While in graduate school I became intrigued with the popular novels written by American women in the early nineteenth century, not only for the historical insights they provided but also for their literary charm. These novelists, once dismissed by literary scholars as “sentimental,” have in more recent years won academic appreciation for their intelligence and talent. While you will not uncover any forgotten Jane Austens or Charlotte Brontes in perusing their works, you may find that their gentle romances infiltrate your imagination. The writers had the wisdom that comes from quiet reflection and humane ideals, and as you turn the pages slowly you will sometimes come across a soft-glowing gem.
One of my favorites is The Hidden Path (1854), the second novel of Virginia writer Mary Virginia Terhune, who published under the pen-name of Marion Harland. As its title suggests, the novel explores the virtue of humility and the moral drama of ordinary life. In chapter 4, four young friends discuss the secret heroism of unpretentious folk. One of the four, Frank, suggests that if the histories of individual human hearts could be written, such “soul-pictures” would make the momentous events of the history books seem dull by comparison. His companion Maurice agrees. “They [historical events] are, in reality, of trifling moment when compared with the revolutions of the microcosm each one of us carries in his bosom.”