Review by Zachary Guiliano
Dusty manuscripts, lost wisdom, years of labor, an Anglican bishop’s wife, an engrossed public, and questions of authenticity: readers may be surprised to hear that this is not the story of the latest Dan Brown novel. It is the very real tale of Virginia Cary Hudson, her life and writings, as told by her granddaughter, Beverly Mayne Kienzle. (Readers will recognize Kienzle, recently retired from Harvard, as an eminent historian of medieval preaching and women’s theological writing.)
Older Episcopalians may fondly recall O Ye Jigs and Juleps! (1962), a collection of essays originally written by the 10-year-old Virginia as a set of exercises for school and posthumously published by her daughter. Helped by a series of pre-publication reviews in everything from Time to the Woodford County Sun, the book reached its third edition after the first week it was available, soon debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained on the list for 66 weeks as a national phenomenon. Reviewers praised its “sparkling” prose and remarkable origin.
Skeptics emerged immediately, however, questioning whether a 10-year-old could have written so well or so insightfully, demonstrating surprising fluency with details of Episcopal liturgy, such as the Latin names of Daily Office canticles. Even positive reviews frequently reported incorrect facts about Virginia’s life, stating that she was penniless or a widow, or about the manner of the volume’s publication; negative reviews called into question the author’s very existence, even as her daughter continued to publish compilations of her work in later years: Credos & Quips (1964), Flapdoodle, Trust & Obey (1966), and Close Your Eyes When Praying (1968).
Kienzle’s work lays to rest many of these old myths and questions about Virginia Cary Hudson, working from original source material, including photos, much of it collected earlier before by Kienzle’s mother. She recounts the story of Virginia Cary Hudson’s family and life, the process that Cary Hudson’s daughter, Virginia Cleveland Mayne, went through to see her mother’s works published, the character of the writings (a chapter humorously titled “Boiling Down Ecclesiastical Double Talk”), the final years of Virginia Cleveland Mayne, and a scrapbook of the poems and sketches Virginia Cary Hudson made for her granddaughter, Beverly.
The colorful character of “the Jigs & Juleps girl” emerges in anecdote after vivid anecdote. Ethel Jacobson, in the Chicago Sunday Tribune’s review of O Ye Jigs and Juleps!, highlighted one of my favorites, involving a dispute the young Virginia had with another girl about whether women should wear hats in church: “When the girl said, ‘Fooie on St. Paul,’ Virginia slapped her ‘for the whole state of Christ’s church universal’ and pinched her ‘for herself.’ Jacobson observed, ‘Of all the theological schisms that historically have riven the church, few have been stated so directly or resolved so swiftly’” (p. 93).
Similarly, Virginia’s theological teaching, often delivered in Sunday school or at a local chapel, will be of considerable interest to those interested in the history of the Episcopal Church and its culture. I especially appreciated Kienzle’s review of her grandmother’s Good Friday sermons, included in Credos & Quips. Virginia states that all those about to enter heaven will be asked four questions, based on Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Among the questions is, “Whom have you as a stranger taken in?” Virginia elaborated on having strangers among our family, but also strangers of “opinions, faith, culture, education, or race.” Virginia went on: “There are strangers of race, men of different color of skin, whose flesh, and bone, and blood, and feelings are identical with our own” (p. 119). In this explicit address toward racial division in old Kentucky, Virginia was ahead of her time, as she was in many other ways that Kienzle highlights — not least being a woman who taught and preached regularly.
What comes into view as well is a picture of the Episcopal Church and America at a very different time. Reviewers and readers of O Ye Jigs and Juleps! drew attention to how the young Virginia captured the quality of Southern and Episcopal life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with all the charm and precociousness of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, save with one crucial difference: Virginia’s life was no fiction, and its resonance with readers’ experiences came from its authenticity.
Kienzle accomplishes much the same thing. Virginia Cary Hudson’s work was published during the heyday of Episcopal influence and visibility in American culture, near its high-water mark of membership. With a changed landscape and a diminished Episcopal presence, it is hard to imagine a young Episcopalian’s voice speaking in tones familiar to American audiences, exuding the same attractive charm, and gaining such attention. I leave it to others to say whether bishops’ wives can still seamlessly connect prospective authors with literary agents and publishers.
The book also is a landmark in multigenerational effort, stemming from the real struggles of grandmother, mother, and daughter to preserve a family’s history and achievements, especially those of a revered, beloved matriarch. What comes through the pages is thus not only the work of a careful historian (who, I might add, has well proved her mettle on far more difficult and sparse medieval sources throughout her career), but also a loving daughter and mother, and a steadfast champion of women’s contributions to the Church in every age.