The Storm: The First Novel about Florida by a Woman Writer?

Among the curiosities in the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History is an unpublished work of fiction called The Storm, a romance-adventure set in Key West at the time of the 1846 hurricane.  It is probably the first novel about Florida written by a woman.

The narrator of the story, Jenny Greenough, is a young New Englander of sixteen years married to a twenty-nine year old physician.  The couple relocates to Key West where much of the action concerns life among the island’s wreckers and other inhabitants.  The plot culminates with a hurricane storm surge that overwhelms the settlement, washing away houses and destroying the lighthouse.  Three pen and ink sketches illustrate the novel.

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Illustration of the Greenough home on Key West.  “In view of the sea, on a slight rise of ground stood my bijou house, sheltered beneath a cluster of tropical trees, and embedded in shrubbery and flowers . . . built of wood, of course, but painted to resemble marble.”

Although an author for this work is not ascribed on the title page, two researchers have uncovered evidence that it was written by either Corinna (Brown) Aldrich or Ellen (Brown) Anderson, sisters who moved to Florida from Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1835.  The sisters lived in Key West in 1849 and 1850, and their letters, part of the Anderson-Brown Papers  at West Point, are full of descriptions about Key West’s houses and tropical gardens, its plague of mosquitoes, and the business of wrecking.  Much of this information finds its way into the fictional life of the Greenoughs.

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The heroine, Jenny, taking shelter beneath mosquito netting.  “The besetting sin of Key West is mosquitoes.  Oh, the mosquitoes!  The blood-thirsty, persecuting, persevering mosquitoes!  Does anyone think them a trifle?  That person has not been to Key West.”

A study of the sisters in 1991 by attorney Norm La Coe of Gainesville, Fla., proposed them as the likely creators of The Storm.  More recently Keith Huneycutt of Florida Southern College, co-editor of Echoes from a Distant Frontier (2004) about the Brown sisters, concluded that the story was largely the work of Ellen Brown, composed sometime between 1854 and 1862.

This raises interesting questions about The Storm’s status as an early example of women’s fiction-writing on Florida.  Caroline Lee Hentz, best known for her works defending the institution of slavery, is often credited as Florida’s first female novelist.  However, although she was living in Marianna, Fla., when she published  Marcus Warland, A Novel of the South (1852) and The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854), neither of these works has a setting or plot line in Florida.  The Brown sisters and The Storm, with a story based in Key West, therefore seem to be the better candidate.

We note with appreciation the donation of this manuscript to the library in 2015 by Gary and Alice Nippes.  The Storm is available for study in the Special Collections room at the University of Florida.

Submitted by James Cusick

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