Thursday, May 1, 2014
Old Bestsellers: The Changed Brides, by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth
The Changed Brides, by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth
a review by Rich Horton
Here we go back a bit farther in time. Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819-1899) was perhaps the single most popular American author of the last half of the 19th Century (almost exactly -- her first novel was published in 1849, and she was still working when she died). It would be fair to say that she is all but forgotten now -- but not quite. Her books are not uncommonly found in antique shops and the like, and I even found a paper written at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, about her most successful novel, The Hidden Hand (1859), in which it is averred that a recent development in women's literature courses is the inclusion of popular novels of the 19th Century.
Mrs. Southworth was born Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, in Washington D.C. (in fact in a house built by George Washington). She became a schoolteacher, but moved to Wisconsin, living in a log cabin, upon her marriage. She had two children, but after only a few years of marriage, her husband deserted her, and she returned to Washington, where she lived most of the rest of her life. She returned to teaching, but began to write stories, and fairly soon became a very popular writer.
She was most associated with the New York Ledger, the most popular "Story Paper" of the day. This was a weekly newspaper devoted to fiction (and some features), published by Robert Bonner. By the late 50s Southworth had a contract with the Ledger for $10,000 a year, in return for which most of her novels were serialized in the paper (sometimes multiple times). Most of her novels also were published as books, but her publication history is complicated, and no one seems sure how many novels she actually published. (The accepted number is "about 60".) For a time she wrote two serials per year.
The book I have is The Changed Brides, which as far as I can find out first appeared in 1869. My copy is an A. L. Burt reprint. No date is given for this edition, but I'd guess turn of the 20th Century, roughly. This book seems to be slightly less melodramatic than some of her others, which isn't to say it totally lacks melodrama.
It opens with three curious arrivals, in driving rain, at a tollgate on the road to Old Lyon Hall, in Western Virginia. The Scotch (as Mrs. Southworth would have it) couple tending the gate recognize one of them: Alexander Lyon, who they know is to be married that night to Miss Anna Lyon, the daughter of General Lyon, the master of Lyon Hall. Another is a woman on foot, a slight dark woman who is apparently pregnant. She is desperate to get to the Hall ... for, she says, she is "Anna Lyon". But how can that be? Anna Lyon is a tall blond woman ... The third is a mysterious man.
Before long the young woman has encountered Miss Anna Lyon ... and then we get an extended (very extended) flashback to the history of these four people. Miss Anna has been engaged to Alexander Lyon, her first cousin (once removed) since childhood. They get along well enough, but they are clearly not in love. Back to childhood ... Alexander's mother engages a housekeeper, a devout Baptist woman, widow of a preacher, who has a 6 year old daughter. The housekeeper keeps the daughter (quite literally) penned up in her quarters for fear of disturbing the Lyon family. Then at Christmas Alexander (called "Alick") comes home (he is perhaps a decade or more older) and takes a fancy to the little girl, and takes pity on her isolation, and before long this girl -- whose name is Anna Drusilla Sterling -- is a pet, almost, of Alick's mother. She fixates on Alick, as the agent of her renewed happiness.
Time goes by. Alick, a generally rather selfish and shallow young man, continues to cosset Drusilla (as she is called), eventually paying for her education. Anna has fallen in love with another cousin, Dick Hammond. But nothing is to be done -- for after all Anna and Alick are engaged. Then, just before the wedding, Alick's father dies ... the wedding must be postponed. Just as the wedding is again scheduled, both Alick's mother, and Drusilla's mother, die in short succession. The wedding is put off again -- and now, what to do about Drusilla? Alick, not happy with the prospect of marrying Anna, whom he doesn't love, and somewhat infatuated with the now quite beautiful, and wholly worshipful, Drusilla, decides on the mad course of a secret marriage to her.
Drusilla is installed in a pretty little house on the DC suburbs, and again is kept isolated, as Alick can't let their marriage become known. Before long he is neglecting her (though he does manage to get her in a "delicate condition", as they said), and, on his Uncle's orders, paying court to Anna. Anna is now a supreme beauty, and out of pride in her beauty and jealousy of Cousin Dick, whom Anna truly loves, Alick begins to hope that something somehow will solve his Drusilla problem ...
Well ... after the requisite delays etc, we are back to Drusilla (who technically is named "Anna Lyon") coming to Old Lyon Hall to try to prevent her still-beloved but unfaithful husband from committing the mortal sin of bigamy. Miss Anna is only to happy to escape her marriage -- but how? (And how, I wondered, did nobody but the Scotch wife at the tollgate notice that Drusilla was some 8 1/2 months pregnant?)
So ... things work out, of course, though only partially -- because there is a sequel! This is called The Bride's Fate, and it appeared, I believe, hard on the heels of The Changed Brides. I haven't read it, but I did peek at the ending of the online version, and I wasn't surprised to learn that -- after even more melodrama -- all works out nicely for the characters.
One thing that bothered me a bit about the novel was pinning down the timeframe. It was published in 1869, but it is surely set before the Civil War. But when? Old General Lyon is said to be 80, and there is a brief mention that suggests he fought in the Revolutionary War. That implies he was born no later than, say, 1760 -- which would put the action (the final action) in 1840. But there is mention of railroad service between Richmond and Washington. I had thought widespread rail use in the US began about 1850, but perhaps there was some earlier? Or perhaps Southworth simply wasn't that careful about the exact time of her book.
What to say about Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth? Certainly she deserved her reputation as a writer of potboilers. She had some of the flaws of the prolific serial writer -- she was very very wordy, and very insistent on close description of dresses and rooms and so on. She tells a lot, instead of showing, especially as to explicating the characters. The prose itself is a bit spotty in quality. Her attitudes are certainly of her time -- Drusilla, who is really the protagonist of this novel, is almost sickeningly submissive to Alick, though he is a weak and at times quite bad man. (That said, in general, I have read, her villains are men, and her women are virtuous -- and for her time, while not a feminist in 20th Century terms, she did argue for more independence and agency for women. One would think her personal situation -- abandoned by her husband with two young children -- shaped those views.) The attitudes towards African Americans are hard to read -- there are three significant Black characters, and all are sympathetic, but they are portrayed as occasionally childish, and certainly there is no hint that their lower class position is inappropriate. (That said, this is Virginia, pre-Civil War (I think), and these characters are all apparently free, and paid salaries, and fairly independent.) Mrs. Southworth was, I have read, a friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and while there is no trace of abolitionist fervor in this novel, I get the feeling she was sympathetic to the Northern position.) As for readability -- well, I ended up reading with a continued desire to know what happens. It did hold the interest. But, yes, it could have easily been resolved in about half the page count.
In sum, I don't think she's a writer much in need of a revival. But it's not hard to see that she could have been very popular in her time. (And I confess The Hidden Hand does look worth a try perhaps.) I was amused to read that Louisa May Alcott lampooned Southworth in Little Women -- Jo March reads a writer called S.L.A.N.G. Northbury, and despite her evident failings decides to imitate her, until the Professor (who she later married) advised her to stop writing such pulpy trash. I confess my sympathies here lie with Southworth -- for one thing, Alcott herself wrote some pulpy novels under pseudonyms. (And, yes, I did read Little Women (and Little Men, and Jo's Boys) as a teen, but I had no context to recognize the S.L.A.N.G Northbury target, and I don't recall that incident at all.)