Susan Petigru King wrote and published virtually all of her novels and short stories just before and during the American civil war, although her fiction deals neither with slavery nor sectional politics. Set in her native Charleston and its surrounding plantations, King's novels explore the social life and sexual politics of South Carolina's privileged antebellum elite. In the tradition of nineteenth-century domestic novels, King's writings chronicle courtships and marriages, love and jealousy. The republication of these long-neglected novels will introduce contemporary readers to the imaginative power of an important southern American woman writer.
Lily, King's best known novel, was originally published by Harper and Brothers in 1855. In this work, King skewers the rituals of courtship that propel its wealthy young heroine toward marriage and a melodramatic death. Gerald Gray's Wife, King's last novel, plays out the ironies of a plain woman who survives—but barely—the revelations that destroy her seemingly perfect marriage and acquired beauty. In both novels, women's jealousies and men's deceptions are the forces that propel King's often satirical pen. Largely lacking the moral instruction so common among nineteenth-century domestic novelists, King's novels are differentiated by their critical perspective on women's position, their exploration of themes of failure and frustration, and their focus on the drawing room and ballroom rather than the kitchen and nursery.
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About the Author
Susan Petigru King (1824-1875) was the author of numerous short stories and novels. She lived her life in Charleston. She married twice (her first husband died during the war) and had one child.
Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease are Professors Emeriti at the University of Maine and Associates in History at the University of Charleston.
Read an Excerpt
Gerald Gray's Wife and Lily
By Susan Petigru King
Duke University PressCopyright © 1993 Jane H. Pease
All rights reserved.
The droning voice of the lawyer's clerk slowly continued,
"—of which I die possessed to my honored friend, Hugh Clarendon, Esq., in trust for my beloved daughter, Elizabeth Vere, sole offspring of my late lamented wife, Mary Elizabeth Vere. Such a sum as the said Hugh Clarendon may consider proper shall be yearly set aside for the maintenance, education, and support of my said daughter, who, with the permission of her guardian, Hugh Clarendon, thus appointed, shall reside with his family so long as she desires it. The balance of my yearly income shall continue to be invested, after the payment of such legacies as I shall presently name, until my beloved daughter be of age or marry, at which time she shall come into immediate and entire possession of my whole estate, without restriction.
"In case of her death before either of these events come to pass, I hereby devise my whole estate to the said Hugh Clarendon and his heirs forever."
Then followed numerous legacies to friends and public charities, for Andrew Vere was a man of large heart and immense fortune, with no relations except his only child, and possessing a character so just that he considered it necessary to return, in a measure, to the city of his adoption, a portion of that wealth which he had acquired as a successful merchant in Charleston, South Carolina.
"Right," he said, in a feeble tone, as the clerk finished his task. "Thank you, Mr. Corbett; you have explained fully my wishes. You accept this charge, dear sir?" turning to the gentleman at his bedside.
"My dear friend," answered Mr. Clarendon, to whom Mr. Vere spoke, "you are too generous. I do not allude merely to your legacies to us, which are princely, but the confidence you repose in me is exceedingly gratifying. God grant that I may be enabled to act a worthy part by your little girl, and my wife's tenderness and interest in Elizabeth will, I trust, lead her in time to look upon us as her family."
"She will be happy with you," said Mr. Vere; "and she is so young, that before many weeks are over, my darling will have forgotten that I ever lived. Lift her up, Clarendon; let me see her in your arms; I would like to give her my last blessing there."
Mr. Clarendon leaned over the bed, and, drawing down a shawl which was closely wrapped about what had seemed a large bundle, he softly laid upon his shoulder the fair head of a lovely little girl of five or six years. She was not yet awake, and her rosy mouth all puckered up, her disheveled curls, and flushed cheeks, which showed traces of tears, looked as if she had probably cried herself to sleep.
The dying father passed his weak hands caressingly over her smooth, childish brow.
"I may well call her Lily," he said, smiling; "is she not white as any lily that ever grew? Oh, cherish her, Clarendon! deal gently with her. Perhaps you doubt the wisdom of making her so young independent, or of putting no check upon her choice in marriage; but I have every confidence in Lily; she has great judgment. Don't laugh at that word, applied to a baby. She deserves it."
Mr. Clarendon silently pressed his friend's unoccupied hand, and there was a pause of several moments.
The lawyer, Mr. Corbett, and his clerk had noiselessly withdrawn to the adjoining room. The solitary candle, burning amid the phials and gallipots on the table near, cast a wavering, flickering light, now illuminating the wasted features of Andrew Vere, then flashing upon the strong, hearty, honest face of Hugh Clarendon, and sometimes gilding with double gold Lily's light ringlets.
"She looks like her mother," continued Mr. Vere. "Poor Mary! as earnestly as I recommend Lily to your care, did she charge me to watch over her two-weeks-old infant. Mrs. Purvis wished to take the child from me. She will be very angry now that her granddaughter should pass into your hands; but they never liked me, those haughty Purvises, and there is no love lost between us. I can forgive them for despising me as a low-born Scotchman, but I can not forget their persecution of Mary. But these are not proper words for the lips of one who must turn his thoughts to heavenly things."
A fit of coughing seized Mr. Vere, and the sound aroused Lily.
She opened her large blue eyes, slid down from Mr. Clarendon's arms, and, without bustle or noise, went to the table and prepared some medicine for her father. It was curious to see the tiny hands and grave little face so absorbed and quiet.
Mr. Vere swallowed what she gave him, and then, the paroxysm over, laid back upon his pillow exhausted and death-like.
Lily replaced the glass and snuffed the candle with the composure of a matron, and then, smoothing the bedclothes, took her stand at her father's side.
"You are a real little nurse, Elizabeth," said Mr. Clarendon, kindly.
"Dr. Barton said I might stay with papa all the time if I would be good, and not cry or make a noise," answered the child, with a sweet voice, full of tears.
"When I die, Lily, you will remember that I bid you love Mr. and Mrs. Clarendon, and look upon Willie, George, and Alicia as your brothers and sisters:" this was slowly and with difficulty pronounced by her father.
"Yes, papa." The large tears rolled down the child's face, and she shook with an inward tremor, but no sound escaped her: one small palm was closely locked in her father's, and she tried to find her handkerchief with the other. Deeply she dived into her little pocket: it was not there; so, lifting quietly the hem of her short white dress, she wiped away the scalding drops, and stood patiently and sadly, ever watchful and perfectly still.
So the hours wore away. Dr. Barton came, looked at his patient, patted Lily's head, advised her being sent to bed, but could only persuade her to resume the shawl and the place by her father; and at daylight the spirit of Andrew Vere passed from this earth.CHAPTER 2
"Who shall be queen?"
"Oh no! we must draw lots."
"Let the boys choose—let them vote for queen."
"No, indeed. This is a fair field, and we shall have no supremacy of men—in round jackets at that. We shall all vote," said Grace Meredith.
"Lily ought to be Queen of May. In her own house, too! And see how tall and stately Lily looks! Just like a queen, as she walks down the steps."
"Very well; Lily shall be queen, for all that I care," said Sara Purvis, curling her lip.
"Thank you, Sara," said Lily, advancing. "And precisely because it is in my own house I would rather not be queen, Nora."
"Nonsense," exclaimed George Clarendon. "Sara, you are always making a fuss. Here is my cap, and there is a sheet of paper and a pencil: each of you young ladies and young gentlemen, without distinction of petticoats or—or—etcs., write the name of any young lady you choose on a scrap of this paper, throw it in the cap, and when you have all voted, we will count the result, and, of course, majority takes it. The elected queen may have a king chosen by herself if she likes, and if she has any sense she will confer that honor on me."
"A King of May! what an absurdity!" cried Grace Meredith. "No, George, you shall be chief executioner to the queen, and cut off the heads of rebellious and revengeful subjects. Sara," she continued, maliciously, in a half whisper, "has so small a throat it will not be a troublesome case, any more than that other poor lady's of ancient days who wanted to be queen and was not popular enough."
George Clarendon, who enjoyed such thrusts at Lily's supercilious cousin, laughed out.
"Very well. I resign the office. 'Uneasy lies the head,' and so on. Now let us to business. Young ladies, if I might be permitted to suggest one caution: don't each of you write your own name. It may create confusion, and will certainly be found out. Miss Sara, can you write legibly?"
"George!" exclaimed Lily, laying her hand upon his arm, while her sweet blue eyes at once implored and commanded him to be quiet.
"Oh yes, Lily—oh yes, certainly. Miss Purvis, here is my pencil; you must begin."
Sara Purvis haughtily took the pencil and scribbled a name. She was too angry by this time to attempt to retort, and surely it was a wise part, unconsciously assumed, for she could not cope with her teasers. A prettier dunce did not adorn all Christendom.
The balloting went slowly on, for some wrote, and then changed their minds, and wrote again. The half grown boys, with all the fickleness of full-grown men, were even more capricious than the young girls, and countless ends of paper strewed the green turf before their decisions were fairly inscribed.
Meanwhile Lily, after depositing her vote, left the group to give some order in the house, soon returned, and, pausing on the threshold of the door, gazed around and about her.
Calm, beautiful, and luxuriant was the scene. The sun was just sinking. It was the last day of April, and the growth, the vegetation, the wide-spreading lands in their Southern loveliness smiled back at their fair mistress, as she, with a deep-drawn inspiration, thanked God for having bestowed upon her so much power for doing good and making others happy.
Chicora Wood was the name of this plantation. Chicora being the melodious Indian word for mocking-bird, and for these American nightingales every tree seemed as a colony. The house was spacious, built in a rambling, old-fashioned, disconnected manner—very comfortable, but very queer. There were curious little closets of all odd shapes, and a window projected here, and a piazza was added there, without much reference to any fixed plan. But the effect was not ugly, for glorious old oaks surrounded it, and the moss waved its gray banner over the gable ends, a fresh verdure covered the lawn, and beautiful baskets of osier, filled with roses and flowers of every sort, like huge fairy offerings, were scattered about wherever a vacant spot among the oaks gave sunshine enough to warrant their cultivation. Two fragrant beds of violets and mignonnette flanked either side of the broad stone steps, and a woodbine, with its brilliant red blossoms, climbed up the pillars of the piazza. Orangetrees, with their deep amber fruit, and here and there a lingering white flower spoke of poetry and bridal tokens; and far in the distance was seen the forest, now all green, and cool, and sombre. Turning her eyes in the opposite direction, Lily could perceive the gently flowing Peedee (not twenty yards from the house), her own rice-banks, the negroes coming in from their daily task; through a vista cut in the forest, the white gleaming cottages in which they lived; beyond, the barn, the mill, the poultry-yard, kitchen-garden, and other offices. From afar off came a murmur of life and work (but not of misery nor grinding care); in the empty rooms behind her, not a sound; on the lawn, beneath the largest and most venerable of the oaks, one known as the Traitor's Tree (from the tradition that on its branches during the Revolution a Loyalist spy had been hanged), laughed, jested, and frolicked her youthful guests, about fourteen in number.
Lily herself had just kept her fifteenth birth-day. She was well-grown for her years, and threatened to be a tall woman. She was not strictly handsome. Her mouth was large, her nose short, but her complexion was the most exquisite you can conceive; no pastil, which gives such softness, such brilliancy to its pictured beauties, would be exaggerating my heroine's skin. Her color was variable—tender, but always rich; and the mouth, as I before said, though large, was of the most beautiful carnation, and closed over teeth small, white, and even, like little seeds. The eyes were her decided feature; so deep, so blue, so clear, opening with that honest fearlessness so rarely seen, and differing essentially from a stare. You could never fancy Lily a coquette, "making eyes," as it is called. They were simply to her mind useful articles, kindly given her by that God to whom she was so grateful, for the purpose of seeing. If their lustrous mirror reflected faithfully the thoughts which filled her heart, it was by a process wholly unknown to herself; she merely looked through them. Her hair was no longer worn in childish style upon her white shoulders as when I first presented her to you in the last chapter. A rich roll of it was round about her head, and long, glossy, actually sparkling ringlets smoothly but carelessly framed her face. These glittering "prisoned sunbeams" were the only womanish sign of Lily's advancing years. Her dress was white, and simple in the extreme, gathered in at the throat and waist (which were slight, and girlish, and graceful) with statuesque plainness; her bare, still slender, but well-shaped arms displayed no bracelets, nor was there a ring or other sentimental signal upon her fingers.
Such was Lily: do you like her? Every one called her Lily; she preferred it; and what Lily liked was pretty sure to come to pass. Her father had now been dead nine years, and Mr. Clarendon had spared no pains to make his friend's loss as lightly felt by the daughter as Nature would allow. Lily's childhood had been very happy. Mrs. Clarendon was an excellent, worthy Southern matron. She was by no means an ornament to society, but she was a liberal, hard-working housekeeper. Her very soul was devoted to her husband; her children came next, then her house and household duties, finally her religion. She was a strict Churchman, relieved the poor, visited the sick—when she had the time—and tried not to believe the gossip that her old cronies whispered after morning service, or during a very occasional tea-drinking. Though she had been quite a belle, and Mr. Clarendon had carried her off from many competitors, no one would have believed it, she was so plain and fusty now. The pretty, delicate features were embrowned by exposure to the sun; the hands were hardened by washing up cups and dusting shelves; and the once rounded figure had quite disappeared, refusing, I suppose, to stay where it was so put upon by ill-made gowns. The children had been sent to good schools chosen by the head of the family, and Mrs. Clarendon had always been careful about their lunch, and that the doily which enveloped each child's portion should be clean, and should be regularly brought back every day. They were very fond of her, and though, of course, each year separated their pursuits and pleasures more and more from hers, and though they already began to feel and see that her views of life did not march with the progress of time, and that, consequently, her judgment could not be entirely relied upon, still her ear was always open to their wants and wishes, and her heart never was closed against their incursions. But the time was approaching for a more active exercise of her affection. Good waffles, excellent corn-bread, and well-mended clothes were all admirable in their way; but the moment had arrived for sympathy. Willie, when he returned for his first college vacation, and began to entertain manly views about society, said one day, "Mamma, what will you do when Alicia is grown up? You will surely go to balls and pay visits with her?"
Mrs. Clarendon, who had not found herself in a ballroom since the winter she was married, shuddered at the very thought.
"Why, William, I should not know what to do with myself. Mrs. Purvis has long since promised to bring Lily out, and I suppose she won't mind taking Alicia too. One of you boys can always look after your sister, and our own carriage would bring the girls home without ever troubling Lily's aunt."
"But, mamma, you will never know who associates with the girls; you can never become acquainted with their acquaintances; and I have seen so many bad effects from young ladies not having their mothers with them when they are from home—some one who can speak openly and fearlessly when a girl is going too far," and Willie pulled up his cravat like a dandy who might relate adventures to point his remarks. "Besides," he went on, "in Europe, you know, girls never are seen without their mother, or some especially and carefully appointed chaperon."
Excerpted from Gerald Gray's Wife and Lily by Susan Petigru King. Copyright © 1993 Jane H. Pease. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction vii
Lily: A Novel 1
Gerald Gray's Wife 207