Tried for Her Life started out with the neatest chapter title of all time; viz.; Sybil’s Subterranean Adventures, then planted the reader right into the middle of the story with the first sentence:
“When Sybil recovered from her death-like swoon, she felt herself being borne slowly on through what seemed a narrow, tortuous underground passage; but the utter darkness, relieved only by a gleaming red taper that moved like a star before her, preventing her from seeing more.”
Sybil Berners, an outlaw, ’hunted throughout the world’ by the police for a supposed murder, was deposited in a spacious cavern under a building called the Haunted Chapel, after being kidnapped away from her husband, Lyon Berners. Her captors were a motley crew that included a woman named Princess, Mother Hecate, Moloch, Belial, and Satan, the leader of this motley band of thieves, highwaymen and counterfeiters. Sybil’s beau Lyon with his faithful negro-servant Joe (who was quite exasperated by his master’s thick-wittedness), and Sybil’s dog, Nelly, a Skye terrier, went to her rescue. The dog found a barred vault leading underground and some fool threw a burning torch within to see if they could see anything, which blew the Haunted Chapel, and the police-officers hunting Sybil to Kingdom Come. Meanwhile Sybil fought off the advances of Moloch and was saved by Satan, who wanted her charms to himself. There were hairbreadth escapes, trials, captures, and more improbable escapes, finally ending happily with Sybil’s name cleared, and the robbers routed.
The real shocker is that Southworth, who was said to have written the first story paper serial in America, was the internationally bestselling author of her day. Her serials in Bonner’s New York Ledger brought her $10,000 per year, and, as she was canny enough to control the copyright on all her work she became fabulously wealthy. One newspaper article, ‘Mrs. Southworth at Home’, described the popular novelists ‘cottage’ in 1886:
“In staid old Georgetown, on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac and with the imposing stone college of the Society of Jesus filling up the background, stands a quaint little cottage, its many peaked gables, its trailing vines and bright flowers, and its roomy verandas suggesting the quiet and repose so dear to the literary worker, writes a Washington correspondent. The view from the veranda is superb. You can see a wide expanse of the river, Fort Myer, the Aqueduct Bridge and a goodly stretch of the “sacred soil,” well wooded and picturesquely broken. The sight on a summer evening is worthy the brush of a Claude. On the river hundreds of craft of every description shoot gaily about -- racing shells, steam launches, and larger vessels pleasantly diversify the scene.”
Mrs. Southworth was “just a girl” when she married Frederick Southworth of Cincinnati, who deserted her after the birth of her second child. Her friends induced congress to pass a bill regulating divorces in the District of Columbia expressly for Mrs. Southworth but she was opposed to divorce on conscientious grounds. Her father had died and her mother remarried so she taught school and wrote short stories to support herself and two young children. She never did divorce her runaway husband.
Her first novel, Retribution, appeared in The National Era, an abolitionist newspaper in Washington edited by Dr. Bailey. After serialization it was published in book form by Harper’s.
“She was asked if she had experienced much difficulty in getting her earlier works published. “No,” she said, “I must say I was singularly fortunate in that respect, encountering none of the trials and tribulations that young authors generally have to undergo. I always managed to get into print very easily.”
Mrs. Southworth moved to London in 1859 where she edited the Young Ladies Journal (until 1862) while contributing serials to the London Journal, the London Herald, the London Reader, and the New York Ledger. Her most famous work was The Hidden Hand which was first serialized in the New York Ledger in 1859, then published in book form by Bonner & Sons in two volumes as The Hidden Hand and Capitola’s Perils. In England it was serialized in the London Herald, edited by Percy B. St. John. The heroine, Capitola, set off a merchandising mania in London for ‘Capitola’ hats, suits, bags and umbrellas. Sailors named their yachts after her. Here’s how the gay lady Capitola handled wicked Black Donald in The Hidden Hand:
“Black Donald, will you leave my room?” cried Capitola in an agony of prayer.
“No,” answered the outlaw, “and the five minutes of grace are quite up.”
“Stop, don’t move yet. Before you stir say ‘Lord have mercy on my soul,’” said Capitola solemnly. “I would not send you prayerless into the presence of your creator! For, Black Donald, within a few seconds your body will be hurled to swift destruction, and your soul will stand before the bar of God!”
Her foot was on the bar of the concealed trap.
He laughed aloud and stretched forth his arms to clasp her.
She pressed the spring.
The drop fell with a tremendous crash!
The outlaw shot downward.
There was an instant vision of a white and panic-stricken face, and wild uplifted hands; then a square black opening was all that remained of where the terrible intruder had sat!
Robert Bonner, proprietor of the New York Ledger was asked by a Daily Graphic reporter in 1889 “Who were your most successful story writers?” His reply was: “Mrs. Southworth and Sylvanus Cobb Jr. I think that the most popular and successful stories ever printed as serials were Cobb’s “The Gunmaker of Moscow” and Mrs. Southworth’s “Hidden Hand.”
Her last known work was The Phantom Wedding; or, the fall of the House of Flint, published in 1878.
*Also see E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra's post Novel-Based Victorian Melodrama HERE