Sarah Anne Ellis was born on 16 February 1829 to wealthy Natchez plantation owners Mary Routh Ellis and Thomas George Percy Ellis, an ancestor of writer Walker Percy. Thomas Ellis died when Sarah Anne was nine, and her mother married Charles Dahlgren in 1840. They raised the precocious child with the assistance of her governess, writer Eliza Ann Dupuy, in Mary’s ancestral home, Routhland.
In 1853 Sarah married wealthy Marylander Samuel Worthington Dorsey and took full advantage of her privileged existence, traveling and pursuing intellectual endeavors. She published at least six Victorian romance novels in the 1860s and 1870s (Agnes Graham, Athalie, The Vivians, Lucia Dare, Panola, and Vivacious Castine) as well as her first literary offering, an 1866 tribute to Confederate general Henry Watkins Allen, a family friend.
Her achievements subsequently continued far beyond the traditional forms of writing common to women in the nineteenth century. She was the first woman admitted into New Orleans’s prestigious Academy of Sciences, where one of her last projects was a paper delivered on 13 April 1874, “On the Philosophy of the University of France.” This title veiled Dorsey’s promotion of a philosophy grounded in the equal albeit separate treatment of women. As she attempted to reconcile religion with science, she advocated an elevated position for women based not on social and political theory but on genealogical science and eugenics: “I do not recognize any antagonism or any inequality in value, of the intellect of the sexes; the one is simply the complement of the other, of the Two, the intellect of Woman is probably more composed of the results of reflex action of the race, thought and habit than that of man. She seems to be in some sort, the granary of humanity! She has more of the treasures of race posited in her than man has. She has more and quicker intuition, and of what is called instinct, than he has; and philosophers teach that intuition is the ultimate product of voluntary race, thought and habit.” Thus, she demonstrated both her feminism and her racial prejudice.
Dorsey is now best known for her connection to the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. She offered the destitute Davis a home at Beauvoir, the Mississippi Gulf Coast antebellum mansion she had bought and renamed in 1873. A childhood friend of Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis, Dorsey not only provided a haven for the disgraced leader but also served as secretary-transcriber for his memoirs. When she died of breast cancer on 4 July 1879, she left the home to Jefferson Davis. The Dahlgren family contested the bequest, claiming that Dorsey was not of sound mind when she amended her will in favor of Davis, but the suit was dismissed.
Dorsey is buried in the Routh family cemetery in Natchez, where her tombstone lists the titles of her books.
- Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (1994)