From a slope in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, I looked down at a plain gravestone that was leaning to the right. Next to me, my friend Gary turned a map of the plots. Between the fall-dead leaves that half-buried it and the weathering of the stone, neither of us could read the name. Gary knelt, passing his hand over the letters. “Here she is,” he said. “E.D.E.N. Southworth, 1819-1899.”
We made the pilgrimage to find 19th-century author E.D.E.N. Southworth’s grave when I was rereading her most famous novel, “The Hidden Hand,” and realized she was buried here, in Washington. I immediately felt compelled to pay my respects and to take Gary with me, because we both first encountered Southworth’s work in graduate school.
I loved “The Hidden Hand” right away. We meet the heroine, Capitola Le Noir, dressed as a newsboy, and she spends the rest of the book riding pell-mell over the countryside, capturing a bandit and rescuing a maiden.
Though Gary — Professor Richards to his students at the University of Mary Washington — has taught “The Hidden Hand” in Southern literature surveys, Southworth has been largely forgotten outside academia. In the mid-19th century, however, she was one of the most famous writers in the country. Her best-selling books were serialized and made into plays. Parents named children after her character Capitola, whose own name might be a nod to Southworth’s beloved Washington. Better known than Melville and Hawthorne in her time, Southworth encouraged Harriet Beecher Stowe, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and held Friday night salons at her Georgetown home.
In Southworth’s books, sentimental potboilers with titles such as “Mystery of Raven Rocks,” “A Beautiful Fiend,” “The Doom of Deville,” “The Curse of Clifton” and “The Missing Bride,” the action never stops. There are ghosts, orphans, disguises, shipwrecks, robbers, romance and fortunes lost, found and made. Also, she was prolific, writing more novels than Melville, Hawthorne, Stowe and Mark Twain combined.
Southworth’s early life could have belonged to one of her characters. Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte was born in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 26, 1819, in a townhouse built by George Washington. Her father, Charles Le Compte Nevitte, was an Alexandria, Va., merchant, and her mother, Susannah Wailes, was from St. Mary’s County, Md. Charles Nevitte died when Emma was 4, leaving his family “a large and handsomely furnished house,” she recalled, but little money. Emma suffered when Susannah remarried, she wrote years later in a letter to her daughter: “We would be left to play in a freezing garret and driven away from the fire in the parlor.”
Emma’s mother and stepfather opened a school. She graduated at 16, became a teacher herself, and when she was 21, married a man named Frederick Southworth, who called himself an inventor. He held patents for a tide and currents wheel and a lard lamp but could not support his family. The couple moved to Wisconsin, but Southworth came home pregnant in 1844, with a child in her arms. Frederick was gone. Penniless, Southworth returned to teaching, this time in the D.C. public schools. She wrote when she could. “[M]y time was passed between my housekeeping, my school-keeping, my child’s sick-bed, and my literary labours,” she recalled in an essay for a book about women writers. “It was too much for any human being.” She earned about $250 a year.
One sleety afternoon, Southworth sat dejected in her classroom. “The school funds were exhausted, my salary was unpaid, and there seemed no hope for the future; winter was coming on, and I had no resources,” she wrote. Suddenly, a carriage pulled up and Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the abolitionist weekly the National Era, jumped out. He handed her a paycheck for her story “The Wife’s Victory,” the first money she had earned from writing. That was the beginning of her literary career; soon, she would not need to teach. She had been “born as it were into a new life,” she wrote, finding “independence, sympathy, friendship, and honour, and an occupation in which I could delight.” She introduced her friend Stowe to Bailey, and the anti-slavery National Era would become famous for printing Stowe’s abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
By 1856, Southworth published her serial novels exclusively in the New York Ledger, which was owned by relentless promoter Robert Bonner, who advertised his writers through broadsides. Southworth worked four days a week, noon to a kerosene-lit midnight, as she said, “constantly, devotedly, scarcely taking time to eat.” She wrote everything in what a Washington Post reporter called a “masculine hand, indicative of mental force and sustained effort.” She mailed her manuscripts in a homemade envelope at the Georgetown post office every Friday. An 1898 story in the Chicago Record by Laura B. Starr reported that Southworth had in fact invented “the manila box envelope, which she used many years before someone took it up and patented it, making a fortune....”
Other writers made fun of Southworth’s lurid plotlines. Louisa May Alcott mocked an author she called “S.L.A.N.G. Northbury” in “Little Women.” By aping “Northbury’s” style, Jo March earns money to feed her family but is later told by her father, “You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.” Southworth’s “overt commercialism” made her lowbrow, says Ann Beebe, an associate professor of literature and languages at the University of Texas at Tyler who has written about Southworth. Although “Retribution” was well-reviewed, by the 1850s Southworth’s work was so inexhaustible and predictable that critics dismissed her. “Nobody ever heard of the like of [“The Fortune Seeker”] before, either in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth,” one reviewer jibed, ridiculing Southworth’s plot recycling.
“She’ll throw in ghosts, she’ll have tragic moments, she’s just all over the map,” Beebe says. “She treated [writing] as a job and took it seriously. She had a deadline every Friday, and I think her professionalism ended up working against her. If it is a job, it’s not art.”
“The Hidden Hand,” the novel that prompted me to visit the cemetery, appeared in the Ledger in 1859. It was also a successful play; John Wilkes Booth starred in one production as the bandit Black Donald. “The Hidden Hand” represents a peak of Southworth’s accomplishment, and its character is a manifestation of her confidence as a writer, according to Beebe. “She had trained a generation of young girls to see there is more than one type of mid-century American female identity,” Beebe says. “There is a sense of fearlessness when Capitola meets her uncle for the first time, and when she captures Black Donald. She is not defiant; she just is.”
Southworth, who had strong features and what were described as “bright, dark” eyes, lived in a Carpenter Gothic house at 36th and Prospect streets, in Georgetown, which she called Prospect Cottage. It was spacious, with a southern-facing veranda. From the porch, you could see the Potomac River, the Virginia hills and the Three Sisters islands (just north of Key Bridge, built in 1923). She gave Friday night dinner parties. Poet John Whittier was one guest. “I have just written off a little ballad of ‘Barbara Frietchie’ which will appear in the next Atlantic,” he wrote to Southworth. “If it is good for anything, thee deserve all the credit for it,” he said of the famous poem (“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,/But spare your country’s flag,” she said.). Another guest remembered an afternoon when Southworth couldn’t find the latest installation of a serial. Dinner waited while guests upended Prospect Cottage. Finally, one remembered: He had seen children flying a kite outside. They had made the tail from the missing pages.
In 1859, Southworth sailed for England to meet with British publishers and take advantage of British law that offered women writers more ownership of their royalties (her husband reappeared briefly when he heard of her success but vanished in the 1860s). There, she wrote, boats named for Capitola floated in the Thames, and girls wore Capitola-style hats and suits.
During the Civil War, she returned to Washington, which was occupied by people sympathetic to both sides. While Southworth was a Southerner whose mother had owned slaves, she herself was staunchly Unionist. “I wish I were a man; I wish I were in the army,” she wrote in a letter. She took patients into her cottage when hospitals overflowed and volunteered as a nurse, contracting smallpox.
Southworth’s daughter lived in Yonkers, N.Y., and the author moved there for a short time in 1876, but returned home to Prospect Cottage, where locals would see her in an armchair on the veranda, taking in the sun. She died in the summer of 1899. “The end came just as the tide was flowing out,” a Post reporter wrote, “and the reflected lights twinkled in the waters of the Potomac, darkened by shadows of the Virginia hills beyond.”
Beebe wishes more readers knew Southworth’s work. “If only we had an American version of the BBC that would put together some of these historical dramas,” she says. “Can you imagine Anna Kendrick playing Capitola? It would be an amazing miniseries. Capitola and the way she rides, and the sexualized elements with Black Donald. It would be so great.”
It does seem like Southworth should be memorialized by more than a few worn-out letters on an unseen and untended tombstone. As Columbia Historical Society member Sarah M. Huddleson noted in a 1919 address to the organization, Southworth was born here, lived here, wrote here and died here. “Mrs. Southworth,” she said, “belongs to our national capital.”
Eliza McGraw is a Washington writer. Her book “Here Comes Exterminator!: The Longshot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero” will be released in April.
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