Book review: Alice of Old Vincennes (1900)

The docent quickly performed a cliff’s notes version of Alice of Old Vincennes at the steps of the author’s house. Maurice Thompson’s novel was made into a play that is routinely performed, at least around Vincennes. And the docent was clearly a bit of a ham on rye.

I was intrigued—perhaps by his performance, perhaps by learning about the history of Vincennes, perhaps by my reading other early Hoosier authors. Reading Alice of Old Vincennes was in my future.

The novel was a best seller. In 1900—the year of its publication—Alice of Old Vincennes was among the top ten books of the year. In 1901, it was the second best-selling book. Alice of Old Vincennes was Maurice Thompson’s most popular novel and unfortunately his last. He died in 1901.

Thompson hailed from Georgia but was a long-time resident of Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he was friends with another famous Hoosier author, Lew Wallace. (Kind of interesting that the two were such friends: one a member of the Confederate army, the other high up in the Union army.)

Alice of Old Vincennes is set in Vincennes in 1779, the year when George Rogers Clark and 170 men made their famous trek to retake the fort from the British. In February, this hardy band waded from Kashaskia, IL through flooded land and across the swollen Wabash River. The fort at Vincennes was the key to the west. Whoever held it, had control down the rivers to the Gulf of Mexico and up the rivers and through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Vincennes was the gateway to westward expansion for the colonies and the soon-to-be new country.

Thompson weaves a historical novel around real people and things. Father Gibault and Francis Vigo make appearances in the book. (Of course, there is George Rogers Clark himself too.) And the main characters in the book were real: Alice, Lt. Beverly, Oncle Jazon, Gaspard Roussillion, Henry Hamilton. Alice did have a locket from her mother and a set of rapiers. She created the flag that flew over the fort and—spoiler alert—she married Lt. Beverly.

Thompson also describes the culture of the time and place, painting a picture of this French settlement of fur traders and backwoodsmen that matches the view described to me during my recent visit to Vincennes. Pirogue, or the style of canoe used by the French fur traders, pops up repeatedly. Passing mention is made of hunting grouse. (The later Territorial Governor’s residence was called Grouseland due to the proliferation of grouse in the area.)

The book contains a decidedly negative view of the French. Commander Helm shares the common view that the French are good for nothing and lazy. A typical fur trader, or coureur de bois, was gone for months at a time traveling for work. When he was home, he was relaxing—sitting around eating, drinking, and playing cards—a description that appears throughout the book.

The French married Native Americans, marriages of convenience to a certain extent and marriages that helped grease the wheels of commerce for the fur traders. Frenchmen in the novel recount in passing marriages to various Native American women.

The non-French considered the dress of French women, which consisted of shorter skirts that made work easier to perform, a bit distasteful. Lt. Beverly shares this same view in the novel when he initially sees Alice.

The novel permeates with other non-WASP, non-male biases. Native Americans are often described as repulsive and untrustworthy—physically perfect specimens and utterly disgusting. “The plain truth is that dark savages of the pure blood often do possess the magnetism of perfect physical development and unfathomable mental strangeness; but real beauty they never have. Their innate repulsiveness is so great that, like the snake’s charm, it may fascinate; yet an indescribable, haunting disgust goes with it.”

Women are seen through decidedly male fantasy-induced glasses. While Alice is headstrong and assertive, traits that the men in the novel seem to find irresistible, she is put in her place as a flighty girl who needs to grow into a mature woman through an embarrassing encounter with Clark over her beloved being sent on a military campaign. Her ways are inscrutable, even to herself: “…what she [Alice] does and what she thinks are mysteries even to her own understanding.” Although initially besting Lt. Beverly in a fencing match, later she was happy that he gained the upper hand: “Deep in her heart she was pleased to have him master her [in fencing] so superbly.”

Thompson’s own background shows up in the back story he gives the hero. Lt. Beverly hails from a good Virginia family—a good slave-owning family. The hero and heroine marry and live out their days on the Beverly family plantation, “where hundreds of negro slaves worked and sang by day and frolicked by night.” The description was enough to make me convulse.

Alice of Old Vincennes—perhaps the prototype of the historical novel—engages the reader in a dramatized historical event, place, and era. At times, the story was a page-turner. At other times, I was amused by a turn of phrase or description. The British are the evil villains, the Americans the great heroes, and the French, well, they are fickle. Alice of Old Vincennes is an entertaining read, and based on my docent’s re-enactment of it, would make for a good stage production.

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