ST. ELMO: The Novel

I have many copies of the novel ST. ELMO.  This is  my favorite.  The dust jacket depicts a scene in which “St. Elmo” (Jack Gilbert), hiding behind a curtain, sees “Edna Earl” (Bessie Love) examining the envelope of a letter that belongs to “St. Elmo.”  The novel contains four movie stills from the 1923 Fox film.  The novel inspired my own novel, THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, which features a John Gilbert look-alike.

The cover of this copy of ST. ELMO is from one of the ST. ELMO plays.  The book inspired more than one play before it was made into a film.  The most popular play was probably the one starring Vaughan Glaser.

I’ve never seen the film or the play.  The following is a brief summary of the book:

ST ELMO (1866) by Augusta J. Evans Wilson

The story begins in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Edna Earl is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home.  Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident.  The victim’s body is laid out in her house.  When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused.  Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith.  One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe.  Edna directs him to her grandfather’s shop.  The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job.  As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her:  “He is a rude, blasphemous man.”  Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book by mistake as he rides away in haste.  The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap.  Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.  She is a scholarly girl, self-taught, who wants to become a teacher.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own.  Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia.  The train wrecks.  Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, Ellen Murray, a wealthy widow.  Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care.  The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child.  Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment.  Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather.  She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, now knowing that the initials SEM stand for St. Elmo Murray.  How she loathes him and is relieved when he announces his intent to travel overseas.  Before he leaves, he entrusts her with a key to a miniature Taj Mahal, telling her that she must not open it.  Edna keeps her promise, and when St. Elmo returns, he seems almost dismayed that Edna is trustworthy.  At the same time, Edna discovers an attraction to St. Elmo that rattles her.

As time goes on, it becomes clear to the reader that St. Elmo and Edna Earl are falling in love against their will.  The developing romance falls apart when  St. Elmo’s cousin Clinton pays a visit, and Edna recognizes him as the victor in the duel emblazoned in her mind.  Eventually, Edna finds out that St. Elmo killed a man in a duel also.  The man was Murray Hammond, the preacher’s son.  Rev. Hammond has been Edna’s teacher since she came to live with the Murrays.  Her devotion to Rev. Hammond rivals her devotion to her departed grandfather.  The realization that St. Elmo killed the pastor’s son makes it impossible for Edna to consider marrying St. Elmo, who has confessed his love for her.

He tells her that he killed Murray Hammond, his former best friend, in a duel over a woman.  The woman was Agnes Powell, St. Elmo’s fiancée.   She and Murray Hammond had fallen in love and were planning to deceive St. Elmo and exploit his wealth.  All of this had happened many years before, but that makes no difference to Edna Earl.

Agnes comes back into the picture with a daughter Edna’s age.  Gertrude, the daughter, has a crush on St. Elmo, and St. Elmo pretends to like her in an attempt to make Edna jealous.  Meanwhile, Edna is pursuing a career in writing.  She leaves the Murrays’ estate for New York, where Mr. Manning, her editor, lives.  Mr. Manning falls in love with Edna, but Edna’s heart belongs to St. Elmo, although she has rejected him as a marriage partner.

After a prolonged interval, Edna learns that St. Elmo has redeemed himself by saving the lives of two drowning children, and she agrees to marry him.  This happy ending was not Augusta Evans Wilson’s initial intent.  Her maternal aunt, Mrs. Seaborn Jones, had to talk her into giving ST. ELMO a happy ending.  This was a wise decision because ST. ELMO became a best-seller in the nineteenth century, second only to BEN-HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.

ST. ELMO, which was published in 1866, is still in print today.  The book was  so popular in its heyday that it was greeted with a hilarious parody called ST. TWEL’MO.  Even Augusta enjoyed the parody.  ST. ELMO also inspired Margaret Mitchell’s “Rhett Butler.”

Today’s home-schoolers are discovering ST. ELMO. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide.  Such a guide is necessary since ST. ELMO contains numerous allusions to books and various works that would not be familiar to the average reader.

ST. ELMO and THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, my first novel, contain many similarities.  Nearly every chapter of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER begins with a quote from ST. ELMO or another one of Augusta’s nine novels.


2 thoughts on “ST. ELMO: The Novel

  1. Marilu Santos

    I was 19 when I read this book. It was a hit with teenagers at the time. For me it is a classic and still remember the story well after all these years.

    1. Anonymous

      I too enjoyed this book immensely! I had a copy that i cherished and kept but cannot find this book anymore, perhaps got lost in one of my moves. I read this book when I was fifteen. I am now much much older.


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