Arts & Culture

Remembering Two Icons of the Literary South

Dorothea Benton Frank and Anne Rivers Siddons told stirring stories of the South—and proclaimed the power of a triple name for the next generation of Southern women writers

The passing, just days apart earlier this month, of two beloved women and Southern literary icons gives us pause to reflect as readers, writers, and women of the South. Both Anne Rivers Siddons and Dorothea Benton Frank were pioneers in the world of Southern fiction. Both were born and raised in the South and championed characters who struggled against the oppressive bonds of societal expectations and ultimately triumphed, just as Anne and Dottie, as their friends knew them, did in their well-lived and intriguing lives. 

These two scribes will forever be connected by their Southern landscapes. While Anne wrote about the post-Civil Rights South, Dottie portrayed the contemporary Lowcountry. They shared a captivation with Southern lifestyles, culture and food, and an unrelenting honesty in their portrayals of the people who inhabited this regaled region. Entering the Southern world fifteen years apart, now they sadly share the proximity of their untimely deaths. 

Although their novels aren’t similar in tone or even in plot, and although they lived different lives—Dottie lived part time in Montclair, New Jersey, and Anne spent years in Atlanta before moving to Charleston—both authors finally ended up in their beloved state of South Carolina only miles apart. Southern to their very cores, they grew up in diverse variations of the South. Dottie was born and raised on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, and attended college in Atlanta. Anne was born in rural Georgia, attended college in Alabama, and lived a celebrated life in Atlanta. 

Anne Rivers Siddons.

They took almost opposite routes to becoming novelists. Anne wrote columns in her college newspaper, the Plainsman. When she wrote in favor of integration, she was fired. Her first novel, Heartbreak Hotel, is loosely based on the experience. She went on to marry Heyward Siddons and wrote for Atlanta magazine, where she was discovered, and then wrote nineteen novels, including the 1988 bestseller Peachtree Road. Anne is credited with creating the genre of Southern Women’s Fiction and was an integral part of the burgeoning New South group of writers. Pat Conroy said it best when he noted that none of us in the Southern Women’s Fiction world would be writing what we are writing if Anne hadn’t done it first.

Photo: Debbie Zammit

Dorothea Benton Frank.

Dottie attended the Fashion Institute in Atlanta and had a career in the fashion industry before marrying Peter Frank and having two children. Years later, when her mother, who still lived on Sullivan’s Island, passed away and the family planned to sell the house, Dottie declared, “I’m going to write a book and I’m going to sell a million copies and I’m going to buy Momma’s house back.” She did write a bestseller, and although her mother’s house had sold, she bought another house nearby on Sullivan’s Island. After the success of Sullivan’s Island, her gift for storytelling was off and running and she wrote another nineteen novels.

Of course, there was more to these women than their books. Their brilliant lives also affected us as readers, writers, and women. 

As readers, we discovered Anne Rivers Siddons when we were young, unpublished writers voraciously reading. We found her work at a time in our lives when we sought nourishment and encouragement. Anne’s novels helped shape our vision of storytelling and broadened our perspectives of the South. Anne spoke to us with her lyrical language and attention to descriptive detail in lines like, “That sinuous southern life…” Her honesty about personal issues could be brutally beautiful, saying that the South was hard on women. And she was glamorous to boot. In the time before social media, she was a woman seen only in press photos with her cat and her signature red glasses. She was an enigma in later life: determinedly private, yet a woman we felt we knew through her stories. While Anne’s voice was quiet and soft in real life, it was loud and large in her work. 

Dottie was a contemporary whose temperament and voice were as vivid and fiery as her characters and work. She was a shining example of a quote attributed to George Eliot, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Dottie changed her career mid-life. Her first book, Sullivan’s Island, was released when she was forty-nine years old. She often declared: “Most people just don’t dream big enough.” But she did. She was a force of nature. She was gregarious and warm; she gathered people together and she wanted all of us to join her in the party that was often her life. We were drawn to her personality in the same way we were fascinated by her strong, complex characters, some of them quirky, others immediately recognizable. With her daughter, Victoria, Dottie was working on a children’s book titled Teddy Spaghetti and inspired by her grandson. 

Mary Alice Monroe and Frank.

As writers, we will be forever grateful for the brilliant literary examples Anne and Dottie set. Today, we believe they’d tell us to be fearless in pursuing our art. To follow our passions wholeheartedly. To tell the truth. To break societal demands and use our voices for good. To encourage our colleagues, just as they did when they reached their hands out to fellow authors along the way. 

Patti Callahan Henry and Siddons.

As women, perhaps their final example is a reminder that every day is precious. Anne reveled in her retreat in Maine, as Dottie did her escape on Sullivan’s Island. There they showed us that taking the time to wiggle our toes in the sand, breathe deep the forest air, take good care of our health, laugh, and spend time with those we love, is best done in tandem with a voracious writing life. 

 Their deaths, so close together, took us by surprise. The suddenness allowed no time for prolonged goodbyes. So, we bid farewell in the best way we know how—through our words. Though Anne and Dottie are gone, we like to imagine Pat Conroy welcoming his friends to the other side with a hearty laugh, and always, with great love.

Mary Alice Monroe is the best-selling author of twenty-one novels and two children’s books including the Beach House series.

Patti Callahan Henry is the best-selling author of fifteen novels including the recent historical novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis.