Augusta Jane Evans wrote nine novels about southern women that were among the most popular fiction in nineteenth-century America.
Her most successful novel, St. Elmo (1866), sold a million copies within four months of its appearance and remained in print well into the twentieth century. The sexual tensions between the book’s cynical Byronic hero, St. Elmo, and its beautiful Christian heroine, self-made writer Edna Earl, inspired the christening of villages, plantations, steamboats, railway carriages, male infants, a punch, a cigar, and one infamous parody, St. Twel’mo, or the Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga (1867). Edna Earl also later became the namesake of Eudora Welty’s heroine Edna Earle Ponder in The Ponder Heart (1954).
Evans was born in Columbus in 1835 and died in Alabama in 1909, buried among the Confederate soldiers she loved. She became a writer partially to recuperate the family fortune. Her father, Matthew Evans, lost palatial Sherwood Hall dubbed “Matt’s Folly” by Columbus citizens after he was bankrupted in the 1840s. His family of ten migrated to Texas. However, the dangers of a frontier border town and the Mexican War (1846-48) caused them to resettle in Mobile, Alabama. There Evans penned her anonymous first novel, Inez: A Tale of the Alamo (1855), an anti-Catholic diatribe, followed by the much more popular Beulah (1859). Beulah began the theme of female education that persisted in her novels. Although Evans never returned to Columbus, she made it the setting for St. Elmo.
Slavery remained in the background of Evans’s novels, but she supported the Confederacy zealously in her life and fiction. She broke off her engagement to New York journalist James Reed Spaulding in 1860 because he supported Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War (1861-65), Evans sewed sandbags for community defense, wrote patriotic addresses, and set up a hospital dubbed “Camp Beulah” near her home. She worked as a hospital nurse yet wrote General P.G.T. Beauregard in mid-1862 that she still felt marginal to war efforts. Her novel Macaria (1864) attempts to remedy that situation by showing how Southern women can sacrifice their lives for the Confederacy. Macaria penetrated the Northern blockade with five thousand bootlegged copies sold in the North. So effective was Macaria as pro-Southern propoganda that General G. H. Thomas, commander of the Union army in Tennessee, banned it among his troops and confiscated and burned those copies that existed.
Evans and her family faced serious financial problems at the war’s end, with the loss of their enslaved persons and other property. She accompanied her brother Howard to New York City seeking a medical specialist to treat a paralyzed arm resulting from a war wound. In meeting with her publisher there, she discovered that he had been holding for her a substantial sum of money from northern sales of Macaria. Realizing just how profitable her writing could be, she quickly completed St. Elmo and ended any future financial worries for herself and her family.
In 1868 Evans married Colonel Lorenzo Madison Wilson, a wealthy planter twenty-eight years her senior who had been widowed in 1862. She moved to his estate, Ashland, next door to the Evans home and spent much of the rest of her life making it and its surrounding gardens one of Mobile’s most beautiful showplaces. She continued to write, though more sporadically. She published three novels over the course of her married life at Ashland, one of which, a murder mystery entitled At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887), she declared her favorite.
When Colonel Wilson died in 1891, Evans Wilson left Ashland and moved into her brother Howard’s home in Mobile. Despite deteriorating health and eyesight, she wrote two more romantic novels, A Speckled Bird (1902) and Devota (1907). She died of a heart attack in 1909, a day after her seventy-fourth birthday.
Recent feminist critics have read past the marriage themes in Evans’s novels to show how her women characters are as intellectually capable as men and how they gain personal and public power in their world.