TSW Chapter 6.1

 

The Learned Maiden

(Bio of Augusta Evans Wilson)

By Andre Norton

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson 

Augusta Evans Wilson

     The life of Augusta Evans Wilson so closely paralleled in many respect those of her best known heroines (save that she was not an orphan) that much of her novels appear autobiographical, although at least three were written before, Cinderella-like, she achieved her fame, riches, and Prince Charming.

     Her father, Matthew Ryan Evans, came from the family plantation in South Carolina to help build the then frontier town of Columbus, Georgia, during the early 1830s. He founded the mercantile firm of M.R. Evans and Company and bought a vast tract of land from the Indians on which to build the estate of his magniloquent dreams. His marriage with Sarah Shrine Howard of a family distinguished in the Revolution linked two very old and aristocratic southern clans.

     Every dream seemed about to be realized upon their wedding day in 1834. Matthew Evans had already employed an architect to design the imposing “big” house of his one hundred and forty-three acre plantation the land still covered with virgin forest. There were to be heart-of pine floors, with all the other woodwork mahogany. The hardware on the doors was made of silver plate the mantels and hearths all of the finest Italian marble. Evans had every confidence in the future and, as for the present, his wife had brought him a dowry of thirty thousand dollars.

     Friends and neighbors were hardly as sanguine. Long before the house was finished it was frankly christened “Matt’s Folly”. And his family was still living in a visitor’s cottage on his brother-in law’s plantation of Wildwood when Augusta was born on May Eighth, 1835.

     The boom of Columbus’ building carried on past 1836, but in 1841 the “Harrison Freshet” began the tragedy of financial depression. Cotton fell to two and half cents a pound, half-the cost of raising it. The golden days were over, and the pinch began. Evans and Company went bankrupt and everything was sold, including the still unfinished Matt’s Folly. From those dark days onward Augusta was haunted by a fear of mortgages. When wealth came to her from her writing in after years she resolutely refused to invest in any company which accepted mortgages on private dwellings.

     But at the time of the crash and for a few years afterward she fled from the dark days by way of her studies. She was a precocious child, taking eagerly to the lessons her mother set her. She possessed a photographic memory -- in later years when her detractors claimed that she must work with an open encyclopedia beside her, that accusation was indeed a canard, the obscure erudition and apt quotations were produced at will from her amazing memory alone.

     The libraries of her well-to-do relatives were open to her browsing but she was self-limited in that she would read no book of which her mother did not approve. Science, philosophical works, poetry, history and geography were her favorite studies. All through the years she paid tribute to her mother’s teaching. When it was in her power to do so, she showered gifts upon Sarah Evans, trying to make up for those lean years in which her mother had struggled against sickness and real poverty. Augusta always averred that she owed everything to her mother’s guidance,

     The years following 1841 were lean indeed. In 1848 the family decided to follow a trail already worn by southern kindred and immigrate to Texas. Their wagons joined a convoy through the Indian infested wilderness and Augusta told younger generations’ years later how her mother enlivened the dull hours of that slow progress with stories about the great writers, or with the poetry of Cowper she recited from memory. In spite of the care of five small children she continued to hear her daughter’s lessons.

     But the atmosphere of frontier San Antonio did not suit the Evans’s. The harshness of frontier manners, the Catholic influence of Spanish bred land (of which religion they were intensely suspicious) and the failure of family hopes for a brave new start all added to their depression. They were not the stuff from which pioneers were made. What Augusta and Sarah thought of San Antonio was later written in “Inez”, and it was not complimentary.

     In 1849 Matthew Evans, accepting the fact that for him Texas was not the promised-land, returned with his family to Mobile. This was now one of those boom towns which always exerted a fatal fascination for the unlucky Mr. Evans. But Sarah welcomed the move, and Augusta began to have dreams of her own. She wanted a literary career, and her mother spoke of the possibility that in Mobile she might be able to receive, in one of the new academies for young ladies, the formal education she craved. Sarah’s tutoring had given her an excellent and solid grounding, a deep love of books, and an insatiable intellectual curiosity. But Augusta wanted more than her mother was able or fitted to give her. Sarah could not analyze literary forms, she had neither the time nor maybe the taste for long, exhaustive discussions of the critical articles on aesthetics and metaphysics which appeared in the new English quarterlies Augusta devoured.

     So, with a new hope before them, the Evans family rented a modest cottage in the piney woods some distance from the growing city and Matthew Evans found a position as a factor with a cotton merchant. Augusta was able to attend a real school for the first time in her life.

     But they were not to escape the misfortune which had companied them for seven years. Augusta’s school days were limited by ill health. Late in 1849 a fire burned their rented house and much of their personal property. And in the early fifties Matthew Evans, thoroughly beaten by life began to fall into semi-invalidism. The frequent losses of his small salary were an added anxiety in a boom town where the cost of living climbed steadily. There were eight Evans children now, and Augusta, the eldest, was only fifteen. The humiliation-suffered during these poverty stricken years bit deeply into the adolescent girl. Within a quarter of a century she was to become one of the wealthiest women in Alabama in her own right. But for the rest of her life, in one of her books after another, she pictured with careful detail the hardships facing a woman of good family and no money. Her favorite heroine type, a talented girl of fragile health, was regularly forced to sacrifice time from writing, or music, or art, in order to support herself and those who had family claims upon her.

     Southern social custom and tradition prevented Augusta from seeking work outside her own home, and her lack of a diploma, because of her informal education, kept her from the only possible position that a lady might accept -- that of a teacher. She was an excellent nurse, but of course net for pay. Her experiences in such service during the yellow fever epidemics are mirrored graphically in her second novel, “Beulah.”

     With only her slave, Minervy, in her confidence, she began to write, late at night and in the early morning when her time might be truly considered her own. Worried over her frail health, Minervy betrayed her secret to Sarah, but the mother agreed to allow her to continue. On Christmas morning, 1854, Augusta presented her father with the carefully copied, manuscript of “Inez”. The book was partly drawn from stories of Texas which she had heard during the Evans’ residence there from the earlier pioneers. The romance was beyond her powers, and the stilted, self-conscious language crude, the dangers of Catholicism heightened into almost absurd melodrama. Augusta Evans had no sense of humor. There is something in her ponderous seriousness, her complete belief that she was a writer with a “mission”, which reminds one unmistakably of George Eliot. And Augusta Evans, at the age of nineteen, believed that she was fully qualified to speak her mind on matters of religious doctrine.

     In “Inez” the heroine tackles the most obtuse problems of theology with serene determination -- citing book and passage in her refutations -- and, making all the stock errors and time worn accusations of mid-Victorian Protestants. But this driving necessity to take a firm stand on moral or ethical questions was best seller material in the middle 19th century. She was turning over rich soil without perhaps clearly realizing the popularity of her subject matter.

     Although one critic at least stated disgustedly, “There is not a natural character and scarcely a natural phrase in the whole volume,” “Inez” did find a few readers, and it was exercise for better to come.

     Probably subsidized by her uncle, Augustus Howard, Harpers published “Inez” in 1855 when Augusta was twenty. And, poorly written as it is, it has been reprinted time and time again. Four publishing houses still listed it for sale in 1928.

     While searching for refutations of Catholic doctrine, she met Walter Harriss, a young Methodist minister, with some claims to-scholarship. He had a great influence over her very emotional religious life and she wrote him impulsive, fervid letters thick with confessions of doubt about the foundations of Christianity. Not only did she make the Reverend Mr. Harriss her confident, but she read to her mother for hours from books which multiplied her doubts -- HOURS WITH THE MYSTICS, TEEOLGOIA GERMANICA, Mills’ LOGIE. This search for faith was for her a highly emotional process and she came out of it a convert fired with missionary zeal. She considered her art as a method of teaching moral truths and its greatest function was to guide followers into the paths set by the Gospel.

     Out of this upheaval came “Beulah”, her first successful novel and the one which introduced her to the rank of best sellerdom. The reason for its appeal will still find echoes in the serious thinking of this day as some of us also have recently come to look upon science slightly askance-when destruction uncontrolled sometimes appears to be the natural result of experimentation.

     Victorians distrusted the head and favored the heart. They feared the rise of the scientist because they-believed his-objectivity threatened the “truth” upon which the whole of their social and moral beliefs was based. Tradition and emotional feeling were strongly opposed to the intellectual liberalism just coming into flower.

     But, although this battle between heart and mind was the foundation of “Beulah”, in its plot Augusta Evans made certain innovations. Beulah was an ugly girl -- (shadow of Wilkie Collins’ later heroines who combined intelligence and plain faces) -- she had only physiognomic charms to draw masculine notice, and she was no clinging vine. She is put through a long crisis of belief, doubt, wavering, and conversion -- all mental action -- and marries to guide her husband into Heaven. For Augusta did accept that one major premise of the day’s fiction -- a woman’s code of ethics and morals was on a higher, more angelic plane than a man’s, and her duty in this life was to see that her husband and children were safely within the fold of the “saved.”

     Not only was “Beulah” written for the sole purpose of leading, readers from the brink of such doubts as Augusta herself had suffered, but the sacred duties toward the home, toward friends, toward the underprivileged were all underlined in the text for the most lighthearted to read.

     The novel was completed as the family moved to Sumerville, a suburb of Mobile, in 1858, and in the summer of 1859, suitably escorted by a cousin, Colonel John W. Jones, Augusta traveled north to see about a publisher.

     Appleton’s refused her offering without much ado, but it was accepted by Derby, the head of the firm taking a warm interest in the young writer and her work.

     However, Augusta Evans was not to be won by Yankee wiles. A fervent Secessionist, she returned home to write unsigned articles for the Daily Advertiser attacking the North in the only way she knew -- via literature. Her arguments were the stock ones of her day and have been echoed faintly down to our own time. Northerners were cold and mercenary, Southerners warm and idealistic, love of money made the North corrupt and impersonal, Southerners preferred refined humanitarian-sentiment to material wealth, literature in the North was viewed objectively as a commercial product (and oh, how good for Miss Evans’ pocketbook that it was), Southerners wrote from their hearts with beauty and truth their sole aims, the North would debase literature for political aims, the Southerners cherished non-partisan values ( as, of course witness Miss Evans’ temperate articles!)

     In spite of writing this propaganda the fall of 1859 found Augusta back in the heart of the wicked and commercial North -- New York -- accompanied by her uncle, Augustus Howard, to be the personal guest of the Derbys at Glenwood while she read the proofs for “Beulah”. And she stayed with them until after the publication date.

     Her most favorable early review was written by James Reed Spaulding, as great an idealist and crusader as Augusta believed herself to be. He was so interested in the book that he made a special effort to meet the author and was able to secure an introduction through the Derbys. They found each other so attractive that before she left New York Augusta had agreed that he might visit her family in the role of favored suitor.

     It was a triumphant return to Mobile, a city where socially because of their poverty the Evans family had always been on the outside, for Augusta. She had made prominent new friends, her book had been published, was being favorably reviewed, and was selling (twenty-two thousand copies in the first nine months) and she had acquired a distinguished suitor.

     For the first time she had money in her hand to do what She Wanted “Georgia Cottage”, where the family had been living, was bought and redecorated. Plants, bulbs and shrubs were set out to make the garden they had dreamed of. Augusta undertook the education of two younger sisters and with a new friend, Rachel Lyons of Columbia, South Carolina, began to plan for a European tour in 1860.

     Spauldings’ visit was postponed for a space. He was busy realizing his own ambition, the publishing of a newspaper with the policy of asserting Christianity in secular journalism. June Fourteenth, 1860, saw the-first edition of his New York World on the streets. But he did come to Mobile later and was warmly welcomed by Augusta’s family and friends in spite of his Northern birth and sympathies.

     They had much in common. Both were idealists in the most hard-to-live-with form -- combining the zeal of reformers with no patience for compromise. The same factors which drew them together were what eventually and finally drove them apart. Augusta, who all her life firmly believed that conditions did not alter rules, that an “open” mind was downright evil, and that untold danger followed when tradition was flouted in favor of progress, was violently with the South in political beliefs. And when Spaulding backed Lincoln with the support of his paper the engagement was broken. Spaulding returned north, to be stricken with paralysis in the late 1860s and died 1872. They never met or corresponded again.

     In February, 1861, Augusta attended the momentous session of the legislature when Jefferson Davis was forming the new government. She found in the war the cause she wanted, a more intense and personal one than had been offered with the Theological upheaval which had brought forth “Beulah”. New her growing fame also brought what she deemed responsibilities. There were the “Beulah Guards” which she addressed personally before they left for the front. And there was the camp hospital she organized and nursed in-established a vacant house near her home -- Camp Beulah.

     Every bit of her driving energy went into aiding the cause she believed in as devotedly as she believed in her Bible. Making herself a studious critic of public affairs, she corresponded with the new political and military leaders. And many of her suggestions proved so intelligent that Henry Hilliard, Benjamin Hill, General Beauregard and Robert Toombs listened closely to her advice. A steady flow of her unsigned Contributions appeared in newspapers, and she and her mother made dramatic visits to the battlefields in search of the Alabama regiment to which her brothers, Howard and Vivian, belonged. There is a vivid report of her singing the stirring “Maryland, My Maryland” to Southern troops just before the battle of Chickamauga.

     So imbued was she with the belief that she must aid the cause, that from June,1862, to March, 1865, she worked every spare moment on a novel she hoped and intended would bring glory to the Confederacy and lift the morale of her readers. Some of it was scrawled hurriedly on scraps of paper as she was on duty beside hospital cots at Camp Beulah. She -- and Southern critics -- considered that in writing “Macaria” she was engaged in a truly sacred work.

     Beauregarde sent her his own reports of the early battles in Virginia for source material and later dispatched, with a written commendation a diamond studded pen, in recognition of her wide services to the cause.

     “Macaria” was published by West and Johnson at Richmond, Virginia, in 1865. Printed on crude wrapping paper, the boards used in binding covers with wallpaper, this edition is now an exceedingly rare collector’s item.

     Copies found by federal officers in Kentucky and Tennessee were destroyed by the order of the general commanding there. But one copy, sent by blockade runner to Cuba, eventually found its way to her northern publishers. A miner printer-publisher had a 5000 copy pirated edition on the market, refusing to pay royalty to a “Rebel”, when Derby and Lippincott descended upon him and forced him to put the disputed sum in trust. Even the cold, grasping, money-mad, Northerners knew what was due a lady, rebel or not.

     The book had her usual faults of pedantic and heavy-footed style and was out-and-out propaganda. But even in war days it sold among her enemies -- a fact for which Augusta had reason to rejoice later.

     The downfall of the Southern cause was a crushing blow. But she we still an unreconstructed rebel, giving refuge to Robert Toombs before with a price on his head he managed to slip away to Cuba. He told her much of the secret history of their downfall and she began to gather material for an authoritative history of the Confederacy.

     But the war had ruined the Evans family along with the rest of their defeated nation. Matthew’s health was very bad. The older boys had all been in the army and were left without a trade or means of earning a living. Their savings had been invested patriotically in Confederate bonds, now worthless, their slaves were gone. There had been no money from the southern sales of “Macaria.”

     Howard, Augusta’s favorite brother, returned from the Battle of Atlanta badly wounded his arm and shoulder paralyzed. And a bout of typhoid fever had left his memory impaired. He would be an anxious care for the family for some time to come Augusta decided to take him north for the medical attention the south could not now give. She sailed for New York late in the summer of 1855, and Derby gives us an account of the young woman, clad in garments so far out of style as to make her conspicuous, turning up in his office, unsure of her reception, her brother in his threadbare grey uniform resting on the steps outside. But this was the lowest point in the Evans’ fortunes. Augusta was overwhelmed to discover that the impounded royalties were in trust for her -- that she had enough money coming from the northern sales of “Macaria” to put them all on their feet again. And the doctor to whom Derby sent them was able to help Howard.

     Restored and able to see a better future, she began writing “St. Elmo” in 1866. The book was almost instantly popular and remains the most readable of her novels and the one always associated with her name. Two weeks after it was put on sale the publishers had to beg the patience of the public, saying that it was physically impossible for them to keep up with orders. Four months after publication they boasted that at least a million people had read it. And in 1949 four different reprint editions were still on sale.

     There is little or no realism in the novel. And yet it fitted in perfectly with the taste of the time. Those who read it eagerly, mistaking the pedantic erudition for culture, were perfectly happy.

     The hero and heroine were idealized out of all reasonable human semblances. But, in order to make her hero a sinner dark enough to arouse the missionary instincts of the Christian heroine, Augusta painted for generation of feminine readers a very satisfying and fascinating rake. Perhaps it was because the Victorian woman knew of so many things which “could not be discussed” that even veiled references to sinning brought in a wave of readers.

     Not that Augusta understood what she had created in St. Elmo Murray. Lacking a sense of humor, she thought she was only presenting the facts of a pure and noble conversion to her bemused public. No other of the “Scribbling Women” save Susan Warner took herself more seriously. She totally lacked the more rational attitude toward her own work possessed by Mrs. Southworth and Mary J. Holmes. Augusta Evans did not write to amuse!

     Because she was sure that she had written more than just a work of fiction, Augusta would not yield to the pressure of playwright and allow any of her novels to be dramatized. Even “St. Elmo” was not produced in play form until 1907, but from 1909 to 1915 it was a popular success upon the boards.

     In it she created a South which had never really existed but which added to a legend that is still green and flourishing today. Her rakish hero lived in opulent luxury which even the very wealthy below the Mason Dixon line had never known, but which the South came readily to accept as a picture of the Eden from which the Civil War had expelled its sons.

     Her popular success was accepted somewhat complacently by Augusta as a deserved public tribute, something never to be questioned. She took her place with a single lady-like stride as the “Queen Regnant” of Southern letters and she had no reason, nor could ever see one, to question the opinion of those who had so fulsomely crowned her.

     Some slight clipping of her wings came from family troubles. Howard remained permanently crippled in one arm from his wound and her father’s critical illness in 1867 prevented her from taking the European tour she had so long desired.

     In 1868, when she was thirty-two, she became engaged to a man four months older than her father. Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson was sixty at the time. Her father protested against the match and they obediently postponed the wedding. That summer Augusta and her mother took Mr. Evans north to consult a specialist, but the trip was unsuccessful and Matthew Evans, who had had such high dreams in his youth and was so futilely denied all realization of them, died on the train back to Mobile.

     On the second of December that same year Augusta married Colonel Wilson in a quiet family ceremony at Georgia Cottage. Her husband was a man of wealth and property, a leader in the business world of Mobile. Investments made outside the South in the years before the war had preserved his fortune when others had been ruined.

     By her marriage Augusta also acquired four step-children. Tom and Mary were already married and Albert, the second son, was also, at the age of nineteen, to take a bride only a month after his father’s second marriage. Fannie, the thirteen-year-old second daughter, became a close friend and loved companion of the new mother only ten years older than her sister, Mary. Augusta was living one of her own novels, the poor but proud heroine was established at Ashland, a real life approach to the grandiose mansions to be found between the covers of her books.

     Ashland was a true “show place”, from the alley of live oaks which walled the carriage drive to the surrounding gardens. The house had been built in 1844 for Colonel Wilson’s first wife and was of the "raised cottage" design with the main entrances on the second floor and the ground floor used for kitchen and storage purposes. The wide hall which connected front and back entrances was the coolest place in the house and it was in an improvised study there that the bride began work on “Vashti.”

     She budgeted her time strictly. Colonel Wilson and the home he had given her must not suffer from her preoccupation with an author’s employment. So the schedule she established for the household became so regimented that neighbors told the time of day accurately from the duties which engaged the Wilson, servants at that particular moment. And in spite of her strictness and what we would think today almost harshness with her servants, they were devoted to her and remained in her employ for forty and fifty years.

     Although churchgoing and a firm belief in orthodox religious tenants governing her life, she was also interested in the theater. When John McCullough, the famed Shakespearian actor, was in Mobile she received him at Ashland and, on the night he played “Virginis”, an imposing floral tribute from the gardens and greenhouses of the estate was presented to him on the stage. And her liberal views on acting led her to direct a performance of “Lalla Rook” for the benefit of the Protestants Orphan Asylum.

     But she was bitterly opposed to suffrage and all her life refused to speak before women’s clubs, of which she completely disapproved.

     Busy as her day was, she allowed nothing to interfere with the four hours of work at her desk. All rights to “Vashti” were sold for the sum of fifteen thousand dollars, paid in advance of publication, which she gave to her mother. In the South of the reconstruction period this sum was quadruple in purchasing power over what it would be today. But the profit from the published novel proved to be so high that her publisher, G. W. Carleton, tore up the contract and returned the copyright to the author, such treatment of one of his prize authors paid off some years later when a rival sent an agent to Augusta offering twenty-five thousand to issue cheap editions of her works. She refused at once, and she never granted serial rights to magazines. Colonel Wilson was so proud of the “Vashti” sale that he carried the check about to show his friends and, when it was finally cashed, had a facsimile of it made.

     The “cause” in “Vashti” was the evils of divorce. Augusta’s theme being firmly stated in her usual ponderous style. “Human legislation is impotent to cancel the statutes of Almighty God, which declare that only death can free what Jehovah has joined together.”

     And with the cause she continued to display the width of her reading, and the vividness of her memory, with allusions and quotations far beyond the grasp of most of her readers. But that was what made Augusta so wonderful -- she educated while she elevated!

     Critics who made statements such as: “’Vashti’ may therefore be safely pronounced a case of affectation run mad, in which the dictionary has been ruthlessly plundered of its unused treasures in order to astound the public.” Were lone and unheard voices lost in an unhearing, willfully deaf wilderness.

     Her answer to such carpings -- which she never believed came in the preface to “Infelice” (1875) with a quotation from Disraeli’s “Lothair” -- -“Tomorrow the critics will commence. You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art.”

     After all the public agreed with her. Between 1870 and 1900, although she published only two new novels in that period, she averaged ten thousand a year in royalties.

     In 1870 her health began to suffer and Colonel Wilson, proud as he was of her ‘success, took a firm stand. She must spend less time writing and studying. A born nurse, she had devoted hours of this kind of duty to any sufferers in her wide circle of relatives and friends -- this too must stop. But her interest in nursing turned in another direction, the recruiting of girls to make it their life work. And a few years later she was one of the founders of the Nonsectarian Infirmary in Mobile.

     Her own physical ills were those which are now recognized as having psychosomatic base, insomnia and hay fever. With Colonel Wilson she began traveling, in hope of finding a better climate. But seasons spent away from Ashland brought her no relief.

     At home there was the press of social duties. She was now one of the “monuments” of Mobile, and outstanding visitors were taken to Ashland as a matter of course. The one time on record when she refused to play this allotted role was when she decided not to receive Oscar Wilde.

     “Infelice” went to Carleton in the spring of 1875. Maddie, the daughter of her widowed sister, Virginia, was the model for Regina. Both Maddie and her mother lived at Ashland and much of the routine of the household has been -noted in Maddie’s childhood diary.

     Sarah Evans’ death in 1878 was a blow to such a devoted daughter. But after that life flowed very evenly until 1891. The twelve year gap between her sixth and seventh novels was entirely due to her restless quest for health

     But “At the Mercy of Tiberius” appeared at last in the summer of 1887. This showed a change in pace. The story had, for Augusta, an unusual amount of realism -- the conversation was more natural, and there were folk customs, superstitions, and pictures of daily life closer to the actual. Mrs. E. W. Bellamy, a noted writer of short stories in Negro dialect, helped her with the sections dealing with the customs and speech of that race. The story might have been really great had it not suffered from her usual fault of pedantic exposition for it was a murder mystery, cleverly plotted, and also hovered on the verge of being an exposure of the judicial ills of circumstantial evidence and bad penal practices. She often called this her favorite work. Certainly it was the most markedly regional of all her novels.

     The death of Colonel Wilson in the fall of 1891 was a stunning stroke which blasted forever her happy world. She took a dislike to Ashland and determined to leave the place where she had been blissfully content. By her desire he had left the estate to his children and grandchildren by his first marriage. Her own earnings, which his shrewd business investments had increased, made her, by the standards of the day, independently wealthy.

     For the next few years she moved restlessly about, living with a close friend, a sister, in a home of her own, until she purchased a second home within walking distance of her relatives. Here the remaining fifteen years of her life were spent.

     She continued to dwell upon the dislocating loss of Colonel Wilson with the morbidness of the widowed Queen who had given her name to the period. For years after his death she used heavy black borders on her letter paper and spoke of life as not worth living. Her ill health continued and she became blind in one eye from neuritis. Her brother, Howard, who now lived with her, and her niece, Lily Bragg, read aloud from her favorite quarterlies and magazines. She wanted to keep life static, and was afraid of changes, retaining the gas lighting of her young womanhood in preference to electricity. And she would not allow a telephone in the house until Mrs. Bragg came to live with her. All her debts were paid from a large store of cash she carried in the pocket of her woolen wrap.

     But whether she wrote or not the royalties continued to roll in. During 1890s her books brought her about seven thousand a year until she sold all rights to her publisher. Her turning to the past, her morbid grief, and failing health, led her relatives to believe that she had ended her active career. But, as secretly as she had produced “Inez”, she set to writing again. Only Howard and the servants knew that she was back at work—the publication of “The Speckled Bird” in 1905 came as a complete surprise to the rest of her world. And the name of Augusta Evans Wilson on the jacket had not lost its charm. The first edition of thirty-five thousand sold in advance of publication and within four weeks after that date it was in its third edition.

    This time she was aligned against organized labor. Her heroine mingles with unholy socialistic and anarchist movements, becomes a “de-sexed” feminist and accepts the leadership of labor agitators. From that a lady could fall no lower. The hard practices of a business world destroyed all the superior moral fibers of feminine character. Augusta’s world was changing but she was being left behind, faced by forces she could not understand and which the beliefs of a lifetime branded as utterly evil.

     She had one more story to write, but it was a short one. “Devote” was completed when she was seventy. Her publisher begged to issue it in books form in spite of its length, and it appeared in large type with ornamental margins. In 1916 it was re-issued as a memorial to her with the addition of a short reminiscence commissioned from Thomas Cooper DeLeon.

     Howard’s death in June of 1908 was, she believed, also hers. The months which dragged afterwards were only a quiet and patient waiting. And on the day after her seventy-fourth birthday in 1909 she suffered a heart attack and died at once. Her funeral, said to be the largest ever seen in Mobile brought her to rest beside Howard.

     Her contemporaries believed that her influence on American character and morals was so great that she was assured of a high place in literary history. A whole generation showered her with letters, made pilgrimages to tell how some word of hers had changed their lives for the better.

     Her heroes and Heroines were idealized, her lovingly detailed descriptions of luxurious and exotic mansions and gardens were lush, the stately and dignified language gave the illusion of “culture”, and the stern punishments meted out to the vicious and hypocritical were entirely to the taste of the period.

     She pictured a South that never was, an ideal of beauty, chivalry, romance, and luxury. To Southerners it was a reminder of a cherished and lost past to Northerners an accepted picture of a destroyed world.

     Her popularity was based on Victorian points: the virtuous feeling gained by the reader who was instructed while he was entertained, the moral and religious teachings, and the excitement of the discreetly sensational incident.

     Hers were the success stories of the downtrodden, almost always orphaned maidens who played preceptresses of morals and manners through long continued love affairs. The sins of the rich were assailed and the simple home and its life extolled (although the heroine always wed wealthy in the end). What more could any reader of her era desire.

 

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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