In 1884 the Bigelow Free Public Library in Clinton, Massachusetts, circulated 35,820 books, and listed the most popular writers of fiction as William T. Adams, Horatio Alger, Jr., M. J. Holmes, and Mrs. Southworth.
Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth, or E.D. E. N. Southworth, was the author of *The Hidden Hand* a bestseller. Praised by critics and adored by readers, the narrative was printed in Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger in 1859, 1868, 1869, and again in 1883, before being released in book form in 1888.
*The Hidden Hand* was a cultural phenomenon as well as a literary one. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s *Uncle Tom’s Cabin*, Southworth’s novel was both adapted for the stage, with at least forty dramatic adaptations of the novel made during Southworth’s lifetime. One of the most (in)famous featured seasoned actor (and future presidential assassin) John Wilkes Booth in the role of the novel’s most notorious villain, Black Donald. There was also a line of clothing, labelled the ‘Capitola look’ after the heroine.
Echoing a trope of nineteenth-century literature as well as many children’s classics, the thirteen-year-old girl is penniless, homeless, and alone when first introduced to readers. Whisked away at birth to prevent her father’s greedy brother from murdering her, Cap is unaware of her heritage, and her maternal relatives are, in turn, unaware of her existence. For more than a decade, the nurse who brought Capitola to New York and has been serving as her guardian has hidden the Virginia heiress. Now, the aged and ailing Nancy Grewell feels that the time has come to finally reveal the girl’s existence. Leaving her ward with a stock of food and money, Nancy sets out for the South. Although the elderly woman succeeds in her quest, the trip exhausts her. Within hours of revealing the secret to Cap’s uncle, Nancy dies.
This is a shame, as this part of the novel is my favourite, genuinely gothic and horrible, with a dead baby substituted for a live one, a blood red birth mark, a dead woman in an attic, the servant who sees all. I’ll add, too, that though Cap was raised by Nancy she is strangely unmoved by her death.
Back in New York, Capitola’s previously desperate situation has become even more dire. During the months that Nancy has been away, the girl has run out of food and money. Evicted from her tenement home, the would-be heiress is now a homeless street beggar. Harassed each night by lecherous men and forced to sell pieces of her clothing for food, Cap finds herself in both physical want and sexual danger. As she later tells a magistrate about the experience, “‘Oh, sir—I can’t—I—how can I? Well, being always exposed, sleeping out-doors, I was often in danger from bad boys and bad men,’ said Capitola, and dropping her head upon her breast, and covering her crimson cheeks with her hands, for the first time she burst into tears and sobbed aloud”. Cap’s virginity and virtue are always being assailed by bad men, but her verve always keeps them at bay.
Blocked from various forms of employment because of her gender, Cap realizes that her life would be much easier if she were male. As a result, rather than wait for a boy to take care of her, Capitola decides to transform herself into a boy so that she can take care of herself. Cutting her hair short and trading her petticoats for a pair of pants, she announces, “I went into that little back parlor a girl, and I came out a boy”.
When a policeman discovers her gender-bending disguise one day, he arrests her for cross-dressing. Although this event ends her boyish days, it reunites her with her kind if cantankerous maternal relative, Major Ira Warfield. Setting out for New York after learning of his niece’s existence, the gentleman—in one of the many coincidences in Southworth’s novel—happens to be at the police station when his gender-bending niece is brought in. Paying his niece’s fine, Major Warfield brings her back to the South.
Capitola’s reunion with a member of her Virginia family, however, does not signal a happily-ever-after ending. Nor does it signal an end to her tomboyish behavior. When Cap’s villainous paternal uncle, Gabriel LeNoir, learns of her existence, he vows to eliminate her. “Yes! It is that miserable old woman and babe!” he exclaims upon learning of Capitola’s return with Major Warfield, “in every vein of my soul, I repent not having silenced them both forever while they were yet in my power!”.
With the help of the town’s most notorious criminal, Black Donald, he makes repeated attempts to abduct and murder his heiress niece. In keeping with the sensational style that made Southworth famous, each of these plots involves an array of thrilling, page-turning events: Gabriel and Black Donald don disguises, leap out from behind bushes, hide under beds, establish secret hideouts, fall through trap doors, live in haunted mansions, and—in one especially hilarious moment—even impersonate a camp minister.
In spite of such imaginative and persistent efforts, the terrible twosome are unable to capture Cap who emerges triumphant and, I am amazed to say, making rude gestures at them
'Turning as she wheeled out of sight, Capitola–I am sorry to say–put her thumb to the side of her nose and whirled her fingers into a semicircle, in a gesture more expressive than elegant.'