The Southern Belle With the Spine of Steel

Stephen Vincent Benet nailed down the type, in his poem epic John Brown’s Body, in a phrase that has resonated with me ever since I read it so long ago that I don’t recall when I read it – the quintessential southern belle, who propped up the South on a swansdown fan:

Mary Lou Wingate, as slightly made
And as hard to break as a rapier-blade.
Bristol’s daughter and Wingate’s bride,
Never well since the last child died
But staring at pain with courteous eyes.

He was writing about the Civil War-era gentle lady, who appeared fragile, elegant and helpless to the superficial observer, but underneath was determined, worldly, hyper-competent as a manager and who hated and loved with a white-hot passion. It’s a neat trick to pull off, in real life – and fearful respect and admiration is due to those woman who did manage to pull it off without having a nervous breakdown; those historic and those who are merely literary creations. In the popular imagination, Scarlett O’Hara is supposed to be the classic literary southern belle – but she wasn’t really; she was a rebel outlier, an iconoclast, a southern-belle non-conformist. It was her sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes who conformed to the classic southern-belle ideal; gentle and fragile-seeming, tough as old boots underneath.

My own nomination for best real-life southern belle is Margaret Lea Houston: soft-spoken, devout, well-educated and quite beautiful by the standards of any age. At the age of 21 and over considerable opposition from her family, she calmly and deliberately married Sam Houston, erstwhile hero of San Jacinto, then 47. His friends were as skeptical as her family was horrified: twice her age, he had been also married twice before, and was notorious for being a two-fisted drinker of absolutely prodigious amounts of alcohol, a rake and a hot-tempered adventurer. No one could see that they had anything the least in common; certain of his friends gave it six months, tops. Sam Houston’s first wife had been of the same southern-belle breed, who married him when he seemed to be at the top of his political game as governor of Tennessee. But Eliza Allen had abruptly returned to her father’s house within weeks for reasons unknown; the scandal of it temporarily wrecked Sam Houston, politically and possibly emotionally. At any rate, he went off to the Cherokee territory in present-day Arkansas, and spent most of the next few years on a prolonged bender. He married there, to Tiana Rogers, under tribal law, but when he decided to go to Texas in the early 1830s, she refused to accompany him.

During the subsequent war for Texas independence from Mexico, Houston was one of those who kept his head. He was not distracted by the attraction of holding strong points such as the presidios of the Alamo and La Bahia, or wearing out his little army in fixed battles defending a static line. Ruthlessly, he adopted a scorched-earth strategy, withdrawing and biding his time until the moment, the place and the opportunity was right. When it was, he and his army of Texians and volunteers pounced – and Houston became a hero, all over again. He had two horses shot out from under him, and his ankle shattered by a bullet. When he accepted the surrender of Santa Anna, Houston was lying on a blanket under a tree, with a doctor tending to it. This was not the first time he had been injured in battle – the first time, in the war of 1812, he had been struck in the arm, shoulder and upper thigh by bullets and arrows – injured so badly that he was left for dead, and the shoulder wound never healed, over the whole of his remaining life. Very possibly, heavy drinking would have been a kind of self-medication for chronic pain.

By the time he met Margaret Lea in May of 1839, at a garden party held at her sister’s house in Mobile, Alabama, he had already served a term as President of Texas. Margaret’s widowed mother Nancy had recently sold her late husband’s property for a good price, and wished to consult with her son-in-law over investing the proceeds. A fairly canny businesswoman and manager, Nancy Lea perhaps did not realize at first how her daughter and General Houston were immediately and deeply taken with each other – but it seems that the attraction between them was almost instantaneous and she committed to marry him after only a week of whirlwind courtship. Three years before, Margaret Lea had seen the General on his arrival in New Orleans, where he had gone for medical treatment of his shattered ankle. Legend has it that she had turned to her friends and calmly announced that he was the man she intended to marry.

So, perhaps there was a bit of a long-time crush on her part. For his part – and this is my own speculation – she was the kind of woman that he was susceptible to, the kind of woman that his mother had been: educated, genteel, conventionally pious and devoted to family. And he seems to have been the kind of man who truly relishes the company of women; not only that, but respects the female viewpoint, and thoroughly enjoys their company – and not just in the bedroom. Against the odds and likely to the astonishment of all, the marriage was a success. Sam Houston and Margaret Lea were blissfully happy; she even prevailed upon him to stop drinking – a good thing, since it prolonged his political career for far longer than would have been otherwise possible. When his obligations as a US Senator for Texas took him to Washington, D.C., Margaret remained behind, making a home for him and their children, of whom there would eventually be eight; four sons and four daughters. One senses that he was her project, her master-working: that he was a great man, and that it was her life-time task to make it possible for him to be greater . . . and more importantly, content. Eventually she prevailed upon him to be baptized. They wrote to each other, a letter every day that they were apart, during their marriage, which only ended with his death in 1863. His last words were, “Texas, Texas, Margaret.”

(Sam Houston appears several times in the Trilogy, and in Daughter of Texas – and Margaret makes an appearance in Deep in the Heart, when they make a visit to console the widowed Margaret Vining. He is one of those fascinating historical characters whom one would really liked to have met in person. Putting him in my books is the closest that I can get to that.)

3 thoughts on “The Southern Belle With the Spine of Steel”

  1. Reading John Brown’s Body was part of one of my highschool english classes. I enjoyed it and remember being surprised that anyone would still be writing poem epics. I wonder if it is still being read?

  2. I think I read it, too – if not in high school, then in one of my parent’s books.
    I also read and loved Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” – an epic Arthurian story, that rhymed! What could be cooler than that?!

  3. Maybe I should read the poem. A family member died at Harper’s Ferry, fighting on the side of John Brown.

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