Notes Concerning the Author.
Rosalie Roos, married name Olivecrona (1823 – 1898), was a Swedish feminist activist and writer. She was born into a wealthy family and grew up in Stockholm and received a notable education at Wallinska Flickskolan, the oldest girls’ school in Sweden dating to 1831.
One of her friends, Hulda Hahr, was a teacher at a girls’ school in Limestone, a town near Charleston, South Carolina and offered her a position on the school. She traveled to the United States in 1851, and stayed there for four years. Roos was first a teacher of French at the school in Limestone, then she became a governess at the plantation of two of her students, Eliza and Annie Peronneau. She later wrote a description of her stay and of the culture of the American South, titled, Travels in America.
(The Society credits Wikipedia for this biographical sketch.)
Travels in America, 1851-1855, translated from the Swedish version of 1969, is taken from the letters and diaries of a young Swedish woman who came to South Carolina in the 1850s to better herself and find employment. Rosalie Roos, a well-educated, intelligent lady who considered life in her native country “stifling,” took the bold step of leaving Sweden to seek opportunity and a measure of independence in the New World.
Arriving in South Carolina in 1851, she first obtained a place of employment as a teacher at Limestone Female High School (now Limestone College) in the upstate county of Cherokee. Her letters from Limestone describe the routine of life in that establishment, which she eventually found too confining for her taste. One of her favorite pupils was Eliza Peronneau, and in time, Rosalie accepted a position as a governess in the home of this young lady’s family in Charleston. Rosalie left Limestone in December 1852, and after spending some time with some relatives in Columbia, South Carolina, she completed the journey to Charleston by train, noting in a letter home that most of the railroad “goes through woods.”
In Charleston, Rosalie was warmly welcomed by the Peronneaus, a wealthy, upper class family of Huguenot descent. During her tenure as governess to several girls, Rosalie frequently wrote from Dungannon, the rice plantation of Mr. Edward C. Peronneau, located about 18 miles from Charleston. She described the family members and their activities in detail, reporting that Mr. Peronneau is “out on his plantation the whole day, cheerful, industrious and good-natured.” His wife is a “remarkable woman” who is “constantly in motion, taking care of children, the household, and the Negroes.” At Dungannon, where Mr. Peronneau had some sixty slaves, Rosalie observed that “It is no small thing to clothe and feed so many. They all have pleasant, newly constructed homes.”
Part of Rosalie’s time was spent in Charleston, and her diary and letters provide a wealth of vivid observations about the city and its people in the mid-nineteenth century. She enjoyed the city’s cultural advantages, especially musical concerts, and devoted one of her letters to a description of the religious life and practices of the “very religious” Charlestonians. In the summer of 1854, she attended a Fourth of July celebration at the Battery and recounted how one of the pyrotechnical displays depicted a fiery “temple of freedom” in which the name Washington prominently appeared. At the same event, Rosalie was impressed when she observed the gentlemen immediately yielding their seats to any lady who approached, and opined that this respect for women was “a trait which the old world could learn from the new.”
Rosalie considered slavery immoral, but after spending a short time in South Carolina, she wrote home that her “deep sympathy” for the slaves had “cooled off,” and that they appeared to be much happier than many servants in Sweden, and did not seem distressed at their condition. Rosalie’s father, who had just read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote to his daughter in America to ask her if the book was an accurate portrayal of slavery. Rosalie replied that Mrs. Stowe accurately depicted the “manners and speech” of negroes, but assured her father that she had personally never seen “the least mistreatment” of any slave, adding that they had their own chickens and pigs, which they could sell if they chose, and that after their required work of the day was done, sometimes as early as noon, they could work for themselves. “They seem satisfied and happy,” she wrote, “are especially devoted to their master and mistress, and often lead a more carefree life than they.” Rosalie remarked that she wanted to translate another American book she had read, Recollections of a Southern Matron, which she characterized as a “faithful description” of plantation life in the South. This book by Mrs. Caroline H. Gilman, a northern woman who spent much of her life in South Carolina, portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution.
Rosalie never abandoned her opposition to slavery, and truthfully reported what she saw of it and many other aspects of Southern life, and yet her writings, unlike those of other 19th century commentators such as Fanny Kemble or Harriet Martineau, have been largely neglected. A book published in 2002 entitled Slavery and Emancipation describes the letters and diaries of Rosalie Roos as “one of the most interesting and least-known documents” on antebellum Southern society, but includes only a brief excerpt from her writings concerning courtship customs.
Rosalie returned to Sweden in 1855, and in 1857 she married Knut Olivecrona, a Swedish lawyer and scholar. She gained prominence as an advocate of women’s rights in her country, and helped to establish the Swedish Red Cross. Her travel letters and diaries, collected as Travels in America, are a rare and honest revelation of antebellum South Carolina society by a perceptive, impartial observer, and are well worth reading.
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Note Concerning the Translator and Editor of the English Edition.
The Editor, Carl L. Anderson was a professor of English at Duke University in North Carolina. He was the author of books on Scandinavian and 19th century American literature.