The title of this book is a mouthful: A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883. But the length is appropriate to Lucy Neilson, who liked to know the details, and when she wrote to her sisters, she understood that they liked to be filled in on specifics, too. One volume in the series, Women's Diaries and Letters of the South, this particular collection of letters from a genteel Southern belle is an important contribution. The editor, Giselle Roberts, in her careful choices and through her overviews and explanations, argues that Lucy's letters are emblematic of the struggles that faced post-Civil War women as they recreated themselves in a world turned upside-down. The letters certainly tell a compelling story.
In the post-war world, slaves had become paid employees who sometimes left on their own accord, and relationships that called for great trust were suddenly delicate. Everyone, black and white, was trying to adjust to a new, more complex economy. Once Lucy is married, after a rather brief period of being "out" in society, she must learn to do work that was formerly done by "the coloreds," as she calls them. There is pride and validation in learning to cook, and in nursing her own baby. Yet she feels a kind of shame over how family fortunes have dwindled, and works diligently to maintain a reputation of gentility while muddling through the confusions of changed circumstance. There is tremendous social upheaval evident in Lucy's efforts to keep or find good help and to pay wages she and her gentleman-farmer husband can ill afford. One solution is to have her maiden sister live with them.
This 30-something woman, Cordele Irion, is a significant part of the editor's focus. She is called upon to find purpose in a life of "single blessedness." There is not much scope for opportunity in small-town Columbus, Mississippi, and it is Cordele's church activities and her role of aunt to Lucy's children that become the saving graces. The oldest sister, Lizzie, is a widow, and had been something of a parent to her younger siblings since her mother died, when Lucy was about three. Lizzie's husband left her wealth enough to educate the niece of these three sisters, Bess. By the age of ten, Bess was an orphan, and came to live with the Irions at Willow Cottage as the War was ending. She became Lizzie's purpose and pleasure for years, was doted upon by all the family, and trained to be a lady able to support herself, something that was new for women of the Irions' standing.
Lucy's sisters and niece are lovingly revealed to us in her letters. Their experiences unfold in the bits and pieces of news that she passes on in correspondence and expects to receive in return with regular frequency. Above all, her foundation is the family unit, and the lives of the men, and the children, too, are caught in fascinating glimpses.
If there is a downside to reading letters of this time period, it is that precious little revelation of personal feeling is made directly. Most private details come as hints or oblique metaphors. I wanted to know more. Yet a careful reading through the small household details and the patterns of daily activity provides a certain framework for understanding. In these 80 letters, I grew to know Lucy and her concerns, her weaknesses, her willful and loving ways, her hospitable nature. I saw her growth, and I came to understand the context of her days, her family, her community, as they all worked to reconstruct what they could, and to build something new where it was needed. I also saw, in a direct and unpolished way, Southern racism.
This was not a shock, for I have lived in the South and have known many perfectly nice white people who were, at the same time, unashamedly racist. What this book offers is an insight into the matter-of-factness of that attitude and the way that post-Civil War whites refused to change any more than absolutely necessary. Lucy is willing to believe the worst of black people as they struggle for equal voting rights, though the historical record refutes the wild assumptions that the white townsfolk made as justification for their violence against the black community. Yet she often adds greetings to their "colored friends" in her letters to family, knowing that those same servants and field hands are interested in the family's welfare and activities. (Letters were often read aloud to both family and "friends.") The paradox of these attitudes is troubling, and leads to speculation about the continuing bigotry that plagues our country. While not the chief subject of the book, which is women's changing roles in the post-war South, the topic is an important thread that runs through this correspondence.
What is clear is that Lucy Neilson was not a radical Southern woman. She was an old-style Southern lady dealing with the changes of her era, as Southern women continue to do. She and her sisters, and their niece, in-laws and friends, reflect a culture in transition, and the hard work and strength that carried them through that time is inspiring. Thanks to Giselle Roberts for sharing this potent woman's story, and for giving me fresh insight into the region and the evolution of its feminine pillars in the aftermath of war.
Giselle Roberts is an honorary research associate in American history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She also wrote The Confederate Belle, and edited The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson.
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