Peck, Ellen

views updated

PECK, Ellen

Born circa 1840s; died death date unknown

Wrote under: Cuyler Pine

No biographical information is available on Ellen Peck. Her early novels indicate that the pseudonym Cuyler Pine designates only the male editor of "memoirs" supposedly written by his sister and her friend. Peck's earliest novels, Mary Brandegee: An Autobiography (1865) and Renshawe (1867), are fast-paced love stories which rather awkwardly form two parts of an unfinished "trilogy" about Southern society immediately before and during the Civil War. The viewpoint is Northern, but the second novel is prefaced by the editor's plea for mutual understanding between regions.

Mary Brandegee chronicles the erring ways of a Northern-educated Southern heiress who begins by reading "trashy" novels and ends up nearly fatally poisoning her rival for the rather uncertain affections of the handsome, arrogant Southerner George Berkeley, whom she finally rejects in favor of a dependable lover. Although serious questions about the relationship between masters and slaves are raised, the focus is on the tendency for men and women to misinterpret each other's characters.

Renshawe introduces a new heroine, the Northerner Louisa Renshawe, and delineates the disruptive effects of war on both Northern and Southern society; but the center of interest lies in the heroine's relationship with the unrepentant George Berkeley. While the Northern heroine tries to sort out spies from counterspies, she is allowed several major acts of physical courage but finally ends up paroled as a Union spy to her unacknowledged lover-enemy, the Confederate Colonel Berkeley. Although the thrust of the plot seems to be toward the eventual reconciliation of regional differences after the North and Louisa presumably humble the South and the proud Berkeley, no evidence exists that the promised third part of the trilogy (Delaware) ever saw print.

Ecce Femina (1874), republished as Ecce Femina; or, The Woman Zoe (1875), uses a highly economical style and well-motivated plot to satirize the worldly elitism of the Presbyterian church as revealed by the psychological struggles of the ambitious clergyman Mr. Bowen. He courts, marries, and then unjustly casts off his wife, Zoe, a reformed "Magdelene" and artist whose personal fate becomes the embodiment of her sculptured symbol of Woman—"the world's ignored and terrible sufferer" who does not want charity, but only the justice she is due. While Peck's assumptions are hardly feminist, this short novel is sharply critical of the church's shortsighted biases against women.

Although Peck's literary output was limited in volume and artistic merit, she managed to write entertaining popular fiction which included serious social themes and vivid character conflicts as well as fast-paced action and romantic adventure.