It’s hard to believe no one has written a dissertation or a book on my latest quest — women writers from Mobile, Alabama. My day trips to Mobile and online visits to Amazon have confirmed my belief that Mobile women blazed the trail for today’s female writers. South Alabama women have been exhibiting their writing prowess since 1855. That’s when Augusta Evans sold her first copy of Inez, a Tale of the Alamo on her way to earning $100,000 and becoming the first financially successful female writer.
Google Scholar offers articles on Texas women writers, Irish women writers, African American women writers, modernist women writers and nineteenth century women writers. And then of course, there’s the ironic “Antebellum Women Writers and the Road” – but that’s mobile, as in moving around, not Mobile as the city in Alabama.
When writing my upcoming book The Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South, I discovered a bevy of contemporary women writers living in and around Mobile – bestselling authors of fan fiction, paranormal, young adult, historical fiction, cozy mysteries, and romance—all with strong readership. And then I wondered — Whose historic shoulders do today’s women writers stand on? The answer surprised me.
Alabama’s First Professional Writer:
Augusta Jane Evans Wilson (1835 – 1909)
Historians and critics describe Augusta Evans’ Victorian style as flowery, sesquipedalian (wordy) and painful for today’s readers to navigate, but she found great success in her own time. In 1855 at age 15, Evans wrote her first novel Inez, a Tale of the Alamo. Her second book, Beulah, was written at age 18 and published in 1859. It established her as Alabama’s first professional author. During the Civil War, Evans set up an army hospital near her Mobile residence. Locals called it “Camp Beulah,” honoring her novel. Evans’ most popular book, St. Elmo, sold one million copies in the first four months and was made into a silent film five times. (Sorry, the Rob Lowe film is another story) The name “St. Elmo” was so popular that towns, hotels, and steamboats were named St. Elmo. New parents sometimes named their baby daughters “Edna Earl” after the heroine.
The Good Madame Octavia Walton LeVert (1810-1877)
As a young socialite visiting Baltimore in 1827, Octavia Walton was the object of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “To Octavia.” Scholars question whether Poe wrote the poem or simply adapted the nine lines he wrote and inscribed in Octavia’s album. But she is Poe’s Octavia. After she moved to Mobile, she married a French physician, entertained in society, and acquired the respected title, “Madame” LeVert. She hosted “Monday” salons, reflective of the popular literary salons of Europe. They were open to everyone and people came by the hundreds. Her book, Souvenirs of Travel, was published in 1857 and was so popular it went through five printings in her lifetime. She wrote two other books, Souvenirs of the War and Souvenirs of Distinguished People, but neither was published.
Silent Screen’s Marie Layet Sheip (Marie Stanley) (1885-1936)
An author who wrote under two names, Marie Layet Sheip lived in her birthplace of Mobile until she was 16. An orphan, Marie was raised by her grandmother who was friends with the popular novelist Augusta Evans Wilson. Marie lived with relatives out of state following her grandmother’s death but returned to Mobile at age 24. To support herself and using her real name Marie Layet, she wrote at least seven scripts for silent films, beginning with “The Clown’s Daughter” in 1913. After marrying wealthy lumberman Stanley Sheip, she published the novel Gulf Stream under the pseudonym Marie Stanley. It dealt with interracial relationships and marriage, a topic rarely written about at the time. The novel received national acclaim as literary fiction, but locally caused a disturbance from residents of Sandtown, an African-American section of Mobile, who objected to the use of dialect and portrayal of black culture by a white author.
Mobile to Japan Mary McNeil Fennollosa
(Sidney McCall) (1865-1954)
Mary McNeil Fennollosa was a best-selling novelist, essayist and poet in her day. Three of her books were turned into silent films. At least eight novels were written under the penname Sidney McCall, while she used her maiden name (after dropping one of the L’s in McNeill) for poetry and essays. Her most noted novel and one adapted for film, The Dragon Painter (1906) is set in Japan. She lived in Japan with her second and third husbands. The third, Ernest Fennollosa, was a noted Asian art collector and scholar. She grew up in Mobile and set several novels in the city, but also lived in Boston and Japan. She returned to nearby Montrose in Baldwin County where she died.
Mobile to Harlem Doris Jean Austin
Austin was born in Mobile, but her family moved to New Jersey when she was six. But Mobile claims Austin as their own – after all, the formative years are before age six. She taught fiction writing at Columbia University, founded the Harlem Writer’s Guild, and co-founded the New Renaissance Guild. She was also a reporter for NBC News. Her work appeared in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Her only novel, After the Garden, traces a young black woman’s life in Jersey City from the 1940s to the 1960s. Doris Jean Austin was best friends with bestselling author Terry McMillan who wrote How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The character Delilah in the book is based on Austin.
MEET MOBILE’S MODERN
Carolyn Haines (1953- ) who also writes under the pennames R.B. Chesterton, Caroline Burnes, and Lizzie Hart, lives in Semmes, a city considered part of the Mobile metropolitan area. She was born just across the state line in Lucedale, Mississippi. In 2020 she was named to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. A former journalist, she has written more than 80 cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, and romance novels. Her “Bones” humorous mystery series featuring private investigator Sarah Delaney lists 23 books in that series alone. Haines is also a winner of the Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. She teaches fiction writing at University of South Alabama in Mobile.
M.L. Bullock (Monica Leigh Bullock) writes cozy page turners with paranormal ghost elements and mystery blended with historical and architectural quests. On her website, she describes herself as an author, adventurer and paranormal investigator. After reading the first two in her Seven Sisters series, I kept reading. She’s a master of the cliffhanger, making the reader desperately to want to read the next book in the series. The short quick reads, many filled with Mobile history, are rich in both character and setting. Having sold more than nine million books, critics describe her as The Queen of Southern Gothic.
Manda Collins writes Regency-era romance, splicing mystique with a twist of humor. Her 17 novels (in five series) and two standalone novels, make Manda Collins a USA Today best-selling author. Her tagline “Nancy Drew plus Jane Austen with more Kissing” hints at history, humor and romance, while the titles of some of her books beg the reader to take a peek. A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem and How to Entice an Earl suggest historical romance, but I doubt A Good Rake is Hard to Find is a gardening book. Collins, an academic librarian turned author, has selected a small slice of history to build memorable characters and write entertaining books.
Angela Quarles – (Angela Trigg), a USA Today best-selling author, owns the Haunted Book Shop at 109 Dauphin St. in downtown Mobile. Quarles (whose real name is Angela Trigg) has published nine novels and won a Romance Writers of America RITA award in 2016. Her website describes her as an author of contemporary time travel, steampunk and romance. The Library Journal named her steampunk novel, Steam Me Up, Rawley, the best self-published romance of 2015. The book is set in Mobile in 1890. After her grandmother died, Angela, a native of Florida, moved into her grandmother’s Victorian two and a-half story home. She’s the fifth generation in the family to occupy the home, nicknamed “Termite Hall” which in its heyday entertained literary figures as did the “salons” of Madame Octavia LeVert.
After 120 years, it’s nice to see the resurgence of women writers from Mobile, many young voices returning to their city to write. Hopefully, when scholars out there accept my observation, they’ll call Mobile “The Home of Women Writers” and build a museum or at least offer a writer-in-residence retreat.