(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Beulah Quintet has had a complicated genesis. At first, Mary Lee Settle projected a trilogy set in what is now West Virginia. She published the eighteenth century story O Beulah Land in 1956, followed in 1960 by a novel taking descendants of the characters in the earlier work up to the Civil War. After Know Nothing came a contemporary novel entitled Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (1964). Settle was not happy with the published version of the third novel, however, and furthermore, she wished to take her story back another century in time, as well as across the Atlantic to England, in order to set up the themes that pervaded the trilogy already written. The result was Prisons (1973), whose very title emphasizes the dichotomy between freedom and captivity, which had been important throughout the Beulah novels written earlier. In 1980, Settle published The Scapegoat, which is set immediately before World War I and which, because it involves the battle between landless workers and the owners of land which is being mined, nicely bridges the gap between the three earlier works, with their emphasis on land as a source of wealth, and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, a contemporary novel of business and industrial wealth, rewritten and published in 1982 with a new title, The Killing Ground. With this final novel, the Beulah Quintet was complete. The four later books in the series are all set in the same area, and all five of the novels shared the same family and Christian names, in varying conjunctions; the same character traits, appearing in men and in women; the same conflicts; and the same themes, embodied in the changing face of history.

The Novels

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The first novel of the quintet, Prisons, is set in mid-seventeenth century England. From babyhood, Jonathan Church has been torn between his loyalty to his mother’s dour Puritanism and the appealing warmth of his young aunt, Nell Cockburn Lacy, who presides over a Royalist festival atmosphere at Lacy House. Jonathan’s mother has married a self-made man who has no love for the aristocracy; her younger sister, Jonathan’s aunt, married Sir Valentine Lacy, who does not question the right of his kind to govern an unchanging England. When Jonathan is sixteen, he discovers that his father can be heartless. He self-righteously judges and defies his father and leaves his home. Taking refuge at Lacy House, he encounters Nell, who is weeping over her elderly, dying husband. Her grief for Sir Valentine, her pity for young Jonathan, and the love she and her nephew have always felt for each other combine in some unforgettable hours, which result in Jonathan’s only descendant, a supposed son of Sir Valentine. The narrative begins as a confession at the point of death by Jonathan, now twenty, and the main story line traces his disillusionment as he learns that the Parliament forces, ostensibly fighting for freedom, are themselves as repressive as the Royalists and that the ambitious men who rule them are not only as tyrannical as the king’s men but hypocritical as well, mouthing prayers as they use and discard, sacrifice and execute the ordinary men who follow them in fear or in hope. To break the democratic spirit which the ordinary soldiers have developed, Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliament forces, and his subordinates resolve to execute a number of ringleaders, Jonathan among them. Because of Jonathan’s youth and his substantial family, however, Cromwell is willing to spare the boy if he will agree to influence the troops as the leaders wish. Jonathan cannot desert his friends or his principles. He and his friend Thankful Perkins are among the young men with dreams who are murdered by the old men who have only ambitions. Like Prisons, O Beulah Land places its characters in the midst of violent conflict—in this case, the French and Indian War and the continuing Indian resistance against the settlers. In the prologue, Hannah Bridewell, a transported thief and prostitute, survives capture by the Indians and a long period in the wilderness, to appear at last at the cabin of the squatter Jeremiah Catlett, who saves her life and eventually marries her in the informal manner of a frontier to which the law and the church have not yet come. Moving backward in time, the novel follows Hannah and “Squire” Josiah Devotion Raglan from crime and prison in England to what amounts to sale in Virginia, a colony ruled by wealthy planters such as Jonathan Lacey, who leaves his young wife, Sally, to march toward Fort Duquesne with his own Provincial forces and with the British regulars. Hannah and Squire Raglan accompany their new masters on this venture, and the Squire’s theft of a tomahawk, along with the arrogant bad manners of the English commander, so anger the Indians that an ambush and a massacre result. After her captivity, Hannah escapes, as the prologue revealed. The Squire’s final act of rascality, some years later, results in his quite justifiable murder by Jeremiah Catlett. Jonathan Lacey and his spoiled young wife Sally venture west, along with Jarcey Pentacost, a printer whose passion for freedom has cost him his shop. Sally refuses to adjust to frontier life, treating her neighbors with contempt, and Jonathan begins to regard her as a stranger instead of the friend and wife for whom he had wished. Finally, a rough frontier prank at the wedding of the...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Galligan, Edward L. “The Novels of Mary Lee Settle.” The Sewanee Review 104 (Summer, 1996): 413-412. Galligan details several of Settle’s novels, including The Beulah Quintet. The theme of mortality in Settle’s work is explored as well as her ability to examine the subconsciousness of her characters.

Garret, George P. Understanding Mary Lee Settle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. A critical interpretation of Settle’s major works is included in Garret’s extensive survey of Settle’s fiction and influences. A fine examination of the writer that explores the major themes and settings that unify her writings.

Rosenberg, Brian. Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Rosenberg presents a thematic study of the novels and places The Beulah Quintet in the context of English and European historical fiction. Rosenberg includes an interview with Settle in the book’s appendix in which the author comments on her novel’s complex origins.

Stephens, Mariflo. “Mary Lee Settle: The Lioness in Winter.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 72 (Fall, 1996): 581-588. Stephens profiles Settle and discusses how her works draw readers into the story, making them privileged eavesdroppers. Stephens also discusses Settle’s reputation for passion and explosive behavior in the literary world.