A collection of letters between two young members (future husband and wife) of the landed elite of the South in the decades preceding the Civil War.
When, in 1839, vivacious 12-year-old Eliza Fisk Harwood embarked on a correspondence with her friend Tristrim “Trim” Skinner, a vast epistolary record was set in motion that culminated in their marriage on Feb. 19, 1849. Maillard, the volume’s editor, calls one letter in this collection “a key to Williamsburg’s gentry in the 1840s” but “an interlinear mess, a transcriber’s nightmare.” All give a vivid sense of culture, time, and place. Both Eliza and Trim came from families who were long-standing members of Southern aristocracy, and they were brought together when Trim, coming to Williamsburg to attend his freshman year at the College of William and Mary, took up lodgings at Tazewell Hall, the home of Mary Ann and Dickie Galt and their 11-year-old ward, Eliza, to whom the Galts were “entirely devoted.” Trim and Eliza became close friends, and in a few years, according to Maillard’s persuasive reading of the documents, friendship deepened into romantic love. In 1845, after a series of relationship vicissitudes, the two experienced what Maillard refers to as “the shift from familial friendship to courtship ritual”—and a large part of that ritual consisted of these eloquent and often curiously distant-seeming letters, a correspondence that reads at times like “both a society column and a social register.” We get letter after letter of Eliza’s detailing her social life, her family life, and vacations as well as lively anecdotes about people and the weather. In an 1845 letter, for example, she writes with playful sarcasm about how it makes her eyes “flash fire” to see a friend entertaining more beaus than she herself has; “I try to bear it with Christian fortitude,” she drolly reports. Trim’s slightly plodding responses tend toward more somber reminders to her of his “heart’s first wish.” In one letter from 1846, for instance, he stolidly reflects on a Christmas present he hopes to receive: “One of the blessing[s] which I covet, and which I hope you will not be unwilling for me to attain, is a more regular correspondence with you.” And Maillard throughout performs her editorial duties with an unobtrusive thoroughness that will make this a required reference work for the period.
An invaluable glimpse into the people and society (and two young lovers’ hearts) of the antebellum South.