This is the 5th part of my series looking at Susan Edwards Johnson’s diary of her stay in coastal North Carolina in 1800-1801. The diary is preserved at the Connecticut Historical Society
After her husband returned to the Black River on Nov. 27, 1800, Susan Johnson remained in the town of New Bern, N.C., for nearly a month without him. She was the guest of her first cousin, the wealthy heiress Frances Pollock Devereux, and her husband, John Devereux.
Susan’s diary describes many of the ways that she spent her time in New Bern during that month.
She attended endless rounds of teas. She dined at her Aunt Eunice’s house. She received visitors at the Devereux home, including young women who had known her family in southern New England and others whose husbands had been acquainted with her uncles or one of her brothers at Princeton.
On the 17th of December, she attended a dance and an elegant supper. She counted 36 couples at the table, and she stayed until one o’clock in the morning.
At the dance, Susan met, among others, the daughter of “the Indian Queen,” the sobriquet for a famously dark, gracious and entrancing beauty named Rebecca Edwards. She had married a Revolutionary War general and lived on a Roanoke River plantation in Halifax County, N.C.
New Bern in 1800
While in New Bern, Susan also took walks in the town and the surrounding countryside, and at least once she joined friends on a carriage ride.
On one of her walks, on the 12thof Dec., John Devereux pointed out a plant that she recalled in her diary.
Mr. D. pointed out to me a plant which they call beargrass. The leaf is about six inches long & two broad & of a very tough nature. It bears a flower resembling the tube rose & only blossoms every other year. It is extremely fragrant. They use the leaves for strings to hang up their meat for smoking.
In the southern states, beargrass is the popular name for a kind of yucca (Yucca filamentosa) with sturdy, fibrous leaves that have sharp, spiny tips. People used to puncture meat with the spines and knot the leaves in order to form a loop for hanging meat in their smokehouses.
Susan also wrote letters. She “made a muslin frock for Sally Hunt.” She attended church at least twice.
On Nov. 29th, she wrote—
“Sunday. This day we went to church. The Clergyman a Mr. Irvin is a very good preacher….
The Rev. Irvin was probably an Anglican minister at Christ’s Church, the town’s only house of worship at that time.
Two weeks later, on the 13thof Dec., she spoke rather less generously of another minister’s sermon, probably that of a Methodist.
Sunday. The morning very fine. We took a long walk before Church then went to hear Mr. Beasly preach a ranting sermon of three quarters of an hour long. I didn’t feel myself at all improved by it.
An Episcopalian accustomed to less emotion in the pulpit, Susan used that same word “ranting” when she described a Methodist preacher’s sermon elsewhere in her diary, which is why I suspect she may also have heard a Methodist in New Bern.
The year 1800 was at the height of the Protestant religious revival that is known as the Second Great Awakening. At that time, Methodism was spreading rapidly on the North Carolina coast and the church’s preachers were known for their evangelical fervor.
Reading The Beggar Girl
Above all, Susan read. She read constantly. She read on her own, aloud to others and practically at all hours.
In an entry encompassing Dec. 1st to Dec. 6th, we can see her enthusiasm for novels—
Dined this day with my aunt hunt & in the evening went to see Mrs. Taylor who was sick…. The remainder of the week; passed our time principally in reading The Beggar Girl; we got so much interested, that we sat up until near one o’clock reading Saturday night….”
“My aunt hunt” was her father’s sister, Eunice Edwards Pollock Hunt. “Mrs. Taylor” was Jane Gaston Taylor, the wife of Judge John Louis Taylor and the sister of Judge William Gaston. (See my last post.)
I found Susan Johnson’s taste in literature fascinating. First published in London in 1797, The Beggar Girl and Her Benefactors was written by a Welsh woman named Anna Maria Bennett (Abt 1750-1808).
Modern feminist literary scholars have embraced Bennett, to quote a trio of Canadian editors, as having been “remarkably bold for the late 18th and early 19th century (as well as skillful) in handling controversial sexual and social themes (like sexual abuse and class issues).”
The Beggar Girl is the sentimental tale of a child named Rosa that a British colonel finds begging in the street and her struggle to survive and overcome the vicissitudes of a woman’s life without property or relations, and ultimately to find family and love.
The Life of Anna Maria Bennett
I don’t know if Susan Johnson knew anything about the life of The Beggar Girl’s author, but if she did, I think she would have found it as engaging as that of the novel’s heroine.
As a young woman, Anna Maria Bennett toiled in a variety of lower-class jobs in London—she ran a slop-shop in Wych St., London and a chandlery in Whitechapel, and at one point she was the matron of a workhouse.
As the story goes, Bennett caught the eye of a Royal navy admiral when he took refuge from a rainstorm in her chandler’s shop.
She became his housekeeper and mistress, which inspired a bit of doggerel.
She minc’d his meat, & made his bed
And warm’d it, too, sometimes is said.
Eventually she also became the mother of two children by the admiral, one of whom became a famous actress in London.
Bennett began writing novels after the admiral died in 1785. Though never wildly successful, she seems to have gotten by. The novel that Susan Johnson could not put down, The Beggar Girl, was her most popular.
The Maid of the Hamlet
Elsewhere in her diary, Susan Johnson mentions other books that she is reading. On Nov. 27, 1800, for instance, she wrote—
Took a walk & remained at home the rest of the day—began to read the maid of the Hamlet, an indifferent novel by the author of the Children of the Abbey.
Here Susan is referring to two works by Regina Maria Roche (1764-1845), a popular Irish writer of sentimental, Gothic-ish novels. Like Anna Maria Bennett’s novels, Roche’s writing was acutely attuned to the precariousness of women’s fates in British society.
The tale of two young lovers wrongfully cheated of their inheritance by a forged will, The Children of the Abbey was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Jane Austen even mentioned the novel in Emma.
Set partly in America during the French and Indian War, The Maid of the Hamlet was one of Roche’s earlier novels.
Beauty and innocence was the only portion of Lucinda Harley; youth and courage, the only patrimony of Stanley…. She was poor, like himself; and like himself, an orphan. He compared their respective situations, and thought they could do no better than unite, and mutually try to alleviate the cares of each other.
Roche’s novels were easy to parody and other novelists, including Austen, sometimes did.
But even The Maid of the Hamlet had a measure of genuine poignancy and real tenderness, as well as, underneath the topsy-turvy plot, rather pointed social criticism of women’s status in Great Britain and America.
Volney’s Travels through Syria & Egypt
Another book that Susan Johnson mentioned in her diary was not a novel and was not written by a woman, but I also found it interesting.
In an April 5, 1801 diary entry, Susan wrote that she was reading the book. By that time, she had left New Bern, gone south and come back to New Bern. She and her husband stayed with Susan’s cousin Frances Pollock Devereux again on the way back to their home in Stratford, Conn.
Sat at home all the morning & read with Mrs. Devereux—Volney’s Travels in Egypt & Syria…
I was struck by two things about the entry. First, once again she is reading as a social activity. She and Frances “sat at home all the morning & read….”
I don’t know if anybody does that anymore, even those who, like Susan Johnson and Frances Pollock Devereux in that day, have the freedom and means to spend a morning reading.
Second, I find her choice of reading rather extraordinary. The author of the book’s full name was Constantin-Francois Volney, and he was a French philosopher, historian and political visionary.
From 1782 to 1785, Volney lived in Ottoman Egypt and Greater Syria in what is now Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. In 1787 he published Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie, which later appeared in English as Travels through Syria and Egypt in the Years 1783, 1784 and 1785.
Volney was a radical thinker, a son of the Enlightenment and a somewhat misfit supporter of the French Revolution. His views on politics, slavery and religion were often controversial.
For instance, when he visited the United States in 1795-1797, he and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson actually worked on a translation of one of Volney’s works into English. Perhaps considering his political future, Jefferson apparently decided that he might be harmed by an association with Volney’s religious views and never finished the project.
Among his other radical notions, Volney believed that all world religions would eventually be recognized as one. He also held that Jesus Christ was not a historical figure at all.
“Our Arts, Sciences, and even the Very Use of Speech”
Volney also despised slavery and the African slave trade, and he made those views clear in Travels through Syria and Egypt.
When I ponder his abolitionism, I can’t help thinking about Susan and her cousin—whose families eventually held the fates of more than 1,500 enslaved people in their hands—reading Volney’s Travels through Syria and Egypt.
For instance, while visiting Egypt, Volney grew convinced that Egyptians were descended from dark-skinned, sub-Saharan Africans. As a consequence, he looked to them as a wellspring for much of what Western Civilization borrowed from the Arab World, including our alphabet, our number system and many of the foundations of modern mathematics and science.
In Travels through Syria and Egypt, Volney wrote–
How are we astonished when we reflect that to the race of negroes, at present our slaves, and the objects of our extreme contempt, we owe our arts, sciences, and even the very use of speech; and when we recollect that in the midst of those nations who call themselves the friends of liberty and humanity, the most barbarous of slaveries is justified, and that it is even a problem whether the understanding of negroes be of the same species with that of white men!”
I can’t help imagining the two women sitting together in Frances Pollock Devereux’s drawing room and reading those words aloud– Susan to her cousin Frances, or Frances to Susan.
What must they have discussed that morning? What does it say about them that they chose to read Volney– they must have known his reputation when they decided to read Travels through Egypt and Syria?
When they read Volney, did the two cousins look differently at their fathers, husbands and brothers who had built fortunes on the backs of enslaved people?
I wondered what secret misgivings they kept, and what stirred in their hearts?
What must the interior lives of even the town’s wealthiest and most upper-class women been like?
Next time– Susan Johnson’s diary and the birth of plantation dynasties