Review of Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert, by Paula Lenor Webb

10 Aug

The name Octavia Walton LeVert is integrally associated with the social life of antebellum Mobile. A near-mythical figure in local history whose famed salons seemingly single-handedly yielded the nineteenth-century city a legendary societal scene, LeVert appears in countless descriptions of the era and her name was recalled by dozens of visitors to the city during her years of residence. One might fairly describe LeVert’s home as one of the primary attractions in antebellum Mobile—a place where noted authors, politicians, and distinguished guests were extended the city’s unofficial welcome and introduced to local movers and shakers. Despite the familiarity of her name to readers of Alabama history, however, relatively little has been written about LeVert’s personal life. In truth, we barely know her beyond her reputation. Here to introduce modern readers to a woman to whom so many were introduced during her time is Paula Lenor Webb with a biography of one of the antebellum South’s most celebrated female figures in Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert.

Webb is a librarian at the University of South Alabama and veteran researcher into Mobile’s storied history. As we noted here in this blog, her first book, Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade (2016), made a welcome contribution to our understanding of the city during the Civil War. With Such a Woman, a labor of love years in the making, Webb offers the first comprehensive biography of her subject and again makes a noteworthy contribution to Mobile-area history. But because LeVert’s renown extended far beyond the port city, the book will ultimately be of use of those interested in the past of the many places with which she is associated.

Born in Georgia and growing up in Florida, LeVert was the granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the daughter of the first Secretary for the Florida Territory. She spent most of her adult years in Mobile, but also had brief stays in other locations such as New York and Washington, D.C. LeVert was one of the most famous socialites of her day, able to translate her family’s social prominence, a reputation as a conversationalist owing to her in-depth knowledge on a range of subjects, her special facility with multiple European languages, and a rare charm into a career as a social influencer some two centuries before the coining of the term. Her writings, most notably including her book Souvenirs of Travel, made her among the leading female authors of her time. She became a correspondent of the likes of statesman Henry Clay, President Millard Fillmore, author Washington Irving, and international literary figure Frederika Bremer, and seemed to be able to gain entry with any audience she desired in the prime of her life. Such was her fame that on her tours of Europe, she became something of an unofficial American diplomat. Back in the states, she used her status to, among other things, become a key player in the movement to preserve George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, as a national shrine. Yet for all of her triumphs, LeVert’s life featured its share of tragedies. She endured the loss of three children and her husband in addition to her brother and parents, and in her last years struggled financially.

Webb’s treatment of LeVert’s remarkable life is thoroughly researched, evidencing a diligent quest for seemingly every shred of information on her along the Gulf Coast, the eastern seaboard, and in her travels across the Atlantic. Webb manages to turn hundreds of bits and pieces of often incomplete information only hinting at LeVert’s presence in a given location into a coherent narrative of her life in her narrative. This is no mean feat, and one made possible only by her thorough knowledge of her subject, the historiography mentioning her, and her attempt to visit many of the locations frequented by LeVert during the course of her research. Such a Woman is a colorful biographical portrait that is at once entertaining and intensely personal, and will surely be of interest to readers of Mobile and Gulf Coast history.

JMB

One Response to “Review of Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia Walton LeVert, by Paula Lenor Webb”

  1. Mary S. Palmer August 10, 2021 at 11:09 PM #

    What a wonderful tribute to the book and to Octavia. Both are deserving

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