Meeting Austa French
Austa, I can already see, is going to give me problems. She is in many ways a Yankee superwoman. Highly educated, prominent in society, a beautiful singing voice, the mother of seven children, an experienced teacher, and a writer--she set out at the age of 52 to spread the gospel of abolitionism. And "gospel" it was to her. She prided herself on having grown to be an evangelical pastor's wife after her fairly restrained Congregationalist background. Her "calling" during the Civil War was to reveal the evils of slavery to the people of the North. OK, so far, so good. But then I come face to face with her unrestrained enthusiasm, her volubility, her humorless determination that the rest of the world will surely come to see things her way, if she can just lecture them long and hard enough. Historians who write about her tend to describe her (and her husband, too) as the people the rest of the Gideonites would have liked to slap. Drawing no distinctions between outright crimes, actions she disapproved of, religious beliefs she did not share, and mistakes that needed gentle correction, she was given to loud public denunciations of all behaviors that irritated her. (And it took very little to irritate her, as Susan Walker learned the evening she was too tired from her labors to kneel during one of Austa's interminable prayers.) Austa loved the slaves indiscriminately. She was known to greet a new black acquaintance by throwing he arms around her neck, weeping on her shoulder, and calling her "my sister" before she had even learned the woman's name. But as for the rest of the world, few of her associates lived up to her standards. She was quick to refer to "the dirty Irish," "white trash," "greedy cotton agents," and "thugs in military uniforms." And she hated South Carolina, pointing to the Spanish moss, the swamps, and the huge black crows as evidence of the evil that permeated every inch of the lands that had harbored slavery.
Then there's her book: Slavery in South Carolina. She began writing it almost immediately upon her arrival on Beaufort, long before she had had time or experience to inform her writing. She encouraged the slaves to compete with each other in telling her the most lurid stories of atrocities committed against them. To be fair to Austa, there is no evidence that she made up any of the stories on her own. She simply recorded what she was told. If she picked and chose among the details, however, it was only to be sure she included all the tales with some sexual component or gory physical details. For a devout Christian missionary, she skirted very close to the edge of writing pornography.
I'll want to be fair to her. One of my favorite writers of historical fiction has pointed out the novelist's responsibility to do no harm to historical figures. But it seems to me that Austa has done a fairly good job of casting shadows on her own character.