Mississippi’s lost literary landmark still inspires writers

Beauvoir, between Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, has rich literary history for Southern women writers. Most people think this is the back of the house, it’s actually the front.

I stood in the very house where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clemens once stood.  And I walked on the same solid cypress plank floors where three famous women writers walked. Southern authors Sarah Dorsey, Varina Davis and Winnie Davis all lived and wrote at Beauvoir. It is also the same historic site where Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States, wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.

For me, that house, Beauvoir is definitely a literary landmark and an interesting site to include in my Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola.  I visited Beauvoir recently to see why its literary landmark was revoked by United for Libraries. After my two-hour tour of the home, library cottage, museum and Presidential Library I was convinced Beauvoir is a literary landmark – despite its paranormal investigation events, weddings and Civil War association. This property inspired writers in the late 1800’s, and Beauvoir’s stories inspired me.

Located along the Mississippi Sound on Highway 90 between Biloxi and Gulfport, Beauvoir, was built in 1852 for the wealthy Brown family. It served as a summer home for them as well as its second owner, writer Sarah Dorsey (1829-1879). A Natchez socialite and wife of wealthy lumberman Samuel Dorsey, Sarah traveled in literary celebrity circles in the U.S. and Europe. Guides at Beauvoir say she was present at the first reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and also at one of Charles Dickens’ salon readings.

She wrote six novels, four of which were published in books form, the other two serialized. She penned the biography of Louisiana Governor Henry Watkins Allen, a rare task for a woman at the time. Biographies were usually reserved for male writers.  She came from a wealthy and literary family – her two aunts were authors and publishers.  Before her death, Dorsey, who had been fascinated with Jefferson Davis, willed Beauvoir to him – going to great extremes to write her own family out of the will. Nonetheless, her descendants include notable Southern Mississippi writers William Alexander Percy and Walker Percy.

dorsey

In her literary travels, Dorsey was also acquainted with Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) and, according to a tour guide at Beauvoir, Clements visited Dorsey at Beauvoir. But it was the Davis women, the wife and youngest daughter of Jefferson Davis, who captivated Oscar Wilde while on his American literary tour. Wilde had said the one American he wanted to meet in America was Jefferson Davis, perhaps because of a family connection. Davis knew Wilde’s uncle (Wilde’s mother’s brother) who was a judge and lawyer in Louisiana. Wilde’s cousin also died while serving the Confederacy.  Oscar Wilde visited Beauvoir several times, according to the tour guide, but was disliked by Jefferson Davis. If Davis liked someone, he placed his hand on the guest’s shoulder and another on his dog’s head, introducing the dog to his guest. Not the case with Wilde. Consequently, the dog, Traveler, wouldn’t allow Wilde to walk the grounds of the house. The dog kept Wilde inside the house, while other guests leisurely strolled the sprawling estate and gardens.

On one documented visit, Wilde spent the night of June 27– Winnie’s 18th birthday — with the Davis. Wilde entertained three Davis women–wife Varina, daughter Winnie, and cousin Mary –long after the elderly Jefferson Davis had retired for the evening. No doubt the dog kept Wilde in line.

What stories this place holds for the literary traveler.

Adjacent to the house, stands a replica of the library cottage Sarah Dorsey rented to Jefferson Davis after his release from prison. The original was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, Beauvoir itself was not destroyed. Eighty-five per cent of the original home is intact.

The recreated writing cottage and setting still offer the breezes and the view of the Mississippi Sound that Davis would have experienced – well, without the bustling highway or sandy man-made beach.  The library cottage, contrary what it looks like from Highway 90, actually sits behind the house. The front of Beauvoir faces Oyster Bayou, allowing breezes to cross the veranda and through the home from the Mississippi Sound to the bayou. This photo from the Rice University archives of Davis on the library cottage porch could easily be restaged today. Missing from the scene, however, is writer Sarah Dorsey assisting Davis with his manuscript. Some scholars attribute some of the language to Dorsey.

Beavoir BW DAvis

TOP: image from Rice University archives: Jefferson Davis writing his book at the library cottage at Beauvoir. BELOW: May 2021, the replica of the writing cottage destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Both Varina and daughter Winnie moved to New York to work for Joseph Pulitzer on the New York World following Jefferson Davis’s death. The widow finished her husband’s autobiography and wrote regular columns for The World. In 1888 Winnie published her first book, An Irish Knight of the 19th Century about Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet. Before her early death at age 33, Winnie also wrote two novels, The Veiled Doctor and The Romance of Summer Seas.

Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis (right) She shared the first name of Varina with her mother. Image public domain from Wikicommons

Beauvoir’s hearty construction has withstood hurricanes, storms and social unrest as the Sons of the Confederate Veterans continually maintain and restore its beauty. The trompe-d’loeil murals and furnishings take the visitor back in time to when writers and musicians gathered in parlors to entertain each other with the art of fine conversation and storytelling.

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