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Rives, Amélie (1863–1945)

Rives, Amélie (1863–1945)

American author. Name variations: Amelie Louise Rives; Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy; Princess Troubetzkoy. Born Amélie Louise Rives in Richmond, Virginia, on August 23, 1863; died in Charlottesville, Virginia, on June 15, 1945; daughter of Alfred Landon Rives (a civil engineer) and Sarah (MacMurdo) Rives; educated privately; married John Armstrong Chanler (a lawyer), on June 14, 1888 (divorced 1895); married Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy (a Russian portrait painter), on February 18, 1896; no children.

Published first story in the Atlantic Monthly (1886); established literary reputation with the novel The Quick or the Dead? (1888); active in movements promoting Southern writing; best-known works include the novels Shadows of Flames (1915) and Firedamp (1930); also wrote several plays and championed educational reform and women's suffrage.

Born into a socially distinguished Southern family in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War, Amélie Rives was raised in a privileged and genteel environment that nurtured her love of literature. Among her ancestors were such well-known Revolutionary War figures as Colonel William Cabell and Dr. Thomas Walker, as well as her grandfather William Cabell Rives, who served on a diplomatic mission to France before the Civil War and completed a three-volume biography of James Madison. From her grandmother, too, Amélie inherited a literary legacy, for Judith Page Walker Rives published several books. Amélie grew up on the family estate at Castle Hill, near Cobham in Albemarle County, Virginia. When she was seven, her father, formerly acting chief of engineers for the Confederacy, took a position as head civil engineer of the Mobile and Birmingham Railroad, and the family moved to Mobile, Alabama. Amélie continued to spend summers at Castle Hill, which she always thought of as her home.

Educated privately, Rives developed an intense love of literature. From her early years, she enjoyed writing stories; she later recalled, "When my grandmother disapproved and quietly took the paper from me, I began to write on the wide hems of my starched white petticoats!" She also became skilled at horseback riding, though she refused to participate in the upper-class ritual of foxhunting, which she considered cruel. A beautiful and charming young woman, Rives made her social debut in Newport, Rhode Island. Yet she was more interested in artistic endeavors than in high society. She had published her first short story, "A Brother to Dragons," anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1886, after which more stories and poems appeared in other magazines. Her literary reputation was made with the 1888 publication of her first novel, The Quick or the Dead?, which was severely criticized for its frank treatment of a young widow's passionate affair but became a bestseller.

In 1888, Rives married socialite lawyer John Armstrong Chanler of New York, a great-grandson of millionaire John Jacob Astor. The couple lived in Virginia and England, where Rives soon became associated with "The Souls," a group led by Margot Tennant Asquith , Arthur Balfour, and George, Lord Curzon. At the same time, Rives separated from her husband, divorcing him in 1895. The following year, she married acclaimed portrait painter Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy, son of a Russian noble and an American mother; this second marriage proved much happier than her first. Rives traveled extensively with her husband, and mingled in artistic and social circles. In 1898, a serious illness threatened her reputation and her marriage. Prescribed massive doses of morphine while suffering from a severe case of rheumatic fever, Rives became addicted to the drug—a fact that became publicized and created a scandal. Withdrawing to Castle Hill, Rives struggled to overcome her addition and, by 1902, was again in good health. She drew on this difficult experience in her 1915 novel Shadows of Flames, one of the first realistic presentations in American literature of the experience of drug addiction.

Rives continued writing successfully for the next 25 years, producing novels, stories, and poems, as well as several plays, some of which had Broadway productions, and some of which, like Herod and Mariamne, were written in verse. Her works have been associated with the Southern literary renaissance, in which Rives' friend Ellen Glasgow was prominent, but many literary historians consider Rives to have followed more European and cosmopolitan models. Critics point out that Rives remains notable as one of the first American writers to have been influenced by new theories of psychology and mental illness, as seen in such novels as Shadows of Flames and Firedamp (1930). When asked to judge her own literary accomplishments, she named Augustine the Man, a drama in blank verse published in England, as her favorite. In addition to her literary work, Rives was intensely interested in movements for education reform and women's suffrage.

After Prince Troubetzkoy's death in 1936, Rives withdrew to Castle Hill, where she mourned her husband and lived quietly for her remaining years. She was distressed to learn in 1941 that this marriage had stripped her of her American citizenship, which she took steps to regain, considering American democracy to be "a religion, a great faith." She died of heart disease in 1945 at a nursing home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

sources:

Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. 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, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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