Elizabeth Allston Pringle was a Southern belle at the time of the American Civil War and the daughter of the Governor of South Carolina. When the Civil War ended, leaving her family impoverished, she and her mother opened a school. Motivated by sentiment, Elizabeth bought the plantation she grew up in, White House, and the plantation, Chicora Wood, where she lived as a married woman until her husband’s untimely death. Both plantations still exist in Georgetown County, South Carolina, an area known as the Lowcountry. It was in hopes of paying the plantation mortgages that in the early years of the 20th century, she decided to re-cultivate old rice fields that had long since succumbed to the encroaching wild. She was a farmer, a foreman, and an entrepreneur at a time in history when women did not hold such positions.
We might have forgotten Elizabeth Allston Pringle if her journal hadn’t been serialized in the New York Sun. This was another way Elizabeth made money to pay the mortgages on her beloved properties. The Sun journal was later published in a book called A Woman Rice Planter. The 1992 edition, published by the University of South Carolina press, is illustrated by famed artist Alice R. Huger Smith (whose paintings are in Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art) and has an introduction written by South Carolina historian and writer Charles Joyner.
Reading A Woman Rice Planter, you may find the humor in some stories involving black characters to be condescending. I believe the Jim Crow era in which it was written had an unfortunate but partial influence on the author’s outlook. However, if you read it thoroughly, I believe you’ll also see Elizabeth’s respect for blacks rising through this surface attitude. I get a sense that she felt they were all in this together, enjoying the bounty of the Lowcountry and enduring the caprice of its climate with faith and cheerfulness. I read A Woman Rice Planter as research while writing The Bad Death, an antebellum vampire novel set on a Lowcountry rice plantation. Two things stay with me from repeated readings.
One is its detailed description of old rice-growing practices. Second is Elizabeth’s love for the beautiful world around her. She was an excellent writer. Her descriptions shine through, transcending ink and paper and time. Here’s an entry from June 1, 1903:
“The evening is beautiful; the sun, just sinking in a hazy, mellow light, is a fiery dark red, the air is fresh from the sea, only three miles to the east, the rice-field banks are gay with flowers, white and blue violets, blackberry blossoms, wistaria, and the lovely blue jessamine, which is as sweet as an orange blossom. Near the bridge two negro women are fishing with great strings of fish beside them. The streams are full of Virginia perch, bream, and trout; you have only to drop your line in with a wriggling worm at the end, and keep silent, and you have fine sport. Then the men set their canes securely in the bank just before dark and leave then, and almost invariably find a fish ready for breakfast in the morning. There is a saying that one cannot starve in this country and it is true.”
Elizabeth’s accounts of her workers’ labor, their hunting and fishing, socializing, and storytelling helped me give life to The Bad Death’s Gullah heroine, Anika, and her friends and neighbors. The Bad Death’s antagonist, Julian Mouret, relies on his working partnership with his mother, Elisabeth. She shares her son’s respect for the Lowcountry’s wild strength. I’d be lying if I said Elizabeth Allston Pringle didn’t partly inspire me when writing Elisabeth Mouret. Elizabeth Pringle was strong, independent, spiritual, and wise. So is Elisabeth Mouret. Anika finds in Miss Elisabeth a formidable foe and improbable ally. Miss Elisabeth is one of my favorite characters in The Bad Death. And Elizabeth Allston Pringle is one of my favorite characters in US history.