The first time I read ST ELMO, I wasn’t very impressed. I was a flighty 16-year-old, and my knowledge of literature was limited to the required reading list in my English class. I was familiar with ST. ELMO only because it was my grandmother’s favorite novel. She kept it in her bookcase near the front door. One day I decided to borrow it. My grandmother did not tell me when to bring it back but made it clear that I should not keep it too long. I recall that she was relieved when I returned it.
Fast forward 29 years. My daughter was 16 and looking for something to read during the summer and asked for ideas. I saw this as an opportunity to introduce her to literature. She read everything I suggested: JANE EYRE, RAMONA, TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES and similar novels. When I could think of nothing else, I recommended my grandmother’s copy of ST. ELMO, which was handed down to me years after Grandmother’s death.
Much to my surprise, my daughter gushed that ST ELMO was the best book she had ever read. Her enthusiasm prompted me to read it again. Once I picked it up, I could not put it down. Without a doubt, it was the best novel I had ever read too. I liked it so much that I read it repeatedly–nine times, in fact. (My grandmother read it fifteen times.)
Written by Augusta Evans Wilson in 1866, ST. ELMO was almost as popular as BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Towns, dogs, and cigars were named after the book and its Byronic protagonist. Margaret Mitchell used “St. Elmo” as the model for “Rhett Butler” in GONE WITH THE WIND.
ST. ELMO was Augusta Evans Wilson‘s third novel. She wrote nine and I read them all. I also read her biography by William Fidler and learned that ST ELMO was made into a silent film in 1923, starring John Gilbert. Thus, the main character in my first novel, THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, is a John Gilbert look-alike. I named the female protagonist after my paternal grandmother, Effie Belle Butler (1885-1965). After all, my grandmother ignited my interest in ST. ELMO, which inspired me to become a writer, and I wanted to immortalize her.
The real Effie Belle Butler was just as obsessed with ST ELMO as my fictional “Effie Belle Butler,” but the comparison doesn’t end there. The real Effie Belle had chestnut hair and sapphire eyes. So does the fictional one. The real-life Effie Belle had a best friend named Clara Banton. So does the fictional one.
Actually, the best friend angle was a coincidence. I borrowed the name “Clara” from a character in AT THE MERCY OF TIBERIUS (another book by Augusta Evans Wilson) and chose the surname “Banton” because it was in my genealogy. But I had no idea that my grandmother’s best-friend and first cousin was Clara Banton until I saw the photo below with their names written on the back.
Effie Belle Butler (left) and Clara Banton (right): friends in real life as well as in fiction