restricted access E. D. E. N. Southworth’s Tragic Muse
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

E. D. E. N. Southworth’s Tragic Muse Karen Tracey E. D. E. N. Southworth is well known for happily resolved novels that blend adventure and sentimentalism, such as The Hidden Hand (1859) and Britomarte, the Man-Hater (1865–66). In these narratives, Southworth conveys a hopeful worldview: confidence that destiny can be molded by heroic action, that immoral behavior is a function of comprehensible human weakness and therefore can be defined and managed, that Providence watches over the innocent and assures that virtue will triumph and order will be restored. But Southworth at times took a much more somber approach, discarding the comedic ending and invoking instead a tragic outcome. Such is the case in the two antebellum texts examined in this chapter: Lionne: The Doom of Deville, first appearing the New York Ledger (1859) and retitled The Fatal Marriage on book publication (1863), and a novella, The Brothers, serialized in the antislavery periodical the National Era (1856) and retitled The Presentiment when collected in The Haunted Homestead and Other Nouvellettes (1860). The atmosphere of both these stories is foreboding from the outset, with plots springing from sexual transgression and culminating in violent death, leaving behind fractured personal, domestic, and social orders. Both narratives center on exploited characters whose identity and self-determination is compromised by forces beyond their control. In The Brothers , this figure is the mixed-race slave Valentine, and in The Fatal Marriage it is Lionne, a woman seduced into a bigamous union. Initially innocent and well intentioned , Valentine and Lionne react to adverse circumstances by transforming into agents of revenge, pursued by what in classic tragedy would be called Fate. But Southworth aims for more than a general tragic effect, embedding the stories into specific historical contexts, the late colonial period and the antebellum era, respectively. From these different platforms, both The Fatal Marriage and The Brothers confront the deepening troubles of pre–Civil War America, employing tragic conventions to suggest that the country’s unjust social mores and abuse of power may be on the brink of igniting violence. 206 Karen Tracey In both The Fatal Marriage and The Brothers, Southworth’s tragic vision links her characters’ lives and deaths with sociopolitical concerns, but rather than reaching for a universal application that would be, almost by definition, ahistorical and elitist, she applies the lessons of her stories to the troubled world of the antebellum United States. She presents The Brothers, the tale of a slave executed for killing his master, as a factual account. “The tragic story . . . is, in all its essential features, strictly true,” Southworth writes. “[G]enerally the language used has been faithful to the letter, and always to the spirit, of the facts.”1 The Fatal Marriage is set in pre-Revolutionary America, with the early action of the novel situated during the French and Indian War, and the conclusion at the historical moment when the colonies threaten to rebel against England. In this novel, Southworth reworks the plot of a she-tragedy titled The Fatal Marriage; or, the Innocent Adultery (1694), which was adapted by Thomas Southerne from Aphra Behn’s story “The History of the Nun; or, the Fair Vow-Breaker” (1689). The Brothers is obviously relevant to antebellum political and social conflict, but in a less self-evident way, so is The Fatal Marriage. The novel blends tragedy and melodrama, but the specificity of its historical frame strikes an almost startling note of realism. The narrative opens with Orville Deville riding home in July 1755, a survivor of the disastrous battle known as Braddock’s Defeat. In that conflict, British and colonial forces were humiliated at the hands of a far smaller group of French, Canadian, and Indian fighters. General Braddock was fatally wounded, and of the thirteen hundred men with him, roughly a third were killed and another third wounded. Reviewing Southworth’s sources for The Fatal Marriage, we find ill-fated sieges similar to those featured in Behn’s story and in Southerne’s play (in both cases, husbands were reported to have been killed during sieges). The domestic plots of all these fatal marriage stories (Southworth’s, Behn’s, and Southerne’s) are as confused, morally ambiguous, and dangerous as the battles that provide some of the textual backdrop. The muddled sieges and embarrassing defeats occur in wars with indeterminate or yet to be determined outcomes; as such, they contrast sharply with the buoyant, confident successes of The Hidden Hand’s Herbert Greyson in the...


pdf

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.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access