Lyon, Meghan Ruth. “Southern Womanhood in Transition: The Writings and Reminiscences of Virginia Clay Clopton.” (Under the direction of Dr. Susanna Lee.)
Historians have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Clay Clopton’s 1905 memoir, A Belle of the Fifties. Although frequently referenced for its descriptions of the antebellum South, its character sketches of Civil War heroes, and its relentless defense of the Confederacy, many historians have concluded that its exaggerations, biases, and unreliable narrator make it little more than a generic textbook for the Lost Cause. This thesis challenges that perception by comparing the memoir with the C.C. Clay Papers, an archival collection from the nineteenth century, which includes extensive correspondence, writings, and diaries by Virginia Clay and her family. A close reading of Belle in parallel with its corresponding sources exposes the “real” Virginia Clay, allowing us to distinguish her public post-war persona from her true thoughts and experiences as a white, slaveholding, Southern woman in the mid-nineteenth century.
Both versions of Virginia have value for historians. Understanding the personal motivations and manipulations behind Virginia’s portrayal of herself as an idealized Southern woman in Belle reiterates the power of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early twentieth century and their promotion of the Lost Cause for political and social gain. The Clay Papers both validate and contradict Virginia’s memoir; annotations present on the physical documents attest to the choices she and her editor made in recounting her life for a Lost Cause audience. The archives also allow us to recover a version of Virginia that does not strictly adhere to the typical post-war conception of idealized womanhood. Her personal tragedies, private fears, and deliberate rejection of societal expectations—all exposed within the C.C. Clay Papers—are subsequently downplayed, manipulated, and reshaped in Belle in order to better conform to UDC guidelines for Confederate women’s memoirs.
Throughout her life, Virginia assumed many roles: some traditional, others exceptional, especially when we consider the typical opportunities available to white Southern women in the Civil War period. Her well-documented charm, combined with her ambition and love of the spotlight, enabled her to cross political and social boundaries normally closed to upper-class women. Furthermore, her husband’s political career and post- war legal troubles, as well as her own lack of children, gave her an unusual amount of freedom, allowing her to escape the isolation of plantation life. Her very ability to write about Washington society and politics in Belle stemmed from her exceptional level of independence and autonomy. This thesis demonstrates that though her memoir has many historical flaws, it nevertheless documents a woman whose strong sense of self extended throughout her life—beginning long before the emergence of the UDC and its new opportunities for women’s public participation. The Lost Cause movement was only the latest avenue for Virginia to win friends and admirers. Though her devotion to the South was genuine and certainly impacted the construction of Belle, it was not the only driving force behind her decision to reshape and refashion her identity to appeal to her post-war audience.