Few other Southern Belles can measure up to the writer and antebellum celebrity Octavia Walton LeVert. In Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert, Paula Lenor Webb takes a semi-narrative approach to telling Octavia’s story, beginning with her grandfather’s prominence as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, to her fall from grace during Reconstruction following the Civil War. Throughout the biography, Webb provides accounts from other notable historic figures to get across the charm and hospitality that marked Octavia in every season of her life.
She’s lauded as a lady of class and distinction among her peers, a master of navigating the social scene and gaining a national – and minor global – reputation as the “Queen of Mobile.” Much of her fame is thanks in part to her ancestral connection with the Declaration of Independence, but also through the tireless efforts of her mother, Sarah (“Sally”), who toured her throughout the North and South during the Jacksonian and Antebellum era in an effort to win her admirers. Her father, George Walton Jr., twice acting Governor and Secretary of State for Territory of Florida was not always present in her life, though extremely supportive in her adult years. After a financial debacle that soured his reputation for a time, Sally doubled her efforts to make sure that her daughter’s status grew separate from her father’s and flourished in spite of it. Their lifestyle as elite, slaveholding members of Pensacola and Mobile society gave Octavia the foundation to go on and become a feminine idol in the South.
Octavia married well, if not a little late, to a prominent doctor from Mobile, Henry LeVert, and went on to have four children, only two of which survived to adulthood. Disease took her only brother and her two middle children from her, tempering Octavia’s spirited and vivacious personality. In an effort to distract herself from this loss, she began to travel and make worldly connections with authors such as Washington Irving and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and rubbed elbows with notable politicians like Henry Clay. She took tours through Europe, meeting Queen Victoria and many more influential luminaries of the age. She published her experiences in Souvenirs of Travel, an instant sensation at a time when not many Americans could afford to travel abroad, but they could afford her slim two-volume series.
The book covers Octavia’s life during the Civil War in a single chapter (out of 13). The conflict marked the peak of her popularity. As a granddaughter of a Revolutionary War veteran and signer of the Declaration, she harbored Unionist sentiments, while still professing to be a Southern sympathizer as well, illustrating the duplicity of loyalties for many Southern Unionists during the war. She celebrated Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and entertained Union soldiers in her “salon” as she had done for many years before the war, fueling much of the growing animosity against her. Not much has survived during this period to give a full picture of what Octavia experienced in Mobile, but it wasn’t long after the occupation of the city that she made the decision to leave with her two daughters, Octavia (also called Diddie) and Cara Netta. All other family members had died or were not present in her life (Sally and Henry both passed during the war and her father lived in Virginia).
After the Civil War, she and her daughters struggled financially, despite her fame with Souvenirs of Travel, and though she had promised to write other books about her life as a Southern socialite, they were never published. They hopped around for a number of years before returning to the home she was born in, Belle Vue in Augusta, Georgia. Octavia, once the pride of Mobile and one of the most beloved women in both the North and South during the Antebellum era, died at the age of sixty-six in Augusta, Georgia.
Webb’s book is ideal for those who are casually curious about Octavia’s life, though it may also be better suited for students of history who are well versed in the period in which Octavia lived. The historical context provided outside of Octavia’s life is minimal, which may leave readers pondering on the “whys” of certain decisions or behaviors that shaped Octavia’s life. For that reason, Webb’s biography may not be ideal for those readers who want to understand the deeper workings of American society, but it is an entertaining read for those who don’t want to get caught up in a lot of background information. It’s an excellent introductory read to her life, and well cited with endnotes at the conclusion of every chapter. An index at the back might have been helpful, as is customary in many other academic works, for quick reference. The layout of the book is simple with large font for ease of reading, and loaded with pictures of Octavia, her family, and those who played key roles in her life, as well as locations closely related to her story. Webb’s writing style is fluid, though lacks the rigorous analysis of other biographical or academic works. However, when seen in the light of the previous observation that this book is not intended for academics, this is excusable.
In all, Such a Woman is entertaining and informative. Webb was also granted The Elizabeth B. Gould Research Award for her work in Such a Woman. Her other publication, Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, endeavors to cover the social and economic impacts of the Civil War on Mobile citizens.
For more information about Webb or where to purchase her books, visit, https://suchawomanbook.com/