August 1888 Fiction The Civil War

The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation

The famous novelist’s tale of an elderly Southerner, oblivious to what the war had cost her.

A home in Charleston, shortly after the city fell. During the war, hundreds of plantations across the South were completely destroyed, and thousands more were damaged. (Library of Congress)

Best known as a quintessential Maine writer and the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs (a novel first serialized in The Atlantic), Sarah Orne Jewett published her first short story in The Atlantic at age 19. Her correspondence with the magazine’s editor, James T. Fields, and his assistant, William Dean Howells, soon grew into friendship.

In the 1870s, she became friendly with Fields’s wife, Annie, and after his death in 1881, the two became inseparable.

In early 1888, when Annie Fields contracted pneumonia and was instructed by a doctor to convalesce in the South, she and Jewett set out for Florida, stopping en route on the island of St. Helena, off the coast of South Carolina, to stay with a friend who was running a school for former slaves. (See page 80 for Charlotte Forten’s account of teaching there during the war.) Jewett’s “The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation,” published later that year, told the tale of an elderly St. Helena woman who, years after the war, carries on with her aristocratic Southern rituals, oblivious that her family is gone and her plantation lies in ruins.

—Sage Stossel

A high wind was blowing from the water into the Beaufort streets,—a wind of as reckless hilarity as March could give to her breezes, but soft and spring-like, almost early-summer-like, in its warmth.

In the gardens of the old Southern houses that stood along the bay, roses and petisporum-trees were blooming, with their delicious fragrance. It was the time of wistarias and wild white lilies, of the last yellow jasmines and the first Cherokee roses. It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday …

From one of the high houses which stand fronting the sea, with their airy balconies and colonnades, had come a small, slender figure that afternoon, like some shy, dark thing of twilight out into the bright sunshine. The street was empty, for the most part; before one or two of the cheap German shops a group of men watched the little old lady step proudly by. She was a very stately little old lady, for one so small and thin; she was feeble, too, and bending a little with the weight of years, but there was true elegance and dignity in the way she moved, and those who saw her, who shuffled when they walked, and who boasted loudly of the fallen pride of the South, were struck with sudden deference and admiration. Behind this lady walked a gray-headed negro, a man who was troubled in spirit, who sometimes gained a step or two, and offered an anxious but quite unheeded remonstrance. He was a poor, tottering old fellow; he wore a threadbare evening coat that might have belonged to his late master thirty years before.

The pair went slowly along the bay street to the end of the row of new shops, and the lady turned decidedly toward the water, and approached the ferry-steps … Before the boat was out of hail, long before it had passed the first bank of raccoon oysters, the tide being at the ebb, it was known by fifty people that for the first time in more than twenty years the mistress of the old Sydenham plantation on St. Helena’s Island had taken it into her poor daft head to go look after her estates, her crops, and her people. Everybody knew that her estates had been confiscated during the war; that her people owned it themselves now, in three and five and even twenty acre lots; that her crops of rice and Sea Island cotton were theirs, planted and hoed and harvested on their own account. All these years she had forgotten Sydenham, and the live-oak avenue, and the outlook across the water to the Hunting Islands, where the deer ran wild; she had forgotten the war; she had forgotten her children and her husband, except that they had gone away,—the graves to which she carried Easter flowers were her mother’s and her father’s graves,—and her life was a strange dream …

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