was her most popular book, setting new sales records that prompted her publisher, G. W. Carelton, to announce that a million people had read it within four months of its first appearance. At once a traditional sentimental novel and a scholarly exploration of female intellectualism, St. Elmo depicts its heroine, Edna Earl, at war with herself, struggling with the accepted limits of femininity. Her brilliant career as an author pits her very body against itself: in the act of writing, she masochistically neglects her body while striving to maintain her pious, self-abnegating character. Given the novel’s postwar context, it is fascinating that Evans couches her heroine’s struggle with the competing roles of wife and writer in the slippery terms of slavery and freedom. (Fekete Trubey 2005: 125)St. Elmo himself became 'a cult figure who several decades later was to inspire Margaret Mitchell' (Cadogan 1994: 41) and 'Augusta Jane Evans's St. Elmo was considered as recently as 1947 to be one of the ten most popular novels ever published in the United States' (Kolba 1980: 38).
Although the novel was undoubtedly a bestseller, its quality was questioned. It was parodied in Charles Henry Webb's St. Twel'mo, or, The Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga (1867). In one review written in 1902 the reviewer observed that 'There never was a book written more open to ridicule. And yet, when that inclination to ridicule comes we pause, half ashamed. For under all the pompous phraseology we feel that there was a story to be told; that not a line of it was penned that was not inspired by sincerity and a belief in lofty ideals' or, as a very much more recent reader from the Young Ladies Christian Fellowship puts it: 'Even though the Latin phrases went right over my head, I was able to grasp a little of the vastness of the author’s knowledge by her references to history and science I had never even learned. Strong characters, and the heroine’s refreshing perspective on life would make the book in and of themselves—but the story of love, trust, and forgiveness is one you will never forget'.
The term 'sentimental novel', which is used to describe St. Elmo refers to:
a popular form of fiction that gained popularity in America from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century (although there are still manifestations of it today). In general, sentimentalism is didactic in form, “artless” in style, sincere in its tone, melodramatic in its plotting, and addressed overwhelmingly to a female readership. Often, the term “sentimentalism” is used in two senses:In other words, many of these novels can be viewed as precursors of the modern romance novel.
1. An overindulgence in emotion, especially the conscious effort to induce emotion in order to enjoy it; expressing a “sensibility,” or susceptibility to emotions and sentiments (as opposed to logic or reason).
2. An optimistic overemphasis of the goodness of humanity, representing in part a reaction against Calvinism, which regarded human nature as depraved. (Derek P. Royal)
St. Elmo is prefaced by a quotation from John Ruskin:
Ah! the true rule is--a true wife in her husband's house is his servant; it is in his heart that she is queen. Whatever of the best he can conceive, it is her part to be; whatever of the highest he can hope, it is hers to promise; all that is dark in him she must purge into purity; all that is failing in him she must strengthen into truth; from her, through all the world's clamor, he must win his praise; in her, through all the world's warfare, he must find his peace."I'm not sure precisely where this is taken from, but the sentiments seem identical to those in Ruskin's essay 'Of Queens' Gardens', in Sesame and Lilies, which deals with the question of chivalry and the role of women. St. Elmo is Augusta Jane Evans' contribution to the debate about these issues, and it is one which was very important at the time:
Many of the historical changes that characterized the Victorian period motivated discussion and argument about the nature and role of woman — what the Victorians called "The Woman Question." The extension of the franchise by the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 stimulated discussion of women's political rights. (from The Norton Anthology of English Literature online)John Stuart Mill 'was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century' (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and in his The Subjection of Women he argued for equality between the sexes and the extension of the franchise to women. Both ideas are ridiculed by St. Elmo, who declares that 'I am quite as far from admitting the infallibility of man as the equality of the sexes. The clearest thinkers of the world have had soft spots in their brains [...] and you have laid your finger on the softened spot in Mill's skull, "suffrage". That is a jaded, spavined hobby of his'. Edna too is appalled by the idea of women voting:
my study of Mill's philosophy assures me that, if society should be turned over to the government of his theory of Liberty and Suffrage, it would go to ruin more rapidly than Frederick's province. Under his teachings the women of England might soon marshal their amazonian legions, and storm not only Parnassus but the ballot-box, the bench, and the forum. That this should occur in a country where a woman nominally rules, and certainly reigns, is not so surprising, but I dread the contagion of such an example upon America. [...] I think, sir, that the noble and true women of this continent earnestly believe that the day which invests them with the elective franchise would be the blackest in the annals of humanity, would ring the death-knell of modern civilization, of national prosperity, social morality, and domestic happiness! and would consign the race to a night of degradation and horror infinitely more appalling than a return to primeval barbarism.Evans therefore sides with Ruskin on the issue of whether or not women should be 'Queens' of the hearth and Edna's second novel, titled Shining Thorns on the Hearth, is dedicated to 'my countrywomen, the Queens who reign thereon'. Nonetheless, Evans vehemently argues that women can benefit from an education and can, as writers, have much to contribute to their society. Her criticism of duelling points to a conflict of values within patriarchy. As Johnson observes,
Ironically, the southern brand of patriarchy, characterized by a pervasive obligation to personal honor, vowed to protect white women but was undermined by the premier expression of such honor: the duel. In practical and theoretical ways, the code of honor also undermined the minimal legal protections upon which a woman might rely. The duel could deprive women of economic and protective benefits when male relatives died in duels. (2001: 16)Johnson goes further and suggests that not only does Evans criticise the practice of duelling, but also that she 'presents duels [...] as metaphorical representations of masculine violations of legal, religious, and familial codes' (2001: 14-15).
Within the novel St. Elmo is the embodiment of patriarchy's destructive power, and he is reclaimed for Christianity and chivalry by Edna, who has, among other works, written a 'little tale [...] to portray the horrors and sin of duelling', while another of her articles causes a 'rejoicing wife' to write her a letter 'eloquent with thanks for the good effect produced by a magazine article on a dissipated, irreligious husband and father, who, after its perusal, had resolved to reform'. As the quotation from Ruskin suggests, Edna's mission with regards to St. Elmo is that 'all that is dark in him she must purge into purity'. At the time it was a common view of women's mission in life: 'Nineteenth-century Americans believed that women had a particular propensity for religion. The modern young woman of the 1820s and 1830s was thought of as a new Eve working with God to bring the world out of sin through her suffering, through her pure, and passionless love' (Lavender). As I've discussed earlier, this redemptive role is a frequent one for heroines in romance, and the heroine's purity is hightened by contrast with the hero's extreme depravity. St. Elmo is compared to Lucifer himself: when he observes Edna he 'looked at the kneeling figure locked so closely in his mother's arms, [...] over his stern face broke a light that transformed it into such beauty as Lucifer's might have worn before his sin and banishment' and later when Edna refuses his proposal of marriage she states that 'I am no vicegerent of an outraged and insulted God! [...] I shrink with unconquerable dread and aversion, and would almost as soon entertain the thought of marrying Lucifer himself. [...] Go yonder to Jesus. He only can save and purify you'. It is, however, his love for Edna and the efficacy of her reproaches which begins his conversion.
Perhaps it is the opportunity to exert and demonstrate the power of feminine virtue which, at least in part, explains the attraction that some women feel for a man in need of 'taming'. Certainly, it was a matter which puzzled the parodist Charles Henry Webb who wrote of St. Elmo:
How such a fellow could win the affections of refined and cultivated women, I can not understand. For I have tried original verses, and pet names, and bouquets, and gentlemanly behavior, and the sweet influences of modest and unpretending merit, all in vain. (24-25)and here's one modern explanation:
The phenomenon of "women going for jerks" is a real one, but there is a very, very important thing missing from the usual understanding of it. It is, I believe, a product of women's enculturated fantasies that jerks really AREN'T jerks down deep in their most hidden souls. The usual La-La Land construct is that jerks are really powerful, confident, and misunderstood men that the Very Special Women Who Truly Love Them can bring into the Light. (Grey 2005)Edna is indeed a Very Special Woman and she fulfils a wish expressed by St Elmo's cousin Estelle:
There is some terrible retribution in store for your libels on our sex! How I do long to meet some woman brave and wily enough to marry and tame you, my chivalric cousin! to revenge the insults you have heaped upon her sisterhood!Edna demonstrates that she is a Very Special Woman in a variety of different ways. She is intellectually talented and determined to succeed as an author, despite the prejudices that stand in her way. Early on one character, a Mr Wood, states that 'The less book-learning you women have the better', but his wife swiftly responds with words which silence him:
"I don't see that it is any of your business, Peter Wood, how much learning we women choose to get, provided your bread is baked and your socks darned when you want 'em. A woman has as good a right as a man to get book-learning, if she wants it; and as for sense, I'll thank you, mine is as good as yours any day; and folks have said it was a blessed thing for the neighborhood when the rheumatiz laid Peter Wood up, and his wife, Dorothy Elmira Wood, run the mill. Now, it's of no earthly use to cut at us women over that child's shoulders; if she wants an education she has as much right to it as anybody, if she can pay for it. My doctrine is, everybody has a right to whatever they can pay for, whether it is schooling or a satin frock!"Later, when young Edna, the heroine, pursues her search for knowledge, her guardian, Mrs Murray, tells Edna's tutor
"I think the child is as inveterate a bookworm as I ever knew; but for heaven's sake, Mr. Hammond, do not make her a blue-stocking."he then proceeds to explain to the young Edna what is meant by the term 'bluestocking':
"Ellen, did you ever see a genuine blue-stocking?"
"I am happy to be able to say that I never was so unfortunate."
"You consider yourself lucky then, in not having known De Stael, Hannah More, Charlotte Bronte, and Mrs. Browning?"
"A 'blue-stocking,' my dear, is generally supposed to be a lady, neither young, pleasant, nor pretty (and in most instances unmarried); who is unamiable, ungraceful, and untidy; ignorant of all domestic accomplishments and truly feminine acquirements, and ambitious of appearing very learned; a woman whose fingers are more frequently adorned with ink-spots than thimble; who holds housekeeping in detestation, and talks loudly about politics, science, and philosophy; who is ugly, and learned, and cross; whose hair is never smooth and whose ruffles are never fluted. [...]" [...] "The title of 'blue-stocking,'" continued the pastor, "originated inResolute and confident in her own abilities, Edna ignores the advice in her first rejection letter from an editor (yes, there are metafictional elements to this novel):
a jest, many, many years ago, when a circle of very brilliant, witty, and elegant ladies in London, met at the house of Mrs. Vesey, to listen to and take part in the conversation of some of the most gifted and learned men England has ever produced. One of those gentlemen, Stillingfleet, who always wore blue stockings, was so exceedingly agreeable and instructive, that when he chanced to be absent the company declared the party was a failure without the blue stockings,' as he was familiarly called. A Frenchman, who heard of the circumstance, gave to these conversational gatherings the name of 'bas bleu,' which means blue stocking; and hence, you see, that in popular acceptation, I mean in public opinion, the humorous title, which was given in compliment to a very charming gentleman, is now supposed to belong to very tiresome, pedantic, and disagreeable ladies. Do you understand the matter now?"
Burn the enclosed MS., the erudition and archaisms of which would fatally nauseate the intellectual dyspeptics who read my 'Maga,' and write sketches of home life-descriptions of places and things that you understand better than recondite analogies of ethical creeds and mythologic systems, or the subtle lore of Coptic priests. Remember that women never write histories or epics; never compose oratorios that go sounding down the centuries; never paint 'Last Suppers' and 'Judgment Days'; though now and then one gives the world a pretty ballad that sounds sweet and soothing when sung over a cradle, or another paints a pleasant little genre sketch which will hang appropriately in some quiet corner and rest and refresh eyes that are weary with gazing at the sublime spiritualism of Fra Bartolomeo, or the gloomy grandeur of Salvator Rosa.
During her long reverie, she wondered whether all women were browbeaten for aspiring to literary honors; whether the poignant pain and mortification gnawing at her heart was the inexorable initiation-fee for entrance upon the arena where fame adjudges laurel crowns, and reluctantly and sullenly drops one now and then on female brows.Edna's intellectual and moral qualities are coupled with extreme beauty and she shows an affinity for children which makes them love her. She receives many offers of marriage and as the embodiment of Evans' (and Ruskin's) ideal of femininity she offers an alternative to the caricature that St. Elmo paints in his description of intellectual women:
Without doubt, the most thoroughly ludicrous scene I ever witnessed was furnished by a 'woman's rights' meeting,' which I looked in upon one night in New York, as I returned from Europe. The speaker was a raw-boned, wiry, angular, short-haired, lemon-visaged female of very certain age; with a hand like a bronze gauntlet, and a voice as distracting as the shrill squeak of a cracked cornet-a-piston. Over the wrongs and grievances of her down-trodden, writhing sisterhood she ranted and raved and howled, gesticulating the while with a marvelous grace, which I can compare only to the antics of those inspired goats who strayed too near the Pythian cave, and were thrown into convulsions. Though I pulled my hat over my eyes and clapped both hands to my ears, as I rushed out of the hall after a stay of five minutes, the vision of horror followed me, and for the first and only time in my life, I had such a hideous nightmare that night, that the man who slept in the next room broke open my door to ascertain who was strangling me. Of all my pet aversions my most supreme abhorrence is of what are denominated 'gifted women'; strong-minded (that is, weak-brained but loud-tongued), would-be literary females, who, puffed up with insufferable conceit, imagine they rise to the dignity and height of man's intellect, proclaim that their 'mission' is to write or lecture, and set themselves up as shining female lights, each aspiring to the rank of protomartyr of reform. Heaven grant us a Bellerophon to relieve the age of these noisy Amazons! I should really enjoy seeing them tied down to their spinning-wheels, and gagged with their own books, magazines, and lectures!Unfortunately some of these stereotypes about intellectual women, particularly feminists, persist, but such views are in the minority and nowadays women scholars are not warned of dire consequences should they persist in their studies, unlike Edna, whose success is won at great personal cost. As Mr Hammond warns her:
The history of literary females is not calculated to allay the apprehension that oppresses me, as I watch you just setting out on a career so fraught with trials of which you have never dreamed. As a class they are martyrs, uncrowned and uncanonized; jeered at by the masses, sincerely pitied by a few earnest souls, and wept over by the relatives who really love them. Thousands of women have toiled over books that proved millstones and drowned them in the sea of letters.In the nineteenth-century it was thought by many that education, and particularly the rigorous intellectual activities which Edna pursues, could damage a woman physically:
How many of the hundreds of female writers scattered through the world in this century, will be remembered six months after the coffin closes over their weary, haggard faces? You may answer, 'They made their bread.' Ah, child! it would have been sweeter if earned at the wash-tub, or in the dairy, or by their needles. It is the
rough handling, the jars, the tension of the heartstrings that sap the foundations of a woman's life and consign her to an early grave; and a Cherokee rose-hedge is not more thickly set with thorns than a literary career with grievous, vexatious, tormenting disappointments.
Physicians saw the body as a closed system possessing only a limited amount of vital force; energy expended in one area was necessarily removed from another. [...] A young woman [...] who consumed her vital force in intellectual activities was necessarily diverting these energies from the achievement of true womanhood. She would become weak and nervous, perhaps sterile, or more commonly, and in a sense more dangerously for society, capable of bearing only sickly and neurotic children (Smith-Rosenberg & Rosenberg 1973: 340)Edna develops heart troubles (literally as well as metaphorically due to her love for St. Elmo) and is prone to fainting fits which greatly alarm her friends. Her doctor warns her that if she does not stop writing she may die at any moment. Edna will not stop, however and it is only after St. Elmo has reformed (she has saved him spiritually), and the two have been married, that he puts a stop to her writing career (thus saving her physically). Edna accepts his decree without demur, because he is her husband. As we have seen previously, both Edna and Evans herself were opposed to women's suffrage and while acknowledging and celebrating women's talents, they believed that these should remain in the service of a woman's husband (should she have one):
Jealously she contended for every woman's right which God and nature had decreed the sex. The right to be learned, wise, noble, useful, in woman's divinely limited sphere; the right to influence and exalt the circle in which she moved; the right to mount the sanctified bema of her own quiet hearthstone; the right to modify and direct her husband's opinions, if he considered her worthy and competent to guide him; the right to make her children ornaments to their nation, and a crown of glory to their race; the right to advise, to plead, to pray; the right to make her desk a Delphi, if God so permitted; the right to be all that the phrase "noble, Christian woman" means.That a wife can 'modify and direct her husband's opinions, only if he considered her worthy and competent to guide him' is an indication of how unstable a wife's power can be. Given the immense power that a husband will have over her, the Christian woman who aspires to be a Queen of the Hearth must be careful when deciding who to accept as a spouse. Edna rejects St. Elmo because
But not the right to vote; to harangue from the hustings; to trail her heaven-born purity through the dust and mire of political strife; to ascend the rosta of statesmen, whither she may send a worthy husband, son, or brother, but whither she can never go, without disgracing all womanhood. (my emphasis)
Surely you would not be willing to see me marry a man who scoffs at the very name of religion; who wilfully deceives and trifles with the feelings of all who are sufficiently credulous to trust his hollow professions [...]! What hope of happiness or peace could you indulge for me, in view of such a union? I should merit all the wretchedness that would inevitably be my life--long portion if, knowing his crimes, I could consent to link my future with his."As Mr Hammond has earlier told another suitor of Edna's,
Edna Earl will never coax and persuade herself to marry any man, no matter what his position and endowments may be. She is not a dependent woman; the circumstances of her life have forced her to dispense with companionship, she is sufficient for herself; and while she loves her friends warmly and tenderly, she feels the need of no one. If she ever marries, it will not be from gratitude or devotion, but because she learned to love, almost against her will, some strong, vigorous thinker, some man whose will and intellect masters hers, who compels her heart's homage, and without whose society she can not persuade herself to live. (my emphasis)It would seem, then, that Evans adheres strictly to St Paul's words on the matter of husbands and authority: 'the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God' (1 Corinthians 11: 3) and his injunction 'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers' (2 Corinthians 6: 14).
As Johnson observes, for many readers' Evans' championship of women's literary ambitions sits awkwardly alongside the final authority of the husband:
The aspect of St. Elmo that most puzzles and disturbs critics is Edna's ultimate capitulation to St. Elmo in marriage. Although Evans is keenly aware of the abuses of a patriarchy without Christian reform, she ultimately argues for a more gentle version of masculine control. The simultaneous advocation of patriarchy and the recognition of its potential threat to women creates an ambivalence in St. Elmo that is jarring to modern readers. In the final scene of the novel, as Edna finally submits to St. Elmo in marriage, St. Elmo clearly dictates the terms of their relationship:As a result, 'Although Edna has in some sense tamed St. Elmo into compliance
"Today I snap the fetters of your literary bondage. There shall be no more books written! . . . and that dear public you love so well, must even help itself, and whistle for a new pet. You belong to me now, and I shall take care of the life you have nearly destroyed in your inordinate ambition" (365). Edna's literary ambition has become "inordinate," only because St. Elmo's threat to her has been diminished and the patriarchy of her personal world has been reformed. (2001: 25)
with codes of law, family, and Christianity, in the end she simply allows him to preside over a reformed patriarchy that offers some protection to women' (Johnson 2001: 26).
- Cadogan, Mary, 1994. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present (London: MacMillan).
- Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll & Charles Rosenberg, 1973. 'The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America', The Journal of American History, 60.2: 332-356.
- Fekete Trubey, Elizabeth, 2005. 'Emancipating the Lettered Slave: Sentiment and Slavery in Augusta Evans's St. Elmo', American Literature 77 (1): 123-150.
- Johnson, Bradley, 2001. ‘Dueling Sentiments: Responses to Patriarchal Violence in Augusta Jane Evans’ St. Elmo’, The Southern Literary Journal, 33.2: 14-29.
- Kolba, Ellen D., 1980. 'Stories for Sale', The English Journal, 69.7: 37-40.