Turnbull, Agnes Sligh

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TURNBULL, Agnes Sligh

Born 14 October 1888, New Alexandria, Pennsylvania; died January 1982

Daughter of Alexander H. and Lucinda McConnell Sligh; married James Turnbull, 1918; children: one daughter

Of Scots Presbyterian background, Agnes Sligh Turnbull grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from Indiana (Pennsylvania) State College in 1910. She then attended the University of Chicago for one year. She was married in 1918 and had one daughter.

Turnbull's fiction is varied and uneven. She began with a number of sentimental and undistinguished narratives about actual and imagined Biblical women. Scattered throughout her career are a few children's books: Elijah the Fishbite (1940), Jed, the Shepherd's Dog (1957), George (1965), and The White Lark (1968).

Her best fiction deals with Scottish settlers in the coal country of western Pennsylvania. Major concerns are the difficult lives of pioneer women and the effect upon them of their strict Presbyterianism. Her attitude toward this faith is ambivalent. While she dramatizes the psychological damage done by adherence to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and portrays Episcopalianism as gentler (see especially The Rolling Years, 1936, and The Bishop's Mantle, 1947), she also shows the comfort and sense of community given by the faith. In some books (notably The Gown of Glory, 1952, and The Nightingale, 1960) set in the early years of this century, she writes nostalgically of smalltown life centered around the local Presbyterian church. Her women are strong and self-reliant, but they also are traditionally home and family centered.

Two of Turnbull's finest novels are set on the Pennsylvania frontier during the Revolutionary War. Vividly depicting the joys and hardships of the frontier, The Day Must Dawn (1942) tells of a gently bred pioneer woman who schemes to have her daughter go east to an easier life. The novel climaxes with an Native American raid, based on an actual incident, and ends with her dying acceptance of the fact her daughter will marry a frontiersman and go West to still wilder country, postponing the dream for another generation.

The King's Orchard (1963), set in the same period and using some of the same historical material, is a fictionalized biography of James O'Hara, who came to this country shortly before the Revolution, traveled west to Indiana, became Washington's quartermaster during the war, and was prominent in the early history of Pittsburgh. Many other historical personages, of minor as well as major importance, figure in its pages. It effectively contrasts settled Philadelphia, rough young Pittsburgh, and the wilderness that would become Indiana and Illinois.

For other novels Turnbull turned to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most ambitious of these, The Rolling Years, studies three generations of Scots Presbyterian women in western Pennsylvania. Sarah McDowell bears 12 children (of whom five survive) to her dour Calvinistic husband; her bitterness about her repeated, difficult confinements is effectively shown. Her last child, Jeannie, has an easier and yet more restricted life. A gay and loving girl, she marries a minister and moves to town. As a young widow, she rears her daughter, Constance, with the help of her spinster sisters, who are also strikingly portrayed. Engaged to a Presbyterian divinity student, Constance faces her crisis when he denies some of the tenets of their faith. Thus the novel dramatizes the gradual weakening of the strict Calvinism of the Scottish immigrants as their life grows increasingly easy.

Remember the End (1938) tells of Alex MacTay, a poetic young Scotsman who comes to Pennsylvania in 1890. Suppressing his aesthetic interests, he rises to great wealth and power, but at the cost of deeply wounding his wife and alienating his only son. Sympathetically portrayed, he typifies the strengths and weaknesses of the great tycoons of the period, such as his own model, Andrew Carnegie.

Much of Turnbull's fiction tends toward the sentimental and some of her novels seem written to inculcate an easy and conventional morality. In addition, her novels tend to use trite plot devices. But at her best, in the novels studying her Scottish background in western Pennsylvania, she has created moving and believable pictures of women's joys and sufferings.

Other Works:

Far Above Rubies (1926). The Wife of Pontius Pilate: A Story of the Heart of Procla (1928). In the Garden: A Story of the First Easter (1929). The Four Marys (1932). The Colt that Carried a King (1933). Old Home Town (1933). This Spring of Love (1934). Dear Me: Leaves from the Diary of Agnes Sligh Turnbull (1941). Once to Shout (1943). The Golden Journey (1955). Out of My Heart (1958). Little Christmas (1964). The Wedding Bargain (1966). Many a Green Isle (1968). Whistle and I'll Come to You: An Idyll (1970). The Flowering (1972). The Richlands (1974). The Winds of Love (1977).


NYHTB (26 Oct. 1947). NYTBR (9 Feb. 1936, 27 Nov. 1938, 25 Oct. 1942, 26 Oct. 1947, 16 March 1952). SR (17 Oct. 1942, 19 Nov. 1955).