Dorsey, Sarah (Ann) Ellis
DORSEY, Sarah (Ann) Ellis
Born 16 February 1829, Natchez, Mississippi; died 4 July 1879, New Orleans, Louisiana
Wrote under: Filia Ecclesiae, Filia
Daughter of Thomas G. Percy and Mary Routh Ellis; married Samuel W. Dorsey, 1853 (died 1875)
Sarah Ellis Dorsey was descended from the leading planting families of Louisiana and Mississippi. Her father died when she was nine years old, and her mother married another wealthy planter. Dorsey's childhood education was extensive; she had private tutors to teach her foreign languages and the fine arts, and a European grand tour capped her formal training. In 1853 she married a lawyer and the overseer on one of the family plantations. The young couple moved to Tensas Parish, Louisiana, and Dorsey settled into the life of a Southern wife and plantation mistress. During the Vicksburg campaign of 1863, the Dorsey home was raided by Grant's men. After the city fell and the area was overrun by the Union army, the Dorseys took their slaves and trekked to Texas. Samuel Dorsey died in 1875 and Dorsey moved to their summer home, Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi.
One of Dorsey's childhood friends had been Varina Howell Davis, the wife of the former Confederate president. Jefferson Davis was Dorsey's guest at Beauvoir in 1876 while visiting near Biloxi and later settled into a cottage on the estate to write his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). Dorsey served as his secretary and confidante, transcribing his notes, keeping his correspondence, and entertaining his guests. Mrs. Davis, who was in Europe with her daughter, somewhat resented Dorsey's close association with her husband and refused to visit the house for several months after her return. Eventually, though, she joined them. The Davises were so enchanted with the estate Dorsey sold it to them in 1879. She also bequeathed two Louisiana plantations to Davis in her will.
Dorsey's writing career had begun in the 1850s with a series of articles on the religious education of her slaves for the New York Churchman. Her first book was a biography of Louisiana's Confederate governor, Henry Watkins Allen, published in 1866. A family friend, Allen had left notes and personal papers with Dorsey before his flight into exile in Mexico. The biography is very complimentary toward the late governor, stressing his cooperation with the Confederate government and his attempts to relieve the distress of the state's civilian population during wartime.
In Lucia Dare (1867), a novel dealing with the adventures of an English heiress during the Civil War, Dorsey used her own experiences as a refugee in Texas as the basis for the narrative. Dorsey's most famous novel was Panola, a Tale of Louisiana (1877). The heroine of this romance was a young, "proud, shy, slowly-maturing, half-Indian maiden. The chastity and continence of her blood through long lines of famous warriors had kept cool and as yet unwarmed by passion." The novel is set in the home of Dr. Canonge just before the Civil War. Panola, who is related to the doctor in some way, yet is also a servant in the household, falls in love with Victor, the doctor's grandson. The plot revolves around the marriage, separation, and reunion of the lovers. True love, not unexpectedly, conquers all.
Panola is typical of Dorsey's fiction. Sentimental and heavily romanticized, it is also poorly plotted. Characters disappear from the stage only to be resurrected, usually in disguise, for dramatic effect. The writing is stilted and peppered with French pseudodialect. Its appeal was to a generation of readers who wanted pretty illusions in the face of the grim realities of Reconstruction.
Recollections of Henry Watkin Allen, Brigadier-General Confederate States Army, Ex-Governor of Louisiana (1866). Agnes Graham (1869). Athalie; or, A Southern Villeggiatura (1872). On the Philosophy of the University of France. First Paper Prepared for the Academy of Sciences of New Orleans, April 13, 1874 (1874). The Aryan Philosophy. Second Paper Prepared at the Request of the Academy of Sciences of New Orleans (circa 1875).
NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).
BJRL (1954). Journal of Mississippi History (1944).
—JANET E. KAUFMAN