island.

Upon working there for some time, Eleanore is not only ashamed at how tiny her contribution feels to the work of the College Settlement, but she is also ashamed of the amount of excitement her presence generates when she visits her former neighborhood and society friends. “The good she did now, it was humiliating to acknowledge, was in no way proportionate to that which her influence had wrought among the people of her own class” (Davis 107). Her life on the east side is exciting and exotic to the men and women of her uptown community. Continue reading