Book Reviews -- an Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67 (Publications of the Southern Texts Society) Edited by Michael O'Brien

By Varon, Elizabeth R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- an Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67 (Publications of the Southern Texts Society) Edited by Michael O'Brien


Varon, Elizabeth R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


This fascinating collection of women's journals is the first volume in the Southern Texts Society's projected series of published primary sources on southern intellectual and cultural history. As the volume's editor, Michael O'Brien, explains in his elegant introduction, the journals shed light on the experiences of a significant but little-studied segment of the antebellum southern population-unmarried women of the planter class. The percentage of single women in the United States population grew dramatically in the antebellum period, with a surprising one-fifth to one-quarter of all southern women remaining unmarried for life. The cultural significance of single women transcends their sheer numbers, for their lives provide a fascinating counterpoint to those of the archetypal southern "ladies," the much-studied plantation mistresses.

Though presented to the reader in chronological order, the four journals can be divided into two pairs, each pair sharing a thematic unity. The first journal, written by Elizabeth Ruffin in 1827, and the third, by Jane Caroline North in 1851-52, recount the experiences of two young southern belles, both of whom eventually married. Ruffin belonged to the Virginia gentry and was half sister to Edmund Ruffin, one of the Old South's most prominent champions of agricultural reform and states' rights. Her 1827 journal chronicles both her daily life on Evergreen plantation in Prince George County and her trip north, during which she visited such tourist attractions as Saratoga, New York, and Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. Jane North, too, was a member of the slaveholding elite. She lived on a substantial estate, Badwell, in Abbeville County, South Carolina, and was part of one of the Palmetto State's most politically influential Unionist families, the Pettigrus. Her diary focuses on her travels, which took her from Virginia to Massachusetts. For both Ruffin and North, singlehood embodied a sort of independence, anchored securely in wealth and position. Although Ruin was more enthusiastic about the joys of singlehood than North, both diaries bespeak the optimism of young women unencumbered by domestic duties or doubts about their social standing.

Neither of the authors of the other two journals was so unencumbered. The second diary, which covers the years 183537, is that of an unidentified governess on a plantation called Selma, neas Washington, Mississippi. The author, who came to the South from Pittsburgh under circumstances mysterious to us, confided to her journal both her endless round of teaching responsibilities, from which she derived little satisfaction, and her sense of despair at being an exile far from home and from congenial companionship. The fourth and most extensive journal was kept by Ann Lewis Hardeman, who at the age of forty-six became the foster mother of her sister's six orphaned children. …

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