Curious Romantic Leads in Augusta Jane Evans
We can tell a lot of things from romance. There is something quite powerful about the idea that a character is supposed to find another attractive, especially if the narrative is constructed in such a way that we, the reader, is supposed to find them attractive as well. Of course, not all romances are constructed like this, just as not all end happily. But there is a strand within the genre that reveals, through its portrayal of key elements, ideals of masculinity and femininity, and of the correct way to behave in the world. Perhaps more than any other genre, romances of this sort fail if they do not tap into something of our shared ideas about what a hero or heroine is.
For that reason, I’ve been intrigued lately by some of the novels of Augusta Jane Evans. Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1835, Evans is unlikely ever to come back to major prominence as a writer. Her genre is now particularly unfashionable, her writing was criticised for pretentiousness even in her own time, and her political views are likely to prevent any kind of mass readership. She was a highly educated woman who opposed the extension of the franchise to her sex – a peculiarity that comes across in her novels as she writes female characters far more suited to democratic duty than their male counterparts, and yet they too, nonetheless, oppose the women’s suffrage movement. Beyond this, Evans was one of the foremost romancers of the Old South and a prominent creator of the ‘Lost Cause’ and wrote a history book for the use in Southern schools with a Virginian novelist called Mary Tucker Magill – who also wrote novels of the Lost Cause.
For all these reasons, I expect neither a surge in popularity nor that Evans’ work will ever be a common sight on syllabi. Nevertheless, I find several things intriguing about her work – not least that at her best – which, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to be her least overtly political – she was a very capable writer. Today, though, I want to bring to light a trait common to her presentation of romance.
As romances, one of the more common trends of her novels is that there is a young heroine, and a particular man – a remarkable man, some might say – in each of the texts who is able to command her love by the end of the text. Sometimes these books end happily and sometimes not; in all cases, the man seems to be modelled in a romantic tradition, so that they have more in keeping with the novels by the Brontës than anything else.
These romantic figures can be drawn differently, but one thing links several of them together – and that is that they have a relationship in which they (or their family) act as guardians to the heroine when she is a child. On the off chance that anyone plans on reading any of these novels, the next paragraph contains plot spoilers!
In Beulah (1859), the title character is adopted as a child by Dr. Hartwell, only for a romantic relationship to bloom. Her most popular novel, St. Elmo (1866), the title character is the remarkable man in question, and the heroine a twelve-year old orphan adopted by his mother when her grandfather dies. In Infelice (1875), a girl whose mother has left the country with vengeance in her heart is raised by Mr Palma, who eventually becomes her husband.
While I think working out exactly what this means would take a lot of close reading and awareness of both Evans and how the novels were received, the fact that the trope recurs three times seems far more than coincidence. What is intriguing is that it also seems out of step with other instances where we can see an older man in a position of trust propose to young girls that have been under their care, such as in George Washington Cable’s ‘Sieur George’ (from Old Creole Days) or the failed romance of Mr Regulus in Caroline Hentz Ernest Linwood (though it should be noted that here the successful hero also comes from a family that takes in a young girl).
Whatever our eventual conclusions, it is at the very least interesting that a female novelist who loved flaunting her own intellect in her writing had a tendency to produce characters who fell in love with the very men who acted as their guardians – reinforcing, perhaps, her conservative views of woman as subordinate to man (with the possible exception, perhaps, of herself).
Peter Templeton is Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.