Friday, February 10, 2012

Taylor Polites Guest Post

Today I have the pleasure of bringing you a guest post from Taylor Polites, author of The Rebel Wife, which I reviewed Tuesday. After having read the book, I can vouch for the fact that his creation of Augusta was a unique accomplishment. Here Taylor gives us a glimpse of what inspired him in building the essence of Augusta and making her such a rich and inspiring protagonist. Taylor’s search to find the perfect voice for his heroine is a unique story as well, and I’m pleased to share it with you today. So without further ado, I present Taylor in his own words.

One of the biggest challenges of writing The Rebel Wife was defining the voice of the heroine, Augusta. I have always loved strong women in fiction, from Scarlett O’Hara to Becky Sharp and Isabel Archer. But to write in the voice of a woman—and a woman of 1875, no less—was challenging to say the least. I used many resources to get a sense of period and the material culture, but to get into the nitty-gritty of a woman’s voice, I needed women guides. Thankfully, there are a lot of Southern women from the period who felt compelled to put their thoughts on paper.

Portrait of Mary Chesnut
(Wikimedia Commons)
The tumultuous years around the Civil War saw a huge number of women who turned to writing as a means of expression, relief or ambition. Women novelists were already a major American phenomenon. Diarists and memoirists burst the seams of the literary market from the 1880s through the early 1900s. Since then, many books of letters and diaries, documents where writers put their most intimate and honest thoughts, have been made available. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary, as reconstituted by C. Vann Woodward, was a major resource for me, as were the letters of Kate Fearn Steele of Huntsville, Alabama, in the collection Cease Not to Think of Me. These women were my guides to a sensibility and worldview. There were many others, but two fascinating Alabama women also served as important muses and counterpoints of 19th century female ambition and its limits.

One was Kate Cumming, an upper-class woman who kept a detailed journal of her career during the war. The other was Augusta Jane Evans, the writer of blockbuster women’s fiction who was an ardent supporter of the Confederate cause. Both women were born in 1835. Both moved several times with their families when they were very young. Evans in particular suffered the vicissitudes of family bankruptcy and pioneer life in Texas. Both ended up in Mobile and as young adults, dedicated themselves to nursing during the Civil War. Doubtless, had they been men, they would have been among the first to volunteer to fight.

Photograph of Augusta
Jane Evans in 1890
(Wikimedia Commons)
But they were women of the 19th century with ambitions that were considered outscale for their gender. Evans already had broken the gender-line by having written the successful Inez, a Tale of the Alamo at the age of fifteen, followed in 1859 by the best-seller Beulah. Her wealth enabled her to endow a hospital, found an orphanage and devote herself to nursing in Mobile during the war. But even her wealth could not overcome her family’s objections to her plan to work as a nurse in the field hospitals that followed the army. She remained in Mobile. Her war novel, Macaria, or Altars of Sacrifice, was published in 1864 in wartime Richmond and even with paper scarcity circulated in a printing of 20,000 copies. One copy was smuggled to her publisher in New York where it was printed, the proceeds being held in her name until the war ended. In Macaria, Evans has two heroines, Irene and Electra, who both reject support from men and traditional roles to pursue ambition and duty. Irene in particular sacrifices her love for a soldier to the needs of the fledgling Confederacy. Evans’ heroines seem to embody the dichotomy of her own position: breaking through gender-lines while still speaking the language of the male-dominated social order.

Kate Cumming in a carte de
visite (Alabama Department
of Archives and History)
While Augusta Jane Evans was writing about nursing (and doing it herself in a Mobile hospital), Kate Cumming boarded a train with a group of women and went to the battle lines. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, Cumming and many other women worked tirelessly as nurses in makeshift hospitals, always short on supplies. She committed herself to this work for three years in spite of the strenuous objections of her father and brothers. Florence Nightingale’s book on nursing, published in 1860, inspired her. She left a journal where she recounted her harrowing experiences, the wounds, the amputations, the death, the nearness of the battles. The journal was published in 1866, one of the first to be printed, and was little altered from the original. In her introduction, she says that “the vivid recollections of what I have witnessed during years of horror have been so shocking, that I have almost doubted whether the past was not all a fevered dream, and, if real, how I ever lived through it.” Those experiences left her conflicted, carrying bitterness for all the loss, but a desire for peace and reconciliation.

After the war, both women returned to their pre-war lives. Cumming moved with her father to Montgomery, never married and became a teacher. Evans wrote the mega-blockbuster, St. Elmo, then married in 1869, becoming mother to her new husband’s children and devoting herself to running the household. Both women became involved in Confederate memorial societies. Both died in 1909. Two different lives, but with so much in common. Like many of the disparate voices of women from the Civil War era, each with their own path, these two women left their writings behind to tell of their ambitions and frustrations and the challenges they overcame.


bermudaonion said...

Wow, they sound like women before their time. I could tell Polites had done his homework before he wrote The Rebel Wife.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Thanks so much for this post! Kate Cumming's journal sounds like it would be fascinating!

Athira said...

I'm so impressed by the amount of research the author did for this book. Great guest post! Love this insight into the lives of these women.

Ti said...

Such an interesting post! The amount of work that went into writing this novel is mind blowing. She sure did her homework.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well, no wonder this book had such a phenomenal female voice! Still, even with all those role models, I'm not sure just anyone could capture such a distinct personality. I loved this guest post.

Harvee said...

Love hearing about early women writers who bucked the conventions of the time, both here in in Britain!

Swapna said...

Oh, I just loved this post! I knew Taylor had put a lot of effort into the research, but this is awesome! Thanks Taylor and Heather!

Suko said...

It sounds like this author gets an A+ on his research efforts, and brought the story to life through the voice of Augusta. Wonderful guest post!

Jenners said...

Fascinating! In a way, it seems like these women are his "co-writers" (perhaps "ghost writers" in the literal sense.)

Lisa said...

Wow - no wonder the book is so good. Polites did his research and really turned up some great inspiration.

Unknown said...

This is a fascinating post! Kate Cummings and Augusta Jane Evans are really intriguing women and so inspiring. I am impressed by Taylor Polites research and what he did to create and write an authentic, genuine southern women from the time of the Civil War.

Thank you Heather and Taylor!

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