Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Belles of Williamsburg by Mary Maillard

book cover
The Belles of Williamsburg:
The Courtship Correspondence of Eliza Fisk Harwood and Tristrim Lowther Skinner, 1839-1849
edited by Mary Maillard

ISBN-13: 9780991789313
ebook: 460 pages
Publisher: Independent Book Publishers Association
Released: January 1, 2015

Source: ebook review copy from the publisher through

Book Description from Goodreads:
After the Twelfth Night Party in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1841 – thirteen years old and brimming with hopeful exuberance – Eliza Fisk Harwood wrote her close friend, “Trim” Skinner of Edenton, North Carolina, that she had danced so long she wore holes into her new satin shoes and hose. Their subsequent correspondence charts Eliza’s education, coming of age, courtships and engagement, and Tristrim’s practical education in the management of the Skinner family’s farms. At the age of twenty-one – ten years after Trim had made her a secret promise and sealed it with a ring – Eliza married him and left her childhood home to become a Carolina plantation mistress.

Eliza Harwood's detailed letters are a popular masterpiece of social commentary– perhaps the only such record of Williamsburg college life during the 1840s. More importantly, the Harwood-Skinner correspondence sheds new light on the complex social, familial, and romantic elements of antebellum courtship in a decade not well represented among available primary sources. Eloquent and considered, the letters are a pleasure to read and would appeal to students, historians, and non-academics interested in the South and its history.

My Review:
The Belles of Williamsburg is a collection of courtship letters between Eliza Fisk Harwood and Tristrim Lowther Skinner dating from 1839-1849. An introduction gives the reader an overall idea of what is going on during the correspondence and an epilogue gives an overview their lives after they were married. The initial letters were mainly about what college students are boarding at the Williamsburg house, who is marrying, and who is dying. As Eliza gets older and especially as the courtship becomes serious, the letters talk more about Eliza's and Tristrim's own lives.

I appreciate that the editor included excerpts from the novel that Eliza thought mimicked her own courtship. Having these excerpts helped me to better understand what Eliza and Tristrim were referring to and going through in their own courtship. There were also about 100 pages of end notes and such to give further information about the people and events mentioned in the letters. The editor's notes certainly help to tie the "story" together.

I think these letters will be of most interest to people who are interested in courtship letters of the time, those interested in Williamsburg at this time period, or those who are somehow related to these families. If you're interested in a sense of what everyday life was like, it's there but generally only in passing. They were catching up on family news or asking "please write more frequently," not (usually) describing what they did that day. Overall, I'd recommend this book, but it's probably going to be of interest to only a limited audience.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

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