Photo by James Dickinson
Martha Stewart is a lightweight when you compare her to Richmonder Mary Virginia Terhune, aka Marion Harland.
Terhune could scrub dirt off whitewashed walls, whip up a wedding cake, wash "doubtful calicoes" and suggested that you take your whole bed apart and dust it when you were spring-cleaning. She wrote a best-selling homemaking book in the 19th century, Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, more than a half-dozen cookbooks, plus manuals on etiquette and even one on how to care for babies and raise children. Her essays and advice columns appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, and she had her own line of housewares.
From June 20 to 22, the Southern Foodways Alliance will eat, hold talks and show movies to explore "Women, Work, and Food," the focus of their Summer Foodways Symposium, here and in Charlottesville. For membership details, visit southernfoodways.org.
Like her contemporary counterpart, Terhune has a distinct (and familiar) voice in her books. She's a kindly but bossy know-it-all; her standards are impossibly high and she tolerates no deviation from her methods. At the same time, like Stewart, she also seems to hold out the promise that if you just put in the effort and follow her advice, you, too, might achieve the shiny, well-organized lifestyle that she herself leads. "My book is designed to help you," she writes. "I believe it will, if for no other reason because it has been a faithful guide to myself — a reference beyond value in seasons of doubt and need." Of course, again like Stewart, she wasn't exactly leading the lifestyle that she promoted. She was a celebrated author who churned out a prodigious amount of prose and made regular appearances on the lecture circuit. She earned a lot of money and lived in large homes. And sprinkled throughout her autobiography are references to her cook, her gardener, her housemaid and her nanny. Terhune wasn't making her own stewed calf's head or scrubbing her own copper with brick dust and flannel. She began her career at age 16 as a novelist under the pen name Marion Harland. Her father, Samuel Hawes, a successful coal merchant in the city, funded her debut novel's first printing in 1854 after it was turned down by a Richmond publisher. It was a shrewd move on Hawes' part, since the novel went on to sell more than 100,000 copies over the next 20 years. In a letter to her friend, Virginia Eppes Dance, Terhune wrote, "As it is a Virginia story, Southerners should buy it, if it has no other merit." Before the Civil War, plantation novels were the flipside of best-selling abolitionist books like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Almost all of them were romances that thinly disguised their promotion of Southern culture and its rationalization for slavery. Although she continued to write novels set in the South throughout her life, Terhune never quite seemed sold on the idea of slavery (actually, she barely mentioned it in her novels) and perhaps that was part of the impetus for the book that would make her a household name, Common Sense in the Household, published in 1871. Terhune wanted to help other women struggling to manage their homes post-Civil War. After her marriage to Edward Payson Terhune, a minister, she found herself as a housewife in Amelia Courthouse with almost no idea what to do. Although, she writes in her autobiography, in "my father's house I was considered to have a turn, if not a talent for housewifery," she found her skills sorely lacking once on her own. Slaves did the bulk of the actual work in antebellum Virginia and a slaveholder's wife performed mostly managerial duties. With just one slave at her disposal, Terhune needed more extensive knowledge to run her household. Over the next decade, she kept notes and compiled the recipes that eventually would become her household manual. "I learned, by degrees," she wrote in her autobiography, "to regard housewifery as a profession that dignifies her who follows it, and contributes, more than any other calling, to the mental, moral and spiritual sanity of the human race." On a more practical level, when it published, the manual was particularly useful for women faced, for the first time, with managing their households during an economically unstable time. No longer were Southern women aided by corps of slaves, and Northern women were struggling to put their lives back together after the disruption of war. Like the young Terhune, most were on their own when it came to cooking and cleaning. Terhune's conviction that housework was a profession quickly became her profession, and her fiction became overshadowed by her reputation as a domestic expert. Common Sense was more successful than any of her other books and sold more than 250,000 copies in the United States and Europe. "There was no American city so great, no crossroads village so remote, but the name of Marion Harland was as familiar there as if she had been a President of the United States," said her obituary in The Outlook. Terhune wrote in her autobiography with pride, "It will do more good than all of them put together." Her son, Alfred Payson Terhune (who became even more famous than his mother as the author of a series of dog novels that Lassie was based upon), thought her feelings were more ambivalent. "To me there is a glint of tragedy in that," he wrote in American Magazine in 1926. "She won her campaign for the betterment of American homes; but in winning it, she threw away her high vogue as a fiction writer." Terhune herself never hinted at any misgivings about the course of her career. She continued to write steadily until her death at age 92. Although all that remains of Terhune in Virginia is a lonely historical marker in Amelia County, she was remembered into the 20th century by the last generation to be raised on her books and advice columns. "It was the kind of cookbook that, always suitably inscribed, young husbands gave to wives, and older brothers to their marriageable sisters [in the 19th century]," M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her 1936 book, Serve It Forth. " Common Sense was made by Marion Harland, a kindly, sensible woman if her book is true indication. … Her prose is straightforward, occasionally anecdotal, with short bits of Dickens stuck in like raisins in a bun." I'm sure, however, Mary Virginia Terhune might think her book as more like her cinnamon-and-nutmeg-laden recipe for huckleberry cake : "It deserves to be better known."