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Here are a few things that happen in the 1855 anti-Mormon novel, Boadicea the Mormon Wife: Life Scenes in Utah, which is being released July 12th as the second volume of our “Mormon Image in Literature” Series.
- A beautiful seventeen-year-old Mormon girl named Boadicea (pronounced BOO-duh-kuh after the Celtic warrior queen of the same name) marries a dashing young Mormon man named Hubert who promises to be faithful to his new bride for life.
- Soon after their marriage, a high Church leader tries to convince her to become his “spiritual wife” (for which it is not necessary to leave her husband, polyandry being just fine). Boadicea, who takes her marriage to Hubert seriously, refuses.
- Hubert brings home a dark and mysterious woman named Cephysia and announces that she is going to be his second wife.
- Another woman who refuses to allow her husband to take a second wife kills two Church leaders and is killed in the open by the Prophet himself in an act of divine vengeance to atone for her sins.
- Hubert is strangled by a Church leader who are infatuated with Boadicea, and his body is dumped in the Great Salt Lake (which, in the novel, is within easy walking distance of the only settled town in the state).
- Cephysia kills Boadicea’s child by administering a large dose of cyanide and tries to kill Boadicea the same way. She then goes on the hang herself.
- Mormon Elders dress up like Indians and massacre travelling settlers to steal their money.
- After nearly every other character in the novel is killed—fourteen gruesome deaths in all—Boadicea escapes from Utah with a traveling party and returns to the United States, where she publishes her journal in the form of Boadicea, the Mormon Wife: Life Scenes in Utah.
Boadicea, in other words, presents a completely unrealistic, sensational, and easily refutable picture of Mormon life in Utah. From it, we learn nothing important about polygamy, the Mormon settlement, the structure of the early Church, or the daily lives of the Saints. It is anti-Mormon literature at its worst.
Why, then, are we going to all the effort to annotate and republish it as part of a new book series?
We are doing all of this because Boadicea, though wildly inaccurate, was extremely influential. Its author—a twenty-nine-year-old literary entrepreneur named Arthur R. Orton writing under the pseudonym “Alfreda Eva Bell”—was one of the first American writers to recognize the importance of the emerging working class, who, for the first time in American history, had the disposable income necessary to buy novels and the education necessary to read them.
But they weren’t going to read Hawthorn and Melville. That was for the elites. A new class of readers required a new kind of book. Orton understood this. And he knew that he had to do two things. First, he had to make the books cheap—and it didn’t matter how long they lasted on the shelves. He used inexpensive paper, unbound covers, and direct distribution to sell books at “the extremely low price of 15 cents”—rather than the dollar or more that one would expect to pay for a nicely bound hardcover.
But Orton also knew that he had to make his books easier to read than other books. He was marketing to an audience that was not used to reading for fun. That meant that his books had to offer the literary version of instant and intense gratification. They had to have lots of pictures, exciting plots, less narrative description, and, above all, lots of sex and violence. And they could have none of the annoying subtlety that afflicted books aimed at a more educated elite.
Orton was a one-man operation. He wrote, edited, and printed the books himself and then hired teenage boys to sell them door to door. Among those who paid attention to his methods, and their success, were Erastus Beadle and Robert Adams—who, within ten years would own one of the largest publishing houses in the United States: Beadle & Adams, the leading producer of dime novels for more than 50 years.
And this matters. Though Orton wrote only one book about Mormons, Beadle & Adams published more than two dozen—and the Mormon image that they created soon moved to the center of Anglo-American culture through the works of such luminaries as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Zane Grey. The works of these writers would influence the way that people saw Mormons for more than 100 years. In many ways, their influence is still with us today.
Our goal in the “Mormon Image in Literature” series will be to document—with carefully annotated critical editions—the development of the literary tropes and narrative conventions that have defined Mormonism for a huge segment of the English-speaking world. This will include tracing the unfair negative stereotypes that emerge in works like Boadicea. But we will also include attempts by Mormons to define themselves. The next volume in the series will be a critical edition of Apostle Orson F. Whitney’s epic poem, Elias, followed soon thereafter by an edition of B.H. Roberts’ Book of Mormon-themed novella, Corianton.
We hope that these editions will help Latter-day Saints better understand our historical interactions with the larger culture that partially shaped—and was partially shaped by Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Mormon migration, the settlement of the Great Basin, and the emergence of Mormonism as a significant global religion. And a significant part of this interaction can be traced back to the anti-Mormon literary stereotypes that were first introduced to the world in Boadicea, the Mormon Wife.