Category Archives: Augusta Evans Wilson

INEZ: A Tale of the Alamo

Sometimes it’s hard to know how tfullsizerendero rate a book. For example, I’m not a great fan of the plot or the outcome of “Inez: A Tale of the Alamo,” written in 1855 by Augusta Jane Evans, but I was mesmerized by the author’s style of writing, especially considering her age. This was Evans first novel, and she was only 15 years old when she wrote it.  She was living in San Antonio, Texas, when she began penning the book.  She wrote during the wee hours of the night, keeping her project secretive, then presented the manuscript to her father when she finished.

INEZ was just the beginning of her life-long literary career.  The experience of writing INEZ prepared Evans for writing greater and greater novels. She was a literary genius who wrote eight hand-written novels and dictated a ninth in her latter years when her eyesight was failing.

MACARIA, her second novel, showcased her writing skills and her ability to create page-turners. Her third, ST. ELMO, is the jewel in the crown.

My late aunt was named “Inez” after the title of the book. Her mother, my paternal grandmother, was a mega fan of Augusta J. Evans’ books.  Inez was happy that her mother named her Inez, instead of “Vashti,” the name of Evans fourth book.

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Named after the book INEZ, my aunt Inez Wright, born in 1905, dressed for her part in a play called “The Awakening” about women’s suffrage.

 

Coming Soon on Public TV: THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA airs on Alabama Public Television Sunday, October 2, at 6 p.m. EST.  The drama/documentary, produced by filmmaker Robert Clem, highlights the life of Augusta Evans Wilson and her best-selling novel, ST. ELMO.  The uniqueness of THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA is that it is structured around two settings: the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century.  The film is a visual smorgasburg of nostalgic landscapes and  imagery.  The story shifts from the 1860s to the 1950s, from black and white to technicolor, from sub-titles to sound.  The theme highlights the changing roles of women and the language of romance during those eras.

If you have the opportunity to see THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA, don’t miss it.  The trailer is a treat in itself.

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Augusta Evans Wilson

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA goes beyond fiction drawing parelells between Augusta Evans Wilson and the novel’s heroine, “Edna Earl.”

Note: The ST. ELMO novel was made into a silent film in 1923 starring  John Gilbert , my favorite actor.saintelmobookcover-1

 

ST. ELMO: Book Review

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ST. ELMO, by Augusta Jane Evans, was written in 1866. ST. ELMO was the third bestselling novel (after BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN) in the 19th century, equivalent in popularity to the 20th century novel GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact, according to Margaret Mitchell’s biography, Rhett Butler was modeled after St. Elmo Murray. The book inspired plays and was adapted to film in 1923. The ST. ELMO silent film, starring John Gilbert and Bessie Love, is sadly a lost film.

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John Gilbert in ST. ELMO (Fox, 1923)

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The story begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Today that part of Chattanooga is named after the book.) “Edna Earl” is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home. Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident. The victim’s body is laid out in her house. When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused. Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith. One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe. Edna directs him to her granphotoMA31468942-0002dfather’s shop. The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job. As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her: “He is a rude, blasphemous man.” Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book as he rides away in haste. The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap. Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own. Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia. The train wrecks. Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, “Ellen Murray,” a wealthy widow. Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care. The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child. Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment. Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather. She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, realizing that the initials SEM stand for “St. Elmo Murray.”

Throughout the rest of the novel, Edna Earl is torn between loathing and loving St. Elmo. He’s the Byronic type that women love to loath and loath to love. “He’s like a rattlesnake that crawls in his own track, and bites everything that meddles or crosses his trail.”  But in time, Edna is “disquieted and pained to discover” in “his bronzed face . . . an attraction–an indescribable fascination–which she had found nowhere else.”

The conflict in their relationship stems from the issue of dueling, a common practice in Augusta Evans day. But the sub-theme–feminism vs. anti-feminism–is the theme that catches the modern reader’s attention. When I say “feminism,” I don’t feminism as we define it today. The book was written long before women had the right to vote. So while “Edna Earl” disapproves of women in politics, she believes that men and women are intellectual equals and applauds women with literary careers.

The book is filled with explosive, romantic tension that just won’t quit. The characters are not particularly realistic; instead, they are larger than life, and that’s what makes the book fun to read.  However, ST. ELMO is not easy to read. You will find allusions to mythology mind-boggling at times, but if you like character-driven novels, you won’t be able to put it down. You have to read it more than once to truly appreciate this book. Parts of the book are hilarious, but you might miss the humor the first time around. Much of it is tongue in cheek.

ST. ELMO is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide that explains the foreign expressions, mythical references, and difficult words peppered throughout the story. Several years ago, filmmaker Robert Clem created a docudrama called “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” which highlights scenes from ST. ELMO and compares the fictional “Edna Earl” with her creator, Augusta Evans. He explores the feminist side of Augusta Evans with riveting drama and insight.

 

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ST. ELMO inspired THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER

 

 

 

Pass the Salt, Please!

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Before the invention of salt shakers, people used “salt cellars,” a.k.a. “open salts,” “salt dips” or “salts.”  They are fun to collect because most are inexpensive and don’t take up much room. Some are glass, usually clear.  Some are porcelain.  The smaller ones are “individual salts,” and the larger ones are “master salts.”

Years ago my sister Linda and I were in an antique shop in Clifton, Virginia, that sold pressed glass.  Linda showed me a tiny dish that I mistook for a candle holder.  We took it to the manager who explained that it was a salt cellar.  She asked if we had heard the expression “seated below the salt’?”  In Victorian times, the farther away you were from the salt, the less important you were in society.

individualsaltsLater, after learning about salt cellars, I was reading my favorite novel, ST. ELMO, by Augusta Evans Wilson, when I stumbled upon the following passage on page 124.  “He did not look at her, but resumed the conversation with his mother which her entrance had interrupted, and during supper Edna could scarcely realize that the cold, distant man, who took no more notice of her than one of the salt cellars, was the same whom she had left leaning over the Taj.”

abbysaltFrom that day on, I began collecting salt cellars and was so intrigued with them that I made mention of a salt cellar in Chapter 12 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.  “Gideon’s a magnet for attractive women.  Their hands gravitate towards him.  Have you noticed?  Even your little friend Clara follows him with her eyes.  Women make a mistake chasing after men,” Mrs. Baldwin added with mild disdain.  “I know it’s politically incorrect to say this, but men are natural born hunters, not prey.  They like a challenge.  What a shame that Gideon has never found one, although Eleanor could prove to be the exception.  Effie, if you don’t steady your hand, you’ll drop the salt cellar.  It’s an antique you know.”

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In addition to individual salts and master salts, you can find double salts as well as mustard, pepper, and salt combos in flea markets, antique stores, and even thrift stores.spoons

Salt spoons are collectible also. They come in glass as well as sterling silver.  The glass spoons break easily.  I like the silver ones best, but they corrode if you forget and leave them in the salt.

Kosher salt works best in salt cellars because the grains of salt are larger than regular table salt.

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Most of the salt cellars I’ve seen were made in the 1800s, which makes them conversation pieces.  But collecting salts has a practical side too. I use my salt cellars not only for the dinner table but also for tea candles   If you’d like to learn more about salt cellars or start a collection of your own, consider 5,000 OPEN SALTS: A Collector’s Guide by William Heacock and Patricia Johnson.

“Oxalis” as a Literary Motif

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One of my favorite flowers is oxalis.  I never knew the flower existed until I read about it  in ST. ELMO by Augusta Jane Evans.  In the following paragraph, “Edna Earl” sees the flower and associates it with “St. Elmo Murray,” the man she is trying to resist.

Edna bent over her flowers, and recognizing many favorites that recalled the hothouse at Le Bocage, her eyes filled with tears, and she hastily put her lips to the snowy cups of an oxalis.  How often she had seen just such fragile petals nestling in the buttonhole of Mr. Murray’s coat.  (Page 290, ST. ELMO).

I was thinking about that and other passages in ST. ELMO  when i wrote the following scene between “Effie Beller” and “Gideon Baldwin” on page 69 and 70 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“When are you fixing to come home?”

“In a few days.”

“Oh.”  Effie tried to hide her disappointment.  “I hope you’ll have plenty of sunshine at the beach.”

“And delay my return?”

They were standing in the sun room, and he was preparing to leave through the back door.  Impulsively she snatched a spray of oxalis from a ceramic pot and held it up to his lapel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’d like to put some flowers in your buttonhole if you don’t mind.”

“Why?”

“Because you remind me of someone.”

“Who?”

“St. Elmo.”

“I’m not a saint.”

“Neither was he.”  With trembling fingers, she slipped the posy into his buttonhole and started to walk away, but he seized her arm and turned her around.

I brought oxalis into the story again when “Effie’s” antipathy for “Rev. Baldwin” was near its peak:

He crossed the room to his mother’s dresser and returned with a handful of tissues.

As she dried her eyes, she heard him say in a voice unaccountably sweet, “I often forget  how sensitive you are.  You remind me of that dainty flower you gave me when I was leaving for Conference.  What was it?”

“Oxalis.”

“So incredibly small, so easily crushed.  Sometimes you wilt before my eyes and make me wonder what I have said or done to cause it.”  He paused for a moment, waiting for her to compose herself, and added, “Effie Belle.  Despite your belief to the contrary, I am not entirely the ogre conceived in your imagination, and If I can help you in any way–“

Every flower has a special meaning–or so I thought.  I based this belief on a book called “The Poetry of Flowers.” i was sure I could look up oxalis and find a romantic meaning.   However, the flower is not even mentioned in the book.

Some refer to oxalis simply as “clover” or “a creeping weed,” hardly a romantic description of my hallowed plant. Finally, I learned that oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family.  Wood Sorrel means “Joy” and “maternal tenderness,” and that is an accurate description of the role that oxalis plays in THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER..

Often referred to as “shamrock,” oxalis is easy to find this time of year.  I found two different types of oxalis in a St. Patrick’s Day display at the grocery store.  My favorite is “snowy” oxalis, but you can also find oxalis with purple leaves and lavender flowers or with green leaves and pink flowers.

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Sunsets and Literature

photoMA31367462-0002How can anyone describe something as spectacular as a sunset?   Nothing can take the place of a photograph, can it?  Augusta J. Evans (1835-1909) creates a credible word picture of a sunset on page 116 of ST. ELMO, and the twilight that follows sets the eerie stage for the entrance of the Byronic protagonist “St. Elmo Murray.”.

The sun went down in a wintry sky; the solemn red light burning on the funeral pyre of the day streamed through the undraped windows, flushed the fretted facade of the Taj Mahal, glowed on the marble floor, and warmed and brightened the serene, lovely face of the earnest young student.  As the flame faded in the West, where two stars leaped from the pearly ashes, the fine print of Edna’s book grew dim, and she turned the page to catch the mellow, silvery radiance of the full moon, which shinning low in the east, thew a ghastly lustre on the awful form and floating white hair of the Cimbrian woman on the wall.  But between the orphan and the light, close beside her chair, stood a tall, dark figure, with uncovered head and outstretched hands.

She sprang to her feet, uttering a cry of mingled alarm and delight, for she knew that erect, stately form and regal head could only belong to one person.

“Oh, Mr. Murray!  Can it be possible that you have indeed come home to your sad desolate mother?  Oh!  For her sake, I am so glad!”

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It’s no secret that Augusta J. Evans is my favorite novelist and that ST. ELMO inspired me to write THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

Finding Inspiration in Quotes

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My favorite novel is ST. Elmo, by Augusta Evans Wilson (1835-1909). The book inspired me to write THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.  Although my book is not a ST. ELMO remake, the similarities are not coincidental.

To pay homage to Augusta Evans Wilson and her best-selling novel, I introduced ten of my thirty-four chapters with a quote from ST. ELMO.  They are as follows:

“He is a rude, blasphemous, wicked man,” said Mr. Hunt as Edna reentered the shop.

“That passage leads to my son’s apartments, and he dislikes noise or intrusion.”

The expression with which Mr. Murray regarded Estelle reminded Edna of the account given by a traveler of the playful mood of a lion, who, having devoured one gazelle, kept his paw on another, and, amid occasional growls, teased and toyed with his victim.

She picked up from the spot where he had thrown his shawl a handsome morocco-bound pocket copy of Dante, and opening it to discover the name of the owner, she saw written on the fly-leaf in a bold and beautiful hand, “S.E.M.”

God help me to resist that man’s wicked magnetism!

“I go like Ruth, gleaning in the great fields of literature.”

“Mrs. Powell received a letter from a wealthy friend in New York who desires to secure a governess for her young children.”

“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 master hers, who compels her heart’s homage, and without whose society she cannot persuade herself to live.”

He strained her to him and pressed his lips twice to hers, then the carriage stopped at the railroad station.

“Edna, my shadow has fallen across your heart, and I am not afraid that you will forget me.”

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