Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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A Diary From Dixie.

January 18, 2014

A Diary From Dixie by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut.

January 18th.—Invited to Dr. Haxall’s last night to meet the Lawtons. Mr. Benjamin[1] dropped in. He is a friend of the house. Mrs. Haxall is a Richmond leader of society, a ci-devant beauty and belle, a charming person still, and her hospitality is of the genuine Virginia type. Everything Mr. Benjamin said we listened to, bore in mind, and gave heed to it diligently. He is a Delphic oracle, of the innermost shrine, and is supposed to enjoy the honor of Mr. Davis’s unreserved confidence.

Lamar was asked to dinner here yesterday; so he came to-day. We had our wild turkey cooked for him yesterday, and I dressed myself within an inch of my life with the best of my four-year-old finery. Two of us, my husband and I, did not damage the wild turkey seriously. So Lamar enjoyed the réchauffé, and commended the art with which Molly had hid the slight loss we had inflicted upon its mighty breast. She had piled fried oysters over the turkey so skilfully, that unless we had told about it, no one would ever have known that the huge bird was making his second appearance on the board.

Lamar was more absent-minded and distrait than ever. My husband behaved like a trump—a well-bred man, with all his wits about him; so things went off smoothly enough. Lamar had just read Romola. Across the water he said it was the rage. I am sure it is not as good as Adam Bede or Silas Marner. It is not worthy of the woman who was to “rival all but Shakespeare’s name below.” “What is the matter with Romola?” he asked. “Tito is so mean, and he is mean in such a very mean way, and the end is so repulsive. Petting the husband’s illegitimate children and left-handed wives may be magnanimity, but human nature revolts at it.” “Woman’s nature, you mean!” “Yes, and now another test. Two weeks ago I read this thing with intense interest, and already her Savonarola has faded from my mind. I have forgotten her way of showing Savonarola as completely as I always do forget Bulwer’s Rienzi.”

“Oh, I understand you now! It is like Milton’s devil—he has obliterated all other devils. You can’t fix your mind upon any other. The devil always must be of Miltonic proportions or you do not believe in him; Goethe’s Mephistopheles disputes the crown of the causeway with Lucifer. But soon you begin to feel that Mephistopheles to be a lesser devil, an emissary of the devil only. Is there any Cardinal Wolsey but Shakespeare’s? any Mirabeau but Carlyle’s Mirabeau? But the list is too long of those who have been stamped into your brain by genius. The saintly preacher, the woman who stands by Hetty and saves her soul; those heavenly minded sermons preached by the author of Adam Bede, bear them well in mind while I tell you how this writer, who so well imagines and depicts female purity and piety, was a governess, or something of that sort, and perhaps wrote for a living; at any rate, she had an elective affinity, which was responded to, by George Lewes, and so she lives with Lewes. I do not know that she caused the separation between Lewes and his legal wife. They are living in a villa on some Swiss lake, and Mrs. Lewes, of the hour, is a charitable, estimable, agreeable, sympathetic woman of genius.”

Lamar seemed without prejudices on the subject; at least, he expressed neither surprise nor disapprobation. He said something of “genius being above law,” but I was not very clear as to what he said on that point. As for me I said nothing for fear of saying too much. “You know that Lewes is a writer,” said he. “Some people say the man she lives with is a noble man.” “They say she is kind and good if—a fallen woman.” Here the conversation ended.

[1] Judah P. Benjamin, was born, of Jewish parentage, at St. Croix in the West Indies, and was elected in 1852 to represent Louisiana in the United States Senate, where he served until 1861. In the Confederate administration he served successively from 1861 to 1865 as Attorney-General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. At the close of the war he went to England where he achieved remarkable success at the bar.

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