Born in Natchez on 24 February 1905, novelist Alice Walworth Graham was the daughter of John Periander Walworth and Alice Leslie Gordon Walworth. She attended Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) in 1922–23. She married Richard Norwood Graham, a civil engineer, in 1936 and gave birth to one son, Richard Jr. After living in her paternal family home in Natchez from 1936 to 1939, the Grahams moved to New Orleans, where she developed her writing career.
Graham was a popular mid-twentieth-century novelist who wrote in the damsel-in-distress genre. While elements of realism appear in her work, romantic entanglements and family heritage are the overwhelming factors. Lost River (1938) depicts the aftermath of the Civil War from the traditional white landowners’ perspective of devastation and loss. Romantic Lady (1952) continued this tradition, as did Indigo Bend (1953) and Cibola (1962), both of which focused on the Natchez area. The Vows of the Peacock (1955), Shield of Honor (1957), and The Summer Queen (1973) were all historical romances set among the royalty of England.
Graham’s second novel, The Natchez Woman (1950), rose above this genre with its first-person point of view and setting between the world wars. Far from the conventional moonlight and magnolias heroine of the Old South, Jane Elliston can be characterized as a modern woman whose sexual feelings outweigh her commitment to her aging maiden aunts and their values, such as preserving her virginity by discouraging marriage. In fact, this tale of passion includes a celebration of breaking with the sexual mores of the post–World War I era, as Jane rejoices after her first sexual encounter, which she initiates: “According to everything I’d been taught, after having flung my bonnet over the windmill, I should have wept bitter tears into my pillow. I didn’t.” Later in the same passage, Jane admits to understanding her newly claimed status in the world by intentionally subverting societal expectations: “I’ve never set myself up as a rebel against society. A façade of invulnerable respectability often allows more leeway. If I want something beyond the limits of the established code, I just make a little sortie and retire again, unsuspected.” Jane has not only agency but the courage to use it, waging a private war on double standards. The novel concludes with the advent of World War II, and Jane, though now a cynic, divorced from her first lover and remarried without passion, dismisses the supposed “fruits of old age” at the coming of her first grandchild: “How tedious they sounded. My God! Who wanted that!” Thus she regrets not her unconventional life choices but the fact that her life is ending conventionally. This novel breaks with the romanticized past of her other works to portray a heroine whose actions empower her rather than function as a tribute to a lost civilization.
Graham returned to Natchez in 1962 and lived there until her death in 1994.
- Alice Walworth Graham Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Special Collections, Louisiana State University Library