UPDATE: I’ll let this simmer for another week before I pull a name.[asa book]155652787X[/asa] Just a quick note to let you know that the new edition of Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth published by Chicago Review Press is out. I wrote the foreward, which I’ve copied here in case you’re curious about this novel, which is a great example of historical fiction written in the fifties.
Also, with the understanding that I won’t be able to actually mail this copy out until I’ve finished Six, I’ve got a copy of Celia Garth to give away. I’ll pick a name at random from the comments.
At age thirteen I discovered historical fiction by means of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail, and so began a lifelong preoccupation with stories set in the past.
By the time I was seventeen I had read hundreds of novels about civil wars (British and American), the Revolution, the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Invasion, and ancient Rome and Greece. I considered myself something of a connoisseur, someone who could tell her Mary Renault from her James Michener. The stories I liked best were the ones that focused on the lives of women, who were so often banished to the periphery of the historical fiction bestsellers. Even at a young age I was skeptical of James Fenimore Cooper’s portrayal of the women struggling to survive on the New York frontier.
My impression was that male authors didn’t really know how to write female characters, and didn’t particularly regret that shortcoming. Women were wonderful for filling in detail and establishing background–a man had to have a family to fight for, after all–but the most a reader could hope for was a female with grit, that stock character who knows how to shoot a gun and speaks her mind now and then, but isn’t really fulfilled until she embraces her feminine nature.
Even female authors fell into this trap. Scarlett O’Hara is a strong-willed, spoiled, manipulative, vain wretch who wrestles her fate to the ground and holds it there determined to get what she believes she deserves. Except, of course, she fails, because Scarlett doesn’t know what she wants. She rejects the love of a good man, and is doomed to unhappiness.
Gwen Bristow took a different approach. Her female characters may be introduced to us as young and inexperienced; they may even be naive. But they are serious-minded individuals with strong feelings about matters other than engaging the interest of men.
This is certainly true of Celia Garth. A young woman with few family ties, she is ambitious and proud of her skills as a seamstress. She depends on her own intelligence and sense of self, and unlike many primary characters in early historical novels, she does not fling herself into harm’s way. Harm comes, nevertheless, in the form of a war for independence and a British army bent on not only subduing but also mastering and humiliating a rebel colony.
Celia has a strong sense of what it means to be a Southerner (first) and an American (second) in occupied Charleston. She does fall in love, but her choice is a good man with a family that loves and respects her. The conflict is not an internal one for Celia; she does not doubt her choices. The force that moves her story along is external: when the marauding British army takes everything she holds dear, the Revolution is no longer academic for Celia. Step by step she becomes more involved, of her own free will. Her love story, as touching as it is, is secondary to the role she takes for herself as a spy.
Bristow takes great pains to re-create 18th century Charleston as a war zone. Celia and those close to her are shaken, again and again, by the constant barrage of artillery fired from British ships in the harbor. The Revolution is not a sanitized affair; there is loss of property and injury and death, despair and grievous insult and loss of hope. There is division within the community; Celia’s cousin takes the king’s side and shows no empathy for Celia even in her worst days. The stories of the many secondary characters, good, indifferent, and bad, come together to bring wartime Charleston into three full dimensions.
Bristow was a proud native of the South. Her love for South Carolina and Charleston is palpable. Thus it isn’t surprising that in trying both to tell a true story and to honor her home she does in fact sidestep the issue of slavery. There is no contemplation of that institution; it just is. The many slaves in the story hate the British as much as their owners do. Readers may consider this a simplification or even an act of denial on Bristow’s part–or simply a realistic representation of how Celia sees and understands her world.
For Celia, as for many of Bristow’s female characters, personal happiness–family, marriage, children–is a byproduct of a life lived on a wider plain. Celia Garth strives for personal fulfillment in a whole range of ways, and by overcoming her many challenges, she earns her happy ending.
There may well have been real young women who lived lives like Celia’s, spying for the colonial forces during the Revolution. But these women’s stories have been forgotten. If there are records of their acts, the details will be spotty and open to interpretation; the historical record is what it is, and it doesn’t strive to convince anybody of the facts or even to make them palatable or believable.
The novelist does bear that burden, and Bristow is equal to the challenge. With Celia Garth she gives us a complex, ambitious young woman living in Charleston during the American Revolution–a setting as extraordinary as Celia herself.