Friday, March 2, 2012

Virginia Women Writers at Home

We are saluting Women’s History Month with a series on women authors whose temperament and writing characterize Virginia women We will “snapshot” five authors and one work by each of them to illustrate how writers reflected in their lives and in the themes and settings of their works a distinctive “Virginia-ness.” Our last criteria: the works had to be a “good read.”

Not surprising for these Virginians, the authors used colonial or antebellum eras for their settings. Three authors, Letitia Burwell, Amélie Rives, and Ellen Glasgow, brought personal knowledge of the antebellum period, yet their views of the era reflected the time period in which they wrote. For example, though the setting in her writing was antebellum, Amélie Rives wrote in the romantic literary style of the period between the Civil War and the late 19th century. Glasgow and Mary Johnston are involved in the early 20th century suffragette movement that leads to a different attitude toward the character of their women even though their stories were set in earlier time periods. Some late 20th century opinions on feminism were found in the historical novels of Rita Mae Brown. One locale that was common to the authors was their Virginia home – both as a physical place and a place to locate action.[i] In particular, Letitia Burwell and Amèlie Rives used their own plantation homes as the setting for their works.

Letitia M. Burwell (1810-1905)
Letitia Burwell grew up at Avenel House (Plantation) in Bedford, VA as one of four daughters of William and Frances Steptoe Burwell. Her home is one of the Civil War Trail sites and is also one of the haunted sites in the Roanoke area. No image of her has been found, however, beginning a year after her death in 1905, the description of a 4’11’ girl with dark hair parted in the middle and dressed in white has walked the property.[ii]

Her memoir, Plantation Reminiscences, was first published in 1878 in Kentucky under the pseudonym Page Thacker.[iii] In 1895, Letitia Burwell republished under her own name an illustrated version of the memoir as A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War. The publication was an early contribution to “the lost cause” literary and intellectual tradition in the South. Burwell’s memoir was:
...dedicated to my nieces who find in...publications such expressions applied to their ancestors as: “cruel slave-owners”, “inhuman retches”, dealers in human souls,” etc....My own life would have been embittered had I believed myself to be descended from such monsters; and to those who come after us may know the truth, I wish to leave a record of plantation life as it was. The truth may thus be preserved among a few, and merited praise may be awarded to noble men and virtuous women who have passed away.[iv]
In this defense of the Southern cause, some of the sentiments presented and dialect rendered might make us uncomfortable today; however, the descriptions of antebellum plantation life provided a fascinating social history of the period. Burwell gives details of her household furnishing and carriages which were made in the time of George III, of the competition among the plantations for the servants’ best breads, of wedding traditions, and of the months of visiting friends and relatives at plantations from Roanoke to Richmond. As a contrast to the gaiety allowed the young women, Burwell describes the exhausting responsibilities of the mistress of the plantation, which was a woman’s destiny once she married.

Burwell, as did the other authors, wrote of a visit to New York City and, though exciting, the City did not compare favorably to life in Virginia. This trip was an aside in Burwell’s offered justification of the role and duties of the servants and the interaction between the races. She concluded the results of the War hurt everyone. Burwell describes the education of women after the War and mentioned the talented and generous young writer by the name of Amélie be continued next week.
[i] W.D. Taylor. Virginia Authors: Past and Present. The Virginia Association of Teachers of English. The William Byrd Press, Inc. Richmond VA. 1972.
[ii] The wearing of white was favored by several of the authors and characters in these works.
[iv] Letitia Burwell. A Girl’s Life in Virginia before the War. Illustrated by William A. McCullough and Jules Turcas. Frederick A. Stokes Company. New York. 1895

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