Tag Archives: ST ELMO

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

 

 

 

“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.

Creating a Fictional Landmark

The church loomed before her like some aged monument preserving the memory of its founders.  Clutching vines of ivy encrusted the walls and  scaled the towering steeple, as if to hold the bricks in place and keep them from crumbling.  Like sentinels, a pair of massive, gnarled oaks guarded the entrance.

As Effie took the key out of her pocket, she recalled Mrs.  Baldwin saying, “I hope you’re not superstitious.  Providence is one of the oldest churches in Fairfax County.  It predates the Civil War.  Some say it’s haunted.  Can you imagine calling a church haunted?”

Timidly she unlocked the door and peered into the sanctuary, deluged with light from stained glass Palladian windows.  Each was part of a series depicting the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Resurrection.  She walked down the center aisle, carpeted in red, towards the cross that loomed over the choir loft and dropped to her knees at the altar.  Surrounded by all the trappings of spirituality, she prayed and pictured the throne of God, the “sea of glass,” the cherubim, and “the four and twenty elders” clothed in white.

But the vision was short-lived.  Like a clap of thunder, the specter of doubt jarred her with a question:  What if her circumstances were accidental, not providential?  What if coming to Fairfax was a mistake?  She waved the notion aside and seated herself at the organ. 

A careful examination of the instrument found it nearly identical to the one she’d practiced her lessons on in Columbus.  “What harm is there in playing the organ?” she asked aloud.  Her words hung in the air, unanswered, undisputed, and soon “Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” resounded throughout the sanctuary. 

She poured herself into the composition, mindless of time and place, until a rapping sound arrested her attention.  Her eyes scanned the church before resting upon a stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion.  Like a metronome, a branch was tapping the pane. 

As she resumed playing, the melancholy fugue fired her imagination, bringing “The Phantom of the Opera” to mind.  A mental picture of Lon Chaney lurking behind one of the pews prompted the feeling that someone was watching her.  To counter the thought, she abandoned the organ for the piano and played a hardy rendition of “Oh Happy Day.”  But halfway through the song, a scraping sound sliced the air, immobilizing her fingers.

Excerpt from THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER (pages 7 and 8).

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St. Francis Methodist, Mobile, AL

St. Francis Methodist, Mobile, AL

When I started writing THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, I wanted to give the story a familiar setting with historical landmarks.  I chose the City of Fairfax, one of my favorite stomping grounds.  Most of the landmarks mentioned in the novel are real, but Providence United Methodist Church is fictional.

The name “Providence” is not a coincidence.  Not only does it mean God’s will, but prior to 1859, the City of Fairfax was known as the village of Providence.

My description of Providence Methodist was partly inspired by the architecture of Berryman United  Methodist  in Richmond.  Truro Anglican Church in the heart of the City of Fairfax influenced me also.

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