Her Letters To Lovecraft: Lillian Delora Phillips Clark

The children of Whipple and Rhoby Phillips are Lillian D., now wife of Dr. Franklin C. Clark of Providence; Sarah S, mother of the autobiographer; Edwin E.; and Anna, now wife of Mr. Edward Gamwell, Associate Editor of The Boston Budget and Beacon. My mother and Aunt Lillian were both educated at the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, and are both accomplished landscape painters in oil. My Aunt Lillian also attended the State Normal School, and was for some time a teacher.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 1 Jan 1915, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 43-44

The story of the correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft and his aunt Lillian Delora Phillips Clark is the story of Lillian herself; for almost everything we know about her, beside some impersonal records and statistics, come from their correspondence, and from Lovecraft’s mentions of his aunt in his letters to others. In many ways, we can only see Lillian through Lovecraft—as he saw her, and presented her to his friends and loved ones.

Lillian Delora Phillips was born on 20 April 1856, the eldest of the five children of Whipple Van Buren Phillips and his wife Robie Alzada Phillips (née Place). She was educated at the Wheaton Seminary (1872-1873) and attended the State Normal School (c.1874-1875), although there is no record that she took a degree. Nineteen years old, intelligent and educated, Lillian apparently began work as a teacher, although records of where and when she was employed are no longer extant. She lived with her family for several through at least 1881. She was likely still living at home in 1889 when her younger sister Sarah Susan Phillips married Winfield Scott Lovecraft, and when her nephew Howard Phillips Lovecraft entered the world. Letters from Lovecraft’s grandfather in 1895 and 1899 both refer to “Lillie,” attesting to her continued presence in, or at least near the household.

All of Lillian’s surviving younger siblings (Emeline Phillips died in childhood) married before her (although strangely, brother Edward married his wife Martha in 1894 and 1903), but in 1902 at age 46 she married Dr. Franklin Chase Clark—and no doubt, finally moved out of the family household, if she hadn’t already. The death of her father Whipple Phillips in 1904 caused the breakup of the household at 454 Angell St. in Providence—Susan and Howard Lovecraft moved to 598 Angell St., and most of the family furniture and assets of Whipple’s estate were broken up among the surviving children. Still, “Aunt Lillian” remained young Howard Lovecraft’s closest relative beside his mother, and no doubt they kept in touch with visits or cards over the next fifteen years, as Howard grew. Her husband, Dr. Clark, was one of the few men of his generation left to stand as a parental figure for Lovecraft. Of these childhood years, Lovecraft would write:

My two aunts presented rather a contrast. The elder was (& still is) a devotee of science & literature. She was a potent influence, I think, in turning my fancy toward the classics, while my old love of chemistry also arise from her remarks on that science. She was (though she has ceased to paint now) an artist of great power. When she married Dr. Clark, she proved the means of introducing me to the most substantial classical element of all! […] My predilection for natural science, fostered by my Aunt Lillian, took form in a love for chemistry.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 16 Nov 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 64, 69

In 1915, Dr. Clark died. The marriage was childless, not surprising given their respective ages. Lillian moved into a series of rented rooms; much of this period (1915-1919) is unclear as to what she was doing, or if she had any occupation in Providence. In 1919, Susie Lovecraft suffered a breakdown and was admitted to Butler Hospital; her sister Annie Gamwell moved into 598 Angell St. with Lovecraft, and Lillian must have been by as well, although 1919-1920 she was working and living as a caregiver or housekeeper at 135 Benefit St., which Lovecraft visited. This house would be the model for “The Shunned House.”

The death of Lovecraft’s mother in 1921 precipitated his travels, first to Boston and then to New York, on amateur affairs and his first letters to Lillian and Annie are from this period. It was during this period when Lovecraft was courting Sonia H. Greene that age and affliction began to tell on Lillian:

My aunt (not the one you saw, but the elder & 598-governing one) became prostrate with grippe the very day after I wrote you—I guess the two shows were two or too much for her—& Fortune depressed the dignity of a Theobaldus to the ignomin of domestick exertion. In fine, I had to serve as a sort of composite nurse & housekeeper, even descending to the depths of preparing food & cleansing & dehydrating china & silver….but let us not think of such demeaning practicalities.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 25 Mar 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 31

As with many cases of “la grippe,” in Lovecraft’s letters regarding his aunts, it isn’t clear if this was influenza or some other illness. The 67-year-old aunt was the principal recipient of Howard’s surviving letters to his aunts, describing in detail his first and subsequent visits to New York…and no doubt tremendously surprised in early 1924 when her nephew announced via letter his marriage to Sonia H. Greene, and consequent move to New York City. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts quickly assume a diary-like character, interrupted only when one or the other of the aunts was actually down there visiting Howard, and hence there was no need to write.

I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Howard and Sonia separated in 1926, and Howard returned to Providence. The timing would prove to be fortunate; Lillian’s health had begun to decline:

On May 16 my elder aunt—Mrs. Clark—got tooken with a spasm of intercostal neuralgia; & although at no time in any danger, was confined absolutely to her bed until a day or two ago. At first, before a good nurse could be obtain’d, I had to stay over at her place day & night; going home only to collect my mail; but eventually we got a competent daughter of Hygeia—a h’elderly Cockney lydy nymed Missus ‘Arrrison, oo’s ‘ad mooch h’experience a-treatin of sech cyses—so that all I have to do now is bring in meals, run grocery & pharmacy errands, & stick around for three hours in the h’arfternoon, w’en Mrs. ‘Arrison tykes ‘er h’outin’. A coupla days ago my aunt sat up for the first time, & yesterday she staged a pedestrian experiment which might be called quite successful if you don’t judge it by your Pat. Ramblers. Within a month I hope she will be able to move over here.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 10 Jun 1926, Letters to James F. Morton 108

Howard and Lillian would combine households at 10 Barnes St. from 1926 through 1932. Lovecraft’s letters to others are unspecific about Lillian’s illness; sometimes attributing them to intercostal neuralgia, lumbago, and digestive troubles, but they obviously occasioned considerable pain, limited movement, and during the worst spells required constant nursing. Some of Lovecraft’s letters to Elizabeth Toldridge give the flavor of this period and his accounts of it:

My aunt had another acute spell lately, & is helped by a nurse each day. She has, however, just secured a new physician who is to administer some ray treatments about which he is highly optimistic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 30 Aug 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 155

My aunt seems much better than in July—due largely to a new physician who gives ultra-violet ray treatments. A nurse, however, is still necessary.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, late Aug/Sep 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 157

My aunt’s health is decidedly better, & she no longer requires the nurse. The coming of furnace heat & its dryness is a good thing for her, I think.
—H. P. Lovecraft
to Elizabeth Toldridge, 24 Oct 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 163

My aunt, I am glad to say, seems to continue her improvement; & I hope to be able to drag her out to a good Thanksgiving dinner at the nearest restaurant.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 23 Nov 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 167

My aunt shews no signs of any recurrence of the acute trouble of last summer, though of course she cannot undergo much exertion, or make trips outside except on special occasions.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 25 Jan 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 172

My elder aunt has been unusually well—for her—this summer, so that I shall try to get her outdoors more upon my return home.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 19 Jul 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 186

My aunt is better again—coming down stairs occasionally.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 31 Oct 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 192

I succeeded in getting my aunt out again to a Christmas dinner, & she seems none the worse for it. Hope her confidence in her travelling ability is now so much restored that she will attempt occasional excursions without the excuse of a holiday.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 16 Jan 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 197

My aunt’s health continues on a reasonably encouraging though scarcely active level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 26 Feb 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 207

My aunt, though not going outdoors, has had no relapses of acute trouble during the winter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 Apr 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 210

In periods when Lillian was well, or well enough, Howard traveled as his means allowed—notably his 1931 trip to Florida, where his letters and postcards to his “elder aunt” overflow with description, detail, and matters of historical interest. Many of these letters are signed something along the lines of: “My dear daughter Lillian”—a joke on Lovecraft’s pretense at being the “Old Gent”—and signed something along the lines of “Yr aff: nephew & obt Servt” (“Your affectionate nephew & obedient servant”).

Lillian was apparently well enough in the early summer of 1932 that Lovecraft made another trip down South…but he had to hurry home.

When I reached here at seven-thirty p.m. Friday my aunt was in a painless semi-coma, & it is doubtful whether she recognised me. Doctor & nurse, however, were leaving nothing undone; & Mrs. Gamwell was coöperating valiantly. General weakening & collapse of the whole organic system, caused by the long strain of arthritic pain & precipitated by an unprecedentedly severe attack, had brought about a sinking from which the doctor gave no hope of recovery. Saturday brought no change, save a period of difficult breathing in the morning which Dr. Brown interpreted as a bad sign—predicting ultimate disaster within twenty-four hours. Sunday the melancholy prediction was fulfilled, & 1932 was irrevocably entered as a black year for this household. The end was so peaceful & unconscious that I could not believe a change had occurred when the nurse declared it final.

Services will be held tomorrow at the Knowles Funeral Chapel on the ancient hill not far from here—& close to where my aunt & Dr. Clark lived in & around 1910. Although Mrs. Clark had no more use for orthodox cant & childish immortality myths than I, the services will be conducted in the ancient Church of England tradition by the Rev. Alfred Johnson, a venerable friend of both Phillips & Clark families who also officiated for my mother in 1921. My aunt would have preferred him, since the poetry of the Anglican ritual is a thing of eternal beauty aside from its hollow meaning, whereas the jargon of the Baptists (her immediate ancestral tradition) & other Evangelicals contains only the hollowness without the beauty. She had no patience, intellectually, with any sects save the Anglican and Unitarian; though she was still technically on the rolls of the old first Baptist Church.

Internment will be in the Clark lot at Swan Point Cemetery—the same cemetery which contains the Phillips lot where I shall be interred. I waived rights in the Lovecraft lot at Woodlawn (N.Y.) a decade ago, since I wish to be permanently merged with Old Providence.

Mrs. Gamwell will appreciate your expressions of sympathy. The present event is, despite its inevitability, a blow of the first magnitude to both survivors—especially to me, since my aunt was the real animating spirit & homemaking nucleus of 10 Barnes. The suddenness of the event is both bewildering and merciful—the latter because we cannot yet realise, subjectively, that it has actually occurred at all. It would, for example, seem incredibly unnatural to disturb the pillows now arranged for my aunt in the rocker beside my centre-table—her accustomed reading-place each evening. The earlier newspapers piled up during my absence contain interesting annotations in her hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 5 Jul 1932, Letters to James F. Morton 299-300

The death of Lillian led to a major shakeup in Lovecraft’s life; he had been surviving on the residue of his and his mother’s inheritance from the estate of Whipple Phillips, as commonly doled out by his aunts. Now with Lillian’s death, the family’s finances were burdened by final medical and funeral costs, and it became necessary for them to combine households—they moved in together to 66 College Street. A large painting of the Rocks at Narragansett Pier by Lillian D. Clark was placed above the stairway.

My dear Aunt Lillian:

In replying to your recent & highly appreciated epistles, let me first thank you for sending the suit & minor accessories.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 75

There must have been letters from Aunt Lillian to her nephew, certainly during the 1924-1926 period in New York, Lovecraft mentions receiving small stipends of money and communications from his aunts. Yet none of them survive. We have only Howard’s side of the correspondence, as first he kept in touch with his elder aunt, and then he took care of her through her painful, semi-invalid days…but of the inner self of Lillian D. Clark, we can only hazard a guess. Having no children of her own, Howard must have been the closest thing to a son to her, and their relationship was clearly precious to them both, and his letters from afar were no doubt a lifeline during the “semi-invalid” period when Lillian was confined to her bed or indoors.

His letters to her show that Lovecraft was more open to exclamations on race to letters to his aunt than he might have been to others; if Lillian, who was barely nine when the American Civil War ended, had her own prejudices and shared them with her nephew, it would not be a great surprise. It is more difficult to read the things that are not in Lovecraft’s letters, such as Sonia’s suggestion in The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft that the aunts were against the marriage. Certainly, when the time came to fetch Lovecraft back to Providence in 1926, it was Lillian that went down to New York to help arrange the details of the move…but there was never a word of reproach about this in Howard’s letters to or about his aunt.

About 285 letters, postcards, and notes to Lillian Clark from Lovecraft are known to survive at the John Hay Library in Providence, and many are transcribed in part in the Arkham House Transcripts. 27 of these letters had been previously published in abridged form in the first three volumes of the Selected Letters (Arkham House), and of the 76 letters in Letters from New York (Night Shade Books), 69 are to Lillian. 364 letters between Lovecraft and his aunts, all that are known to survive, are published in the two volumes of Letters to Family & Family Friends (2020, Hippocampus Press).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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