A guest post by author Dorothy Love, whose latest work of historical fiction is set in Savannah.
My passion for writing historical novels featuring strong Southern women has introduced me to dozens of remarkable Victorian-era ladies who managed to change their cities for the better. For my new novel, The Bracelet, I immersed myself in the stories of the ladies of Savannah, Georgia, in the year just before the start of the Civil War.
Savannah at that time was a thriving city boasting numerous banks, insurance companies, mills, shipping companies, waterworks and railways. Elaborate mansions, built with the fortunes of bankers, merchants and shipping magnates lined the city’s fashionable squares. The socially elite ladies such as Mrs. Stiles, Mrs. Low and Mrs. Lawton entertained lavishly and contributed to numerous charitable enterprises such as the Female Asylum for Orphan Girls and the Savannah Circulating Library. In spinning fact into fiction, I’ve acknowledged their real-life accomplishments while imagining their conversations over tea in Savannah’s most beautiful drawing rooms.
One of the wealthiest men of the day was Francis Sorrel, reportedly half-Haitian and half-French who built a fortune in the shipping business. In 1835, he commissioned the architect Charles Cluskey to design and build a stately Greek Revival mansion at 6 West Harris St. in leafy Madison Square. The 16,000-square-foot mansion was completed in 1840 and was one of the first two homes to be made a Georgia state landmark. This beautiful home was the model for my fictional Browning Mansion, the setting for The Bracelet.
Today the Sorrel house, known as the Sorrel-Weed House due to a change in ownership, is a stop on the ghost tours so popular in Savannah. The ghost story, which I adapted for my novel, is that Mrs. Sorrel threw herself to her death from the second-story balcony after discovering her husband’s liaison with a slave girl who later was found hanged in the carriage house on the property. In the novel, my main character Celia Browning discovers tragic family secrets as she tries to figure out who has sent her a bracelet that spells out a threatening message.
Celia’s bracelet, and the person behind it, are entirely fictional, as is the unscrupulous newspaper reporter who is determined to revive the story of Celia’s past. I was drawn to this aspect of the story because of its parallel to modern day paparazzi that dog the steps of the rich and famous. How much more dire must it have been for women of the era to have their family’s good name threatened by sordid gossip. A woman’s social position, her family ties and her charitable activities were the very underpinnings of her life. If those were destroyed, her future and that of her children were in peril.
In the case of the Sorrel family, while it’s true that Mrs. Sorrel threw herself off a balcony “in a fit of lunacy,” as it was reported, by that time, Francis Sorrel had sold his beautiful home, and he and his family were living next door at 12 West Harris. It was from that house that Matilda Sorrel jumped to her death on March 27, 1860. As for the slave girl at the heart of the difficulty, no credible evidence for her existence has yet come to light. In the novel she is completely a product of my imagination.
The challenge in writing historical fiction is to gather facts and rumors, bits of lore, half truths and outright fabrications and, by adding here and subtracting there, create a story that entertains as it shines a light on a moment from the past. In weaving together fact and fiction, I hope I’ve done justice to those good ladies of Savannah whose contributions to the life of the city still are felt today.
A native of west Tennessee, Dorothy Love makes her home in the Texas Hill Country with her husband and their two golden retrievers. An accomplished author, Love is known for her Hickory Ridge novels among others.