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Chaplin, Jane Dunbar

CHAPLIN, Jane Dunbar

Born 11 February 1819, Scotland; died 17 April 1884 Wrote under: Hyla

Daughter of Duncan Dunbar; married Jeremiah Chaplin II, 1841

Jane Dunbar Chaplin's first major novel, Gems of the Bog: A Tale of Irish Peasantry (1869) was set in Ireland one generation before it was written. The narrative follows members of the Sheenan family through their hardships in Ireland to their final settlement in America. The major characters—such as Mammy Honey, the wise old matriarch of the family, Paddy and John, the struggling brothers, and Peggy O'Canty, the courageous young orphan beloved and adopted by the family—are realistically and affectionately drawn. As Kelleyrooke changes from a pastoral ideal to a place of "death and emigration," Chaplin traces her characters' endurance and emotional growth through long feuds, religious battles, famine, and death. Chaplin also carefully documents their triumphs in the course of daily life. In her easy, straightforward style, Chaplin sprinkles her narrative with pertinent allusions to Irish history, relating her characters' struggles to larger social issues. Her tone throughout is one of measured melancholy, but it is also tender and optimistic.

Perhaps Chaplin's most interesting work is Out of the Wilderness (1870). It relates the history of Zeke and Weza, two poor but heroic southern blacks who migrate to New England after the Civil War. Weza's story is a tale tinged by the sorrow of separation and oppression. In her dreams of freedom, Weza expresses the deep cruelty behind the slave system. As the tale progresses, it becomes clear that Weza's sorrows are not finished with the end of the war, for she and Zeke are searching for her lost sons. Although the end of the novel is sentimental and ineffective (Weza comes "out of the wilderness" with her family intact and gains ownership of her former master's plantation), most of the novel presents a realistic portrait of the life of southern blacks. Particularly memorable is Zeke and Weza's wedding scene at a camp meeting, with the eccentric Preachin' Jack officiating. Also impressive is Chaplin's acute evaluation of the economic decline in the south during the last phases of the war.

Chaplin's works are effective in portraying a sympathetic and realistic vision of the darker side of the American experience: the lot of blacks, poor whites, and immigrants. Her historical and economic sense adds intelligence and depth to the emotional sketches of these people and their hard struggles for dignity in the American system. Her point of view is clear and consistent: the disadvantaged are men and women with the same potential and aspirations as the rich; only prejudice and lack of money impede their growth. Chaplin paints colorful backgrounds for her lively characters, and she introduces dialect and vernacular speech, thus lending added legitimacy to language patterns other than standard English.

—ROSE F. KAVO

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