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Agnes of Sorrento




In the summer of 1859, Mrs. Stowe made her third and last journey to Europe. During the summer, the whole family was abroad, save the youngest; but in the autumn Mr. Stowe and one of the daughters returned to America, leaving Mrs. Stowe with two daughters and a son to spend the winter in Italy. The residence there was mainly to establish the health of the family; but Mrs. Stowe had entered into engagements with the New York Ledger and the New York Independent to furnish contributions, with a design ultimately of collecting the papers and recasting them for a volume to be published in the spring of 1860 in America and England, under the title of Leaves from Foreign Books for Home Reading. She had indeed entered into an agreement with Sampson Low & Co., the London publishers of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, for the publication of the volume, but a sudden change of plans brought her home before she had perfected her book, and it was never published.

Meanwhile her dramatic instinct had begun to work upon the material thus gathered. It was impossible for her, with her strong religious nature and her active interest in structural Christianity to avoid subjecting the great church so constantly in evidence to those tests of personal religion which had been familiar to her from childhood. Her stay in Florence brought vividly before her the figure of Savonarola, and her imagination, in seeking to recover the life of his day, instinctively invested it with the spiritual struggles so well known to her and her circle. There was no conscious protestantizing of the life, as one may say, but the story which she told naturally reflected the color of her own religious training. Agnes of Sorrento was begun in this Italian winter, and had its immediate origin, as she herself explains in the following note, in a friendly contest of story telling. It was not completed until some time after the return to America, finding its first publication in The Atlantic Monthly in America and The Cornhill Magazine in England. In The Atlantic it was begun in May, 1861, and finished in April, 1862.

In the party with Mrs. Stowe were Mr. and Mrs. Howard of Brooklyn, and their children. When the tale made its final appearance in book form, it was accompanied by the following passages from a letter to the publishers by Mrs. Stowe. The "Annie" referred to was Miss Annie Howard.

"The author was spending some weeks with a party of choice and very dear friends, on an excursion to southern Italy. Nothing could have been more fabulously and dreamily bright and beautiful than the whole time thus employed. Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, Pæstum, Pompeii, are names of enchantment which will never fade from the remembrance of any of that party. At Salerno, within a day's ride of Pæstum, the whole company were detained by a storm for a day and a night. The talents of the whole company were called in requisition to make the gloomy evening pass pleasantly with song and jest and story. The first chapters of this story were there written and read, to the accompanying dash of the Mediterranean. The plan of the whole future history was then sketched out. Whether it ever find much favor in the eyes of the world or not, sure it is, the story was a child of love in its infancy, and its flowery Italian cradle rocked it with an indulgent welcome.

"The writer and the party were fresh from strolls and rambles about charming Sorrento; they had explored the gloomy gorge, and carried away golden boughs of fruits and blossoms from her orange orchards. Under the shadow of the old arched gateway they had seen, sitting at her orange stand, a beautiful young girl, whose name became Agnes in the story; and in the shadows of the gorge they met that woman straight and tall, with silver hair, Roman nose, and dark eyes, whose name became Elsie. The whole golden scene receded centuries back, and they saw them in a vision as they might and must have been in other days.

"The author begs to say that this story is a mere dreamland, that it neither assumes nor will have responsibility for historical accuracy. It merely reproduces to the reader the visionary region that appeared to the writer; and if some critic says this date be wrong, or that incident out of place, let us answer, 'Who criticises perspective and distances, that looks down into a purple lake at eventide? All dates shall give way to the fortunes of our story, and our lovers shall have the benefit of fairy-land; and whoso wants history will not find it here, except to our making, and as it suits our purpose.'

"The story is dedicated to the dear friends, wherever scattered, who first listened to it at Salerno. Alas! in writing this, a sorrow falls upon us,—the brightest, in youth and beauty, and in promise of happy life, who listened to that beginning, has passed to the land of silence.

"When our merry company left Sorrento, all the younger members adorned themselves with profuse knots of roses, which grew there so abundantly that it would seem no plucking could exhaust them. A beautiful girl sat opposite the writer in the carriage and said, 'Now I will count my roses; I have just seven knots, and in each seven roses.' And in reply, another remarked, 'Seven is the perfect number, and seven times seven is perfection.' 'It is no emblem,' she said gayly, 'of what a perfect time of enjoyment we have had.' One month later, and this rose had faded and passed away.

"There be many who will understand and tenderly feel the meaning, when we say that this little history is dedicated to the memory of Annie."

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