Augusta Jane Evans, one of the most popular domestic novelists of the latter half of the nineteenth century, was born in 1835 in Columbus, Georgia, but spent most of her life in Mobile, Alabama. She was the author of eight novels, of which Beulah, published in 1859, was the second. Like many previously overlooked nineteenth-century women writers, Evans is now the subject of renewed critical interest. For this new edition of Beulah, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has written an introduction that traces the history of the novel and places it in the context of the religious, intellectual, and political climate of the 1850s.
Beulah, which brought Evans both critical and commercial success, conforms in many ways to the familiar conventions of the nineteenth-century domestic novel. But if the external action of the novel focuses on the typically circumscribed life of a young southern woman, its internal action focuses on a woman’s struggles with skepticism and faith.
The plot of Beulah follows the uneven fortunes of the orphaned Beulah Benton from her early teens to young adulthood. Beulah’s determined quest for independence leads her into the shifting sands of skepticism, doubt, and anxiety. Her struggles cause her to wrestle with many of the great theological, moral, and intellectual questions of the day before finally regaining her faith. Beulah’s story, then, is not so much that of a woman who grapples with the difficulties of obedience to society’s norms and eventually surrenders to convention—as some modern-day readers of the novel have contended—as that of an uncompromising, independent woman of wide-ranging intellect who ardently seeks answers to important questions, particularly those of religious faith.
Beulah articulated two of the principal concerns of a generation of nineteenth-century American women—the constraints of domestic life and the desire for freedom to engage in intellectual and philosophical pursuits. Moreover, though it did not overtly deal with slavery, the novel served as an expression of and an apology for southern values and customs.
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