Windle, Mary Jane

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WINDLE, Mary Jane

Born 6 February 1825, Wilmington, Delaware; died death date unknown

Born into a "large family circle," Mary Jane Windle was left fatherless at an early age and was supported by her mother. "A martyr to ill health" most of her life, she never married but led an active social life and had a large circle of male and female friends. This social life was crucial to her career as a society reporter and gossip columnist. Her four major books are all collections of previously published stories and articles.

As a writer of historical fiction, Windle is irritating and boring. "Grace Bartlett, an American Tradition," in the Life at White Sulphur Springs, or Pictures of a Pleasant Summer (1857) collection, is the overwrought tale of a young boy, Frank Winthrop, who is kidnapped from his Puritan home by Native Americans, raised by a British general, and given the mission of inciting Native American attacks on American villages near the Canadian border. Sent by his adoptive father to spy on his own village, he falls in love with Grace, a childhood playmate, but remains true to his dastardly task and betrays the town to his stepfather's Native American henchmen. Grace is one of the few survivors. By the end of the book, Grace and Frank, who has renounced spying, are happily married and surrounded by children.

Since the tale is set in colonial days, it makes no sense whatsoever for a British general to be under orders to destroy his fellow subjects. Windle never clarifies this point, however. She also does not say how Grace brought herself to forgive Frank for aiding in the slaughter of all her kin and neighbors. Windle's tales are short on logic and historical accuracy and long on swoons, brain fevers, and elision of time. These devices make explanations unnecessary, by Windle's standards.

Unlike her fiction, Windle's social sketches are crisp, witty, and interesting. Life at White Sulphur Springs contains a sprightly collection of gossip columns dealing with the parties, fashions, and flirtations at a summer resort for Washington's elite. Life in Washington and Life Here and There (1859), too, deals largely with presidential levees, state dinners, and fancy-dress balls. Interspersed with these gossip columns, however, are some shrewd articles about congressional proceedings just before Lincoln's election. An admirer of Henry Clay, Windle supports the Missouri Compromise, Stephen Douglas' candidacy, states' rights, and slavery. She attacks several Southern congressmen for their "disunion sentiments" but praises their attacks on abolitionism.

In Windle's sketches, Southern delegates, cabinet members, and judges are all uniformly handsome, learned, and eloquent; Northerners are all cold, haughty, and wrongheaded. Southern women, of course, are prettier, more elegant, and more sweet-tempered. A brief trip to New York convinces Windle that slaves fare better than Northern servants and love their masters more. She displays her biases with innocence, and her staunch faith in a way of life so soon to be destroyed is moving.

Contemporary critics praised Windle for her "fascinating descriptive powers" and her "refined and ladylike prose." By modern standards, her fictional style is overheated, gushing, and coy. Her journalism, however, stands the test of time well. Windle's sketches of Washington society and congressional activity in the two years preceding the Civil War are particularly fascinating to read.

Other Works:

Truth and Fancy (1850). Legend of the Waldenses, and Other Tales (1852).


Reference works:

Women of the South Distinguished in Literature (1861). Female Prose Writers of America (1857). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).