- E. D. E. N. Southworth: Recovering a Nineteenth-Century Popular Novelist Edited by Melissa J. Homestead and Pamela T. Washington
Editors Melissa J. Homestead and Pamela T. Washington observe in their thoughtful introduction to this volume that studies of the popular nineteenth-century novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth have “narrowed and calcified” in recent years (xviii). Most Americanists know Southworth primarily, if not exclusively, [End Page 138] as the author of The Hidden Hand (1859), an entertaining novel featuring an adventurous heroine, Capitola Black, whose plucky defiance of gender norms has as much appeal for modern scholars as it held for nineteenth-century readers. With this volume (arising out of a two-day symposium on Southworth held at the American Antiquarian Society in 2009), Homestead and Washington expand our view of Southworth. In addition to sharpening our sense of the precise (and limited) extent to which Southworth’s notions of gender challenge contemporary norms, contributors tell us much about the variety of her oeuvre and the periodical culture in which she flourished.
Homestead and Washington recognize that any book-length treatment of Southworth must engage the issue of gender, but they aim to do so without revisiting well-covered terrain. Contributors therefore avoid discussion of The Hidden Hand, directing readers’ attention to other Southworth novels. In one of the volume’s strongest chapters, Kathryn Conner Bennett explores the relationship between text and illustrations in Southworth’s serialized novel The Island Princess (1857). Grounding her analysis in scholarship on genre in nineteenth-century fiction, Bennett demonstrates how the sentimental consistently bounds the sensational in The Island Princess: Southworth flirts with transgression before retreating to the safe ground of the conventional, a pattern that will sound familiar to readers of The Hidden Hand. The illustrations that appeared with the novel (Bennett establishes that Southworth had some agency in determining what scenes would be illustrated) abet this tactic by representing a transgressive character such as the female sea captain Barbara Brande (note the echo of Margaret Fuller) with pointed deference and propriety. Bennett’s shrewd analysis complements the volume’s section on Southworth, marriage, and the law. Contributors agree that while Southworth was no radical on the subject of married women’s property laws, she dramatized women’s vulnerability to predatory or profligate husbands in a number of novels, including The Discarded Daughter (1851–52) and Ishmael (1863–64). Having been abandoned by her own husband, Southworth used her novels to educate women about marriage’s complexities and to lobby for more effective legal protections of women through the courts, though she did not challenge women’s subordinate legal status within marriage. Through hard experience, Southworth became a “tactician of marriage,” in the happy phrase of contributor Cindy Weinstein, who insightfully explores the language of marriage in Southworth’s fiction through the lens of speech-act theory (267).
The other notable strength of this volume is its insistence that we understand Southworth with respect to the practices of nineteenth-century print culture. Literary historians have tended to privilege book over periodical publication, leaving someone like Southworth, who was primarily an author of [End Page 139] serials, in something of a blind spot. A focus on “Serial Southworth” (the title of one section of the volume) allows Vicki L. Martin to make a persuasive case that Southworth played a key role in convincing National Era editor Gamaliel Bailey of the value of fiction in promoting the abolitionist cause, thereby paving the way for Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Martin also seeks to correct the view that Southworth, as a white Southerner, was proslavery. The chronological bibliography of Southworth’s works compiled by Martin and Homestead offers a new, more accurate picture of Southworth’s career. Publishers sometimes split a single Southworth serial into two separately titled volumes upon book publication, leading previous bibliographers to exaggerate Southworth’s output (thereby fueling the myth that she was a careless writer who favored quantity over quality). The new bibliography corrects these...