Julia Magruder, novelist

Have any of you read the novels of Julia Magruder (1854-1907)? I have heard of her often, but never sought out her works, principally romantic novels in which (of course) the heroine must overcome obstacles to true love. Many of her sixteen novels were serialized Ladies Home Journal, and were known for their defense of Southern culture. Much admired in her day, she is nearly forgotten in ours. Wikipedia says that a week before her death she was awarded the Ordre de Palmes (Order of the Palms) by the French Academie for service to literature, though I have not looked into that claim. (The same page says her birth in 1854 was around the start of the Civil War, so draw your own conclusions.) My attention was struck by finding an announcement of one of her novels in the Washington Bee newspaper, a black-edited paper that published in Washington, DC, from 1882-1922 and was read mostly by African Americans. I guess everyone loves a romance.

The youngest daughter of Alan Bowie Magruder, a prominent lawyer, and Sarah Gilliam, Julia Magruder was born in Charlottesville, VA, but lived most of her life in D.C. Her home, in what is now the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, still stands. She was also the niece of the Confederate General, John Bankhead Magruder.

So, I’m taking the plunge with her first novel, Across the Chasm (published anonymously), about a southern woman’s marriage to a northern man. Magruder is said to have been a great admirer of George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), but I suspect her work did not achieve the moral clarity or social complexity of that great writer. (That’s an example of understatement, in case you needed one.) It’s free on Google Books and almost free for your Kindle.

2 comments on “Julia Magruder, novelist

  1. jillgat says:

    Let me know how you like her writing! I will check it out. I’ve corresponded with a descendent of John Bankhead Magruder, btw.

    • susantichy says:

      The writing is lively and skilled, though shallow. It’s not morally shallow, just undeveloped. She doesn’t describe the settings, for example, so there is surprisingly little sense of place. The focus is entirely on relationships, the fine discernment of character, and the heroine’s responses to new people and ideas. Its purpose is to contrast Northern and Southern attitudes and ways of life, looking for the best in each. Romance is the vehicle for that message, as the two characters (southern woman, “Yankee” man) develop a better mutual understanding. So, I don’t see much of George Eliot in it, more of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice or Gaskell’s North & South, both of which treat the same theme of prejudice overcome–though those are far, far better novels. Aside from the opening chapter in an unspecified Virginia town (complete with the stock character of a “faithful old servant,” who speaks in dialect), it’s set in Washington, D.C. I was surprised that it is actually not a “defense of southern culture,” as her books are often described. The young southern woman has always been abolitionist in her thinking, we are told, though the story takes place some years after the Civil War, and she sees the faults of the southern gentlemen she has known, and how they are encouraged by southern culture, just as clearly as she sees shortcomings in Yankees. This is not great literature; the final scene is pretty bad; but I’m glad I satisfied my curiosity about Julia Magruder’s writing. It only takes about three hours to read it. (An Eliot novel is so complex it is likely to take three weeks.)

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