Seawell, Molly Elliot

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SEAWELL, Molly Elliot

Born 23 October 1860, Gloucester County, Virginia; died 15 November 1916, Washington, D.C.

Also wrote under: Foxcroft Davis, Vera Sapoukhyn

Daughter of John T. and Frances Jackson Seawell

Molly Elliot Seawell was born on a Virginia country estate. Educated primarily at home, Seawell learned riding, dancing and household management, and read history, encyclopedias, Shakespeare, and the Romantic poets. After her father's death, Seawell supported her mother and sister by writing stories and as Washington correspondent for a New York daily.

Seawell's earliest books were regional novels. Throckmorton (1890) established the basic cast: an elderly old-school southern gentleman, childish but faithful black servants, and young lovers kept apart by family difficulties. Seawell's romantic novels are Ruritanian fantasies tied to some period which allows a historical personage to appear in a minor role—Voltaire in Francezka (1902), Robespierre in The Last Duchess of Belgarde (1908), Napoleon in The Fortunes of Fifi (1903), and so forth. The heroines are active, courageous, stoic, and impeccably pure. The narrative grows from a piquant situation rather than a complex plot.

The books for boys (primarily sea stories) dwell on honor, not action; heroism is demonstrated by dutiful self-sacrifice instead of valiant aggression. Little Jarvis (1890) remains at his post and dies when the mast is struck by cannon shot, and the manly officers of Through Thick and Thin (1893) risk their lives to bring water to their suffering men.

Despotism and Democracy (1903), published anonymously, and the two books by "Foxcroft Davis," Mrs. Darrell (1905) and The Whirl (1909), treat Washington society and politics in the silver-fork tradition. The characters are senators, justices, and British diplomats, but the action takes place in drawing rooms and at dinner tables.

Seawell's article "On the Absence of the Creative Faculty in Women," published in the Critic in 1891, set off a debate which occupied the letters column for several months. Her thesis was that women had never produced any immortal books or art because the feminine nature innately lacked the faculty for invention. Seawell then campaigned against suffrage in national magazines and The Ladies' Battle (1911). She attacked suffragists as women "born with socialistic and communistic rather than domestic tendencies" who "have an antagonism to men."

Even contemporary reviews of Seawell's work were often lukewarm: her novels were called "wholesome," "slight," and "unpretentious." Plot was never her strong point, and the perfect ladies and gentlemen, the overt racism, and the condescending tone are interesting only because they reflect values once widespread.

Other Works:

The Berkeleys and their Neighbors (1888, rev. ed.1892). Hale-Weston (1888). Maid Marian, and Other Stories (1891, dramatization, 1893). Midshipman Paulding (1891). Children of Destiny (1893). Paul Jones (1893). Decatur and Somers (1894). Quarterdeck and Fok'sle (1895). The Sprightly Romance of Marsac (1895, dramatization by Seawell, 1900). A Strange, Sad Comedy (1896). A Virginia Cavalier (1896). The History of the Lady Betty Stair (1897). Twelve Naval Captains (1897). The Loves of Lady Arabella (1898). The Rock and the Lion (1898). The Lively Adventures of Gavin Hamilton (1899). The House of Egremont (1900). Papa Bouchard (1901). Laurie Vane, and Other Stories (1901). The Great Scoop (1903). The Chateau of Montplaisir (1906). The Victory (1906). The Secret of Toni (1907). The Imprisoned Midshipman (1908). The Marriage of Theodora (1910). The Jugglers (1911). The Son of Columbus (1912). Betty's Virginia Christmas (1914). Betty at Fort Blizzard (1916).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

American Women (1938). DAB. Library of Southern Literature (1970). NCAB. TCA. (1942).

Other references:

Bookman (Jan. 1901). Critic (28 Nov. 1891, 19 Mar. 1892). NYT (16 Nov. 1916). North American Review (Mar. 1914).

—SALLY MITCHELL