"If You Love That Lady Don't Marry Her": The Courtship Letters of Sally McDowell and John Miller, 1854-1856

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"If You Love That Lady Don't Many Her": The Courtship Letters of Sally McDowell and John Miller, 1854-1856. Edited by THOMAS E. BUCKLEY, S.J. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2000. xlvi, 896 pp. $29.95.

IN fall 1856, John Miller, a Presbyterian minister from Princeton, New Jersey, unexpectedly stumbled upon a whole packet of letters that he had exchanged with Sally McDowell, the divorced mistress of a Virginia plantation, Colalto, near Lexington. "I cant tell you how astonished I was," he wrote to McDowell. "I seized them eagerly & with an avidity you can hardly understand ranged them in their dates (letter & answer) & began to read them as tho they had been a book.... Here is a whole world of agitation & feeling bound together in these leaves of paper," he exclaimed, "& carrying me by a sort of spell over leagues & leagues of what it seems strange to think of as the actual journey of the past" (p. 692).

Over the course of two years, Miller and McDowell exchanged hundreds of letters as they pursued a courtship hindered by private concerns and public outcry. McDowell had separated from her violently jealous husband after only a year's marriage in 1842 and had at length obtained a divorce (and regained her maiden name) in 1846. She feared that her status as a divorced woman made remarriage impossible, both on moral grounds (although divorced in the eyes of Virginia law, was she divorced in the eyes of the Church?) and on practical ones (would "the peculiarity of my condition in life," as she put it [p. 1], hinder Miller's calling to the pulpit?). While Miller, himself a widower, initially dismissed these difficulties, opposition from his church elders and from McDowell's family called a halt to the couple's scheduled wedding in late 1855. They corresponded for a second year before determining at last to marry, which they did on 3 November 1856.

Rarely visiting, Miller and McDowell pursued their courtship by mail, writing to each other several times a week. Carefully preserving their privacy with invisible ink, locked drawers, and plain wrappers, they used their correspondence to investigate each other's character, to discuss the propriety of their relationship, and to achieve mutual love and emotional intimacy. …