Friday, March 9, 2012

Virginia Women Writers at Home #2

Amélie Rives (1863-1945)

Amélie Rives traced her American ancestry back to colonial Virginia. Her great-grandfather Dr. Thomas Walker was a friend of Peter Jefferson. After Jefferson’s death his son, Thomas Jefferson, became Dr. Walker’s ward. Her grandfather, William Cabell Rives, was a senator and an ambassador to France. Robert E. Lee was Amélie’s godfather. Her home was Castle Hill (begun in the mid-1700s) in Albemarle County. Here famous founders and shapers of the young United States were frequent visitors. Unlike many other Virginia plantations, Castle Hill was not touched during the Civil War.[i] 

Early in the 1900s, under Amélie’s sister’s leadership, Castle Hill became the center for breeding fox hounds and became part of the Keswick Hunt Club district. Like Burwell’s Avenel House, Castle Hill is also haunted. The manifestations may date to the Revolutionary War. The area for ghostly activities is in what was the pink bedroom of Amélie Rives on the ground floor of the manor. Many times Amélie Rives reported smelling a scent of strange perfume.[ii]

In what proved to be a combustible seven year marriage, the beautiful and willful Amélie was married to the burdened and troubled John Armstrong Chanler, a great grandson of John Jacob Astor. Shortly after her divorce from Chanler in 1896, she became a real princess when she married the émigré Russian Prince, Pierre Troubetzky, a portrait painter of some note.[iii]

Before her first marriages, Rives achieved notoriety in 1888 when she published The Quick and the Dead?. Written in the romantic style of the Victorian period with Castle Hill as the verdant locale the novel depicts the erotic passions of a woman recently widowed Barbara Pomfret. Pomfret finds solace in playing Chopin on the piano and is described by one reviewer as “morbid, hysterical, and egotistical.” [iv] In the Preface to a later edition of the novel, Rives took exception to these characterizations of Barbara Pomfret. Rives also took exception to the suggestion by critics that Rive’s own makeup was a model for the heroine of the book. An example in the novel of the hand on the breast, fan-a fluttering romanticism of Rives is when the Pomfret cries passionately to her suitor, Dering:
“I tell you yes!” … her stormy bosom tossing some little diamond pins that she wore into iridescent sparkles “yes, and yes, and yes!” then she took his face into her hands… [saying] “I have no right to you” to which he replies “ I have, will you deny me…”
The Quick and the Dead? sold 300,000 copies. Several of Rives' other 24 novels were set at Castle Hill. These other works, her poems, and her play, The Fear Market, which ran for 118 performances in 1916 in New York, never achieved the notoriety or popularity of The Quick and the Dead?. She, while embracing her Virginia home, also had connections to the fast-paced life and drama of New York City. The notoriety established by this novel in 1888 would follow Rives throughout her life. Her last published novel was in 1930. She died in Charlottesville, VA in 1945.

Mary Johnston (1870-1936)

In spite of being sickly and frail, Mary Johnston’s literary output and interests were extensive and worthy of several essays. She was a historian, traveler, suffragette, social activist, and novelist. The daughter of a lawyer and a Confederate veteran, Johnston was born in Buchanan VA. After many years of living in Alabama and New York, following the death of her father, she moved to Richmond, VA. Prone to illnesses she spent much of her time reading and learning literary style. Both the responsibilities of a large family after the death of her mother and the financial panics in the 1890s motivated her to seek extra income by writing. Her first efforts at writing were done while sitting in Central Park.

One of her most celebrated historical novels is To Have and To Hold set in early colonial Jamestown. In 1900, the novel broke existing publishing records and proved to be the most popular novel between Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Gone With the Wind (1936). With this work she became the first female best selling author. The book was adapted for silent films in 1916 and 1922.[v]

To Have and To Hold begins on a mid-summer afternoon in 1621 with Ralph Percy deciding to go down river to the settlement of Jamestown to “get himself a wife.” Percy observed that in the Jamestown colony
[B]efore the arrival of yesterday’s ships there had been in the natural Eden (leaving the savages out of the reckoning) several thousand Adams, and but some three score Eves.
The woman Percy singles out appears a severe and unadorned in Puritan “dark woolen.” Looks are deceiving. Jocelyn Leigh, the ward of King James I, had run away to avoid a forced marriage to the King’s favorite, Lord Carnal. Through this adventure the reader is treated to a history of events and personagess in early colonial Virginia. While Percy parries with mind and sword over adversaries to protect his new wife and Jamestown, Jocelyn applies her fine mind and feminine ways to protect her husband.

Mary Johnston’s also wrote Civil War novels - The Long Roll (1911) and Cease Firing (1912) - and a feminist manifesto - Hagar (1913). In 1909 Johnston joined the Equal Suffragette League of Virginia. Among her prominent friends who also joined the League was Ellen Glasgow.
With the help of her two sisters, Johnston built a large house, Three Hills, in Warm Springs, VA. Johnston in her later life was better known for her social activism than for her writing. She died of Brights’s Disease in May of 1936. Lately, her writings are receiving renewed interest.

[i] This site is on the National Register and one can tour the present day property on a YouTube video.
[ii] http://www.haunted/
[iii] Donna M. Lucey. Archie and Amélia: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age. New York: Harmony Books. 2006. The New York Times’ review of this interesting book was titled “Archie and Amélie”: A Combustilbe Couple in a Torrid Descent Amid Opulence. July 3, 2006.
[iv] Amélie Rives.

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