The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Maria J. McIntosh
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Maria J. McIntosh
Engraved in London from a drawing by Croome
MARIA J. McINTOSH
One of the earliest clans in the Highlands of Scotland that won fame by Southron foray, was formed from the united families of Moy, Borlam, and McIntosh, and bore the general title of "Clan Chatan." This family sided with the House of Stuart in its last bold struggle for power, and fought under its chief, Brigadier-General McIntosh. With the defeat of the Royal family came the fall of their faithful adherents and the confiscation of their property, and with one hundred and thirty Highlanders William McIntosh accompanied Oglethorpe's party, and settled on the Altamaha, in the district now called Georgia.
The refugees carried with them their love for the fatherland, even to the names of its hills. They styled their frontier settlement New Inverness (since changed to Darien), and the county received, and still bears, the family title of McIntosh.
Colonel William McIntosh, the son of the first settler of the new colony, fought as an officer in the French and Indian wars, and died leaving a son, Major Lachlan McIntosh, who was the father of Miss Maria J. McIntosh, the subject of the present sketch.
By profession Major McIntosh was a lawyer, but with the readiness that warlike times engender, at the first summons of danger he stepped from the legal arena to the higher joust of arms, and fought, with the enthusiastic bravery of a Georgian, through all our revolutionary war.
After the establishment of peace, he married a lady of the name of Maxwell, and settled in the practice of his original profession at Sunbury, Liberty county, in Georgia, where our author was born, and where she has spent the greater portion of her life. This place is a small village, beautifully situated at the head of a bay or long arm of the sea. The house of Major McIntosh, a stately old mansion, stood in the centre of the village, commanding a full view of the water, and was, for years, a general gathering place for the gentry of the State. The remembrance of the generous hospitality, the faithful adherents, the graceful society, and the luxuriant beauty of nature, that displayed itself in and around the family mansion, is still vivid in the mind of our author, and shows itself in the fervour and enthusiasm of her language whenever she writes of the land of her childhood.
But the day-dreams of youth were doomed to a sad awakening. Miss McIntosh, in 1835, after the death of both her parents, left her native place, to reside in New York, with her brother, James M. McIntosh, of the U. S. Navy. With the change of residence came a change in the investment of her property. The whole of her ample fortune was vested in New York securities just previous to the commercial crisis of 1837, and the lady awoke from her life-dream of prosperity, in a strange city, totally bankrupt.
By an almost universal dispensation of Providence, which ordains means of defence and support to the frailest formations of animal life, with the new station was granted a power of protection, of pleasure, and maintenance, unknown to the old. New feelings and powers came into life. Thoughts that before were scarcely formed, emotions that had never shaped themselves into expression, and ideas of the high and holy in life that had been hitherto unshapen dreams, suddenly attained a new growth. Hundreds of seeds that hung to the tree when all was sunshine, were shaken to the earth by the blast, watered by the storm, and sprung to a vigorous life,—until, at length, the very subject of misfortune blessed the evil that had been changed to a good.
Two years after the loss of her property, Miss McIntosh had completed her first work. It was a small volume, bearing the marks of a feeling, religious mind, and written in a pleasant, easy style, suitable for children, and bore the name of "Blind Alice." Few understand how sensitive is the anxiety of an author for his first work; how he watches and criticises his dearest feelings when they are about to be made public property, and issued to the world. But how much greater must be this sensitive dread when the author is a woman, and a woman whose whole life and support are cast upon that one venture? Miss McIntosh had all these feelings to struggle with in their fullest strength, and, in addition, the delays and difficulty of obtaining the publication of a work by a new writer.
For two years the manuscript of this little volume lay alternately on the table of the author and the desk of the publishers. At last, in January, 1841, it was issued anonymously. Its success was complete; and with renewed energy the author resumed her pen, and finished and published in the summer of the same year "Jessie Graham," a work of similar size and character. "Florence Arnott," "Grace and Clara," and "Ellen Leslie," all of the same class and style, appeared successively, and at short intervals, the last being published in 1843.
These works are generally known as "Aunt Kitty’s Tales." They were received with constantly increasing favour, as the series proceeded, and, after its completion, were republished in England with equal success. They are simple tales of American life, told in graceful and easy language, and conveying a moral of beauty and truthfulness that wins love at once for the fictitious character and the earnest writer. And many a girl, as she read of the charities of Harriet Armand, of Florence Arnott, and O’Donnel’s cabin, and the nameless Aunt Kitty, who wove a moral with every pleasure, a lesson with every pain, and yet so secretly that the moral could never be discerned until the tale was finished, has laid down the book and wondered involuntarily who Aunt Kitty was.
In the year 1844, she published “Conquest and Self-Conquest.” This work is a fiction of a more ambitious character than any of the preceding. The hero of the tale is a midshipman. One portion of the plot is laid in the city of Washington, another at sea. It is then changed to New Orleans, and again to the piratical island of Barrataria, on the Mexican coast. Frederick Stanley, the hero of the story, is made to feel that constant self-restraint will win self-command, and that self-command will rule his own happiness and the minds of others.
In the same year appeared another work, entitled “Woman an Enigma.” It is an attempt to delineate, not moral principles that are well defined—not religious duties, that are more easily depicted,—but the ideal, impalpable, varied substance of woman’s love. This seems to be a natural ground for a woman to walk upon, when she has passed the days of girlhood, and arrived at such a distance from the scenes of passion as to look back with a calm eye on the rush of early thoughts.
The first scene in the book opens in a convent in France, where young Louise waits upon a dying friend, and the friend leaves her ward as an affianced bride to her brother the Marquis de Montrevel.
The vow is duly made between the noble courtier and the trusting girl. Louise is then taken to Paris by her parents and introduced to fashionable life, with its gayeties and seductions, while the Marquis is absent on his estate. The new world of pleasure has no effect on the novice, save so far as it stimulates her to excel, that she may the more be worthy of her husband’s love. She mingles in the dance to acquire grace, in the soirée to learn the styles of fashionable life, and all for the sole purpose of being the better fitted to be the companion and wife of the high-born noble. But the absent lover hears of the brilliant life of his so lately timid girl, and, ignorant of the mighty power that impels her to the exertion, scorns the supposed fickleness that will give to the many that regard which he had hoped to have won exclusively for himself.
Then follows the portion of the work which most perfectly pictures the author’s ideas of womanly love. The earnest toil of the poor girl for the pittance of a smile that is rewarded by jealousy with a sneer; the passionate pride of the wounded woman; the stern sorrow of the man; and the final separation, are all true to the instincts of that master feeling.
In 1845 appeared “Praise and Principle,” a fiction of the same size as the others just named.
The hero of the story, Frank Derwent, is an American boy, and is introduced to the reader while at school. After graduating at college he studies law, and at last by energy and a steadfast adherence to truth and principle, attains a high position as a lawyer, and wins the hand of a fair client. The foil to this character is Charles Ellersby, a school companion of Frank, and a competitor in the world for the praise that Frank discards for the love of the dearer right. Frank wins an honourable name and a happy home, while Charles receives, as a bitter punishment, that curse of manhood, a fashionable wife,—and in a year is ruined.
The whole work illustrates the character of the author, and her constant endeavour to write not so much for the entertaining powers of the tale, which is for a day, but for the inner life of the story, that is for all time.
“The Cousins, a Tale for Children,” appeared in the latter part of the same year. This is a small volume, originally written for the series of Aunt Kitty’s Tales, and is the last work she has published anonymously.
In 1847 was published “Two Lives, or To Seem and To Be,” and with it the name of the author, who had heretofore been unknown. The success that it won may be estimated by the fact that it reached a seventh edition in less than four years from its publication.
In 1848 appeared “Charms and Counter Charms,” a work of greater size and power, and on the most complex plan of any yet written by our author, and received with so great favour that it is already in its sixth edition.
Miss McIntosh here treats of a subject that woman seldom attempts, and the bearing of the tale is mainly on this one point; namely, the necessity of the marriage rite not only for the morality of the world, but for the morality, happiness, fidelity, and religion of any individual couple.
Euston Hastings, the hero of the story, a man somewhat on the Byronic order, whom having seen you turn to watch, scarcely knowing why, wins and marries a young girl, Evelyn Beresford. But before the marriage, and after the engagement, he declares to the lady of his choice his so-called liberal views on the subject of religion.
Not long after, Evelyn asks his views in regard to marriage. The man of the world replies—
“I answer you with confidence, because I know such is your affinity with purity and truth that you will discover them though they appear in forms which conventionalism condemns; and I tell you, without disguise, that I think marriage unnecessary to secure fidelity where there is love, and insufficient where there is not.”
The revelation of these foreign views does not, however, alienate the woman’s heart, and Evelyn is soon bound to her husband by the same holy tie that he considers a conventional form.
But Evelyn loves with an engrossing passion. With a strength of feeling that demands a constant return, and forgetting the hundred busy things that are calling a man’s attention, she desires the whole time and the whole regard of her husband. This selfish, exclusive love, that engrosses the object when it submits, and is thrown into tears when it does not, produces the natural consequence on a man to whom perfect liberty is an accustomed right. He seeks for the regard from other persons, that he cannot receive from his wife without a corresponding degree of personal restraint. This course produces another result on Evelyn. She feels wounded and becomes reproachful. Instead of winning him by her charms, she calls him to her society by her rights, until at last Hastings leaves secretly for Europe, and is supposed to have fled with another lady.
The blow falls fearfully heavy on one who had centred all her hopes on the dearly loved husband. Everything is forgotten but her mighty love, and she follows him abroad. A valet accompanying leads her to Rome, and she meets her husband. He is struck by her devotion and the wrongs he has inflicted. He provides her a house and every attention, and they reside together happy in the love which is at last acknowledged above every consideration. But it is on this express agreement, that Evelyn is not to be known as his wife, and that they are free to part whenever either of them may choose.
Hastings has the liberty that he so dearly prizes, and Evelyn the lover that she regards more than all the world besides.
It is in this curious relation that the power of the writer is shown. The most ultra case is taken upon which to build the argument for the holiness of the marriage vow. A couple are duly married, and the marriage is made public to all the world. They live together for a time as man and wife. They are then separated, and again come together, not on the strength of the marriage rite, but only on their mutual love.
But does this new connexion produce the happiness to Evelyn that she desired? On the contrary, there is a sense of wrong in every pleasure. She looks at her own servants with shame; and between her and every flower she touches, every kiss she receives, there seems springing up a consciousness of guilt.
At length Hastings is taken ill, and lies unconscious and near to death. Evelyn watches by his side with tearful fidelity, and in agony unutterable attends him through the dark valley, and at length sees him recovering with feelings of joy and childlike happiness
But during the course of this weary illness she is made to see the right way, even amid the darkness by which she had been surrounded; and, when Euston has entirely recovered his health, the young wife (though not bearing the name) flees from the land of beauty and the arms of her lover, in an agony of grief, leaving behind her a letter explaining her change of views and the cause of her departure.
At last, in the heart of the sensualist, the crust of worldliness is broken up, and Euston Hastings, roused from the guilty selfishness of his life, leaves Rome to seek the wife who has become his all in the world. He finds her in Paris, and they are again united, not by any wavering passion, but by holy love and marriage, which gains a higher beauty from the bright faith and exquisite description of its able defender.
This work, though a high-wrought tale of fiction, is really an exposition of a theory, and the reader frequently finds himself laying aside the book to think, Is that theory really so? and finds that, after the work is read, there is within the fabric of the tale, an inner temple of right and wrong; where are engraven principles that are pervading his memory equally, if not more constantly than the plot of the fiction.
“Woman in America; Her Work, and Her Reward,” the next succeeding work in the order of publication, was issued in 1850.
In this work, the author, apparently tired of teaching only through the medium of fiction, addresses herself to reasoning and argument. We read here the ideas of a religious woman, well acquainted with all grades of American society, in an earnest tone denouncing the servility of her sex to the rules of fashion and opinion, modelled not by the good and virtuous, but by the dissolute societies of Europe, and forms and customs made not after the model of a naturally honest, or even commonly virtuous ideal, but copied after the ever-changing, never true, leader of some dissolute or fastidious circle it may be, of Paris, it may be of Saratoga. The only rule that seems never to have changed among this class of people until it is embodied in their social confession of faith, is “Money makes the man.” Mahogany doors are closed to the gentleman-labourer, that are flung wide open to him when he becomes a millionaire. White arms are outstretched to the banker, that are folded in scorn to his approach when a bankrupt.
The last work of Miss McIntosh that has yet appeared is “Evenings at Donaldson Manor,” which was intended as a Christmas Guest, for the year 1850. It was a completion of tales that had appeared at different times in periodicals.
This list of works includes all the writings of Miss McIntosh, with the exception of numerous fugitive tales, published at various times in magazines.
It will be obvious to every one familiar with Miss McIntosh’s writings, that she is a delineator entirely of mental life. The physical in man, in animals, and nature, is never used, except so far as is necessary to bring forward the mind and its virtues, desires, and principles. She has apparently excluded from her attention everything that did not absolutely belong to the moral life. Evelyn and Euston live for a summer on the Tiber, but not the faintest tinge of the golden light, or the lowest breath of Roman air enters within their villa.
Hubert Falconer builds a frontier cottage, but he never listens to the sighing pines, or treads the forest aisles.
Mind, with its wayward creeds, can alone be seen in the Imperial City. Feelings right and wrong, and promises faithfully performed are more to Hubert than earth, air, and water, and the glorious gifts of Nature.
Miss McIntosh still further restricts herself in the characters of her story, and selects only the common ones of practical life, as though anxious for the principle alone, and the fiction that would draw the reader off from the moral is discarded. In her quiet pages there never occurs the extreme either of character or passion. It is only the system of conscience—the rule of right—the law of God that is portrayed, and the more marked characters, or the more easily delineated beauties and feelings of life and nature are left with a rigid indifference to those whose design is to please more than to instruct.
Yet the reader, when the book is closed, and he has gone to his daily labour, or mingles in social life, finds lingering in his brain, and warming in his heart, a true principle of honour and love that is constantly contrasting itself with the hollow forms by which he is surrounded, and if he fails to bear himself up to that high ideal of principle which he feels to be true, he still walks a little nearer to his conscience and his God, and long after the volume is returned to the shelf and forgotten, a kindly benediction is given to the noble influence it incited.
And thus will it be with the author that lives in the hearts and not in the fancy of her readers. And long after she is returned to the great library of the unforgotten dead, a blessing wide as her language, and fervent as devotion, will descend on the delineator of those lofty principles that showed the nobleness of simplicity, and the holiness of truth.
The extract which follows is from “Woman in America.”