Harrison, Constance Cary

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HARRISON, Constance Cary

Born 25 April 1843, Lexington, Kentucky; died 21 November 1920, Washington, D.C.

Daughter of Archibald and Monimia Fairfax Cary; married Burton Harrison, 1867 (died 1904)

Constance Cary Harrison was a second child and only daughter. Her family moved to a plantation in Arlington, Virginia, and later to Cumberland, Maryland, where her father practiced law. Harrison received her elementary education first at a day school in Cumberland and then at the girls' boarding school of Hubert Lefebre in Richmond. When her father died in 1854, the family returned to Vaucluse, the plantation.

After war broke out in 1861, Harrison's mother volunteered as a nurse, serving primarily at Camp Winder near Richmond. Harrison went to the Confederate capital to live with relatives and, with her cousins Hetty and Jennie Cary of Baltimore, became one of the most famous belles of the day. Here she met Burton Harrison, Jefferson Davis' private secretary. The couple moved to New York City, where her husband practiced law. There Harrison became active in charitable and civic organizations. After her husband's death in 1904, Harrison moved to Washington, D.C., to be near her sons.

Harrison began writing short articles and verses for the Southern Illustrated News and the Magnolia Weekly during the Civil War. Her most famous piece, published in the News in 1864, was the "Blockade Correspondence," a series of letters between "Refugitta" and "Secessia," comparing wartime conditions in Richmond and Baltimore. After her marriage, Harrison translated and adapted several French plays to be performed for charity. One of these adaptations, "A Russian Honeymoon," was so successful it was performed professionally. Harrison also wrote articles on George Washington and Colonel William Byrd for Century Magazine, a history of New York City, and a piece on social life in Richmond for Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

A great deal of Harrison's fiction can be dismissed as pulp. Her novels and stories dealing with Southern life before the Civil War were, for the most part, poorly written. Filled with stock characters, predictable plots, and phony dialogue, works such as Flower de Hundred: The Story of a Virginia Plantation (1890) and The Carlyles: A Story of the Fall of the Confederacy (1905) were little more than mass-market teasers. Postwar readers were fascinated by anything dealing with the antebellum South, perhaps wanting to know why a social system they found repugnant had exercised such a hold over the imaginations of those who had lived under it. Therefore, Harrison and countless other writers found a ready market for otherwise undistinguished writing.

More significant, and better written, however, are Harrison's works dealing with the late 19th century. These novels and stories examined the socially conscious world in which Harrison lived, and found it wanting. Usually Harrison was faintly amused by her surroundings, but occasionally her style became cruelly satiric. In "Mr. Clendenning Piper," one of the stories in A Daughter of the South, and Shorter Stories (1892), the title character is described as "no end of a swell," and finds that his pretensions to fashion are the object of ridicule rather than envy. "Jenny, the Debutante," Harrison's version of the Cinderella tale, illustrates how kind, courteous Jenny wins fame, fortune, and a husband, while her nasty, more fashionable sister does not.

Harrison's best novel, both in style and content, is A Bachelor Maid (1894), which explores the problems of young women who choose not to rush into marriage. Marion Irving rejects a proposal from Alec Gordon, leaves her father's house when he remarries, takes an apartment with another unmarried woman, and goes to work for the woman suffrage movement. Harrison employs the typical 19th-century convention of incorporating passages from feminist tracts in the guise of speeches and letters delivered by the characters. In this novel, however, the characters are finely drawn and believable. Eventually, Marion and Alec do marry, but the reader assumes that Marion is a better person for having been on her own.

Despite the uneven quality of her fiction, Harrison will be remembered for her autobiography, Recollections Grave and Gay (1911). It is a valuable source of information about life in the highest circles of Confederate society. While Recollections lacks the impact of a diary kept during the war and is clouded by a tendency to romanticize the Confederate experience, it is nonetheless a fascinating historical document. Through Harrison's eyes, the reader sees Lee, Davis, and others as men with all their human sorrows and failures, not as remote historical figures. Harrison's recollections provide a valuable complement to those of Mary Boykin Chesnut and Virginia Clay-Clopton.

Other Works:

Woman's Handiwork in Modern Times (1881). The Old-Fashioned Fairy Book (1884). Bar Harbor Days (1887). The Anglomaniacs (1890). The Well-Bred Girl in Society (1898).


De Leon, T. C., Belles, Beaux, and Brains of the Sixties (1907). Williams, B. A., ed., A Diary from Dixie (1949).

Reference works:

AA. AW. DAB. LSL. NAW (1971). NCAB.


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Harrison, Constance Cary