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Elizabeth J. Clapp’s A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America is a thoroughly researched, well-presented biography that chronicles the many unexpected turns in Royall’s life to construct a [End Page 430] comprehensive portrait of an adventurous, resilient, hardworking, and persistent woman. In doing so, the book also addresses Royall’s combative, controversial, and, at times, contradictory elements: she asserted her own freedom to travel yet supported the curtailment of rights for Native Americans and African Americans, and her own forthright assertions stood in contrast to her opposition to women’s rights efforts. More sympathetically, Royall petitioned relentlessly for pensions for widows of Revolutionary War veterans, supported efforts for female education, and sought to expose corruption in Washington. Clapp deftly weaves these various elements into a compelling narrative that brings this well-known public figure in her day to a new audience. In doing so, Clapp draws extensively on archival materials including Royall’s correspondence and travel writings, along with newspaper accounts and court records to construct a biography steeped in social context and historical background.
Clapp charts Royall’s continuous ability to adapt to changing situations, from her childhood in frontier Pennsylvania through her witnessing of the French and Indian War, her family’s relocation to Virginia in 1787, and her marriage to Major William Royall in 1797. When her marriage ended with William’s death in 1812, Anne entered a protracted battle with his family over his will. Clapp’s detailed discussion about wills, probates, and executors provides helpful, relevant context for this section. With the proceedings ongoing, Anne “determined that she would no longer live in the isolation of William’s Sweet Springs plantation. She soon made preparations to move to Charleston in Kanawha County, western Virginia” (p. 35). She then settled in Alabama from 1817 to 1823. Eventually, the will was deemed invalid, and with her finances in turmoil, Anne began writing as a way to alleviate her situation. Royall’s first publication, Letters from Alabama (1826), followed by a novel, The Tennessean (1827), offered some relief. Here, Clapp carefully contextualizes Royall’s publication efforts with a discussion of the contemporary print culture.
Royall then embarked on a series of book tours for her subsequent [End Page 431] volumes, ten in all, and developed clever, aggressive techniques for selling her books, by including caustic portraits of public figures, referred to as “pen portraits,” and elaborate descriptions of towns and scenery that, in turn, customized each volume. Clapp follows Royall’s travels from 1823 to 1830 along the “length and breadth of the settled United States and some parts not yet open to settlement,” including the “‘fashionable tour’” through New York and New England (p. 77, 82). Moreover, as Clapp elaborates: “As she traveled, Royall was constantly preoccupied with the need to earn a living—a concern she frequently voiced to those she met on her expeditions. Her journeys served the dual purpose of research for her new books and a search for patrons to buy those she had already written” (p. 82). Traveling amidst “dangerous and unpredictable” conditions of the day, Royall nevertheless “depicted herself as an indefatigable traveler” (p. 100). Royall also conveyed aspects of Jacksonian democracy, including a sense of patriotism in her travel books that mirrors notions of “Manifest Destiny,” while her public attacks on evangelical ministers for trying to enforce Sabbath laws aligned with Jacksonian policies that maintained the separation between church and state.
In 1829, Royall’s troubles escalated when she was brought to trial as “a common scold.” Then living in Washington, Royall launched two newspapers intended to combat and expose corruption, the Paul Pry followed by The Huntress, and continued her attempts to secure pensions for widows of Revolutionary War veterans. In 1848, she herself was finally granted one, which provided some financial relief prior to her death in 1854 at the age of eighty-five. Presented in an engaging, accessible style, Elizabeth J. Clapp’s A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian...