I’m reviving an old classic — ST. ELMO by Augusta Jane Evans

My 1896 copy of St. Elmo, found in a box that my grandpa brought back from an auction.

Guys, I have a new book out in the world — though I didn’t write it. It’s an old classic from 1865 called St. Elmo. It’s possibly the third most popular book of the 1800s, and I’ve edited it and cleaned it up so this love story (man, what a love story) really shines through.

“It is useless to tell you how devotedly I love you; and yet you have shown my love no mercy.”

Flung into the world after the death of her beloved grandfather, 15-year-old Edna Earl, an inveterate bookworm, gets her chance at an education when a rich widow takes her into her home. Edna is overjoyed – until she meets the master of the house, St. Elmo Murray, the widow’s son, a brooding, Byronic man who wears defiance on his brow and misery in his heart. Pure-hearted Edna shrinks from St. Elmo’s dissipation and tries to hide from him through her intensive studies, though they continually clash.

Naturally, the seraphim and the devil fall in love.

When a desperate St. Elmo lays bare his sordid past to Edna and pleads with her to give her life to purify his, Edna flees temptation by leaving for New York. By day, she works as a governess; by night she gives herself over to writing books. A fantastically ambitious writer, Edna is destroying her health to be an author; and she fights her famished heart in denying her love for St. Elmo. But a heart attack leaves her future in darkness. Ambition, redemption, or death?

Fans of clean and wholesome historical romances, as well as books of Georgette Heyer, Mimi Matthews, Julianne Donaldson, and Stacy Henrie, will be swept away by this stunning romance.St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans, first published in 1866, was the third most popular novel of the 1800s. This new edition has been annotated, illustrated, and edited to within an inch of its life in order to bring this old favorite to a new generation of readers.

I have contemplated editing St. Elmo, seriously, since 1993, and I am very happy to have gotten this edited book out into the world at last.

Here’s how this project came to be:

When I was in junior high, Grandpa Vance would go to consignment sales just like his dad did, and sometimes he’d have boxes of stuff that we (the kids) would dig through. After one such auction, I got an Oxford Book of English Verse, a very small volume that traversed all of English poetry from its beginning, and a copy of St. Elmo. I still have both books, and both have long been a part of my life.

I read St. Elmo shortly thereafter. I was a freshman in high school at the time and was not very impressed. All the characters seemed to do was sit around talking about MSS (manuscripts) in a very lofty tone.

But the next year I reread the book. And

Oh

My

Goodness.

Utterly swept away by the love story – what a love story! – I devoured that book. I read it again and again all through high school. I lent it book to my favorite English teacher, Kay Tucker, and she stayed up until 2 a.m. that weekend reading it. A winner!

I spent a lot of time in the library, trying to find the poems and references Augusta had sprinkled liberally through the book. I also wrote my stories like Augusta, all flowery and erudite, until I bought a copy of The Elements of Style. This book’s admonitions to “Omit needless words” and “Do not overwrite” kept my own writing in balance – mostly.

Some of the editing I was doing in 1993 on my old copy of St. Elmo, because I was a dedicated word nerd. In fact, I still am.

Hey Melinda, why are you editing this book?

Mainly because St. Elmo is a damn good story, and I’ll be the first to be tackling people in the street saying READ THIS BOOK. You know, St. Elmo was the third top-selling novel in the 1800s, up there with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. When it first came out, the publisher had fifteen cylinder presses running day and night to keep up with the demand. But there are some issues with this novel that caused it to fall out of favor over the years.

A parody of St. Elmo, called, St. Twel’mo, or, The Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga, explains that Edna discovered a dictionary, and “she acquired in consequence a fatal fondness for polysyllables, a trick of speaking them trippingly, and a contempt for Common English, from which she never recovered.”

That parody was on the nose. It would seem that Augusta shook an encyclopedia upside-down over the MS to add her references. You don’t believe me? Well, get an eyeful of this paragraph from the original St. Elmo:

“Pardon me if I remind you, par parenthese, of the preliminary and courteous En garde! which should be pronounced before a thrust. De Guérin felt starved in Languedoc, and no wonder! But had he penetrated every nook and cranny of the habitable globe, and traversed the vast zaarahs which science accords the universe, he would have died at last as hungry as Ugolino. I speak advisedly, for the true Io gad-fly, ennui, has stung me from hemisphere to hemisphere, across tempestuous oceans, scorching deserts, and icy mountain ranges. I have faced alike the bourrans of the steppes and the Samieli of Shamo, and the result of my vandal life is best epitomized in those grand but grim words of Bossuet: ‘On trouve au fond de tout le vide et le néant.‘ Nineteen years ago, to satisfy my hunger, I set out to hunt the daintiest food this world could furnish, and, like other fools, have learned finally, that life is but a huge, mellow, golden Ösher, that mockingly sifts its bitter dust upon our eager lips. Ah! truly, on trouve au fond de tout le vide et le néant!”

This whole paragraph is a marvel, requiring you to understand common French phrases; the life story of Maurice De Guérin; that the vast zaarahs are like Saharas; know the story of Ugolino from Dante’s Inferno, who was locked in a tower with his sons to starve to death and eventually fell to eating their bodies before he died; be cognizant of the Greek myth of Io, a girl who was turned into a heifer by Zeus but Hera found out and had the poor gal chased to the ends of the earth by stinging flies.

Then we get to the obscure references. I found what the bourrans of the steppes were after about 15 minutes of online searching: an 1850s encyclopedia that said this is “the name given to the fierce snowstorms that blow from the north-east over the steppes of Russia.” The Samieli of Shamo is explained this way in an article widely reprinted in a number of magazines during the early to mid-1800s: “Samieli which is felt in the deserts of Arabia … is called in literal Arabic sammoum, which means burning wind blowing at intervals and by night.”

Now, as you can see, there’s a lot to unpack in this one paragraph of Augusta’s. The obscure references do little to move the plot forward. They don’t reveal anything about St. Elmo that you don’t already know, and they obscure the story going on behind it – namely, how St. Elmo is trying to impress upon Edna how “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”[1] the world is.

So what I’ve done, as editor, was streamline her book. I cut paragraphs that were slowing the story down, and excised some repetition. When I ran into a tangle of references, I smoothed them out by giving them context to make them understandable – if they served the story. If the reference hindered the story, out they went.

Augusta was also occasionally guilty of writing scenes with “talking heads,” i.e., when two people are just talking but there’s no setting, no action. So I wrote in a little action in those scenes to give the reader a “place to stand” when reading. I’ve updated some of the punctuation, cleaned up a few misspelled words (gasp!), and switched her default spelling from British English to American English.

My entire aim here is to keep this novel focused on Edna and St. Elmo and the struggles they were undergoing. The love story in these pages is incredible, guys, but it gets buried by so much extraneous stuff. So by this streamlining, I hope the love story of Edna and St. Elmo gains new power and vigor — and a new generation of fans.

I also took a few small liberties here and there in the book, writing a few lines in some scenes. In the original story, there are a few scenes that one would think would be very important to Edna – specifically, St. Elmo’s declaration scene, and particularly the ending of this book – but Augusta does a very odd thing: She takes us out of Edna’s point of view altogether in those scenes.  I took the liberty of giving Edna’s voice – even if it makes Edna herself less than perfect.

I hope to bring the story to today’s readers in a way that allows them to enjoy what Augusta wrote, and even peruse the original. Over the years as I’ve edited the book, I’ve always imagined Augusta standing behind me, quite indignant at my editing her work with so liberal a hand. I hope she can forgive me.

About the footnotes

For years I’ve been trying to look up the provenance of all the quotations in St. Elmo. When I was in high school, I spent many hours in the library combing through books of Victorian poetry, looking for the poems that Augusta sprinkled through the text. I was able to find some of the Tennyson and Browning and Whittier poems, but many of the quotes were mysteries to me.

Not anymore! Thanks to the internet, I was able to find the majority of the references and poems via Google Books.

 The Jean Ingelow poems, in particular, had not even crossed my radar back in the old days. Now, 32 years later, I’m excited to have finally found who wrote them. As a result, nearly all the books and poems that Augusta quoted in St. Elmo are now cited. I’m a happy gal. (And now I need to read Ingelow’s works.)

I used footnotes to list the sources of the quotes in this book. I’m not crazy about footnotes, but it was the best way I could think of to list the references, and I tried to make them small and unobtrusive. Now you can read the poems that Augusta loved!

At any rate, I am very happy to bring St. Elmo to a new audience. I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this great old favorite.

all best,

Melinda R. Cordell

Savannah, Mo.


[1] Hamlet, Act I, scene II – Shakespeare. I believe Augusta would have saved a lot of time and confusion by using this quote instead of all the others, to be honest.

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