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  • The Storm:True Womanhood, Feminism, and Companionate Marriage in Antebellum Key West
  • Keith Huneycutt (bio)

In The Storm, an unsigned and undated ninety-page manuscript recently donated to the University of Florida, the island of Key West provides the setting for a story that explores issues surrounding marriage in mid-nineteenth America.1 Considerable evidence indicates that Ellen Brown Anderson wrote this story between 1854 and 1862, making it the first novel about Key West written by a woman and probably also the first novel written by woman using a Florida setting.

Ellen Brown, age 21, and her sister, Corinna, age 23, moved in 1835 from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Key West, Florida, living there from May 27th, 1849, through April of 1850 and writing numerous letters that have been stored in their descendants' family manuscript collection.2 The Storm was included in this collection until 1975, when it was sold to a collector and separated from most of the other items. I have made an extensive argument elsewhere for authorship by Ellen Brown Anderson, so, rather than repeat the entirety of the case, this essay will assume that she is the author and that the story was completed after she had left Florida and moved to New York City, where she attempted to support her family as a writer until her death in 1862.3 The Storm is set in Key West at an unspecified time, but the town and the community in the story closely resemble Key West as the Brown sisters—especially Ellen—describe it in their letters. The story's main event, a deadly and destructive storm, is clearly based on the major hurricane that struck the Keys in 1846.

The manuscript's opening quotation from William Cowper's "Pairing-Time Anticipated" (1795) leaves little doubt that marriage will be the story's main subject: "'Choose not alone a proper mate / But proper time to marry'" (The Storm 1). The novel examines various ideas and attitudes concerning marriage and education for women that were prevalent in antebellum America, particularly those associated with the concept of the "separate spheres" and the ideal of True Womanhood; early elements of feminist resistance to these concepts; and the ideal of the companionate marriage. As historian Barbara Welter famously explains in a 1966 article, "in the cult of True Womanhood presented by the women's magazines, gift annuals and religious literature of the nineteenth century. . . " (151), the ideal of the True Woman, Welter continues, consisted of four primary attributes "by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, [End Page 291] her neighbors, and society: "piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" (152). Mary Louise Roberts added in 2002 that "Historians continue to agree that 'true womanhood' was the centerpiece of nineteenth-century female identity" (150).

Anya Jabour identifies the basic idea of the Companionate Marriage: "by the early nineteenth century, many women and men had placed a new value on affectionate ties between family members, particularly within the immediate family, whose nucleus was a married couple joined by romantic love" (2). This newer notion challenged "the ideology of 'separate spheres'" in which "Men devoted their lives to self-advancement; women looked for fulfillment in self-sacrifice" (2–3). Jabour adds that adherence to the old patriarchy endured longer in some regions, especially the south, than in others: "Some research on southern women and families has suggested that patriarchy persisted much longer in the south. . . . Scholars of other sections of the United States have noted a tension between the new ideals of affection, equality, and mutuality in marriage and the enduring distinctions between men's and women's access to political, economic, and social power" (3). The inner struggle of Jenny Greenough, The Storm's protagonist, reflects the tension among these conflicting beliefs. The mid-century island of Key West, with a diverse community of residents and visitors from assorted classes, regions, and nations, provides an appropriate setting for this confluence of ideas: as Jenny Mansfield, The Storm's narrator who tells the story of her first marriage as Jenny Greenough, comments, "We were people met accidentally in a strange place. We were on business—to make fortunes. We...