[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

Margaret,
by Sylvester Judd (1845)

Margaret is an odd combination: part description of life in New England just after the American Revolution, part melodrama, part utopian novel, all temperance novel. Published anonymously in 1845 at 460 pages, it was revised in 1851 and published under its author’s name at 625 pages in two volumes. (The two-volume version is available at archive.org.)

Sylvester Judd (1813-1853) was a Unitarian minister attempting to create Unitarian fiction of use to the clergy, to families, and to Sunday-school libraries. “The book designs to promote the cause of liberal Christianity, or, in other words, of a pure Christianity,” Judd wrote. “[I]t would give body and soul to the divine elements of the gospel. It aims to subject bigotry, cant, pharisaism, and all intolerance. Its basis is Christ: him it would restore to the church, him it would develop in the soul, him it would enthrone in the world. It designs also, in judicious and healthful ways, to aid the cause of peace, temperance, and universal freedom. In its retrospective aspect, it seeks to preserve some reminiscences of the age of our immediate fathers, thereby describing a period of which we have no enduring monuments, and one the traces of which are fast evanescing.”

Did he succeed? Reviewers certainly noted the religious aspect, with the North American Review and the Southern Quarterly Review expounding upon the place of Christianity in culture; Orestes Brownson—who didn’t even read the novel—uses it to introduce a 30-page disquisition on Protestantism’s connection with Transcendentalism. (He was against both.) As a novel, Margaret wasn’t as successful; reviewers described it as “very imperfect,” “crude,” and “tedious,” though several appreciated the depiction of New England countryside and life just after the War.

For the modern reader uninterested in 19th-century discussions of Unitarianism, the desciptions of ordinary life probably are of the most interest. Margaret makes quills for household use and receives a gift at Thanksgiving; she names her sled; her brother hangs a flint stone on the barn door to keep the Devil from riding the horses at night. (It doesn’t work.) The villagers’ speech is colorful and rich, and the description of training day details the chaos these were known for. That a family brings the children to learn a moral lesson by witnessing an execution is historical, as are the attitudes expressed toward the theater. Social class is explored through the descriptions of Margaret’s lower-class house, the inelegant parlor of a family of suspect Boston gentility, and the house of an ideal religious and intellectual family. Judd lovingly describes the rural landscape and its inhabitants—and when he doesn’t describe it himself, he has his characters do it for him.

As a novel, the book is … erratic. It doesn’t simply reflect the lives of ordinary people, it also attempts what Judd would call the “empyrean” heights, with a melodramatic love story between Margaret’s biological father and mother, who speak dialog impossible to say. Judd loved expansive sentences and apparently never wrote a paragraph he didn’t think was too long: one goes on for three pages and includes two separate scenes, while another stretches four pages while he describes every bird and plant in the woods. Some characters are impossible to imagine as human beings, especially the Master, whose dialog is so studded with Greek and Latin as to be incomprehensible to most readers. Other characters exist basically to act as mouthpieces for the author: Charles Evelyn lectures in long sentences made up of long clauses, in long scenes where Margaret basically feeds his sermons on religion and gods; at one point he spontaneously quotes from memory a paragraph from a book on Native Americans. Much of the novel consists of description, with the last 73 pages becoming epistolary, as Margaret describes her little utopia and how it came about in a series of letters. Melodrama breaks out unexpectedly, with Margaret’s brother sparking a fire that burns down the village, fanned by a Native American who relates the history of his betrayed people to Margaret before dramatically drowning himself and his granddaughter. When a young woman has premarital sex, the disgrace causes her parents and sister to die.

Judd’s presentation of race also is erratic. Charles Evelyn criticizes the Masons for not allowing African-American members, and Judd clearly depicts casual racism, as characters use racial epithets while castigating Nipmuck and black slaves. The speech of the village’s black barber is refreshingly free of an attempt at dialect; unfortunately, another character (Caesar) is almost unintelligible. Presentation of Native Americans is contradictory as well. Charles Evelyn admires them—and then calls New England “swept and garnished … an unencumbered region” now free of them. Pakanawket speaks like a stereotype before killing himself and his granddaughter and verbally leaving the woods, the hills, and waters to Margaret—another stereotypical trope.

Margaret is Judd’s ideal. Despite a rough upbringing, she is spiritual and sensitive, her instinctive understanding of Christ contrasted with the village’s legalistic version of a God who despises humans. She is a natural dowser, finding water where adults couldn’t. Caught in the woods during a brutal storm, Margaret is protected by nature and by a mother bear, who allows her to nurse as Margaret snuggles close. Her pure love of Charles Evelyn (whom she calls “Mr. Evelyn” even after they’re married) stands in contrast with her friend’s love affair, which kills her family. Having given Margaret a melodramatic background, Judd makes her an heiress and finds a way to have her educated to an extent befitting a minister’s wife. At the end of the book, she is a religious and intellectual leader in a town of devout and temperate people.

Because Margaret is a temperance novel. Margaret’s connection with water is almost supernatural. Training day at the village includes lots of drinking, by men, by women, and even by children. Disaster often follows liquor: after drinking, Margaret’s beloved brother accidentally causes the death of another man; her other brother drops his lit pipe in the woods while drunk, and the village burns to the ground. Rebuilt, the village becomes a liquor-free utopia.

How popular was Margaret? It was read; it was reviewed. Orestes Brownson felt he knew enough about the book to castigate it even though he hadn’t read it. But the book received compliments few others did. John Russell Bartlett included what seems to be a quarter of the book in his Dictionary of Americanisms. And Margaret inspired 30 lithograph illustrations by drawn by Felix Octavius Carr Darley. (Compositions in Outline, by Felix O. C. Darley, from Judd’s Margaret. Engraved by Konrad Huber. New York: Redfield, 1856.) Darley had illustrated Washington Irving’s works, creating an iconic image of Rip Van Winkle; for Margaret he again dug deep into nostalgia, featuring characters and dramatic scenes from the book—mostly from the early sections.

The 1845 Margaret is presented here as a single file, with the original page numbers.

The transcription here retains the original spelling and hyphenated words. The novel is a copy-editor’s nightmare, with erratic hyphenation and capitalization. While I’ve corrected some obvious typographical errors inside square brackets, I haven’t attempted to standardize anything. A paragraph break and double quotes were added on page 339, to separate one of Margaret’s lines of dialog from a speech of Chilion’s. The Greek and Hebrew in some of “the Master’s” speeches proved too much a challenge for html: “Hebrew word” and “Greek phrase” are linked to scans from the book.

Margaret | reviews of the book

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