Alabama filmmaker to make movie magic with Columbus native’s novel ‘St. Elmo’

spauff@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 4, 2012 

The work and life of a Columbus-born author is getting the film treatment.

Robert Clem, a filmmaker from Mobile, Ala., is working on a movie about Augusta Jane Evans Wilson and her most famous novel, “St. Elmo,” titled “The Passion of Miss Augusta.”

Clem said his interest in Wilson began after he discovered he might be related to the author. The more research he did, the more fascinated he became.

“The narrative of her life paralleled that of her characters,” Clem said. “All her women are smart, want to get an education and usually are writers.”

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was born in Columbus in 1835. Though she had little formal education, she was a voracious reader from a young age. She was known for sentimental, domestic novels featuring educated women.

Though her father moved the family to San Antonio, Texas, when Wilson was a child, she finished her most famous work, “St. Elmo,” in Columbus at El Dorado, the home of her aunt, Mary Howard Jones. The 18th Street home was later renamed St. Elmo, after the novel.

“St. Elmo,” tells the story of Edna Earle, a beautiful and devout young woman growing up in the South in the 19th century, who falls in love with the cynical St. Elmo Murray. Edna resists his attempted seductions until he reforms and becomes a minister at the novel’s end.

Published in 1866, “St. Elmo” had its fair share of critics, especially for the verbose writing style. The year after the novel was published, another author, Charles Webb, wrote a satire on the book called St. Twel’mo in which he accused Wilson of teething on a dictionary.

“Her writing style is a little clunky now,” Clem said. “She was trying to educate women.”

But the book became a best-seller, inspiring cities across the country to name streets after characters and places in the novel.

“It’s hard to really imagine how the book was so incredibly popular,” Clem said. “It hit a cord with the whole country.”

For Clem, the allure of the novel comes from the central romance between Edna and St. Elmo. He said the book has its similarities to “Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Bronte, but Edna has loftier ambitions than Bronte’s heroine.

“Jane Eyre wanted to be a governess. Edna Earle wanted to go to New York and be a career woman,” Clem said.

Clem said he was also struck by the similarities between the novel and Wilson’s life. Before the Civil War, Augusta Jane Evans was engaged to New York journalist James Reed Spalding. When war broke out, Evans became a staunch Southern patriot. Spalding supported Abraham Lincoln, so they broke off the engagement.

“St. Elmo” has a happier ending.

“She got to have the romance in the novel that she didn’t have in real life because of the Civil War,” Clem said.

Clem’s film is part documentary, part literary adaptation. Feminists Nina Baym and Diane Roberts and Victorian scholar Susan Reynolds talk about “St. Elmo,” while the novel plays out as both a silent film and a Technicolor film set in the 1950s.

Clem said he chose to set parts of his adaptation in the 1950’s because of the number of other Southern Gothic novels and plays that were made into movies during that period, like Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“Romantic ideas about the South came from those movies,” he said, similar to the way post-Civil War novels like “St. Elmo,” sometimes romanticized the South.

“Adapting St. Elmo’s to the 1950’s underscores that link,” he said.

Clem hasn’t decided on all the locations for the film yet, including whether he will visit the St. Elmo house in Columbus. He’s shot about half of the footage he needs and is trying to raise money to finish the movie through Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding site for creative ideas. Anyone can donate to the project through March 17. When the film is finished, he’d like to show it at festivals.

“For me it’s the best project I’ve done,” he said.

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469

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