So I went to my little literary corner,where the books are neatly stacked right now, and lovingly scanned over my titles. I looked over Elsie Dinsmore, I looked over Journey to the Center of the Earth, I looked over Sherlock Holmes.
They'll all come later. ;) But for today, we have St. Elmo, by Augusta Jane Evans. Jane Eyre fans, prepare yourselves. This is almost an exact counter-part, minus all the delicious Gothic bits, and right down to Mr Rochester's foreign collections. Let me be the last to accuse anyone of plagiarism, but Jane Eyre was published in 1847 and St. Elmo was published in 1866. It really is startling how much resemblance they bear. But not quite. The heroine herself strongly resembles Elsie Dinsmore, and as Martha Finley, Charlotte Bronte, and Augusta Evans did all exist together for a couple of decades, I can imagine Finley and Bronte strongly influencing Evans works. Granted, that's my unscholarly little suspicion, but as Evans was well known to be a great reader, I can imagine that she enjoyed both these ladies' works.
St. Elmo was Augusta Jane Evans most popular book by far, and took the country by storm. Houses, boats, even a cigar brand took after the book, and it was adapted into a silent, black-and-white motion picture in 1914. It was also adapted into a play. Schoolgirls loved it for its romance: who wouldn't enjoy a dark and handsome hero that bites the head off of anyone who comes near him? Coupled with a good and highly virtuous heroine, you have a win-win situation, where there can only be one outcome--or can there?
Little Edna Earl lives in Tennessee with her grandfather, a happy twelve-year-old orphan girl. One day her innocence is shattered when she witnesses a duel between two young men, in which one of them dies. The survivor is fixed forever in her head as cruel murderer. When Edna's grandfather dies sitting in his chair one evening, she determines to go to Columbia, Tennessee, to earn wages at a factory and get book-learning. The train crashes when just before she arrives, and amidst the wreckage, a kind, rich lady learns of her plight and takes her home to recover.
When Mrs. Murray hears of Edna's plans she offers to educate her and bring her up--with the sole stipulation that she will not adopt her, nor consider her as one of the family--until Edna reaches eighteen. She accepts the offer, on the condition that she may pay for it when she is old enough to earn the money.
But before Edna is quite recovered, Mrs Murray's son returns from abroad, and is absolutely incensed to find the little girl there--especially a "pious" little girl. He is dissolute, unhappy, and constantly travelling to amuse himself. He stays for a few months, and he and Edna quickly antagonize each other when she recognizes him as one of the duellists in Tennessee. But as he leaves to go abroad again, he stops his sneering long enough to give Edna a key that he bids her to keep secret, even from his mother.
Years pass. Edna forms new acquaintances, one of which is a sad old minister, who gives her lessons while mourning the loss of his beautiful daughter some years before. As she grows older, she begins to receive attentions from a young man in the neighborhood, but she does not like them, and prefers to use her spare time in the pursuit of her long-cherished dream--that of becoming an authoress. She ransacks St. Elmo's library for literary gems, and learns many of his books by heart. And gradually, she pieces together a beautiful story that is the pride of her heart.
St Elmo returns from abroad to find how she has kept her trust, and though they do not easily agree, they invigorate rather than incense each other. Scholarly repartees mask Edna's growing tenderness towards him, and with the coming of two new females to the neighborhood--Agnes Powell and her daughter Gertrude, St. Elmo Murray's heart is well disposed of.
Edna determines that it is time to leave her temporary home and contracts herself out as a governess. But the afternoon before she leaves, St. Elmo finds her in the church, and reveals his great love for her. She accuses him of inconstancy to Gertrude, and to defend himself, he tells her such a tale of horror concerning himself and Agnes Powell that Edna is dismayed. Following that, he recounts broken hearts and ruined lives to such an extent that she is horrified. But she stands firm, and says that if he has led Gertrude on, he must indeed marry her. Then Murray makes his Rochester-like declaration:
"My precious Edna, no oath shall ever soil my lips again; [thank goodness!] the touch of yours has purified them. I have been mad--I think, for many, many years, and I loathe my past life; but remember how sorely I was tried, and be merciful when you judge me. With your dear little hand in mine to lead me, I will make amends for the ruin and suffering I have wrought, and my Edna--my own wife shall save me!"
Knowing that she cannot be unequally yoked with him, Edna leaves, not with a wild flight, but calmly and quietly taking up her position as a governess, and her ambitions as an authoress. Very shortly she falls ill, and the doctors tell her that she has the same heart condition as her grandfather, and she could die any day. Feeble in body, relentless in her writing, heartsick for her lover, she lives on, determined to be published, and never to see St. Elmo again.
So the question remains--which wins out? Ambition, death, or lover? That, friends and fellow bibliophiles, is for you to find out.
True to the good old-fashioned style, any language included is blanked out, with the exception of the first and last letter--which doesn't really disguise what it is, but I appreciated the endeavor.
This book shows how several characters coped with disappointment, some in God-honoring ways, and some not. The result in their lives was truthful and convicting.
Edna Earl is a study from several points. How she handles St. Elmo is just as good, and maybe even a touch better, than her counterpart Jane Eyre. Well done.
The only annoying thing about her is her scholar-liness. As one critic says "the trouble with the heroine of St. Elmo was that she swallowed an unabridged dictionary." Not only that, but she swallowed it in Greek and Hebrew as well as English, and who knows what other languages. Scraps of French phrases litter the entire text, and the characters go off into long literary rants of obscure texts from memory--which might be irritating to those of us who have to work for our education. Poetry, dry tomes, the entire geography of the world and other works fill both the character's conversation and the author's descriptive narration, which isn't a deal-breaker, but is rather intimidating to the modern bibliophile. At first it can be irritating, but then it quickly turns to causing a quiet chuckle whenever they start in.
As to how she handled her literary ambitions? Well, I don't know. She was cautioned by several people close to her, commended by others whose opinion she valued, but she pursued with the thought that God had called her, and that no-one else's opinion could sway her from her course. I would have to read the book again to better judge the right and wrong of how she handled it.
Altogether, I would recommend this as a God-honoring and biblical story, a fun and dramatic read, and well worth the time it takes to peruse it.
For those of you who love Elsie Dinsmore and Jane Eyre, you'll meet both combined in St. Elmo. For those of you who don't like Elsie Dinsmore, fear not, for Edna Earl is a lovable heroine that you will enjoy becoming acquainted with. Either way, it's a win-win situation that allows bibliophiles to enjoy quiet grace, steely ambition, and dramatic romance.
You won't want to miss it.
*credit for some of the information regarding Augusta Jane Evans and the critic's quote goes to the Wikipedia article about her, which you can find at this link.