- Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar by A. Jennie Bartlett
“Is not this slavery of the West a much more despicable one than that of the South,” novelist A. Jennie Bartlett pleads in the preface to her recently republished 1882 anti-polygamy novel, “in that it is a slavery of defenceless women?” (3). Bartlett’s Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar gives us insight into how the intertwined logics of sex, race, and sentiment shaped a range of important nineteenth-century phenomena. These include feminisms, domesticity, sexual politics, religious intolerance, sensationalist epistemology, queer relations, the biopolitics of motherhood, and widespread civilizationist hierarchies that reserved the status of “civilized,” and the correlated concepts of manhood and womanhood, to white Christians living in monogamous marriage within democratic and capitalist regimes. Nicole Tonkovich’s introduction places the novel within its historical context, with careful attention to the history of polygamy and anti-polygamy activity and women’s varied experiences of plural marriage, including its defenders. The republication of Elder Northfield’s Home offers a nuanced example of an understudied nineteenth-century social movement largely fought for white women by white women and of the varied uses of sentimentalism as epistemology and political protest, including in settler colonial societies of the Mountain West.
Part political tract and part sentimental tale, Elder Northfield’s Home begins where most domestic novels end: with the marriage of its heroine. Marriage presents the crisis, rather than the solution, of its central drama, a clever formal rendering of the novel’s objective to rouse sympathy for the polygamous wives of Utah and outrage at the doctrines of the Mormon church. The novel opens as newlyweds Marion and Elder Northfield joyfully travel from their ancestral homes in England to the new settlement at Salt Lake City, unhindered by the objections of recently converted Marion’s family. Marion’s happiness is soon clouded by the ubiquity of polygamy among the Mormon settlers, although her husband earnestly promises never to sully their relation with plural marriage. But as the years wear on, “the perpetual influence of the Mormon leaders had their effect at last on their victim,” and Elder Northfield takes a second wife. Upon her untimely death, in fact, he takes a third (106). Marion submits to her marital duty. She vows, however, to save her daughter Mayon from the destiny she herself cannot escape, even as her son becomes a well-regarded missionary. When Mayon receives a marriage proposal at the tender age of fifteen, Marion ushers her to safety under the guardianship of her father’s fleeing third [End Page 441] wife. The second half of the novel follows Mayon as she matures, is tricked into returning to Salt Lake under false pretenses, hazards a narrow escape, and, true to the sentimental mode, falls in love with a doctor later revealed to be her brother before she marries another man. The novel closes as the rest of the Northfield family leaves Salt Lake and Mormonism altogether and are warmly welcomed back into the fold by Marion’s New York relations, among whom they soon establish domestic tranquillity.
The novel’s feminist perspective is deeply integrated with its civilizationist perspective that Mormonism is a barbaric institution. In the introduction, Tonkovich stresses that while Elder Northfield’s Home shares much in common with the plethora—nearly one hundred—of anti-polygamy novels and exposés printed after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints formally endorsed plural marriage in 1852, it bears some notable qualities that make it among the most intriguing of these texts. Chief among these is the agency that Bartlett ascribes to women in polygamous relationships. That women are sacrifices “on the Mormon altar” is a frequent refrain throughout (310), an image that tidily captures Bartlett’s argument that Mormonism fails to respect the dignity and honor of (white) womanhood and thereby destroys the very agents of moral society. The intrepidness of Marion and her...