Harrison, Constance Cary (1843–1920)

views updated

Harrison, Constance Cary (1843–1920)

American author and social leader. Born on April 25, 1843, in Lexington, Kentucky; died on November 21, 1920, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Archibald and Monimia (Fairfax) Cary (daughter of the 9th lord of Fairfax); married Burton Harrison, in 1867 (died 1904); children: sons, Francis Burton, Fairfax, and Archibald.

Constance Cary Harrison was born in 1843 in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of Archibald and Monimia Fairfax Cary . Her family was a blend of English nobility and American patriotism. Constance's father was descended from Thomas Jefferson and had spent his early life on a plantation in Virginia. Her mother's father, Thomas, was descended from the ninth lord of Fairfax. The Cary family never achieved the affluence of their ancestors, but Archibald instilled a strong sense of family tradition in his daughter. After Constance's birth, Archibald moved the family to Vaucluse, Monimia's father's estate near Arlington, Virginia.

The family soon moved to Martinsburg, Virginia, then eventually settled in Cumberland, Maryland. Constance began her education at Miss Jane Kenah's day school there, studying Latin. When she was 11, her father died of typhoid fever and her mother returned to Vaucluse where they lived until the outbreak of the Civil War. Constance continued her education with a French governess and later attended the boarding school of M. Hubert Lefebre in Richmond.

Although the family opposed slavery, their sympathies lay with the South, and Constance's mother worked as a nurse at the Culpeper Court House and Camp Winder near Richmond. When her brother joined the Confederate forces, Constance went to Richmond to live with an aunt and uncle. During this time, she and her cousins, Hetty and Jennie Cary of Baltimore, entered into Richmond society. The three girls were immediately popular, and Constance became known for her wit and amateur theatrics. The cousins did their part in supporting the Confederate cause by nursing soldiers in military hospitals and making Confederate flags.

While in Richmond, Constance published her first book, Blockade Correspondence, a fictional account of letters between "Secessia" in Baltimore and "Refugitta" in Richmond. She also met her future husband, Burton Harrison, private secretary to declared president of the Confederate states Jefferson Davis. Burton was captured along with Davis and held prisoner by Union forces at Fort Delaware. In 1865, Constance and her mother went to Washington to secure Burton's release. The couple's reunion was brief as Constance had arranged to study voice for a year at the Paris Conservatoire in France, but the two wed upon her return to the United States near the end of 1867. They settled in New York City, and Burton set up a law practice.

Harrison kept busy by taking an active part in local theater, serving as a visitor at Bellevue Hospital, and managing the board of the Nursery and Child's Hospital. She resumed her literary career, publishing the short story "A Little Centennial Lady" in Scribner's Monthly in 1876. Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Scribner's, encouraged her to write about the Old South and published a series on "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" to which she contributed several articles.

During the next 20 years, Harrison published several novels, magazine stories and historical sketches. For the most part her novels dealt with Southern life, including Flower de Hundred: The Story of a Virginia Plantation (1890), Belhaven Tales (1892), and A Daughter of the South, and Shorter Stories (1892). She did not, however, write only about the South. One of her better-known books, The Anglomaniacs (1890), applied gentle satire to New York society, and Good Americans (1898) satirized Americans in Europe.

Constance Cary Harrison was versatile, showing an interest in various subjects. Her sharp wit is demonstrated in her etiquette book, The Well-Bred Girl in Society (1898), which is a commentary on social attitudes more than a manual on proper behavior. She expressed an interest in decorative home art with Woman's Handiwork in Modern Homes (1891), and she translated Short Comedies for Amateur Players (1896) from French. She also penned a book on Virginia history and wrote Externals of Modern New York (1896), a supplement to Martha J.R. Lamb 's History of the City of New York. Her memoirs, Recollections Grave and Gay, were published in 1911.

Harrison's husband died in 1904, and she moved to Washington, D.C., to be near her two surviving sons. She died in Washington on November 21, 1920, and was buried beside her husband at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

About this article

Harrison, Constance Cary (1843–1920)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Harrison, Constance Cary (1843–1920)