Monday, June 22, 2015

The Belles of Williamsburg {Book Review}

The Belles of Williamsburg: The Courtship Correspondence of Eliza Fisk Harwood and Tristim Lowther Skinner 1839-1849 provides a fascinating peek into life shortly before the Civil War. This correspondence is one of the few nearly complete collections of courtship letters from this era. That's pretty impressive!

 Eliza, of Williamsburg, Virgina, and Tristrim, of Edenton, North Carolina, meet when Tristrim enters William and Mary College and boards with Eliza’s family. Eliza is only twelve at the time. Eliza’s aunt had no children, and her parents had eleven, so Eliza went to live with her childless aunt to be raised by them – a practice not uncommon for the time. 

The early correspondence between Tristrim and Eliza is that of friends, though there are clearly undertones of encouragement from Eliza’s “Godma”. This early correspondence is easy and familiar. As Eliza enters society, the tones of the letters become more formal, largely adhering to the social customs of the day.

While there are a lot of “please write more often” and “I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner because of X” in this compilation, everyday happenings are also chronicled. 
  • Eliza’s family takes boarders, one of those that is mentioned several times is John Tyler, both before, during, and after his presidency. 
  • In one letter, Tristrim goes on several sentences about farming woes, and then apologies for boring Eliza – she responds by showing that she actually knows a bit about farming (more than she supposes the average woman knows). 
  • Tristrim refers to his work in the North Carolina House of Commons and laments tactics of the Locos (a fraction of the Democratic party) that delays session ending since the Whig majority is slim. Some things haven’t changed in over one hundred years – including sessions running long and tiresome, and way past when everyone wants to go home! 
  • Society events are also chronicled, who is getting married, the success of the ball, the longing for music, the poetry parodied by students after drinking whiskey punch. 
  • Postscripts from “Godma” and “Cousin Dick” (Eliza’s uncle by marriage) are frequent in earlier letters, giving yet another perspective on society at the time. 

What probably amuses me the most about these letters is that Tristrim obviously meant for them to be private between him and Eliza, mentioning that fact more than once and offering to return her letters if she felt better about that. I wonder how they would feel to know those letters had been so cared for that they are now available for the perusal of thousands of eager eyes! 

The layout by editor Mary Maillard is very helpful. At the beginning of the compilation, she provides a brief sketch outlining the correspondence and highlighting the keynotes. This provides a framework for readers to allow the letters to fill in. 

Reading these letters was an easy task. The thing that surprised me the most was that this book of actual correspondence validated authors like Jane Austen for me (whom I already loved dearly). This correspondence takes place after Austen’s death and in America, not England, but the similarities are astounding. In fact, Eliza even notes a British novel that she feels greatly explains her and Tristrim’s relationship, Grantley Manor by Lady Fullerton. 

The couple identifies so strongly with these characters they sometimes refer to each other by the character’s names. [For those interested - Grantley Manor is in the public domain, and available for download, or the 3 volumes from 1847 are available for purchase!] Maillard does include some photocopies of key passages from the novel to help explain Tristrim and Eliza’s relationship, but these photocopies are impossible to read on the Kindle, as are the family trees she provides at the start of the compilation. 

Unfortunately, this book is only available in Kindle form – and the price is a little steep for that, in my opinion, but would be reasonable to slightly high for a nice bound copy. 

Half of the book (and I’m not exaggerating) is footnotes, primary sources, secondary sources, listing of family by names, listing the letter’s chronology, etc, in short – a haven for digging further into the time and life covered by these letters. It also means the reading material is significantly less than the little bar under the Kindle book indicates.

Anyone interested in the antebellum South would do themselves a favor to read this compilation. Anyone who loves authors like Austen would enjoy these real life letters. Like I said, the price tag is steep, but suggest the book to your library if you don’t want to cough up the money and borrow it from them – then even more people can have access to this historically significant collection.

5 of 5 stars

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.

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