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Reviving the Southern Gentleman : Ideals of Manhood in Madeleine L’Engle’s Fiction (1946, 1971)

Suzanne BRAY
p. 17-37


Faire revivre le gentleman du Sud : la masculinité idéale dans la fiction de Madeleine L’Engle. Au début de sa carrière littéraire, Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) n’était pas une admiratrice du gentleman sudiste. Fille d’une Belle du Sud, L’Engle visitait la région depuis son enfance, mais elle se sentait complètement étrangère à la région et estimait que les hommes de sa famille sudiste étaient bien moins qu’idéale. Son premier roman du Sud, Ilsa (1946), reflète cette attitude négative. Mécontente avec Ilsa, L’Engle prit la décision de faire des recherches approfondies sur son histoire familiale et celle de la région avant d’écrire un deuxième roman du Sud. Ce qu’elle trouvait l’a convaincue que l’idéal du gentleman sudiste avait encore une certaine validité et que l’on pourrait le faire revivre. En revanche, il fallait élargir le rôle à ceux qu’on avait autrefois exclus : les afro-américains, les blancs pauvres et les enfants, tout en retrouvant ses racines chrétiennes. La famille Renier et son entourage dans The Other Side of the Sun (1971) et leurs descendants dans Dragons in the Waters (1976), A House like a Lotus (1984) et A Live Coal in the Sea (1996) présentent des modèles à suivre de masculinité sudiste. Pour créer ces modèles, L’Engle s’est inspirée du gentleman traditionnel, mais également de certains de ses propres ancêtres. En même temps, on y trouve des contre-exemples qui démontrent ce qui se passe quand le gentleman sudiste quitte ses origines chrétiennes et développe une compréhension plus tribale des responsabilités d’un homme.

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1The myths associated with the civilisation of the American South have proved remarkably hardwearing. In particular, the Southern gentleman, paragon of all the manly virtues, is still with us (Cazir), despite many attempts to show that the ideal has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. If the original Virginia gentlemen brought from their European cultural roots the desire, in Ritchie Watson’s words, “to attain qualities of fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice, liberality and courtesy” (292), it was, however, as Kathryn Seidel has pointed out, a romantic form of nostalgia for the medieval period which “transformed Southern men from simply country squires into gallant knights” (89) in the popular imagination. However, these modern knights were by no means identical to their itinerant, adventure-seeking medieval predecessors; each one was, according to Daniel J. Singal, ideally “tolerant, kindly, broadminded, non-puritan, moderate, hospitable, and courteous […] a totally integrated personality” (7), but at the same time, according to Watson, “supremely gregarious,” with a vision of himself as part of “an organic familial and social order that has a sense of purpose and unity,” firmly rooted in the land he had purchased or inherited. In addition, his behaviour was supposed to command the respect not only of his peers, but also of his inferiors, as he would be infallibly “courteous and thoughtful towards all men, regardless of their social status” (292). Certain figures in the history of the South have embodied this ideal, perhaps the most notable being the Confederate general Robert E. Lee who, according to Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “showed early all those graces that a proper Christian gentleman should manifest—with children, slaves, women and fellow men” (57) and considered “the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others” to be “a test of a true gentleman” (60) and, for that matter, a way of measuring whether he truly obeys the principles of the Christian gospel.

2The Southern gentleman has also made his presence felt in American literature, from the early 19th century onwards. Kenneth England observes that, at least until the Civil War, “in novels, he was a character who exemplified the American ideal in the chivalric tradition. Possessing every virtue, every grace, he was set forth as a man to admire and to emulate” (3). If the Civil War and its consequences led to his inevitable decline, the Southern gentleman, real or fictional, as Étienne de Planchard de Cussac notes, was responsible “in a broken-down world, delivered by defeat to the sovereign dollar, for showing forth the excellence of the civilization he had created” (71). This was not always easy and became increasingly less so as the twentieth century moved the South further and further from its golden age. For Emmeline Gros, “most gentlemen failed in the attempt to live up to [the] ideals” (28-29) associated with the Southern gentleman, while Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, rather more bluntly, presents “a more realistic depiction of gentlemen’s conduct: addiction to drink, whoring and gambling, paternalism towards blacks, superficiality in education and general slothfulness” (35). Even if this may be considered to be an exaggeration, for many people there were problems in the ideal itself. For Emmeline Gros, among others, the strong masculinity of Southern culture has been seen as “the normative, invisible, and unquestioned referent from which to measure marginalized others—foreigners, women, or non-whites” (Gros 3), and measuring here implies controlling and even oppressing. Although the Southern ladies of the pre-War period could often, in addition to all their other abilities, as Professor John George Clinkscales (1845-1942) from South Carolina testifies, “ride as well as their brothers, and […] handle firearms with great accuracy and skill” (102), the popular myths of Southern gentility often reduced ladies to decorative paragons “of moral innocence and selflessness whose prime concern was upholding the canon of sexual purity” (Singal 7). Their menfolk would acknowledge their civilising influence, but frequently this was just another means of controlling and restricting their behaviour. Lee’s model of the Christian gentleman—and the original ideal for the Southern gentleman was rooted in the Faith—was also on the way out even during his youth. For many, “piety and church-going were for women and dependents” (Wyatt-Brown 18), and a basically pagan honour code increasingly replaced the Christian ethics of the founding fathers.

3It was also generally understood before the Civil War that, to be a gentleman, you had to be a rich landowner, which, as Emmeline Gros has shown, limited the eligible candidates to less than 4% of the adult, white, male population (30). Even if a few liberal thinkers, like Francis Lieber, Professor of History and Political Economy at South Carolina College, stated as early as 1839 that “even a slave […] could manifest the nobility of gentle conduct despite his lowliness, gaining esteem from those below and above himself no less than a master could” (Wyatt-Brown 53), it was only after the conflict, in which so many men of all social classes had sacrificially served the Confederate cause, that the title of gentleman and the virtues associated with it were extended to a much larger proportion of the population, although African-Americans were still more or less automatically excluded. This combination of twentieth century Southern gentlemen significantly failing to live up to the standards their ancestors professed, together with criticism of the ideal itself, transformed the portrayal of such characters in literature, particularly among the authors of the Southern Renaissance from the 1920s onwards. For Kenneth England, by the 1960s this process had gone so far that most authors made the Southern gentleman “a vicious, malevolent figure who only indulge[d] himself in power. Or they [made] him in decline a hypocrite, a weakling or a fool” (3).

4Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), daughter of a Southern belle and of a writer from the North, was initially the least likely person to produce a sympathetic portrait of the South and its gentlemen. Although she had visited her mother’s family in North Florida regularly since early childhood, she only came to live in the South in the autumn of 1933. She remained there, going to school in Charleston and spending her vacations in Jacksonville, until she left for Smith College in 1937. Cynthia Zarin writes that, although she enjoyed her school, Madeleine “found Florida stultifying and surreal” (63) and, according to her cousin Mary, “was just completely out of place at that time and in that part of the world” (Avent in Marcus 30). Having been brought up first in New York and then in Europe, in “an atmosphere which assumed equality with all its differences” (L’Engle, Walking 32), she had little patience with Jacksonville which, as her best friend’s sister, Nancy Bruce, describes it, “was a very class-conscious place and, of course, it was segregated” (Marcus 36). Moreover, her Southern cousins had a “highly cultivated charm” (L’Engle, Summer 124) and nearly all the girls were interested in coming-out balls and finding their place in society, which mainly meant husband-hunting, while she was determined to go to college and then succeed either as an actress, a writer, or both. Madeleine’s Southern male relatives were hardly likely to give her a favourable view of the Southern gentleman either. Her paternal grandfather, the banker Bion Barnett, was in her opinion, “dominant, powerful, ruthless, charming, wicked” (L’Engle, Summer 41) and he “made and spent fortunes” (41). She added that “he hurt people” (161), which is probably a reference to the fact that he had abandoned her grandmother, Carolina Hallowes L’Engle, and run off to France with his new lady love and her daughters. His son, Madeleine’s Uncle Bion, was an artist and writer, but as Cousin Mary points out, he did not “make a living by either […]; his banker father paid his bills” (Avent in Marcus 33). Bion Jr.’s twin brother, William, embarrassed the family by marrying a French unmarried mother at the end of the First World War and, like his twin, showed no interest in banking, business or making money in any other way. Even her ante-bellum great-grandfather, John L’Engle, who had been “a literate and charming man” (L’Engle, Summer 186), had also impressed his family as “a dreamer and impractical” (186), while his brother-in-law, Lewis Fatio, was unpleasant enough to cause at least one of his slaves to run away (Amos 7). Far from sharing Madeleine’s interests in literature, music and the theatre, in general “hunting [wa]s what the men of Jacksonville did” (Bruce in Marcus 36), and many of those who were related to her had so little understanding of her ambitions that they expected, after her father’s death, that rather than go to college, she would “stay home and take care of [her] delicate mother” (L’Engle, Summer 131).

  • 1 Gavin Stevens first appears in Faulkner’s short stories “Hair” (1931) and “Smoke” (1932).

5Although she had always made up stories and poems, Madeleine started preparing seriously for her future career as a writer in the late 1930s, a period marked in the American South by the publication in 1936 of the bestseller, Gone with the Wind, felt by many to be “the highest point of the Southern myth” (de Planchard de Cussac 191). However, Margaret Mitchell did little to promote the ideal of the Southern gentleman. Rhett Butler is hardly a gentleman at all and his behaviour is no advertisement for the South. Mitchell’s model Southern gentleman, Ashley Wilkes, is pleasant but, like many of L’Engle’s male relations, somewhat bloodless and ineffectual. Even worse, the rich, brainless and brutish Tarleton twins, brought up on their family plantation, are caricatures of what the gentlemanly ideal had become, with their belief that “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered” (Mitchell 4) in a cultural wilderness where “a lack of the niceties of classical education carried no shame, provided a man was smart in the things that mattered” (4). In this context, the appearance of a few positive literary characters like county attorney Gavin Stevens, William Faulkner’s “quintessential, idealistic gentleman” (Fulton 5)1, at much the same period, was initially much less influential on budding writers.

6Madeleine L’Engle’s first novel, The Small Rain (1945), based on her experiences as a schoolgirl in Europe and as an actress in New York, was relatively successful and she decided, for her second novel, to write the story of a Southern belle. Ilsa (1946) is arguably the least attractive of all L’Engle’s numerous works, and the author herself was unhappy with it, perhaps, as one anonymous critic surmised, because Ilsa “lacks the positive themes of family, love, faith, and overcoming adversity that are so prevalent in L’Engle’s later novels” (“Ilsa”), or even because the book, aptly described by one reviewer as “a still life of the South in all its inertia and its persistence for the past” (“Ilsa by Madeleine L’Engle”), recreates rather too accurately all that she disliked about the place and some of her less admirable Southern relations. While many of its descriptions are highly evocative and the portrayal of the 1901 Jacksonville fire transports the reader into the heart of that terrifying historical event, Ilsa fails principally because its Southern male characters are all so unattractive and, in many ways, personify the stereotypical defects of their kind. The first-person narrator, Henry Porcher, is, according to Eunice Holsaert, “a sapless youth of the Old South” (14), and hassuch an ineffectual nature that he makes Ashley Wilkes seem positively dynamic. Henry’s father is “the most looked-up-to man in town” (L’Engle, Ilsa 18) and the whole family have an unpleasant snobbishness, an “overpowering sense of superiority they pour on high and low” (79), causing them to ostracise the thoroughly pleasant Dr Brandes, the heroine’s father. Mr. Porcher, while insisting on educating his son as a gentleman (12), thinks “the family is going to the dogs” and does not “want to see any more of it than necessary” (156), but always gives his idle son “enough money and enough time in which to be sorry for [him]self, to keep [him] from ever doing a useful day’s work” (276). While the elder Porcher suffers in pointless solitude, his son Henry, a good musician but not brilliant enough to earn his living that way, is constantly “despairing of [his] own uselessness, but doing nothing about it” (298). He silently adores the heroine, Ilsa, but proves incapable of protecting her or even being of much help to her as what Robert Pick calls “the story of his monotonous sufferings” (30) progresses.

7If, as Diane Roberts claims, Southern gentlemen “come in two flavors, contemplative or active, Hamlet or Hotspur” (86), in Ilsa, the impetuous and over-active Monty provides a contrast to his contemplative cousin Henry. However, he is even more objectionable. Noticeable for his “kind of unsteady gentleman-of-the-old-South manner” (L’Engle, Ilsa 168), Monty fulfils all the negative stereotypes by always “showing off and talking big” (213), hunting, drinking too much and ill-treating, deceiving or neglecting his wife, Ilsa, while insisting she lives like a traditional Southern lady. Like Henry, Monty provides ammunition for those Northerners who criticised “white southern men and women for their apparent disregard for any and every form of honourable labor, for their devotion to a system which rested on idleness and slothfulness” (Silber 9). He lets his father’s law practice collapse and “resents having to work”, being “firmly convinced he ought to be subsidized for life” (L’Engle, Ilsa 178). He finally dies young from drinking too much bad gin. The only Southern gentleman in the novel who in any way compensates for the defects of the rest of the family is Edwin, Monty’s brother, who is humble enough to work for an employer and earns an adequate living, while also being a good husband and father and respecting other people. Although he is a minor character, Edwin does provide a possible form of salvation to Henry at the end of the story, offering to find him a job in New Orleans. Despite Edwin, the reader who does not know the South well is likely to come away from the book with no great desire to meet any Southern gentlemen.

8Madeleine L’Engle’s dislike of Ilsa meant that, although it sold fairly well and had quite favourable reviews, she never allowed it to be reprinted. She even maintained her negative attitude to her protagonist nearly forty years later, when she described Henry as coming from “one of those inbred Southern families” and having “late in life married a distant cousin in Paris, a singer” (L’Engle, Lotus 249)—presumably Telcide, who appears in Ilsa. This marriage leads to Henry’s grandson, Henri, inheriting “a latent strain of insanity, violent insanity” (249) from the Porchers and being confined in a psychiatric hospital.

9After this unsuccessful attempt, L’Engle did not write about the South again for about twenty-five years and, before attempting to do so, decided “to do a good bit of research” (Summer 193). While writing Ilsa, she had relied on her own memories and the stories told by her mother who, in her own words, was “born in 1881 […] just after the end of the Civil War, with the memory of it still fresh, […] with the memory bitter indeed” (157). Now, L’Engle read extensively about the history of the region and delved deeply into her family history. She came away with a much more balanced view of her ancestors’ world: “as with all worlds, it was good and it was evil. It had vision, and it was blind. It was rich, and incredibly poor” (197). Although, on both sides of the family, she found “examples of meanness and selfishness and greed” (191), she also found male ancestors she could be proud of: for example, Justice William Johnson, “Jefferson’s first appointee to the Supreme Court, the youngest justice to sit on the bench, and the first dissenting justice” (193), a man who “stood up for the rights of the black man, both slave and free” (193). There was also one of her mother’s cousins who was responsible for founding “the first hospital in the Deep South with beds for blacks” (191) and her great-great-grandfather Francis Fatio who made sure that “every child in the household should be taught to read and write at an early age, and the children of the servants learned their letters side by side with the children of the family” (190, also S. L’Engle 51). One of these slave children, Luis Fatio Pacheco, was taught three languages and would later become famous as Dade’s interpreter during the Second Seminole War. Another interesting figure was Miller Hallowes, who had fought with Simón Bolívar in South America (169, also Parker), and his great friend and cousin, Madeleine’s great-grandfather William L’Engle, who appears to have been a most generous and humane doctor. All these gave the twentieth century author “a tradition of compassion and generosity to live up to” (191) and also plenty of material to use in her future novels.

10Between 1946 and the publication of her second novel of the Deep South, The Other Side of the Sun (1971), Madeleine L’Engle had not only researched the South; she had also gone through a difficult period in which she struggled with her “cloud of unknowing to return to the Church and to Christ” (Walking 55). In addition, she had given much thought to the sort of books she liked to read and wanted to write. She was adamant that she did not “like reading books about anti-heroes” (“Heroic” 124) and vastly preferred protagonists she could “identify with and care about” (124). From her perspective, heroes and heroines in literature were important, giving the reader hope that they too “can do amazing things beyond ordinary capacity” (121). As she told Ruth Rausen, in the books she appreciated “there’s a way of looking at life which involves a sense of responsibility, that the human is a responsible being, that honor does mean something” (199), an ideal to live up to, even if the characters in the book, being human and not perfect, sometimes fall short. For her own books about the South, this ideal already existed, in the person of the Southern, Christian gentleman, and she invented the Renier and Phair families and their households, closely based on her own ancestors, in order to incarnate a community and also individuals in whom this ideal is alive. L’Engle never forgot the potential power of literature, always claiming that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to make people aware of the horrors of slavery than many sermons” (Rock 243). She was therefore careful not to preach in her novels, but rather to show people or situations that would bring her ideals to life. For example, as Carole Chase has observed, L’Engle never makes feminist speeches, but rather, in all her fictional writings, presents “a world where it is natural to assume, among other things, that women are equal to men in talents, opportunities and importance” (53). In the same way, when portraying the American South or Southerners, L’Engle evokes a society where the ideal of gentlemanly behaviour is taken for granted by the good characters, but where it is seen to apply to children, African-Americans, poor people, the elderly and women as well as to rich, white, adult men. This does not mean, however, that her novels are unrealistic or play down the horrors of the history of the region. L’Engle clearly states: “In Christ there is no east nor west, black nor white, rich nor poor, but in the world there is” (Rock 243). Those of her characters who forget this always pay heavily for their mistake and her South contains all the violence, cruelty, intolerance, sexism, racism, lynchings and snobbery any students of the area might expect. However, in addition to supporting her own conviction that all sections of society are called to behave like gentlemen, her application of the ideal to those who are often considered to be inferior, makes it easier for the reader to accept and appreciate her good characters. As C.S. Lewis once said: “Good characters in fiction are the very devil. Not only because most authors have too little material to make them of, but because we as readers have a strong subconscious wish to find them incredible” (51). Lewis goes on to show how Sir Walter Scott gets round this in The Heart of Midlothian by making his heroine, Jeanie Deans, “inferior to us in everything except her virtues” (51), thus making it easier for the reader not to feel threatened by her moral superiority. L’Engle uses the same strategy, drawing the readers’ sympathy for her vulnerable heroes and enabling them to appreciate their goodness without being irritated by it.

11L’Engle was not the first author to try and revive the ideal of the gentleman while redefining it to suit the conditions of the second half of the twentieth century. As Ritchie D. Watson has pointed out, Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960), attempts via her hero Atticus Finch, “to adapt the traditional gentlemanly code in ways that will make it meaningful for the present” (294), even if her recently published work, Go Set a Watchman (2015), shows that she was well aware of the difficulties involved in this enterprise. However, although L’Engle’s good gentlemen share Finch’s desire for justice and compassion and refuse to impose a stereotypical conformity on their womenfolk, it is clear that L’Engle’s ideal is more overtly Christian than Lee’s and that she would consciously extend the invitation to behave like gentlemen to a much larger proportion of the population.

12In The Other Side of the Sun, readers are introduced to the Renier family, their history, household and surroundings, through the eyes of two women who came to the South as outsiders: Stella, the daughter of an Oxford philosopher, and Mado, based on the author’s great-grandmother, who spent her youth in Europe, the first Madeleine L’Engle, to whose memory the book is dedicated. Stella, the first person narrator, has recently married Terry Renier, a young diplomat who has been sent away on a government mission and she has never visited the American South before. Terry himself is absent until the very end of the novel, but Stella, who tells the story to her grandson after Terry’s death, makes it clear that he was “a good public servant” (L’Engle, Sun 11), who lived “a full life […] and a useful one” (12), serving his country, and that he was “full of laughter” (22). From the beginning, he is presented as very attached to his roots and to his “true family” (51), by which he means principally his elderly great-aunts, Olivia and Des, and also Clive and Honoria, an equally aged black couple who live with them. He tells his inexperienced bride to “do whatever Clive and Honoria tell [her]” (52), indicating clearly that he submits not to status, but to wisdom, and that he does not consider it beneath him to revere and obey African-Americans who are also his social inferiors.

13However, Terry is only a very minor character, whose admirable traits merely justify the excellent upbringing he has received from those among his elders who have had to fight to live by the standards they believe to be right, in particular his great-uncle James, Mado’s husband Theron and black Clive, who are presented as models of Southern gentlemanly conduct to be admired and emulated. James Renier is, at the time of the events related in the novel, a very frail “old man with white hair and a Vandyke beard, his white suit a little loose on his bones […] a gentle man, simultaneously shabby and elegant, radiating warmth and joy” (159). The agnostic Stella is impressed by James, who takes his Christian faith seriously, reading “the office of Morning Prayer with authority and courtesy” (161) for a mixed group of black and white worshippers in a way that strikes her as “wholly real” (161). He also introduces her to his sister, Xenia, who has been paralysed by a stroke and completely lost the power of speech. James justifies continuing to talk and read to Xenia, who appears to many, including his other sister, as merely a vegetable and as good as dead, because he is “certain that she hears” (161) and that she would still want to know what was going on. It also becomes clear that James respects, trusts and confides in his elderly, black housekeeper, Saintie, even on sensitive political issues (314-15). In spite of his age and frailty, he is ready to ride into the scrub to rescue Stella when she is in danger. However, Stella, in her understanding of James, is not limited to what she sees. The great-aunts tell her about the family history and she is also given to read the diaries of Mado, Terry’s grandmother and the wife of James’s best friend.

14Theron Renier, a doctor who resembles the real William L’Engle, was martyred during the Civil War, possibly at his own brother-in-law’s instigation and also possibly because he offered medical treatment to all, regardless of colour, social status or ability to pay. Stella learns that James inherited the family plantation, Nyssa, when he was twenty-one, freed all his slaves and went to live there with his cousin Theron. Those former slaves who wished to stay and work there were welcome and the plantation became a kind of Christian community. Xenia took charge of the house and created a school where all the children, black and white, learned to read and write, as they did in the real Fatio household. Clive and his brother were among the black children born and educated at Nyssa. Stella learns that James was also trained as a lawyer and became politically active, using his legal skills to protect the vulnerable. He has never underestimated women and trusted his cousin Olivia, teaching her to shoot and encouraging her to act as a spy and to carry messages behind enemy lines during the Civil War (226). Mado notes that James has the qualities required of a Christian gentleman: he “has an extraordinary capacity for leadership” (139), he “takes his own importance as head of Nyssa both factually and lightly” (139) and also “knows how to delegate authority” (139), trusting Xenia completely with her own areas of responsibility. Mado would have agreed with General Lee about the importance of the gentleman’s attitude to his inferiors being an indication of his moral worth. She considers her husband to be “a real aristocrat” (141), because he “is able to bend down to people” (141) and does not lord it over them. She also approves James and Theron’s desire for the community, “to make every man there an aristocrat” (142), and considers that they have had some success for, in her opinion, “Clive, for example, certainly is one” (142). Mado is not alone in her opinion that black Clive may be considered a gentleman. Aunt Olivia esteems that he has wisdom (122) and asks his advice, as do many of the other good, white characters. His qualities also include his courage, his extensive knowledge of the Bible and his attitude to women. Clive married the widowed Honoria in order to protect her from potential abusers. According to Olivia, “they respected each other from the first, [...] but love grew” (245). At all times, Clive is present to support the more gifted Honoria, to encourage and to protect her, but he also lets her take the lead. He protects Stella and prevents other men, including Hoadley, from harassing her (292). His confident goodness comes, at least in part, from his secure sense of identity, the fact that he has “always knowed who he [was]” (109) and that he is a lifelong friend of James and Theron, who have always considered him as an equal. Throughout the novel, James, Theron and Clive are portrayed as honest, truthful, honourable, courageous and deeply religious men who attract opposition because of their refusal to compromise and their desire to protect the vulnerable from those who would exploit or abuse them. At the same time, they encourage those around them, whatever their gender or social position, to use their gifts to the full and adopt their own gentlemanly code. In The Other Side of the Sun, the ideals associated with the Southern gentleman are just as relevant to women. Olivia is as chivalrous as the men and finally shoots and kills Ron rather than see him lynched. Black Saintie is James’s collaborator, even in political issues. Honoria is acknowledged by all the men to be the wisest member of their community and shows the same leadership qualities as they do.

15In the same way, two of their grandsons, Terry and his black half-brother, Ron, follow the gentlemanly tradition. In spite of his colour, Ron “moves like royalty” (29), speaks Standard English and attempts to use his gifts to serve the community. Ron is a gifted and dedicated doctor, having been educated in Britain at the Renier family’s expense, and strongly resembles Dr Miller in Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). As with Chesnutt, who, in Catherine Biba’s words, attributes “characteristics traditionally associated exclusively with the white elite” (11) to his black hero, L’Engle provides a response to what Françoise Clary calls “the stereotype of the brutal and primitive black” (39) found in much Southern literature by creating Ron James, an obvious gentleman who is cultured, gentle and responsible, capable of quoting Shakespeare as well as riding a horse and delivering a baby. Although Ron struggles with his identity and the fact that he cannot work in a white man’s hospital in the South, he remains kind, respectful to women, to the mentally handicapped and to the poor, treating his black patients whether they can afford to pay him or not. In the end he will give his life to save Stella from being abused.

  • 2 An evergreen plant of the Yucca family with sharply pointed, dagger-like leaves.

16However, Madeleine L’Engle contrasts these courageous gentlemen with the generation in-between, Theron’s son Therro, his nephew Hoadley and Clive’s son, Jimmy, who do not live up to the gentlemanly ideal and illustrates what happens when it is neglected. Therro and Jimmy are already tragically dead by the time Stella comes to America. Although all three of these men were brought up knowing how gentlemen are supposed to behave, they each fall short and suffer because of this failure. They are, as Kenneth England says about Faulkner’s Old Bayard or Jason Compson III, examples of the gentlemanly tradition in decline, having “a good ideal to follow which has somehow gone wrong” (3). A photograph of all the children in the community when Hoadley was about sixteen shows them all united. Hoadley is holding a black baby and Jimmy is sitting on Therro’s lap. However, gradually, the young men become corrupted and, as a result, no longer at ease with inter-racial friendships. All three are unwise and lack both the traditional chivalry and even basic respect in their relationships with women. Abandoned by his white friends, the now vulnerable Jimmy is seduced by the beautiful, but uneducated and thoroughly pagan, Belle Zenumin, whom he then marries. Hoadley marries the very rich Irene, probably for her money, and then has an affair with Therro’s wife, Kitty. Belle then also seduces Therro and, as a result, gives birth to Ron. Jimmy attempts to protest at his wife’s infidelity and ends up getting lynched by a white mob, leaving Hoadley forever haunted by the fact that he could not save his former friend (288). After Therro and Kitty die in a boating accident, which may have been suicide, Hoadley is left alone and will depart further and further from the ideal of the Southern gentleman. He is convinced that “all men are pursued by demons” (288) and, when drunk, admits to Stella that he has come to believe that there is no way to overcome them. Unable to repent and return to the ideal, Hoadley develops a deep hostility to all African-Americans, joining and becoming a leader of the White Riders, a Ku Klux Klan type movement who impose their concept of law and order on the black population. He also leads Belle and Jimmy’s son, Tron, into his dubious plots and encourages his stereotypically brutal, primitive and oversexed behaviour. Tron has no notion of gentlemanly behaviour at all and repudiates the idea that any white man’s traditions might concern him. There is dramatic irony in the fact that, after their evil plots are foiled, having refused to be gentlemen, Hoadley and Tron do not lose their lives, but their virility. The injured Tron is “no longer a man” (347) but a dependent invalid, having been emasculated by the Spanish Bayonettes2 into which he was pushed by one of the White Riders. Hoadley is “even more impotent than Tron” (347) and, “with the death of his dream, move[s] like a dead man” (347) and has to rely on his formerly neglected wife to survive.

17The three generations of Renier men and their associates thus show three different attitudes to the gentlemanly tradition. James, Theron and Clive take the ideal for granted, although it plays a subordinate role to their Christian faith. This leads to good, honourable behaviour, consideration for subordinates and a respect for their women folk, who are also encouraged to embrace the ideal. Therro, Hoadley and Jimmy acknowledge the tradition, but do not live up to it and are thus estranged for their elders and, ultimately, from each other. In the third generation, white Terry and black Ron return to their grandparents’ standards of charity, respect and racial harmony, while Tron no longer has any idea of himself as a gentleman at all and can only seek for power and hate those who still try to live up to his grandparents’ ideals.

18Although none of the characters in The Other Side of the Sun had appeared before in L’Engle’s fiction, several of her later works of more contemporary fiction contain descendants of the Renier family and one of these in particular is seen to continue her exploration of the myth of the Southern gentleman. The orphaned thirteen-year-old Simon Renier in Dragons in the Waters (1976) may be assumed to be one of Stella and Terry’s great-grandsons. Although he is, chronologically, a teenager of the 1970s, Simon has been raised, since his parents’ death five years earlier, by his elderly Aunt Leonis Phair, who was born in the 1880s. Although Aunt Leonis, named after William L’Engle’s Aunt Leonis L’Engle Johnson (Summer 168), is poor, she intends to bring up Simon with the values of a Southern gentleman. His upbringing therefore requires him to adapt these Southern gentlemanly ideals to the second half of the twentieth century in which he lives. Simon is aware that, in spite of their poverty, he is “rich in education and rich in tradition” (L’Engle, Dragons 63). He has also been “brought up to speak the truth” (165), to “believe that a gentleman doesn’t break promises” (210), and always speaks politely to his elders and he accepts this is right and still relevant to his generation. Part of Simon’s tradition is the story of his ancestor Quentin Phair, based on L’Engle’s ancestor Miller Hallowes. Like Hallowes, Phair, at the age of nineteen, “left his native England and [went] to South America to offer his services to Bolivar” (L’Engle, Summer 169). Again like Hallowes, “at Bolivar’s death he was given the last portrait ever painted of the great hero” (169) and then came to North Florida “intending to visit for only a short time, but quickly fell in love” (Parker), married a Southern belle, Niniane, and stayed there for the rest of his life. Quentin Phair is “Simon’s hero and model” (L’Engle, Dragons 26), his image of the ideal gentleman, on account of his fighting with Bolívar, but also because his plantation, Pharaoh, was “what might be called a commune today” (60). Like James in The Other Side of the Sun, Quentin freed all the slaves and let them choose whether to stay as part of the community or go. Simon admits that this “wasn’t typical” (60) of plantation owners at the time, but is proud of his humane ancestor.

19The trauma for Simon comes when he finds out that Quentin was not, in fact, the perfect gentleman he had always thought him, but that, before coming to Florida, he had abandoned his first wife and son in Venezuela and not kept his promise to return to them and their community. As Aunt Leonis points out, “few people in the pioneer South of those days would have thought twice about the rights of some South American Indian girl” (125), even if they had known about her. However, for Simon and Leonis, and clearly also for the author, “fidelity built on broken promises has a shaky foundation” (125) and Quentin’s betrayal has left a legacy of bitterness among the people he let down. The reader is given to understand that part of Quentin’s problem was that he thought “religion […] was women’s work” (223) and that his worldview was not rooted in the Christian faith. In Quentin, the gentlemanly ideal and the faith which originally underpinned it were divorced, leading to an attitude of racial superiority, not dissimilar to that which led many Southern gentleman to feel that they did not have to treat their black neighbours with consideration. Simon has to come to terms with his hero’s failure and decides, although he is very young, as a gentleman and Quentin’s descendant, that honour requires him to make his home in Venezuela among Quentin’s wife’s people and fulfil, to the best of his ability, the promises his ancestor once made.

20As Madeleine L’Engle said in an interview in 2000: “What do you do without heroes? We wouldn’t have anything to aim for. I always need someone that I want to be as good at, if not better than” (Scaperlanda). In creating her Southern gentlemen heroes, loosely based on the more admirable of her ancestors, L’Engle tries to provide models the reader may admire and seek to copy. Her image of the gentlemanly ideal is traditional in that her heroes have the “sociability, learning and piety” (Wyatt-Brown 41) traditionally associated with the role, together with a strong sense of honour, courage and high ethical standards. However, L’Engle’s gentlemen are judged above all by the attitudes to those they live and work with, their families, servants and other inferiors. For her, a gentleman who ill-treats, fails to protect or shows a lack of respect to a woman, of any social class, or to an African-American, an invalid or an idiot is not worthy of the name. In 1829, William Roberts wrote to his close female friend, the reformer Hannah More, in the dedication to his book on the Christian gentleman: “I have endeavoured to portray a man worthy of being introduced to the honour of your acquaintance” (vi). For L’Engle too, a Christian gentlemen should be worthy to be friends with good women and capable of appreciating them. Gentlemen are always to be judged by their truthfulness, honesty and fidelity, not by their outward appearance or social status. In addition, in L’Engle’s fiction, not only rich, white, virile, adult men are expected to live as Christian gentlemen. Clive and Ron are black gentlemen, James is a very frail and elderly gentleman, Simon is a poor, teenage gentleman and all the main good female characters, but especially Honoria, Olivia and Leonis are seen to live by the same moral code.

21Above all, L’Engle seeks to create Southern heroes, not just men who are occasionally capable of acting heroically. As Pirandello famously wrote: “Anyone can be heroic from time to time, but a gentleman is something you have to be all the time. Which isn’t easy.” Clive and James are particularly impressive because they have lived according to their ideals for a lifetime. None of L’Engle’s gentlemen are perfect, but those who accept the ideal not as a constraint, but as a guideline to living a free and worthwhile life, show that there may still be a place for the best of the Southern tradition in modern America.

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1 Gavin Stevens first appears in Faulkner’s short stories “Hair” (1931) and “Smoke” (1932).

2 An evergreen plant of the Yucca family with sharply pointed, dagger-like leaves.

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Suzanne BRAY, « Reviving the Southern Gentleman : Ideals of Manhood in Madeleine L’Engle’s Fiction (1946, 1971) », Babel, 31 | 2015, 17-37.

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Suzanne BRAY, « Reviving the Southern Gentleman : Ideals of Manhood in Madeleine L’Engle’s Fiction (1946, 1971) », Babel [En ligne], 31 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 avril 2016, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.4066

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Suzanne BRAY

Université Catholique de Lille - Textes et Cultures, Université d’Artois (EA 4028)

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