I am pleased to host my friend S.K. Keogh as she launches The Driver’s Wife, a tale about the redeeming power of love for two outcasts in 1690s Carolina. I had the privilege of reading the novel before publication, and only the need to sleep forced me to stop turning the pages. What I particularly enjoyed was how Susan showed good and bad among all people, in all classes from slave to plantation owner. Here, she talks about the real plantations that inspired her vivid setting.—Kim
By S.K. Keogh
If you’ve been to Charleston, South Carolina, no doubt you visited at least one of the famous plantations located in the region. Boone Hall, Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place Plantation, and Drayton Hall are the four that I visited during a couple of research trips several years ago while writing my first three novels. The latter two plantations struck me the most, so much so that I patterned two of the plantations in my historical novels after them, albeit using a little cross-pollination.
Middleton Place, set on a rare prominence alongside the meandering Ashley River, is a true showplace. Not only does the plantation still grow the Carolina Gold rice which made the Middleton family wealthy in the 18th century, but it boasts an elaborately-designed garden encompassing several acres, including a large reflecting pool.
Interpretative programs on subjects like rice cultivation and slavery are a staple. Middleton is also the annual site for the finale of the Spoleto Festival every summer, where visitors fill the large greensward for a concert and fireworks over the river. The building you see in the photo below is one of the surviving flankers and serves as a museum today. The manor home itself was larger and actually looked similar to Drayton Hall. The main house was burned down by Union troops during the Civil War.
Originally, the land belonged to an heiress, Mary Williams. In 1741, Mary married Henry Middleton, who already owned The Oaks plantation and 1,600 acres on the Cooper River, which flows on the opposite side of the Charleston peninsula from the Ashley River. (Charleston was known as Charles Town until 1783.) Henry represented South Carolina in the First Continental Congress and was later elected its president.
The gardens at Middleton are the oldest landscaped gardens in the country. The layout of the 65-acre gardens was inspired by the designs of Andre Le Notre, the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France. Symmetry and geometry are the rule, balance, variety, and sculptures adding further elements. Hydrangeas, roses, magnolias, and azaleas are just a few of the flowers blooming at various times of the year at Middleton. A constant feast for the eyes and perfume for the nose.
The Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot, which took place during the Revolutionary War, has a scene shot on the grounds of Middleton.
Drayton Hall, shown below, is the earliest example of Palladian architecture in the United States. Like Middleton’s gardens, the design of Drayton’s wonderful, unrestored manor home is all about symmetry. If you split the house down the middle, each side would have equal numbers of rooms in the same location, equal numbers of windows, chimneys, etc. Also like Middleton, Drayton Hall was built in the 1700s.
Drayton is managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was opened to the public in 1977. It was founded by John Drayton in 1738. The family also owned Magnolia Plantation, just next door, up the Ashley River.
If you visit Drayton, make sure you take a tour of the house. In the photo above, it looks huge, but when you go inside, it manages to have an intimate feel, a real lived-in atmosphere. The main floor has a central hall, off which the other rooms open. Broad window seats make it easy to imagine one of the Draytons seated there, reading a book on a chilly winter evening with a fire roaring in the fireplace. The second floor has a matching layout.
In the region’s early years, particularly during the timeframe of my novels, which take place in the 1690s, there were no roads leading from Charles Town to the interior plantations along the Ashley River or along the many other rivers in the area. The rivers served as the areas highways, where vessels large and small ferried people and commerce to and from the interior. Because of this, the front of the plantations faced the river, not today’s modern driveways bringing visitors to the sites. During the early days, the area was a vast wilderness, dotted with large plantations like the ones featured in this article, as well as the more common smaller plantations. Modern folks hear the word plantation and automatically picture something on the grand scale of Middleton Place, but the majority of the plantations were much smaller and certainly less grand affairs.
Rice was not the main crop of the region until the early 1700s. Many plantation owners made their money from cattle farming and producing Naval stores including timber for British ships, as well as tar and hemp. But once rice was introduced to the low country, where the abundance of water was ideal for its production, Charles Town and the region grew rich.
Rice is still grown today at Middleton, as shown in the above photo, and visitors can even help plant some of it, using the age-old technique of the thousands of Africans enslaved on the region’s plantations. Besides things like rice cultivation, visitors to these plantations today can learn about the history of these slaves. Without those slaves from the “rice coast” of Africa, places like Middleton Place would never have flourished. These plantations today offer valuable insight into their suffering and contributions to the region’s success, both then and now.
I hope the picture I paint of plantation rice culture in my novels offers a bit of insight and education for those who may read it. And I hope my novel as well as this short article will encourage you to visit these wonderfully preserved plantations.
Photos by S.K. Keogh and used with permission.
About The Driver’s Wife
A story of redemption and unconventional love.
Leighlin Plantation offers Edward Ketch a new life, an opportunity to forsake his violent, troubled past and become a man worthy of respect and trust. But when a slave named Isabelle arrives, Ketch is drawn into a turbulent relationship that threatens the very peace he has struggled to attain.
Isabelle has her own desires for a fresh start, but scurrilous gossip about her past undermines those hopes. She struggles to be accepted by Leighlin’s other slaves and hopes marriage to a popular man will aid her cause. But her situation worsens when her husband becomes abusive. She discovers, however, one unlikely ally—Ketch, who is as much an outcast among Leighlin’s white population as she is among her people.
A stranger to love, Ketch cannot recognize the true feelings that draw him to Isabelle. To rescue her from the dangers of her marriage, he risks losing not only his position at Leighlin but the affections of the woman he strives to save.
Set against the backdrop of 17th century Carolina, The Driver’s Wife explores the lives and relationships, from Big House to slave settlement, of those who labored upon the wilderness plantations near Charles Town. Rice cultivation and the task system of slavery provide a much different landscape from the aristocratic Old South of cotton plantations and gang labor familiar to most modern-day readers. The Driver’s Wife is a tale of the transcendent power of love.