Born 16 May 1900, Burlington, Iowa; died July 1984
Married William Beebe, 1927
The wife of naturalist and writer William Beebe, Elswyth Thane made her permanent home on a farm in Vermont. As an author, however, she is most closely associated with Virginia and with England, where from 1928 to 1939 she worked each summer in the British Museum. A prolific writer, she produced works of fiction, historical and biographical studies, autobiographical books, plays, and several books for children.
Thane identified herself as a historian and scholar. Although her historical and biographical works lack the elaborate apparatus of academic studies and employ novelistic devices, and although they sometimes have been criticized for blending fact and fiction, they rely heavily on primary source material. The Tudor Wench (1932; on Elizabeth I) and Young Mr. Disraeli (1936), written near the beginning of Thane's career, study the early lives of their subjects. Thane also dramatized episodes from each, under the same titles. Later she concentrated on Virginia history, particularly the Revolutionary period, examining Martha Washington in Washington's Lady (1960) and George Washington in Potomac Squire (1963), and the children they reared in Mount Vernon Family (1968), a book for children. In addition, Mount Vernon Is Ours (1966) and Mount Vernon, the Legacy (1967) relate the history of their home's preservation as a national shrine.
Thane's best fiction grew from her historical interests. Most ambitious is the series of Williamsburg novels, which epitomize American history from the Revolutionary War until World War II through the experiences of two Williamsburg families and their English relatives. The seven novels are Dawn's Early Light (1943; the Revolution), Yankee Stranger (1944; the Civil War), Ever After (1945; the Spanish-American War), The Light Heart (1947; World War I), Kissing Kin (1948; the end of World War I to Hitler's coming to power), This Was Tomorrow (1951; the Nazis and the prelude to World War II), and Homing (1957; the beginnings of World War II).
The early novels, which are set in times when Williamsburg played a significant historical role, are most successful. In the later novels, the Williamsburg connection becomes strained as most action necessarily takes place elsewhere, and the symbolic use of the town (now a forgotten backwater) as a refuge from war and suffering doesn't really work. All are romances, the lovers frequently being a very young woman and a mature, masterful man; some are star-crossed, but more often love conquers all. In the ideal relationship, the man cherishes and protects the woman, while she adores him.
Similar romantic relationships and themes occur in the nonhistorical fiction, and an additional motif used in several novels is the occult. Tryst (1939) tells of the love of a young girl for a man she has never met in life; their souls are united in death, when she is killed in an automobile accident. Remember Today (1941) is narrated by the heroine's guardian angel; this device is not very successful, and the guardian angels seem oddly helpless to affect the lives of their charges.
Thane's autobiographical writings are informal and somewhat diffuse. England Was an Island Once (1940), centering on Thane's last two summers in England before World War II, includes digressions on her previous summers there, on English history, and on people she has known. It effectively conveys both a sense of change in England's relations with the world and the feeling of impending war. Reluctant Farmer (1950, reprinted as The Strength of the Hills, 1976) is a very personal account of how Thane turned a rundown Vermont farm with a ramshackle house into a working farm and her real home. Full of local color, it avoids both preciousness and sentimentality.
Thane managed both to please the popular taste with her light fiction and to write serious biography. Melodramatic and sentimental elements mar her fiction, and some plots are excessively contrived. Her most significant accomplishments are in her historical works, which are based on careful research, are imaginatively recounted, and always readable.
Riders of the Wind: A Romance (1926). Echo Answers (1927). His Elizabeth: A Novel (1928). Cloth of Gold: A Novel (1929). Bound to Happen (1930). Queen's Folly: A Romance (1937). From This Day Forward (1941). The Bird Who Made Good (1947). Melody: A Romance (1950). The Lost General (1953). Letter to a Stranger (1954). The Family Quarrel: A Journey Through the Years of the Revolution (1959). The Virginia Colony (1969). Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times (1970). The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene (1972).
Atlantic (Jan. 1946). NYHTB (29 Jan. 1950). NYTBR (11 Sept. 1932, 22 March 1936, 23 May 1943). SR (14 March 1936, 10 Aug. 1963).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR