To read Emma Speed Sampson's novel The Comings of Cousin Ann today is to discover an intriguing link between sentimental southern fiction popular at the turn of the nineteenth century and the more honest appraisals of the South credited to writers of the twentieth-century Southern Renaissance. I use the word discover deliberately, for though the novel attracted favorable reviews and a general audience when published in 1923, it has gathered dust for the past seventy years. Dated in some ways but modern in many others, it deserves a new audience. It will fascinate scholars and students of southern literature, cultural studies, and women's studies.
The author, Emma Speed Sampson, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1868, married a Virginian and spent most of her adult years in Richmond, and died in 1947. Between 1916 and 1940, she published at least twenty-eight novels. Most of these were designed for children and adolescents, including the popular Miss Minerva and Billy series, which Sampson created as a sequel to a novel by Frances Boyd Calhoun following Calhoun's death. She also continued three series begun by her sister Nell: the Molly Brown books, The Tucker Twins series, and The Carter Girls series. But Sampson's most original and serious novel is The Comings of Cousin Ann. Fast moving and playful, it deconstructs the southern belle in particular and the southern romance in general.
At first glance, however, the easy-to-read novel may appear to be another of Sampson's works of interest chiefly to youngsters. In outline, the plot involving the young heroine Judith Buck is predictable: the reader never doubts that this beautiful Cinderella will get her Prince Charming or that all will be right with the world by novel's end. But Sampson complicates the narrative by parodying, rather than replicating, the sentimental romance. Rather than a fairy godmother, she gives her Cinderella a chorus of elderly godfathers who, in a nurturing feminine gesture, host a ball for Judith and even design and order the dress, hair ornament, slippers, and hose she will wear to it. Moreover, Sampson refers to the Cinderella story directly several times in the novel, but only to mock it. In excited anticipation of her first ball, Judith says to her mother:
I'm going to dance my dress to a rag. Did you ever think that
Cinderella may have just danced her dress to rags by twelve o'clock
and after all the fairy godmother had nothing to do with it?
Cinderella danced every dance with the prince and perhaps he was an
awkward prince and tangled his feet in her train. In fact, I am sure
he was awkward or he would have caught up with her when she tried to
run away, and she with one shoe off and one shoe on. (146)
Judith's cleverness and realism here are refreshing, and so are the author's: the godfathers she gives her southern anti-Cinderella are elderly Civil War veterans who, rather than being a momentary convenience to a romantic plot, are fixtures on the porch of a local hotel, where they entertain themselves, as folks so often do in small towns, by gossiping about local happenings and by creating happenings--such as a debutante ball for social outsider Judith--to add excitement to their days.
Not that the novel escapes all vestiges of sentimentality. Cousin Ann Peyton's servant Billy is, in some ways, the stereotypical faithful darky of post-Civil War southern romance. And there is no accounting for young Judith Buck's perpetual self-confidence, goodness, and good humor. But the novel's sentimentality is more than balanced by a modernism evident even to its contemporary reviewers. Upon its publication in 1923, a writer for The Literacy Review described the novel as "a sort of quite grown up and more or less up to date Louisa M. Alcott novel" (166). And in The Reviewer the same year, Hunter Stagg praised the novel for its tart tone--"a tartness," he said, that is "not usually found in a Southerner's writings about the South" (68-69). …