Southern Novelist in the Civil War Era
Author Augusta Evans (1835-1909) wrote nine novels about Southern women that were among the most popular fiction in nineteenth-century America. Her novels Beulah and St. Elmo are the best-known. Given her support for the Confederate States of America and her literary activities during the Civil War, she decisively added to the literary and cultural development of the Confederacy.
Augusta Jane Evans was born May 8, 1835 in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of eight children of well-to-do parents Matthew Ryan Evans and Sarah Skrine Howard Evans. As a young girl in 19th century America Augusta received little in the way of a formal education. She was tutored her at home by her mother, a well-educated woman.
Augusta had a keen intellect and became a voracious reader at an early age, developing a great love for philosophy, history, and literature. She was deeply attached to her mother and later in life stated that she owed all of her accomplishments to her mother’s influence.
Both parents were from planter families, and Matthew Evans was a partner in a successful mercantile firm, but his business went bankrupt after the Panic of 1837. Evans lost the family property, palatial Sherwood Hall, in the 1840s. Although the family was not impoverished, Evans never regained his earlier level of success.
Like many Americans who suffered financial reverses in the economically volatile antebellum years, Matthew Evans moved west to rebuild his fortune. He moved his family by covered wagon to San Antonio, Texas, where business was booming due to the large numbers of settlers who had moved there after the Texas War of Independence (1835–36), and the thriving trade in military goods at the start of the Mexican War (1846–48).
Life on the frontier, however, was rugged and dangerous. In 1849, the family of ten moved to the bustling cotton port of Mobile, Alabama, where Augusta Jane Evans spent the rest of her life. Her talent for writing appeared when she was in her teens. At age 15 she wrote her first novel, Inez, A Tale of the Alamo, the story of an orphan’s spiritual journey from skepticism to devout faith.
Evans presented the manucript to her father as a Christmas gift in 1854, and it was published by Harper’s in 1855. She hoped the sales of the novel would help recover the family fortune, but the book sold poorly. Evans wrote in a genre known as domestic or sentimental fiction – a type of novel popular with women readers during the middle of the nineteenth century – but her writing displayed a breadth of knowledge uncommon among her peers.
However, Evans’ second novel, Beulah, was a remarkable success. Published in 1859, the book sold 22,000 copies in the first nine months and received high praise from reviewers. Beulah began the theme of female education that persisted in her novels. Set in the 1850s in an unnamed Alabama city (probably Mobile), Beulah is about a fiery young woman’s search for ultimate truth.
The heroine, Beulah Benton, abandons her Christian faith as she studies the writings of skeptical philosophers, but she continues her spiritual search to the point of exhaustion. Only when she recognizes that ultimate truth is beyond the grasp of human reason does she return to Christianity and accept the love of her suitor.
Beulah’s conversion story is rooted in the author’s personal experience. Around 1855, Evans experienced a severe crisis of faith, probably brought on by her own study of non-Christian philosophy. In early 1856, she decided to reject philosophy and turned instead to Christian revelation. Two years later she returned to the Methodist religion of her childhood.
With her literary success, Evans was at last able to provide for her family’s needs. She purchased a house, Georgia Cottage, and made plans for a long-desired trip to Europe. Beulah established Evans as Alabama’s first professional author, and the first to earn a living from her writing.
When most of the Southern states declared their independence, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, Augusta Jane Evans became a staunch Southern patriot. She became active in the subsequent Civil War as a propagandist.
Evans was engaged to New York journalist James Reed Spalding, who shared her zeal for the Christian faith. Her plans unraveled, however, as the nation plunged toward civil war. As “a most uncompromising secessionist,” she placed her ideological principles above her personal life and broke off her engagement with Spalding in 1860 because he supported Abraham Lincoln.
Civil War Nurse
By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Evans had achieved an unusual status for a woman, and was respected for her erudition and political commitment by a great number of prominent Southern men, including Confederate General P.G.T. Beuregard, with whom she corresponded.
Evans nursed sick and wounded Confederate soldiers at Fort Morgan on Mobile Bay, and visited the troops at Chickamauga, Georgia. She also sewed sandbags for the defense of the community and wrote articles in support of the Confederacy for a Mobile newspaper. With her own money, she opened a private hospital for Confederate wounded near her residence. The hospital was dubbed Camp Beulah by local admirers in honor of her novel.
Despite the demands of these activities, she continued to write fiction. Her third novel, Macaria; or Altars of Sacrifice (1864), a pro-Confederate propaganda novel, focuses on the changes in women’s roles during the war and idealizes the sacrifices of Confederate women. Macaria expressed her enthusiasm for the Southern cause, but slavery remained in the background. She later claimed it was written by candlelight while she nursed Confederate wounded.
Macaria sold magnificently and penetrated the Northern blockade with five thousand bootlegged copies sold in the North. So effective was Macaria as pro-Southern propoganda that General George Thomas, commander of the Union army in Tennessee, banned it among his troops and confiscated and burned those copies that existed.
The Civil War left Evans impoverished and depressed. Her immediate family had all survived the war, but her beloved brother Howard was permanently disabled. She accompanied Howard to New York City seeking a medical specialist to treat a paralyzed arm resulting from a war wound.
Evans and her family faced serious financial problems at the war’s end, with the loss of their slaves and other property. She met with her publisher while in New York City, and discovered that he had been holding for her a substantial sum of money from northern sales of Macaria. She quickly completed St. Elmo and ended any future financial worries for herself and her family.
In 1867 Evans published her most successful and most famous novel, St. Elmo, a more conventional domestic novel concerning a moody, Heathcliff-like man who improves his character and accepts Christianity because of the love of a virtuous woman. St. Elmo was a runaway bestseller – within four months it sold a million copies – and became a fixture of popular culture.
St. Elmo Murray is a cynical and cruel man, but he is gradually converted to Christianity through his love for the virtuous heroine, Edna Earle. Edna willingly gives up her literary career when she marries St. Elmo, and this choice reflects Evans’ belief that women were happiest, and most powerful, when they devoted themselves to their families and homes. This was a common idea in the mid-nineteenth century and one of the major themes of domestic fiction.
Although Evans never returned to Columbus, Georgia she made it the setting for St. Elmo. Literary critics panned the novel, but the public loved Evans’ idealized heroines and heroes. Hotels, boats, and towns were named in its honor, and it was adapted for the stage and screen. It ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 19th century, and remained in print well into the twentieth century. Edna Earle also became the namesake of Eudora Welty’s heroine Edna Earle Ponder in The Ponder Heart (1954).
In 1868 at age 33, Augusta Jane Evans married Confederate veteran and wealthy businessman, Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson, 27 years her senior. She moved her favorite writing desk to his columned house called Ashland, not far from her home at Georgia Cottage, entertained lavishly and became the First Lady of Mobile society.
The marriage appears to have been happy. Evans enjoyed her new role as mistress of Ashland and helped to raise her husband’s youngest child, Fannie (she had no children of her own). Evans encouraged young women to enter the field of nursing, supported a number of Mobile charities, and cultivated flowers with her husband.
She also continued to write, although at a slower pace. During her years at Ashland, Evans produced three more novels: Vashti; or, Until Death Us Do Part (1869), Infelice (1875), and At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887), which were both strikingly apolitical and concerned women living under assumed identities who had been wronged by and were now estranged from their husbands. By this time she had many devoted readers, and all of them sold quite well.
Evans was the first American woman author to earn over $100,000, a record she would hold until Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Evans continued writing romantic novels long after other American writers had adopted the more realistic style that became dominant after the Civil War. Wilson adhered to the genre’s basic outlines, but veered from it by incorporating explicit religious, philosophical and political themes into most of her novels.
Colonel Wilson died in 1891, and Evans left Ashland and moved to a house in downtown Mobile, where she lived with her brother Howard and wrote her last works, the novel A Speckled Bird (1902) and the novelette Devota (1907), her last publication before her death. She was almost blind when she wrote Devota (she dictated the story to her niece), and her health continued to decline.
Evans opposed women’s suffrage (the right to vote), even as increasing numbers of women came to support this cause toward the end of the century. She also rejected the feminist fiction being created by younger women writers such as Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman at the turn of the century.
Evans was one of the best-known novelists in the United States during the nineteenth century. Children were named after her and her literary characters. Although her novels are not considered great literature, her strong heroines educated themselves, and then became wives and mothers. They were or became virtuous Christians who did what they believed was right no matter how much it cost them.
Augusta Evans died of a heart attack on May 9, 1909, one day after her seventy-fourth birthday, and was buried next to her brother Howard in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery. Her beloved Ashland burned to the ground in 1926. However, Georgia Cottage is still standing with a historical marker on Springhill Avenue designating it as her home.
Due to her didactic approach to writing and her reactionary views on race, women’s roles, the Confederacy and Reconstruction, her popularity plummeted after the mid-20th century. However, scholarly interest in Wilson has recently grown. In 1992, Louisiana State University Press published editions of Beulah and Macaria, with prefaces by, respectively, noted Southern women’s historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Drew Gilpin Faust.
Wilson is also mentioned in a number of 1990s historical and literary scholarly works. Anne Sophie Riepma published a biography/literary analysis, Fire and Fiction, in 2000. In 2002, Rebecca Grant Sexton compiled and edited Wilson’s letters in A Southern Woman of Letters: The Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson. Feminist critics have chosen to focus on the intellectual competence of Evans’ female characters which allowed them to gain both personal and public power.
Evans was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1977.