West Virginia Book Festival

A look back at Mary Lee Settle

Mary Lee Settle

National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon will appear at next month’s West Virginia Book Festival in the annual session named after Mary Lee Settle. In the announcement about Gordon, Book Festival chairwoman Pam May called Settle “the grande dame of West Virginia literature.”

Settle died on this date in 2005, at the age of 87. Although she left West Virginia for much of her later life, her experiences here continued to color her books throughout her life. (She also returned for the inaugural West Virginia Book Festival back in 2001.)

Below is the obituary for Settle that appeared in The Charleston Gazette — for those who don’t know her, or for those who want to be reminded of a remarkable woman. ………………………………………………………………………

Mary Lee Settle, the critically acclaimed author whose novels chronicle life in the Kanawha Valley from its earliest settlements through the 20th century, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. She was 87.

She had been a resident of the Charlottesville, Va., area for most of the last 30 years.

Former Gov. Gaston Caperton was a longtime fan of Settle’s and persuaded her to tour small colleges in West Virginia in 2003.

“She was a great lady,” Caperton said Wednesday. “West Virginia has lost one of its most distinguished writers and a person that I loved not only for her writing but for her spirit and her penetrating and challenging understanding of West Virginia and its people. Though she is gone, she will live on through her great writing.”

Fellow West Virginia novelist Denise Giardina said, “I lost my real mother a few days ago, and I considered Mary Lee my literary mother. She’s the one who showed me it could be done, that I could be a writer from West Virginia. She was also extraordinarily vivid as a person, one of the strongest personalities I ever met.

“She was the quintessential American, the way Americans should be: outspoken for justice and democracy. She was also the quintessential West Virginian, a strong individual, tough and willing to stand up to anything.”

In more than 20 novels and nonfiction volumes, Settle took measure of the coarse mores, emotional ties and ripple effects of history that came for her to define Charleston and the other locales of her bittersweet upbringing in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, rechristened by one of her characters as the “Beulah Land.”

Her most ambitious work is the “Beulah Quintet,” a series of historical novels written over the course of two decades and tracing a line of familial descent from Cromwellian England through the 1980s, each narrative either unfolding in or proceeding toward the Kanawha Valley of Settle’s youth.

Though she was to travel widely and live much of her life abroad, Charleston figures at least tangentially in most of the other novels too, and several take it as their primary setting. A recurring theme in the fiction involves jarring encounters between Charleston and the world outside, often arising from a native’s homecoming and highlighting deep ambivalence toward a provincialism that could prove both confining and endearing.

The later novels, however, explore the expatriate life Settle led mainly in Britain and Turkey. “Blood Tie,” which won Settle the prestigious National Book Award in 1978, follows a band of Westerners living in the Turkish coastal city of Ceramos as they spread many of the social ills they imagine themselves to be escaping. She was named the Sunday Gazette-Mail West Virginian of the Year in 1978.

Fighting between Greece and Turkey in 1974 over Cyprus forced Settle to flee Turkey, and the expatriate life for good, with only the clothes on her back. But “I was lucky,” she wrote in the 1998 memoir “Addie.”

“There was always for me Beulah. I came back to the big house, and tried to work there.”

Settle was born in Charleston in 1918. The “big house” refers to the mansion that gave Cedar Grove its name, built in a grove of cedars in 1844 by Settle’s maternal great-grandfather, William Tompkins, a magnate of the valley’s salt wells and later a coal mine owner.

The house remained in the Tompkins family for more than a century and a half, until the death of Settle’s cousin, former West Virginia Attorney General Roger Tompkins, in 1997.

At 18, Settle left home to attend Sweet Briar College in Virginia. But a high school trip to New York had sown a deep fascination with the city and the stage, and by her sophomore year she dropped out for a chance to apprentice at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. Spotted there by an agent from David O. Selznick Studios, Settle was asked to audition for the role of Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” which took her to New York, where she decided to stay.

After working a few years as a model, Settle married Rodney Weathersbee, a Briton, and they had a son, Christopher, Settle’s only child. When World War II broke out, she left Christopher with relatives in West Virginia and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

The experiences would provide the basis for “All the Brave Promises: Memoirs of Aircraft Women 2nd Class.” After the war, Settle was divorced and worked briefly for Harper’s Bazaar in New York. She then moved back to England, where she married and divorced again and focused on writing full-time, earning her living from books — her first published in 1954 — and journalism.

Almost from the beginning, the chief preoccupation of Settle’s fiction would be situating West Virginia on the epic canvas of history.

Especially in “The Beulah Quintet,” this was as much a personal undertaking as a political one, Settle said. For example, she attributed the motivations of “Know Nothing,” written in 1960, to the first stirrings of the civil rights movement. But the first installment, “O Beulah Land,” “with its land hunger and its sense of physical displacement and loss, was affected by my own homesick exile,” she said.

Just as Settle’s fiction strives to place West Virginia on a global timeline, she often thrust herself into the history-making events of the day.

In 1968, she vowed publicly in protest of the Vietnam War to move to Britain if Richard Nixon were elected president, and proved as good as her word.

In 1980, Settle founded the PEN/Faulkner Award, which is bestowed on poets, essayists and novelists by other writers.

The return to Charleston in 1974 was short-lived. “There was too much past, too much family for me to work in the valley,” she later wrote.

Instead she moved to Charlottesville, where she would stay for most of the rest of her life. In 1978 she married for the third time, to William Littleton Tazewell, a columnist and former associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. He died in 1998.