The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 14-29
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The Power of Love:
The Education of a Domestic Woman in Mary Boykin Chesnut's Two Years
Though many have enjoyed Mary Boykin Chesnut's witty and insightful observations of southern life in her Civil War diary, few are familiar with her two unpublished novels, Two Years, or The Way We Lived Then and The Captain and the Colonel, written between the end of the war and 1881, when she abandoned the novels to start a major revision of her diary. Fewer still find the novels worthwhile. Even their only editor, Elizabeth Muhlenfeld, admits that reading one of Chesnut's novels is "a confusing experience: fine, clearly realized passages are interspersed with sections that are hopelessly jumbled" (183). "Ill formed offspring" that they are, these novels deserve attention, particularly from anyone interested in Chesnut's view of nineteenth century female experience. Several critics have ardently debated Chesnut's feminism, or lack thereof, evident in her diary, but none has brought her unpublished novels into the conversation. This is a curious omission, as both novels deal with young women experiencing courtship and marriage, and one I hope to correct here. Chesnut's Two Years, or The Way We Lived Then concerns itself with a woman's beginning, her education. A strongly autobiographical account of a girl's training in domestic womanhood, this novel provokes a re-evaluation of that dominant cultural model for woman and the myth of her creation. 1 Two Years reveals that the making of a domestic woman [End Page 14] cannot be achieved by a domestic woman alone. The domestic woman and her loving form of discipline need the secret support of a very different kind of woman wielding a very different kind of discipline.
Ruth Yeazell argues that the phase of a young woman's life which "began when 'nature . . . pronounced her' marriageable and ends, presumably, when someone has pronounced her married" elicited her society's utmost anxiety (44). Yeazell's comment perfectly summarizes the crisis that impels Two Years's heroine, Helen Newtown, into an intense course of female education. Despite her bitter protestations against leaving her Charleston boarding school, Helen's parents compel her to accompany them to their property in remotest Mississippi. Though her mother initially cites convenience and economy as the motives for Helen's removal, during their long journey westward she eventually reveals the real reason: the discovery of Helen's sexual maturity. An old friend informed Mr. Newtown, Helen's father, that Helen frequently visited the Howard family and with the son Sydney Howard made "always the same procession home by way of the battery. Moon light walks and all that" (489). Presented with Helen's new mooniness, Mr. Newtown changes his mind about leaving Helen in Charleston while the rest of the family travels; now that she is apparently "marriageable," he "deem[s] it expedient" to have her "under [her mother's] eye" (490).
Mr. Newtown's anxious response to Helen's moonlight walks is not so much a rejection of Helen's suitor—for he later on grants the young man permission to propose to Helen in two years—as it is an estimation of his daughter's inability to navigate this critical period successfully. For the nineteenth-century woman, courtship was the ultimate "lady or tiger" dilemma—or, rather, "be a lady or you will be eaten by a tiger" dilemma. Only a lady, a woman well versed in domestic virtues, could safely pass from marriageable to married and enter the married state as more than chattel. As Armstrong shows, conduct manuals and their corollary literature insisted since the late seventeenth century that the domestic woman was "made for marriage" (19) and represented a better choice for a man of rank than a partner of his own station, likely to be a "haughty Dame with all her Quality Airs about her" (72). Furthermore, domestic virtues not only attracted a better class of suitor but also provided a...