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Molly Elliot Seawell

Baptized as "Mary," Molly Elliot Seawell was born into one of the older families of English-speaking North America and one of the first families of Virginia. Her father was John Tyler Seawell, a lawyer and orator and a nephew of President John Tyler. Her mother (Tyler's second wife), Frances Elizabeth Jackson Seawell, was a native of Baltimore whose father, Maj. William Jackson, had fought in the War of 1812. Descendants of the original Seawells spell the family name in one of two forms: "Sewell" (as in Sewell's Point, Norfolk, Virginia) and "Seawell." Otis Notman interviewing Molly Elliot Seawell for the New York Times Saturday Review of Books noted that the regional pronunciation of the name was "Sowell," although Molly Elliot Seawell pronounced her name as it was spelled ("Talks" 392).

Born in Gloucester, Virginia, on October 23, 1860, Seawell spent her early life at the family's plantation home, "The Shelter," which had been a hospital in the Revolutionary War. She described her early formation as a ". . .secluded life . . .in the library of an old Virginia country house, and in a community where conditions more nearly resembled the eighteenth than the nineteenth century" (The Ladies' Battle 116). Her father was a student of the Classics, who influenced her learning. She was not allowed to read a novel until she was 17, instead reading history, encyclopedias, Shakespeare, and the Romantic poets. Her education was primarily informal at home, where she learned riding, dancing, and household management. In addition to these influences and her Tidewater surroundings, Seawell's seafaring uncle, Joseph Seawell, contributed to her future literary subjects.

The death of her father when she was 20 (Notman "Talks" 392) prompted Molly Elliot Seawell, her mother and her younger sister, Henrietta, to move from "The Shelter" in Gloucester to Norfolk and later to Washington, D.C. It was either in Norfolk or in Washington that Seawell began her literary career in earnest. She first wrote under pen names (including the patrician "Foxcroft Davis" [the novels Mrs. Darrell and The Whirl) and the Russian "Vera Sapoukhyn") until the publication of her short story "Maid Marian" in 1886, a tale she later dramatized for actress Rosina Vokes. Her first novel, Hale-Weston, published in 1889, was widely read and translated into German. These successes established her literary career; in her own words, "That I succeeded was due to tireless effort, unbroken health, a number of fortunate circumstances, and above all, what I am neither afraid nor ashamed to say, the kindness of the good God. In the course of time, I became, through literature alone, a householder, a property-owner, a taxpayer, and the regular employer of five persons" (The Ladies' Battle 116). Her literary production included forty books of fiction, collected short fiction, and non-fiction, as well as numerous political columns from Washington for New York dailies and essays.

Seawell's fiction might be distinguished into three genres: regional fiction, romances, and books for boys (primarily nautical stories). Their strong suit is Seawell's ability in characterization rather than her plots. In an interview with her, Notman observed this strength ("Talks" 392), to which she replied: "My people usually seem flesh and blood to me. If they do not have the breath of life in them at the beginning, no amount of labor can make them real." Mitchell in American Women Writers remarks more critically, "Plot was never her strong point, and the perfect ladies and gentlemen, the overt racism, and the condescending tone are interesting only because they reflect values once widespread" (41).

After her father's death and between her move to Norfolk and settling for life in Washington, Seawell made the first of many trips to Europe. Her visits took her to England, France, Germany, and even as far as Russia. Apparently the appeal of Russia and Germany was the therapeutic waters of the baths, to which Seawell attributed the improvement of a chronic eye condition (Notman "Some Authors," "Talks"). Her summers in Europe, returning to Washington in October, became a regular event. These travels extended the material of her literary subjects which as we have seen included the sea, England, France, and Central Europe. The household Seawell sustained with her mother and her younger sister Henrietta near Washington's fashionable Du Pont Circle was the location of an artists' salon of sorts. The home on P Street still exists and has recently been renovated as a commercial property. She entertained artists and writers there in addition to such notables of the time as the Earl of Carlisle and his daughter, Lady Dorothy Howard (Notman "Some Authors," "Talks"). After the death of her mother and later of her sister Henrietta, Seawell temporarily withdrew from social life, despite an enormous capacity for friendship and interest in people.

Her own health had been precarious for a number of years. Molly Elliot Seawell died of cancer in her home on November 15, 1916, only a few weeks after her 56th birthday. Her Roman Catholic Requiem mass was held in the Romanesque St. Matthew's Church, now the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington. Her body was laid to rest at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery.

Molly Elliot Seawell was a popular and widely read writer in her time, included at the beginning of the century in standard reference works on American writers and among the Times's Otis Notman's interview subjects with William Dean Howells, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. While much of her fiction might be described as "escapist" or "romantic" she was not reluctant to discuss some of the important issues of her day. Her attitudes toward these issues, however, are not always what we would consider modern. She represents the end of one generation of independent and self-reliant though socially and politically conservative women, and provides the background for the emergence of modern women.

Dr. Thomas L. Long Thomas Nelson Community College