Sometimes we lose ourselves in old-fashioned novels. We like to read about honor and manners of the kind Americans of the nineteenth century extolled. And so I enjoyed The Linwoods by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a little-known American writer whose peers were Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper. She wrote dramatic historical novels about American life and regional manners: her most famous is Hope Leslie, the story of a friendship between a Puritan woman and a Pequot Indian woman in the seventeenth century.
I confess my favorite is The Linwoods, her fast-paced fourth novel, published in 1835 and set during the Revolutionary War. It follows the fortunes of two families. The wealthy Linwoods of New York cast out their son Herbert when he joins the American rebel army, though his sister Isabella attempts to mediate for him. In New England, the Lees are a poor refined family who support the Revolutionary War; the widowed Mrs. Lee approves of her Harvard-educated son Eliot’s decision to join George Washington’s army. And so he rides away on his horse, worried about leaving her alone to care for his fragile, pretty sister, Bessie, and the younger siblings.
Sedgwick is not a graceful stylist, but in The Linwoods, she skillfully interweaves scintillating dialogue, dexterous letters, and vivid chronological scenes. She begins with an unforgettable walk through New York City: Isabella Linwood, a strong heroine who could easily star in a George Eliot novel, and her younger friend Bessie Lee are walking through a bad neighborhood to a fortuneteller’s house. Bessie resists, due to religious reasons, and so does Jupe, the black slave who attends them, but Isabella is too strong-willed for them. And when they meet Herbert (Isabella’s brother) and his shallow, handsome friend Jasper, they tease Bessie mercilessly. This smart set of young upper-class friends do not understand Bessie’s fragility and fervent morals. Fortunetelling is fun for them, but almost traumatic for Bessie, who is visiting from the country.
Then there is a series of affecting letters between Bessie Lee and Isabella. Isabella’s boyfriend Jasper visits the Lees and flirts wildly with Bessie. (He knows Eliot from Harvard.) He has not thought twice about “making love” to Bessie, but Bessie’s letters to Isabella reveal her pain and obsession. “I can tell nothing but what I see, and I see so little! The outward world does not much interest me. It is what I feel that I think of and ponder over; but I know how much you detest what you call sentimental letters, so I try to avoid such subjects.” But of course she cannot avoid writing about Jasper.
Jasper is the villain of the piece. When he receives a letter from his mother chiding him for the flirtation with Bessie, he returns to New York. “His conscience was easy. He had not committed himself!”
And Bessie has a nervous breakdown. These scenes are tragic and heartbreaking. She reminds me of Ophelia, if Ophelia had had the energy to go on the road.
The war scenes are exciting, and the Rebels are always honorable: at one point, Eliot Lee gallops in the middle of the night to the aid of a widow with two blind children. She blows a loud horn three times when the “skinners” attempt to burgle her house (she has nothing) and abducts her daughter.
If you like historical novels, you will also be intrigued by the character of George Washington. Biographers don’t seem to write about him anymore, but Sedgwick characterizes him as clear-minded and kind, if reserved and misunderstood because of that reserve.
You don’t read Sedgwick for the style but for her portraits of women and portrayals of American frontier life. She is an expert plotter, if not a brilliant writer,and her concern with American issues of race and gender influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe.