'A Fine View of the Delectable Mountains': The Religious Vision of Mary Virginia Terhune (Marion Harland) and Augusta Jane Evans Wilson
Type of DegreeDissertation
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In the past twenty-five years, there has been a growing scholarly interest in the popular domestic fiction of the nineteenth century. Cultural historians have studied this literature, largely created by women, for the insight it provides into white middle-class values of the era. One aspect of this genre that has been relatively neglected by scholars is its intensely religious nature. Women novelists generally wrote from an evangelical Christian perspective and often out of a sense of mission, hoping that their novels would instill Christian conviction as well as bring spiritual consolation to their readers. This dissertation explores the religious dimension of domestic fiction by focusing on two highly successful southern novelists, Mary Virginia Terhune (penname Marion Harland, 1830-1922) of Richmond and Augusta Jane Evans, later Wilson (1835-1909), of Mobile. It is a popular intellectual history in that I use these two writers as a window onto the evangelical culture of the mid-nineteenth century. I argue that Terhune and Evans Wilson were representative of a larger, unified evangelical culture that in the 1850s was infused with romanticism. In keeping with this culture, both authors endorsed domestic ideology and emphasized the hidden, spiritual dimension of life. I have concentrated on the period from 1850 to 1880 so as to examine the impact of the Civil War and the Gilded Age on their thought. The war was a crisis for both Terhune and Evans Wilson, but in the end they remained rooted in the evangelical vision that had inspired them in the 1850s. Their popularity continued well into the early twentieth century, and the positive responses they received from their readers encouraged their belief in domesticity and women’s influence. This study is interdisciplinary in nature, combining narrative biography and cultural history with literary analysis. I have made extensive use of both writers’ published works, their personal papers, their family papers when available, and church records. An examination of the religious thought of Terhune and Evans Wilson as it developed in the mid-nineteenth century promises insight into areas of tension in evangelical culture that are of particular interest to modern scholars as well as to a broader readership: the prescriptive (and potentially coercive) aspects of evangelicalism, the meaning of religious experience, the question of women’s roles, the meaning of sexuality, the nature of art, the clash between Christian and secular or non-Christian values, and the quarrel between scientific ideology and belief in the supernatural. Terhune and Evans Wilson wrestled with dilemmas that still confront Americans today.