William Perry Fidler. Augusta Evans Wilson, 1835-1909.
University of Alabama Press, 1951, p130-133.
The age was not ashamed of sentiment -- it even gloried in it. The assumption that strong and earnest people obtain consolation through honest tears is implied in the folk songs, plays, religious services, domestic art, and politics of the period. Our ancestors in that era seldom doubted that feeling is an adequate gauge of good conduct and righteous beauty. A critic may apply learned terms to the doctrine -- sensibility, for instance -- and find sources in history and. literature for its origin, but he will miss the power of its force unless he grasps the breadth and commonness of its influence, in evangelism, in frontier politics, in pioneer customs, and at the fireside of every American home. St. Elmo  is as openly, as unashamedly sentimental as “Home Sweet Home," or the dramatic version of “Rip Van Winkle," or the sermons at a camp meeting, or the democracy of Andy Jackson's followers. One look at the decorations on the walls of a characteristic Victorian parlor, or an hour spent with the yellowed pages of Godey's Lady's Book will reveal the frank pleasure which our ancestors obtained from reproductions of sentimental experience. The books and plays and sermons and pictures were cut from the same fabric of philosophy, but there were fewer sophisticates to smile when they were new, because the quality of sophistication differed at that time. Sentiment was fashionable.
St. Elmo was written for an age which expected oratory, not speeches, from its leaders; it was intended for an audience which took joy in applauding the elegant and impressive acting of Booth and McGullough -- performances which ran the gamut of emotional expression. The book was addressed to people who were proud of dwelling in houses adorned with turrets, bay windows, and mazes of jig-saw atrocities which likewise approach the absurd -- in the judgment of today. The book is a period piece; its opulence, though eccentric by any standard we can now imagine, reflects a hunger for culture that borders on the pathetic. We like to think that we are emancipated from all that today, but even the Victorians had a similar conceit of themselves, for they too believed that their standards were modern.
The hero of Miss Evans's romance has an ancestral home which is fitted out in the grand manner. There are Gothic windows of stained glass at La Bocage and a classical rotunda with “Moresque frescoes." A hot house, with oriental pagoda roof, is surrounded by statues of Bacchus, Bacchante, and Triton. Grazing an the lawns are Himalayan and golden pheasant, bison, Lapland reindeer, scarlet flamingo, Cashmere goats, chamois, and a caw from Ava. The formal gardens are filled with Norway spruce and impenetrable hedges of osage orange. If all of these exotics appear a little out of place on a Southern plantation near Columbus, Georgia, we should not forget the oddities which customarily adorned many a Victorian great house; likewise, a similar taste far extravagance is revealed an every page of the annuals and gift-books which our grandparents bought for their parlor tables. It was a time when much was written about sublimity in art, architecture, and literature -- particularly about the lofty sentiments of Oriental culture --but the minor artists and writers did not have the talent or imagination to follow the grand themes of the masters.
One late Victorian critic has shrewdly observed, “These novelists of the old type are handicapped for the future by the very excellences which made them popular in the past. Mrs. Wilson was a most vital expression of that Southern taste which, classical rather than imitative, flourished upon Meredith's Lucile and Bulwer's The Lady of Lyons." He cites the “high seriousness of spirituality," her “picturesqueness of abstract statement," her deep love of scholarship, and her opulence of phrase, which help to make her “representative of a literary genre which, while it lasted, brought with it a healthy, wide enjoyment and an emotional appeal which, drawing plentifully upon warm sentiment treasured a romantic spirit the world would be poorer without. [Montrose J. Moser, The Literature of the South (New York: Crowell, 1910), p331]. Not only were the hero and heroine idealized in St. Elmo, but the setting was more elegant than life, and the style more refined than mere thinking.
St. Elmo was amazingly popular because it suited the tastes of the day, but one explanation of its vogue contains a puzzling contradiction. Charitable readers have always admitted that the novel has a tone of dedication, that the author's sincerity emerges from every page, but Miss Evans found it necessary to create a hero with sufficient evil in his early manhood to justify his salvation by a Christian heroine, and in so doing she, innocently presents her reader with a rake so fascinating in his sinning that he “bowled over a whole generation of romantic schoolgirls," as one critic put it. The object of Edna Earl's devout love is allowed to describe his sinfulness in her presence: “I drank, gambled, and my midnight carrousals would sicken your soul were I to paint all their hideousness. Whenever a brilliant and beautiful woman crossed my path I attached myself to her train of admirers, until I made her acknowledge my power and give public and unmistakable manifestations of her preference for me; then I left her -- a target for the laughter of her circle." All this because one woman, Agnes Powell, had secretly planned a loveless marriage with him for his money!
[Apparently St. Elmo remained in print past 1949 – having appeared in four editions that year].
Last revised: 16 September 2010