French, Lucy (Virginia) Smith
FRENCH, Lucy (Virginia) Smith
Born 16 March 1825, Accomac County, Virginia; died 31 March 1881, McMinnville, Tennessee
Wrote under: L. Virginia French, L'Inconnue, Lucy Smith
Daughter of Mease W. and Elizabeth Parker Smith; married John H. French, 1853
Lucy Smith French was born into a wealthy and cultured family. After her mother's death, she went to live with her maternal grandmother in Washington, Pennsylvania, where she was educated at Mrs. Hannah's School. She and her sister returned to their father in 1848, but, unhappy with his remarriage, they left within the year for Memphis, Tennessee, where both taught and French began publishing pieces in the Louisville Journal under the name "L'Inconnue." In 1852 French became editor of the Southern Ladies' Book, and in the following year she married Colonel French, who had sought her out after reading her poetry. Her later literary career included editing several newspapers and magazines (most notably, the Crusader and Ladies' Home in Atlanta, Georgia), and writing poetry, one play, and two novels, as well as a collection of legends, before she died in her husband's home town.
French's first collection of poetry, Wind Whispers (1856), is romantic and sometimes sentimental. It was followed in the same year by a five-act tragedy in blank verse, Istalilxo: The Lady of Tula (1856), set in Mexico. French's collection, Legends of the South (1867), was also written in verse for the most part, and one legend reveals her interest in exploring the position of women. In "The Legend of the Lost Soul," she tells of an Indian woman whose husband leaves their child alone to look for her and both come back to find it gone: "It is the cry of Woman, / And hers the really lost and wandering soul, / Seeking, amid the god-like, yet the human, / To find her destined goal."
Despite romantic trappings, the novel My Roses (1872) realistically explores the plight of the prostitute. The heroine, Henriette de Hauterive, is an independent young woman who, because of her "woman's faith in women," risks social condemnation ("I am content to be 'unnatural' semi-occasionally if I only can be true to nature!") by disguising herself as a man and entering a brothel to save a woman she doesn't know. She recognizes "the world judges us all, and to women it is a bitter censor," but her courage to act saves two women from a life they have either been forced into or have chosen through disillusionment and economic deprivation. As one of these, Marguerite, asserts: "By your woman's faith, your woman's courage, and your woman's love, you have redeemed a wayward and erring nature, although you intended it not. If ever there is any good accomplished for women like me, it will be done by women like you."
In French's fiction, the exploration of woman's position takes prominence. French's sophisticated treatment calls for the sisterhood of women to provide alternatives for women victimized by society.
DAB. LSL. The Living Female Writers of the South (1872). The Living Writers of the South (1869). NCAB, 7.
American Illustrated Methodist Magazine (July 1900). Nashville Daily American (3 April 1881).
—THELMA J. SHINN