Harris, Miriam Coles

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HARRIS, Miriam Coles

Born 7 July 1834, Glen Cove, New York; died 23 January 1925, Pau, France

Wrote under Author of Rutledge; Mrs. Sidney S. Harris

Daughter of Butler and Julia Weeks Coles; married Sidney S.Harris, 1864 (died 1892); children: two

A descendant of Robert Coles of Suffolk, England, who accompanied John Winthrop to America in 1630, Miriam Coles Harris attended religious and exclusive private schools in New Jersey and New York City. After writing for periodicals and producing a bestseller at age twenty-six, Harris married a New York lawyer, raised two children, and continued to produce popular novels, as well as travel and devotional books. Widowed in 1892, she spent most of her remaining years in Europe.

Harris' first novel, the bestseller Rutledge (1860), has been called the "first fully American example" of the gothic romance. It is narrated by the unnamed orphan heroine, a passionately resentful teenager who, in Jane Eyre fashion, falls in love with Rutledge, the older brooding hero—her temporary guardian—whose ancestral home hides a dark family secret. After being introduced to fashionable society by her worldly permanent guardian, the rebellious heroine becomes involved in a series of jealous misunderstandings, including a rash engagement to a handsome social climber who turns out to be a murderer and who commits suicide after the heroine hides him in the secret room at the Rutledge estate where he discovers he is Rutledge's illegitimate nephew. A period of penitence completes the education of the humbled heroine, who is finally reunited with the "masterful" Rutledge.

Like Rutledge, Harris's other fictions are characterized by psychological studies of negative feminine attitudes, religiously didactic themes, and sensational incidents. Anticipating in some ways the psychological realism of Henry James, Harris probes, with surprising honesty, the degrees of hostility, powerlessness, and masochism experienced by an unusual variety of 19th-century heroines: teenagers in Rutledge and in its juvenile counterpart, loosely based on Harris's schoolgirl days, Louie's Last Term at St. Mary's (1860); unhappily married heroines in Frank Warrington (1863) and A Perfect Adonis (1875); a young widowed mother in Happy-Go-Lucky (1881); and middle-aged mother-wives in Phoebe (1884) and An Utter Failure (1891).

Harris frequently resolves her plots by transforming her rebellious heroines into self-abnegating women who exemplify the author's religious beliefs about renunciation of self and the world of vanity. Yet Harris's mixed feelings about her humbled heroines can be seen in the conclusion of A Perfect Adonis : the new bride asserts, "I can't see what I was created for," to which her bridegroom replies, "I can't either, except to make people want to possess you. To have and to hold you." Then he silences all further questions with an all-absorbing kiss, a romantic conclusion that is immediately undercut by the author's final remark: "It is a blessing that when you are a failure, you can forget it sometimes for a while. But the fact remains the same." Her last novel, The Tents of Wickedness (1907), interweaves a love story with a defense of the Roman Catholic Church.

Although melodramatic incident mars portions of her love plots, Harris's use of topical subjects also marks her as a forerunner of realism. The Sutherlands (1862) is a proslavery novel, while Richard Vandermarck (1871) contains one of the earliest literary portraits of the Wall Street businessman hero. A murder trial, realistically depicted, makes up a major segment of Happy-Go-Lucky, which also covers prejudice against Irish immigrants and lower-class poverty. Her last three novels treat daring sexual issues such as premarital sex, resentment of maternal duties, near-adultery, and divorce, as well as other topical subjects such as tenement conditions, racial violence, politics, and alcoholism.

Harris' minor place in literary history has depended solely on her most romantically sensational novel, the best-selling Rutledge, but all of her fictions contain perceptive, slightly ironic studies of a particular type of feminine psychology, portraits which, in their own limited ways, contributed to the development of the realistic tradition.

Other Works:

St. Philips (1865). A Rosary for Lent; or, Devotional Readings (1867). Roundhearts, and Other Stories (1867). Dear Feast Lent: A Series of Devotional Readings (1874). Missy (1880). A Chit of Sixteen, and Other Stories (1892). A Corner of Spain (1898).


Baym, N., Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America (1978). Cole, F. T., The Early Genealogies of the Cole Families in America (1887). Mott, F. L., Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (1947).

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