We live in a day and a time when nearly every Christian norm once taken for granted has come under withering attack, whether the family, sexuality, hierarchy, or what have you. This was amply illustrated earlier in the year by Coach McGraw of Notre Dame and here recently by Megan Rapinoe of u. S. soccer fame. But we in the South do have a source of strength and guidance to help us navigate through this murky miasmal time, to remind us of what it means to be a normal human being: our literature. It has within it the sort of down-to-earth spirit that is necessary to help us live good lives in a world that has lost its moorings.
One such book from the Southern literary canon is the novel Silverwood: A Book of Memories by Mrs Margaret Junkin Preston (1820-97). Even in its opening pages, we find a very important means of keeping our wits about us: holding on to our connections with the past. The South is not trying to create a utopia based on new principles uncovered in theoretical speculation. Rather, she has always tried to remain faithful to the old ways of her ancestors, to carry them over and adapt them here in her new homeland in North America as best she can. Speaking about a painting in the house to her son Lawrence, Mrs Irvine, the matriarch of the story whose husband had died some years before, gives voice to this, saying,
“ . . . It was always full of interest for me, principally, perhaps, from home associations. One of the earliest memories of my childhood is, being held up before it by my father, while he told me the sad story it delineates, with all the touches of pathos which Chaucer introduces into his version of it. I can recall even yet," continued Mrs. Irvine, musingly, “the very tones in which he used to recite some of the lines:
Developing an identity fixed in the history of one’s forefathers is a guard against the anxiety and despair caused by a lack of roots in anything other than the shallow, toxic, never-settled culture of Modernity.
One of the virtues that grew out of this veneration of the past in Dixie was the centrality of the family in her life, and the great affection of the members for one another - in particular, the love of sons for mothers, part of the code of chivalry held dear by Southrons. Mrs Preston illustrates:
A laughing group entering the parlor, interrupted the conversation. Josepha, a child not much over ten, installed herself upon her brother's knee; Eunice, the next older sister, couched herself upon the rug, and took the head of the little grey-hound into her lap; Zilpha sat on a low seat beside her mother: and to the cheerful voices that floated through the twilight room, the music, tender and soft, which Edith's fingers awakened, formed a subdued accompaniment, as she played and listened.
Yet shadows do come for the family, some very dark ones in fact, but those events serve to bring out one of the main themes in the story, which is also another one of those Southern virtues that can help us much in life: a deep trust in God’s providence to direct our lives to good ends, no matter how bad the present looks. A conversation between Edith and Dr Dubois brings this theme into the open for the reader at one point:
"Still, you are not answering my question. Why does Providence thus deal with those who live so as to please him best? Why stint and treat them so harshly, if he has the world at his command, for their necessities, and lavish luxuries on those who scorn him? Surely, there is no bribe held out to induce people to become Christians."
There are strong echoes here of one of the Church’s greatest theologians, St Maximus the Confessor (+662), who teaches,
The person who truly wishes to be healed is he who does not refuse treatment. This treatment consists of the pain and distress brought on by various misfortunes. He who refuses them does not realize what they accomplish in this world or what he will gain from them when he departs this life.--Four Hundred Texts on Love 3.82
That’s good company for a people told over and over again for hundreds of years by Yankee-minded folks that they are nothing but a wagonload of ignoramuses.
In contrast with this trust in Divine providence, Mrs Preston warns us not to trust the self-interested businessman, ever the hero of those same Yankees (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates, etc.). Edith eventually goes to plead the cause of her family’s finances to a well-to-do merchant, Mr Bryson. Part of their exchange goes as follows:
"You are hurried, no doubt," continued Edith, "and greatly annoyed, and I don't wish, to intrude farther upon you. Here is pen and paper: sign me a written pledge that you will get Mrs. Bryson's consent to the adjustment I desire; for, if it is your wish to settle the matter thus, she will surely comply."
And then we see how the matter is resolved by Mr Bryson:
"News for you!" exclaimed Jacqueline the next morning, as for a moment she picked up the fresh paper that had just been laid on the breakfast table, and she read the paragraph:
With the businessman, profit comes before honor. It is the duty of society not to uphold such men as praiseworthy examples to imitate. Mrs Preston, however, shows us elsewhere what is honorable for men and women: to understand and appreciate the bounds God has placed upon the two sexes, their differences and their natural affections toward one another. This is a very important witness for today’s world, which has lost a great deal of its sanity about sexual matters. Mrs Preston writes at different places,
" . . . I'm perfectly content to have the barriers just where they are, since I believe Providence designed this circumscription. I firmly believe our sex was commanded to be 'under obedience,' as part of the primal curse. Our regeneration is being worked out as Christianity makes progress; and who knows but that the balances may be even, by the time we have reached the edge of the millenium," added Edith, with a smile.
More could be said, but we do not want to detain the reader any longer than necessary. It would be better for him to go and read Silverwood for himself and explore all the good things it has to offer the modern world. Being a romance novel at its core, it will appeal more to women than men, but there is more than enough masculinity through Lawrence, Cousin Barry, Uncle Felix, and other man-characters to hold the attention of the male reader as well. Git ye gone, then, men and maidens!
Silverwood : A Book of Memories by Margaret Junkin Preston, 1820-1897 is available for download here.
Walt Garlington is a chemical engineer turned writer (and, when able, a planter). He makes his home in Louisiana and is editor of the 'Confiteri: A Southern Perspective' web site.