Sunday, July 3, 2011

Classic Lit: Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty by John William de Forest

Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska Press/Bison Books
Date: 1867 (1998)
Format: paperback
Acquired: purchased from publisher
Read: for my own edification
Pages: 466
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is important in American literary history as the first novel to depict the Civil War with realism. Its battlefield scenes owe much to John De Forest’s own experience as a captain in that conflict. But in 1867 genteel readers were affronted by De Forest’s frank view of war and sex. Though praised by William Dean Howells, the novel was forgotten after De Forest’s death in 1906. It was later rediscovered by Van Wyck Brooks and other critics. Modern readers will enjoy this story of a southern woman who comes to New Boston with her father in 1861, opposes his views on secession and abolition, and is changed forever by the great war. Some critics have called the charming Lillie Ravenel the first realistic heroine in American fiction.

My review: Does this novel depict the Civil War realistically? Yes. Is Lillie Ravenel the strong heroine described by the GoodReads description? No. She comes off as a bit silly, actually. Miss Ravenel's Conversion is less about Miss Ravenel's conversion and more about life during the Civil War (wait, I'm in the South...War of Northern Aggression) and domestic affairs at the time. The first half of the book was rather boring, being mostly about Lillie's friendship with two military men, the drinking, philandering Carter and the gentle lawyer Colborne, and how she eventually decides which of the two she'll marry. It sounds kind of Jane Austen-esque, but De Forest fails to make it very interesting. The second half of the novel picks up some, however, with descriptions of battles and military life, Lillie's father's plantation experiment with free black labor, and Carter's eventual dissolution into political corruption and adultery. While De Forest's characterizations of women and Southerners seemed rather degrading, he doesn't glorify the Union, either (again with Carter's corruption, and there's some comical bits about drunk and/or cowardly commanders). After all, the novel is considered a work of realist literature.

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