In her writing, Susan Petigru King perceived herself to be an American William Makepeace Thackeray. She wrote realistically and satirically about the manners and mores—the sexual politics and unhappy unions— of the Charleston and lowcountry plantation elite in the divorceless South Carolina that she knew well.
Author. King was born on October 23, 1824, in Charleston, the fourth child of the lawyer James Louis Petigru and Jane Amelia Postell. “Sue” received a finishing-school education at Madame Talvande’s School in Charleston and at Madame Guillon’s in Philadelphia. While decidedly intelligent and talented, in personality she was also independent minded and fun loving–and reportedly quick tempered, rebellious, flirtatious, and indiscreet. At the age of eighteen, on March 30, 1843, she married a young local lawyer, Henry Campbell King. A thinly disguised account of their unhappy marriage is presented in “A Marriage of Persuasion,” a story in her third book, Sylvia’s World: Crimes Which the Law Does Not Reach. The marriage produced one child, Adele, before Henry King was fatally wounded at the Battle of Secessionville in 1862.
Susan Petigru King’s first book, Busy Moments in the Life of an Idle Woman, which contained four short stories and a novella, was published to critical acclaim in late 1853. She followed with Lily in 1855 and Sylvia’s World in 1859. Gerald Gray’s Wife, completed in 1863 and published the next year, was an extensive and incisive critique of marriage as a joyless liaison of entrapment and an endless struggle of competing wills. Her last known published work, “My Debuts,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1868. In her writing, Susan Petigru King perceived herself to be an American William Makepeace Thackeray. She wrote realistically and satirically about the manners and mores–the sexual politics and unhappy unions– of the Charleston and lowcountry plantation elite in the divorceless South Carolina that she knew well. A contemporary critic in 1870 observed that “Mrs. King despises foolish sentimentalism, and shows up human vice in all of her books. . . . All of her characters are true to nature.” The historians Jane and William Pease argue that “King’s novels are differentiated by their critical perspective on women’s position, their exploration of themes of failure and frustration, and their focus on the drawing room and ballroom rather than the kitchen and nursery.”
After the war, King tried unsuccessfully to support herself as a writer, and by 1867 she was working in Washington, D.C., as a government clerk. On August 17, 1870, she married the Republican boss of Charleston County, Congressman Christopher Columbus Bowen. A native Rhode Islander eight years her junior, Bowen was an unsavory but wily character who was turned out of Congress in 1872. The couple returned to Charleston, where Bowen served a term as county sheriff. Largely shunned by family members and polite society alike, King became lonely and unhappy. She died of typhoid pneumonia in Charleston on December 11, 1875, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. In 1994, King was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Helsley, Alexia Jones. “Henry Campbell and Susan Petigru King.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (2001): 11–18.
Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. A Family of Women: The Carolina Petigrus in Peace and War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Scafidel, J. R. “Susan Petigru King: An Early South Carolina Realist.” In South Carolina Women Writers: Proceedings of the Reynolds Conference, University of South Carolina, October 24–25, 1975, edited by James B. Meriwether. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1979.