Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Antebellum National Bestseller From Richmond

Several years ago, I was making a perusal of the Richmond section at Black Swan Books. I laid my eyes on an attractive book with a red binding called Alone. I opened the book to see that it was the 15th edition by “Marion Harland of Richmond Virginia” published in 1854. I started to browse through it to see what kind of descriptions of Richmond might lie within. It turned out that Richmond was the primary locale of the book and had a number of descriptions of the town. I paid the typically reasonable Black Swan price and made it my bedtime reading that week.

It turns out that Alone is actually a very good read, a local and venerable piece of chick lit. It also had the distinction in Antebellum America of being an extraordinary bestseller. According to that invaluable reference, Virginia Author’s Past and Present by W. D. Taylor, Alone sold 100,000 copies. My copy of the book bears this out since it was the 15th edition in the year the book was first published.

Marion Harland was in truth Mary Virginia Haws Terhune a native of Powhatan County, who came to Richmond in 1844 to attend a girl’s school. She began writing for publication at the age of 16, deferring to the decorum of the time by publishing under a nom de plume. Perhaps she read Jane Austen and had bright idea to place an Austenesque heroine in her contemporary environment. Unable to interest any Richmond publishers in her work, Harland’s father published the book. The tremendous success of her self-published experiment, caused it to be optioned by a New York publisher.

A U. Mass. scholar has compared her to Danielle Steele I would stick with my Austen analogy and offer Examiner readers the following plot summation as evidence:

· Heroine enjoys a blissful existence on a happy and well-run Virginia plantation with her parents.

· Heroine becomes unhappily alone, when both parents die and she is forced to move to Richmond.

· Heroine experiences even greater unhappiness and sense of being alone, when she moves in with her cold fish of a guardian and mean-girl daughter.

· Heroine goes to school with a bunch of mean girls and stands up to an uptight Italian teacher.

· Heroine meets her one true friend at school and becomes happy with the friendship of the friend and friend’s family, while shrugging off the chilly behavior of her guardian and guardian’s daughter.

· Heroine adjusts to life in Richmond, but creates a scandal when alone she rescues a young ancestor of a skateboarder, who breaks his head gamboling on tombstones in the St. John’s church yard.

· Heroine becomes the friend of a sensitive artist who has studied in Italy and is building his reputation.

· Artist is killed in duel defending heroine’s honor.

· Heroine graduates from school and becomes the mistress of her still happy and orderly plantation, where she resides alone in the big house.

· After considerable dawdling, letter writing, and other forms of procrastination, the true love of the heroine follows her to the plantation.

· He finds her alone in the garden, marriage is proposed, the proposal is accepted, and all is well.

To judge the worth of the book and accuracy of my synopsis, you can read it for yourself in its entirety on Google books: Check it out and enjoy.


1 comment:

Bob Jones said...

Wikapedia has a good entry on her - lists all her books and includes an image of her.