Tag Archives: St. Elmo novel

Pass the Salt, Please!

colorfulsalts

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.”

doublesets
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.

teacandles

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.

Who is Effie Belle Butler?

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.

EffieandClaraEffie Belle Butler (left) and Clara Banton (right):  friends in real life as well as in fiction

Make the Most of Your OCD: Write a Novel

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by fixations and repetitive behavior.  I used to check the stove at least five times a night to make sure that it was off.  I’d also check and recheck the front door to make sure that it was locked.  This meant that half-way down the road, I’d feel a compulsion to go back home and rattle the door knob, just in case I’d forgotten to lock up.  Inevitably, the stove was off, and the door was locked.  Did that satisfy my compulsive behavior?  No.  My anxiety persisted until I completed these daily rituals.

The repetitions were disruptive and time-consuming.  Finally, I found a healthy way to channel OCD into a worthwhile project.  I had always wanted to write a novel . . . .

My grandmother’s favorite novel was ST. ELMO, by Augusta J. Evans Wilson.  The book was handed down to me and became my favorite novel also.  I read it seven times and liked it so much that one copy wouldn’t do.StElmoPhotosMy obsession with ST. ELMO led to an interest in the author, Augusta Evans Wilson.  I began collecting photos of her as well as the houses she lived in or visited.  

AEWOCDAEWbrowneyeblueeye

I even made a pilgrimage to Mobile, Alabama, where Augusta spent most of her life, and to Columbus, Georgia, where Augusta was born and finished writing ST. ELMO.  Once I came within six feet of her.

AEWsgraveSt.ElmoHouseSign 001

JGphotographsJGposters

PrinceFrontAndBackSo, have I recovered from OCD?  Yes–or I’m in remission.  Either way, it beats writer’s block.