Romance and turmoil: Two Novels by 19th Century Author Harriett Pennawell Belt
Had it not been for a mention in the Delaware, A Guide to the First State published in 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, the Delaware novelist Harriett Pennawell Belt might have escaped notice.
Belt, who wrote two novels, Marjorie Huntingdon in 1885, and A Mirage of Promise in 1887, both published by J. B. Lippincott Company, was born in Wilmington to Z. James Belt and Mary J. Pennawell from Milford, Delaware.
Before marrying Pennawell, Z. James Belt had formed a partnership with brothers Ferris and Edward Bringhurst Jr. to found E. Bringhurst & Company, a pharmaceutical and medical supply company located in Wilmington at 6th and Market Streets and extending to Shipley Street. It might be noted here that the Bringhurst family, around this time, inherited the Rockwood estate north of Wilmington, which had been the former home of Wilmington shipping merchant Joseph Shipley.
Searching for dates relative to Belt’s life have been daunting. No firm dates for some particular events in her life have been found, though a more thorough search of public records may yield more details. It is known that she married Samuel A. Stevens, who was a direct descendant of Paul Revere. The couple moved to Portland, Maine where Belt began her writing career.
Belt’s first novel, Marjorie Huntingdon, begins with Marjorie as a young girl living with family in the town of Bowlesborough in the Hudson Valley not far from New York City. Her parents had originally emigrated from England. Her father is apparently a successful mill owner, which allows Marjorie and her older brother Warren to live the gentile life with their mother at home. Marjorie is an obedient child who’s devoted to her mother. At times, while growing up, she seems almost vacuous, always acquiescing and never protesting. Yet she is capable of extraordinary intelligence. Her education consists of tutelage from Dr. Morse, who held several scholarly pedigrees. She’s an avid reader, learns several languages, learns how to play the piano, and has an extraordinarily good singing voice. She is prudent and careful in all her social interactions.
In Belt’s sometimes verbose and, at times, awkwardly elegant style of writing, she takes her time building Marjorie’s character so that the reader gets to know her quite well, which contributes to guiding her actions throughout the remainder of the novel.
As an adolescent Marjorie is involved in a short romance with a neighborhood boy, which fades as both grow away from one another. The reader can observe, through Belt’s depiction of Marjorie’s personality development, the process of her moving to the next stage of her life when she begins to decide the direction of her life for herself.
She decides to go to a kind of “finishing school” for young women in New York City operated by Lucy Raymond. It is the kind of place where social graces and some survival tools for women are learned. It is also a place where they can learn to become good candidates for marriage with men of good social standing that Mrs. Raymond arranges the women to meet socially.
Marjorie’s penchant for being prudent serves her well. Two men enter her life. One is Gilbert Woodford, who is very wealthy, a bit of a “know-it-all,” who falls in love with Marjorie. He is charming and fawning, the perfect candidate for a husband. While he woos her ardently, she is true to herself in realizing she does not love him, though considers him a friend enough to pay him lip service to keep his hopes alive.
The other man, with whom Marjorie is really in love, is Roger Houghton, and he feels the same about her. However, Roger had promised marriage to his orphaned cousin. When the subject of marriage comes up between Roger and Marjorie, she feels she must spurn his proposal because he had already promised marriage to his cousin Edith. During a period of separation from Marjorie, Roger does keep his promise to Edith. In spite of Marjorie and Roger’s agreement to never see one another again, they do encounter each other occasionally due to the social circles they had set for themselves. Gilbert continues to woo Marjorie, and she holds him off while her encounters with Roger become more frequent yet inadvertent.
To make a long story short, Marjorie becomes Edith’s friend; especially after a coach accident that leaves Edith impaired both emotionally and physically. Tragedies begin to mount. First, Marjorie’s mother dies after a protracted illness, and then her father loses his business. She and her father must move to Long Island and live in modest surroundings while she provides support by teaching children. Soon her father’s health fails, as does her new friend Edith’s. The two die within close proximity to one another. The events bring Roger and Marjorie closer together and by the end of the novel the two marry. Even Roger’s rival Gilbert Woodford supports the betrothal.
The main lesson that’s been learned through the young life of Marjorie Huntingdon is to be true to yourself, follow the path of true love both familial and romantic, and everything will work out for the best. Not so with Belt’s final novel, A Mirage of Promise, published in 1887.
While the only time reference in Marjorie Huntingdon is that the story concludes around the time of the assassination of President Garfield, the time frame is more definite in A Mirage of Promise. The story begins just before the election of 1824, and the location, as far as can be determined is somewhere northwest of Baltimore, Maryland.
The election of 1824 was a four-way race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, who were the major candidates, and William H. Crawford and Henry Clay, who were the minor candidates. Political parties were not so defined, but in Belt’s novel the two major political forces were the Democrats, who support Jackson, and the Federalists, who support Quincy Adams. It was an election that was decided in the House of Representatives, even though Jackson won the popular vote but did not receive enough electoral votes. Quincy Adams had been able to garner enough votes in the House to become President of the United States.
The political environment around the Clemson homestead of Creighton Hall in Maryland, consisting of Colonel Cordrey Clemson, a veteran of the War of 1812, his wife, referred to throughout the novel as Mrs. Clemson who is childless, Alma Acosta, the orphaned daughter of Mrs. Clemson’s sister Julia who had married an impoverished Spanish artist, both of whom had died in Italy, is one of general support, with the possible exception of Mrs. Clemson, for the Federalist. Before being brought to live in Creighton Hall with her uncle and aunt, Alma’s parents had a social connection with an artist of Dutch and Scottish descent whose father was a bit of a rogue and whose mother had apparently abandoned him. That artist, who had been only a few years older than Alma, and who was her childhood friend, is Reed Van Ness. His rogue father just happened to own land adjacent to Clemson’s Creighton Hall called Oakney. During the course of the novel, Reed Van Ness lived and worked as an artist at Oakney. Also, among those who populate Creighton Hall and Oakney are a number of servants, mostly poor white folk. However, Van Ness has one other person living at Oakney who acts like a servant but is more of a friend and confidant. His name is Lijah, a former slave whose freedom was bought by Van Ness, and who has a wife and child still held in bondage in the Deep South.
Into this mix enters, early on, Captain Philetus Clemson. He is the son of Colonel Clemson’s recently deceased brother William. Since Colonel and Mrs. Clemson are childless, leaving no heir, it is the Colonel’s wish that Philetus will inherit Creighton Hall and marry Alma. Alma is deeply in love with the dashing Captain almost by default, not realizing she had formed a lifelong bond with her childhood friend Reed Van Ness. While Philetus professes love for Alma, he proves to be fickle, vacillating, and more interested in the advancement of his career in the military. Eventually he runs off with a woman who is an acquaintance of his mother’s family who live in western Pennsylvania, but we’re getting ahead of the story.
Because the novel begins just before the election of 1824, and because the action takes place in what would become a border state where the controversy over slavery is acute, there is friction between the Federalists and the Democrats. The Clemson household, who are staunch Federalists, supports the cause of Abolition, or at least pay the cause lip service. It is ironic, while bearing witness to today’s politics, that the Democrats, portrayed by Belt, as poor white, barely educated, crude but not necessarily without resources, are fervently pro-slavery.
In an incident where Van Ness helps a boy who is a runaway slave elude a pro-slavery posse, not only does he outsmart them but casts suspicion on himself while frustrating and infuriating them. In a later incident, having shielded herself from controversy but certainly knowledgeable about the issue, Alma is drawn into an active role, thus committing herself to the cause, when she encounters a woman and a child who are runaways. Again, Van Ness intervenes and is successful in securing safety for the runaways, frustrating the pursuing posse and further infuriating them. Two things ensue from the incident, beside Alma’s newly found commitment. One is that the woman and child runaways are Lijah’s long lost wife and child. They had escaped from Georgia, caught a boat, and disembarked in Baltimore. The other outcome is that Van Ness is brought before a magistrate, but with a smart lawyer on his side, beats the rap further angering the pro-slavery Democrats. Their posse turns into a mob of vigilantes who storm Van Ness’ Oakney estate, burn down some outbuildings and trees, and nearly lynch him. Van Ness is wounded while trying to save his paintings. He is saved in the nick of time when the authorities arrive to quell the violence. The incident embitters Van Ness, who flees to Washington D.C. for the winter, ironically after he and Alma profess their love for each other.
Matters are made worse when Philetus returns to Creighton Hall after being spurned by Lucinda Calhone right before she and Philetus were to be married. He had returned to make amends for reneging on his promise to marry Alma, thus breaking her heart, and inheriting Creighton Hall. The Colonel, while acting in a civil manner, indicates that marrying Alma had been part of the deal for inheritance, and Alma, becoming wise to Philetus’ true character, wants no part of him. Philetus had also returned to repay a loan to Van Ness, an act diminished because it leads Van Ness to believe Philetus has returned with the intention to sweep Alma off her feet and lead her to the altar. Van Ness does not know that Alma has lost her love for Philetus, who eventually slinks away.
In the midst of all this, Van Ness’ mother, who he had thought was long dead, almost literally crawls back into his life. Van Ness cannot believe who she claims to be. He seeks evidence and conformation from an old friend who had been harboring a secret. Soon he is convinced that the woman calling herself Mrs. Durham is really his mother, and he goes to tell her he believes her story, but finds she has died. She will never know.
Shortly after the air was cleared and things sorted out Reed Van Ness and Alma Acosta get married. In 1832, they move to Massachusetts. Alma joins the Abolitionist movement. They have two sons, both of them killed in the Civil War. Van Ness dies in 1857 leaving Alma a widow. She lives on and dies at 80 years old.
Virtually nothing is known about Harriett Pennawell Belt’s life. We know she had married Samuel A. Stevens and that she bore a daughter named Janet. There is scant evidence she returned to Wilmington occasionally to visit family. In the copy of Marjorie Huntingdon used to write this article is an inscription in the author’s own hand dated March 14, 1888 to a reader in Wilmington. Finally, we know she died suddenly in Portland, Maine on May 29, 1908. She was only 44 years old. One citation that reported her death, noting that it was sudden, speculated whether it might have been the result of a suicide.
Steven Leech is a historian and writer living in Delaware. His work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. The author of several novels, he is a contributing editor to the Broadkill Review.