By Colin Frank, Historical Interpreter
A 13th Century farming scene: Le Régime des princes, 1279.CC-BY-SA-4.0
A fantastical tale of knights, crusaders, and fair maidens, Sir Walter Scott’s (1771—1832) Ivanhoe became one of the most influential literary pieces of the Romantic Period. Scott sets the novel in medieval England, a time when the feudal system dictated society in its laws of landholding. Feudalism, although different from chattel slavery, had a framework that contributed to the social stratification of humans in the social, economic, and political sectors. In the American South, a few large landholders dominated these systems in the region, and though Ivanhoe’s fame left many of them enamored with increased interest in chivalric romance and medievalism, it consequently perpetuated and upheld these similar ideals and governmental structures.
Mary Telfair, a prominent Savannah figure and plantation owner, entertained herself with Romantic literature, writing to a friend, “We have recently had a rich mental banquet in Ivanhoe.” To many Southern enslavers, Scott presented a sentimental look at a past when there was a social order of the feudal lord above the serf. Romantic literature objectified its subjects, as slavery disenfranchised people from their inalienable rights.
Sir Walter Scott, c. 19th century; British; plaster painted to simulate bronze; bequest of Margaret Gray Thomas, OT1951.101.1.
Likewise, George Welshman Owens of Savannah, another wealthy landholder, also subscribed to Scott and his novel. On display in the front hallway of the former Owens’ mansion, now the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, sits a bust of Sir Walter Scott, modeled after an 1821 marble bust of Scott by Sir Francis L. Chantry (1781—1841). Owens likely purchased this piece to communicate to other wealthy visitors not only his social taste, but perhaps his intellectual and political wealth as well. Owens even named the family’s largest plantation in Camden County, Georgia, Ivanhoe, to which he enslaved well over 100 individuals of African descent to work the fields.
Next month we will discuss more about George Owens and his impressive Savannah mansion.
Brittanica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. “Sir Walter Scott.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 5, 2023. https://www.brittannica.com/biography/Walter-Scott
Betty Wood, Mary Telfair to Mary Few: Selected Letters, 1802-1844 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007).
Despina Kakoudaki. “Unmaking People: The Politics of Negation in Frankenstein and Ex Machina.” Science Fiction Studies 45, no. 2 (2018): 289–307. https://doi.org/10.5621/sciefictstud.45.2.0289.
US Census, 1850; US Census, 1860.
Classical Savannah: fine & decorative arts, 1800-1840: Exhibition, Savannah, Telfair Museum of Art, May 16 – Nov 19, 1995.