BOOKS: The Myth of the Southern Belle

Tara Revisited by Catherine Clinton John Murray, pounds 12.99 Yankee Women by Elizabeth D Leonard Norton Press, pounds 18.50
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The Independent Culture
Every 3 June, the United Daughters of the Confederacy converge on Richmond, Virginia for a solemn ceremony in which, hands on hearts, they salute the Confederate flag. The raison d'etre of the Daughters, founded in 1894, is, as it has always been, to keep alive the dream of the Lost Cause and nurture the beguiling memory of a more "noble and refined" culture. "Fate denied victory," so the UDC ethos goes, "but has crowned us with glorious immortality".

Tara Revisited: Women, War and the Plantation Legend and Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War are both timely books and, put another way, books of their time. The ongoing popular fascination with, and nostalgia for, this bygone world of white-columned plantations, elegant belles and grand balls has never been stronger than in this greyer age. Moreover, with the issue of race relations so much to the fore, a reassessment of that period by US historians is inevitable. That both books focus on the "gender system" is also no great surprise. And they are both fairly packed with interesting and informative historical detail. What is unfortunate, though, is that whenever material is put forward to underscore the authors' main themes, the voice of politically correct 1995 unmistakably intrudes, making both books as irritating as they are illuminating.

Clinton's survey begins with an extremely useful historical overview. In the early years, nearly all of the Southerners were, class-wise, pretty near the bottom of the barrel. The vast majority travelled to the region as indentured servants from Europe with the hope of obtaining the security of property and status once their freedom had been earned. Within a decade, most were modest farmers. By the time of the American Revolution, a small but significant group of descendant families had been transformed into wealthy, land-owning dynasties. In the late 17th century, the farms were mostly worked by whites; there were only 600 African slaves in the South. A century later, some 180,000 blacks supported a European-apeing, nouveau- gentry. Little, therefore, was what it seemed in that region from the very beginning, maintains Clinton: the carefree ease and grace of the Southern plantation mistress were as much a part of the moonlight-and- magnolias myth as were the "happy darkies" who served their masters out of fealty and affection. Indeed, once a woman married a grand landowner, her life was filled with humdrum tasks. But as soon as the author begins to talk in terms of "chauvinist stereotype" and the "utter absurdity" of certain politically incorrect non-feminist or racial notions of the day, we know that we are getting - however absorbing and thought-provoking - a history with a not-very-hidden agenda.

Similarly anachronist story-telling befalls Leonard. It concentrates on three Yankee women who symbolise noteworthy challenges to the "gender system" during the Civil War: a professional front-line kitchen organiser, a nurse and, uniquely in Mary Walker's case, a doctor. Leonard presents some fascinating anec-dotes, but her narrative repeatedly jars with its gender- babble and attendant value judgements. Walker, for instance, is praised for challenging convention by going to medical school, yet disparaged for having "acquiesced to convention" and for failing to transcend her "deep roots in Victorian ideology" - all because she fell in love and married during those student years and extolled the virtues of a loving partnership. (She is later redeemed in the author's eyes, however, by divorcing and never having another romantic attachment.)

These two books exemplify the good, the bad and the ugly of historiography. It is a monumental challenge to uncover the unvarnished truth of any age. But when you set out with a very modern point to prove, that truth becomes all the more elusive.