E.D.E.N. Southworth was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the nineteenth century and her Capitola Black, or Black Cap - a cross-dressing, adventure-seeking girl-woman - was so well-loved that the book was serialized three times between 1859 and 1888 and was dramatized in forty different versions. When we first meet sharp and witty Capitola she is living among beggars and street urchins, and dressed as a boy because a boy can get work and be safe, whereas a girl is left to starve for want of "proper" employment. Unknown to her, Capitola has a very rich elderly guardian who finds her at a providential moment and takes her back to his palatial mansion where she finds herself "decomposing above ground for want of having my blood stirred." But not to fear. There are bandits, true-loves, evil men, long-lost mothers, and sweet women friends in Capitola's future - not to mention thunder storms, kidnap attempts, and duels. The pace is fast, the action wonderfully unbelievable. This is escape literature at its nineteenth-century best, with a woman at its center who makes you feel strong, daring, and reckless.
Joanne Dobson teaches creative writing and American literature at Fordham University. She is the author of the Prof. Karen Pelletier academic mystery series and a founding editor of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers.