The First Fictional Ann Arbor

“New Padua is a university town. But let not any one be deceived by the name into fancying that New Padua is anything like Oxford, or Bonn, or even for that matter like Cambridge in Massachusetts, where the University of Harvard is situated. New Padua is the seat of what people in England would call a great popular college rather than a university; a college founded by the State, of which it is the educational centre, with special reference to the needs of the somewhat rough and vigorous Western youth who are likely to pour in there. The city of New Padua belongs to a State which not very long ago used to be described as Western, but which the rapid upspringing of communities lying far nearer to the setting sun has converted into a middle State now.

The town is very small and very quiet; remarkably intelligent and pleasant. The society, and indeed almost the population, is composed of the professors and officials of the college, with their wives and daughters; the judges and magistrates; the railway authorities; the Federal officials; the students; and the editors of the newspapers. It is a sort of professional population all throughout.”

Students in front of University Hall in Ann Arbor, circa 1875. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Miss Dione Lyle, who invites Christmas to stay with her in Durewoods. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Sound familiar? Published in 1875, Justin McCarthy’s Dear Lady Disdain is the first novel known to be set in Ann Arbor, albeit thinly veiled with the pseudonym of “New Padua.” Seven years before its release McCarthy had traveled widely in the United States, visiting 35 of the then 37 states, which makes his choice to set part of his novel in Ann Arbor even more remarkable. The town stuck with him and struck his imagination.

Raised in County Cork, Ireland, McCarthy got his start as a writer working for the Cork Examiner. He put in time at a number of newspapers throughout England including the radical Morning Star, which he resigned from before his travels. He still continued to write for several other publications throughout his journey, culminating in the release of his first novel, My Enemy's Daughter, in 1869.

Tales Out of School

Despite its partial Ann Arbor locale, Dear Lady Disdain is largely set in England. Readers meet protagonist Christmas Pembroke shortly after the death of his father. A well-traveled young man, Christmas has spent his brief life in Japan and San Francisco. He only recently returned to his native England, where he must now adjust to the home country he has never called home before. 

Natty's lodgings, Franklin House, in 1856. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.
Shortly after arriving in London, Christmas’ name is briefly mentioned in the papers as the witness to a crime. This leads to a letter from Dione Lyle, an old friend and perhaps former flame of his father, who invites him to stay with her. Christmas visits her in the quiet, seaside town of Durewood where he makes the acquaintance of Marie Challoner, a beautiful, kind, and suitably aged neighbor of wealth, and Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Cramps, a young man dissatisfied with the working class he has been born into and the stratification of society. Natty's displeasure leads him to pridefully boast of his ambition to become a great man and orator, though his ambition seems to outweigh his desire to hone his skill. Both Natty and Christmas seek the attention of Marie, and more competition for her affection is brought by her introduction into London society. Further characters and obstacles are introduced, but you can likely guess the conclusion for Marie and Christmas from here.

Readers are introduced to “New Padua” when Natty Cramps departs for the United States in search of somewhere to start anew. When Natty crosses paths with “Professor Clinton” of the University of New Padua the two become fast friends. Clinton takes Natty under his wing and convinces him to move to New Padua. The real life Professor James Craig Watson of the University of Michigan is almost certainly the model for Professor Clinton, who is similarly a Professor of Astronomy and in charge of the university's Observatory. With Clinton’s help Natty makes modest success working for one of the local newspapers. He finds a home for himself at the real Franklin House, which was located on the NW Corner of Huron and Main.

Unadorned Ann Arbor

The self-concerned Natty is largely unaffected by the natural splendor around him, but he is taken in by New Padua’s beauty in one striking scene. It is clear that McCarthy uses this to channel his own impression of Ann Arbor.

Panoramic view of Ann Arbor in 1880. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
“One memorable day Nathaniel walked from the office of his journal…standing on almost any spot of the university grounds one could look on the river winding between the hills and bluffs, and dotted here and there with little islets, each feathered and tufted with trees. The peculiarity of the scene was that the town was set back from the river and sheltered in between the bluffs which made the river's bank, and an inland range of low and rolling hills. So when you stood upon the university grounds and turned your back upon the university buildings you saw only the river, lonely, with no sign of growing civilisation on its banks…The very soul and spirit of solitude might at certain soft sweet evening hours have seemed to abide there.”

An 1880 Panoramic view of the city of Ann Arbor illustrates this terrain with its bluffs and river about ten years after McCarthy’s own initial visit. As the novel continues, the wealthy Marie Challoner and her father tour the United States and receive a warm welcome at New Padua’s President’s House and University Hall. Marie tells Natty that the town, “is a delightful little place. So full of quiet and simplicity; and people only caring about books and education, and not about making money and getting on in the world.”

This idyllic description is part of why Natty eventually decides to leave. He wants grander fame than New Padua can provide. The small scale success he has found through his local newspaper career has largely been gained through his insinuations that he possesses great connections in England. This ill-begotten popularity could imply that his audience of New Padua residents were naive and fell for his grandiosity. Did McCarthy find Ann Arbor to be simple to the point of unsophistication? This doesn't seem to be the case when it is made clear that Professor Clinton sees right through Natty's posturing. However, Clinton does not begrudge Natty his success and finds entertainment in it. Ultimately, Natty's ability to make a life for himself in New Padua demonstrates the appeal of a place with opportunities available to those who are willing to live without the oversized attention of city society.

Portrait of Justin McCarthy taken in the mid-late 1870s. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

Ann Arbor Courier, February 2, 1887
More About McCarthy

McCarthy was a powerful politician in his time, eventually being elected to head the Irish Nationalists in 1890. His contradictory abhorrence for ambition and his own success is reflected in the book’s themes. Marie continually questions what she wants out of marriage:  the high rank her father desires for her and power that comes with it, or a more simple life in Durewoods.

Nine years after his first visit, McCarthy again came to Ann Arbor in 1887 at the invitation of the Students’ Lecture Association. His oration, titled “Ireland and Home Rule,” received mixed reviews.

The Ann Arbor Courier described him as “not eloquent, nor even fiery,” noting that it was hard to understand him because of his quiet demeanor and accent. “He gave the audience a complete resume of the Irish cause and its different phases for the past century. Those who were fortunate enough to have good seats, so that they could understand the speaker, learned considerable by the lecture.”

An empty University Hall in 1887, the site of McCarthy's lecture. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.
McCarthy himself may have been disappointed by his return. His perspective is recorded in Our Book of Memories, Letters of Justin McCarthy to Mrs. Campbell Praed, which was published after his death:

“We have had some poor audiences lately. American chiefly. I spent a night and part of a day at the town of Ann Arbor, the seat of the University of this state– Michigan. Ann Arbor is the New Padua of “Dear Lady Disdain.” Most of the people I knew there are gone – scattered in one way or another. I had some curious reflections of my own as I stood on a little height over the river which I have described in “Dear Lady Disdain.”

Professor James Craig Watson, the presumed basis for Disdain’s Professor Clinton, left Ann Arbor for the University of Wisconsin in 1879 and may be one of the people known by McCarthy who had “scattered.”

Pleasant “New Padua”

Despite his later disappointment, the overall impression of “New Padua” in the novel is as a place of natural beauty that is full of welcoming, intelligent, and unconceited residents. A town where a man can find opportunity to make something of himself. 

“People had pleasant evenings in each other's houses, where they ate ice-creams even in the depth of winter, and apples, and drank tea, and looked at engravings, and had bright, genial conversation—such genuine conversation, fair interchange of ideas on letters and art and things in general, as one only reads of now in England; and they went home early.”

What more could you ask for?