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Literary Scene: Boyd was no Belle of the ball

Belle Boyd was a scandalous woman in her time. She appeared onstage wearing trousers, carried a pistol and was married three times and divorced twice. She was put in federal prison twice for being a spy for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Her spying did not last long, but it got her attention in the press and led to fame and theater tours. If she was a made-up character in a work of fiction, her soap opera life might be considered unrealistic. But there was a Belle Boyd, and the events in Claire J. Griffin’s extensively-researched book actually took place.

The historical novel “A Rebellious Woman” (Brandylane Publishers, 2021, 384 pp., $20.95) tells her story.

“She was a woman who did not like to hear the word ‘no.’ She wanted to live the life of a man, and she paid the price for it. She was a woman who was willing to break many rules. It was a life pushed to the limit,” says Griffin in a phone interview.

The legacy of the Confederacy has come under increased scrutiny as statues of Confederate leaders have been removed from public places. Griffin admits that releasing her book now could be problematic. “It is tricky writing about someone on the wrong side,” she says.

Boyd, who lived from 1844 to 1900, was not a typical southerner. Two of her three husbands were on the Union side. The second most important person in the novel, after Belle, is Eliza. It was unusual in that Eliza was Boyd’s slave and a person with whom she remained close for her entire life.

“Belle taught Eliza to read, even though it was forbidden. She was the most important person in Belle’s life. She was a stabilizing influence, and other women did not like Belle very much.

“But as a southerner, she had a blind spot about Eliza’s freedom, and did not realize that Eliza might have a different feeling about the outcome of the war.

“Eventually, Belle was as beloved by Northern veterans almost as much as those of the South. She did lecture tours where she talked about the bravery and sacrifice of the North and the South.”

Boyd’s audiences declined over the years as people lost interest in the Civil War, and she was impoverished at the time of her death. When she died on tour in Wisconsin, a Union women’s relief corps bought a respectable dress for her to be buried in, and her pallbearers were four Union soldiers and two sons of Union soldiers.

The prologue of the book is a sample list of etiquette rules for women in mid-1800 America, including “Do not lean back in your chair” and “Do not run in public.” It shows how tightly restricted woman were at the time, including physically in corsets, and how much Boyd strayed from the standards of the time.

“It was mind-boggling,” says Griffin, noting some books of etiquette were 400-pages-long.

“There were rules for every situation. There was no situation that did not call for dozens of rules, like how to behave in the street and for a woman traveling alone.

“If you were going to a dinner party, there were rules for hostesses and guests. Social calls were all that women did in those days,” she says of those of a certain class who were not servants or slaves.

Griffin, who relocated from Brooklyn to Connecticut with her husband, lived in the Lehigh Valley from 1980 to 2000, except for a three-year gap when she lived in San Francisco. She was a board member of Civic Theatre of Allentown for many years.

She taught elementary and middle school in the East Penn and Parkland school districts. She has traveled all over the world; on a National Geographic trip to Antarctica, sleeping in a tent in Africa for six months, and bicycling in Asia.

Griffin is the author of “Nowhere to Run,” a book about friendship and choices based on her experiences teaching remedial writing in the Washington, D.C., area.

Claire J. Griffin