restricted access An Exclusive Engagement: The Personal and Professional Negotiations of Vivia
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An Exclusive Engagement: The Personal and Professional Negotiations of Vivia Kenneth Salzer On December 26, 1869, Emma D. E. N. Southworth wrote a gushing thank-you letter for a Christmas present she received from a gentleman friend. The generous gift prompted her to recall her initial encounter with him: “The first day that you entered my little cottage was a day, blessed beyond all the other days of my life.”1 Exhausted from illness and deprivation, Southworth had given up hope until “you came to me, and saved my life; and from that time to this, nearly fifteen years, you have made my life prosperous and happy.” Eager to prove her “gratitude and fidelity,” Southworth closed by offering her love to the wife and children of her letter’s recipient: the publisher Robert Bonner, who had been serializing her novels in his weekly family newspaper, the New York Ledger, since 1857. Given this business relationship, many readers might find Southworth’s passionate language more suited for the desperate heroine from one of her many romantic best sellers. However, her close professional association with Bonner did not preclude her from making such emotional gestures in their private correspondence . When Bonner first met with Southworth to discuss signing her to the Ledger , she wrote in that 1869 letter, “I was dying from the combined effect of over work and under pay”; in addition, “my pen was the prey of whoever chose to seize it.” These dark remarks probably refer to her time as a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post under the oppressive editorial thumb of Henry Peterson. Beginning in 1849, Peterson ran pieces praising the quality and popularity of her novels, which he claimed were “exclusive” to the Post. Over time, however, he grew more condescending and critical, both publicly and privately; he regularly took issue with her storylines, often “seizing her pen” to suit his whims. One month after the final installment of Vivia; or, The Secret of Power, which ran from January to September 1856, Bonner began “courting” Southworth with his generous charm and checkbook. Putting off her next promised novel to Peterson, whose demanding demeanor had taken a physical and mental toll, Southworth decided to sign with 26 Kenneth Salzer the more gentlemanly Bonner. Her subsequent move from the Post to the Ledger in 1857 created a literary firestorm: Peterson and Southworth traded accusatory letters , which were published in both papers, while Bonner bombarded readers with advertisements promoting Southworth as “exclusive” to his periodical. Some reviewers deemed Vivia one of her lesser works when it was released in book form, shortly after Southworth joined the Ledger; not surprisingly, the Post (still stinging from her recent defection) faulted the “impossibility” and “unreality ” of its characters.2 However, the novel’s focus on artistic expression and courtship negotiations makes it a fascinating lens through which to read Southworth’s concurrent desire to find a better editorial “suitor.” The saintly title character, Genevieve (Vivia) Laglorieuse, rejects the initial proposal of Wakefield Brunton, a best-selling author nurtured by rich patrons, because he wants to live through her rather than for God. Once he regains his male selfhood and sacrifices his work for the greater good, however, the two can finally (in the words of Karen Tracey) “contract an ideal marriage.”3 Like her good friend Vivia, Theodora Shelley (a struggling artist) at first shuns the marital advances of Austin Malmaison, whose dissolute lifestyle of political gamesmanship and drinking has caused his spiritual downfall. While painting his portrait, though, Theodora inspires Austin to become her glorified image of him—thereby transforming him into a worthy husband, like Wakefield, who denounces earthly diversions for more lofty goals. The respectful relationship each of these two couples ultimately achieve is the kind Southworth wanted to establish with the men publishing her work; we can read Vivia, then, as a text that conveys her discontent with her then current editor and her vision of the ideal editor (who happened to be just around the corner). Peterson’s discourteous attitude toward Southworth, which worsened after the novel’s serialization, finds its parallel in Austin’s and Wakefield’s initially brazen behavior. In contrast, their conversion into dutiful beaus anticipates the gracious conduct that Bonner readily displayed in his first correspondence with Southworth and maintained for decades. Even though the editorial tug-of-war over Southworth occurred after Vivia completed its run, the novel (and the letters which surfaced in its wake) provides us with compelling evidence of...


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Subject Headings

  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, -- 1819-1899 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Southworth, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, 1819-1899 -- Political and social views.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Social values in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History.
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