Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Albums of Affection: Female Friendship and Coming of Age in Antebellum Virginia

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Albums of Affection: Female Friendship and Coming of Age in Antebellum Virginia

Article excerpt

To twine a wreath fair and bright, One that will charm the mental sight, And help fond memory to retrace The hand of friendship and of grace, This little volume forth I send, And trust my friends their aid will lend, And each bestow some beauteous flower Culled from the sacred muses' bower; Then when my friends are far away, Or slumbering in the silent clay, The casket shall present to view The pleasure I derived from you. Where in each different flower I find The various emblems of the mind, I'll trace their virtues all apart And plant their semblance in my heart.

ROSINA URSULA YOUNG, a resident of Westbrook in Henrico County, Virginia, inscribed a red leather commonplace book with these words in 1830. Over the next five years, her female friends copied verses of friendship into the slender volume. In 1835, while Young was making preparations for her marriage, friends wrote a series of poems marking that rite of passage and reassuring her that "the hand of friendship" would continue to sustain her in her new life.1

This study uses keepsake volumes such as the one assembled by Rosina Young Mordecai as a way to understand the emotions and experiences of young women in antebellum Virginia. Despite the past quarter century's rich outpouring of historical literature on white women in the Old South, relatively little research has focused on girls or young women. Recent work has drawn scholars' attention to the need to examine both young southern women's preparation for their presumed future as wives, mothers, and mistresses of households and their attitudes about that future-especially at the moment in their lives when they passed from an existence structured around female friendship to one defined by wifely duties.2 Although most studies of elite southern women continue to stress their roles as part of a "circle of kin," a "plantation household," or an "enclosed garden" defined by the bounds of kinship and community,3 recent work has amply demonstrated that well-to-do white women in the antebellum South also participated in a community of women based on female friendship.4 For young women, the female academy, which parents and daughters alike recognized as a critical rite of passage from girlhood to adulthood, was an important route to what Steven M. Stowe has termed "the immediate intimacy of shared womanhood."5 To understand young women in the Old Dominion, therefore, it is essential to examine the closely linked issues of female friendship and coming of age.

Virginia women's autograph albums are rich-and as yet untappedsources on these subjects. Perhaps because the thoughts that young women recorded in their albums were frequently derivative, such as selections from American or European poetry, autograph albums have not gained serious attention as historical sources on young women's experiences. Yet these volumes contain a wealth of information, not only on the size and composition of groups of female friends or the literacy of young southern women, but also on the process of coming of age and the meaning attached to this transition by young white women and their friends in the Old Dominion.6

Autograph albums were cherished by young women in antebellum Virginia. The verses transcribed into the albums, while rarely original, recalled youthful attachments by appealing to the reader's "fond memory" and allowed young women's friendships with each other to survive separation and even death. Autograph albums and the emblems of female friendship recorded in them took on particular importance as young women crossed the threshold from girlhood to womanhood. Often a major event in the female life cycle, such as commencement or marriage, precipitated women's reflections on their future and on the importance of their relationships with other women. Many young, white, middle- to upper-class women in antebellum Virginia experienced an identity crisis as they prepared to undertake adult responsibilities. In their albums, these women shared their fears of the future and promised to console and sustain each other in their new lives. …

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