At a time when sectional conflicts were dividing the nation, the five best-selling southern domestic novelists vigorously come to the defense of their native region. In response to northern criticism, Caroline Gilman, Caroline Hentz, Maria McIntosh, Mary Virginia Terhune, and Augusta Jane Evans presented through their fiction what they believed to be the “true” South. From the mid-1830s through 1866, these five novelists wrote about an ordered South governed by the aristocratic ethic of noblesse oblige, and argued that slavery was part of a larger system of reciprocal relationships that made southern society the moral superior of the individualistic North.
Scholars have typically approached the domestic novel as a national rather than a regional phenomenon, assuming that because practically all domestic fiction was written by and for women, the elements of all domestic novels are essentially identical. Elizabeth Moss corrects that simplification, locating Gilman Hentz, McIntosh, Terhune, and Evans within the broader context of antebellum social and political culture and establishing their lives and works as important sources of information concerning the attitudes of southerners, particularly southern women, toward power and authority within their society. Moss’s study of the novels of these women challenges the “transhistorical view” of women’s history and integrates women into the larger context of antebellum southern history.
Domestic Novelists in the Old South shows that whereas northern readers and writers o domestic fiction may have been interested in changing their society, their southern counterparts were concerned with strengthening and sustaining the South’s existing social structure. But the southern domestic novelists did more than reiterate the ideology of the ruling class; they also developed a compelling defense of slavery in terms of southern culture that reflected their perceptions of southern society and women’s place within it. Just how strong an impact these books had cannot be precisely determined, but Moss argues that at the height of their popularity, the five novelists were able to reach a broader audience than male apologists.
In spite of their literary and historical significance, Caroline, Gilman, Caroline Hentz, Maria McIntosh, Mary Virginia Tehune, and Augusta Jane Evans have received scant scholarly attention. Moss shows that the lives and works of these five women illuminate the important role domestic novelists played in the ideological warfare of the day. Writing in the language of domesticity, they appealed to the mean of America, using the images of home and hearth to make a persuasive case for antebellum southern culture.
Elizabeth Moss is a historian for the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation in Washington, D.C.
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