Fanny Taylor, Mrs. Thomas Harding Ellis
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The loveliness of Virginia women has been a theme of song and verse. Among the Richmond belles of sixty years ago none were more justly celebrated than that trio known as the Richmond Graces, Sally Chevalier, Fanny Taylor, and Sally Watson. Close companions from early childhood, their unusual beauty as they grew to womanhood brought them fame individually and collectively. Sally Chevalier became the wife of Abram Warwick, Sally Watson, of Alexander Rives, and Fanny Taylor, of whom this sketch is designed to treat at greater length, was twice married. She was educated at the excellent school of Miss Jane Mackenzie, in Richmond, at a time when a young lady’s education embraced a rather superficial dip into the languages, a good deal of poetry, some history, a neat Italian handwriting, and a care of their peach-blossom complexions and slender hands. Frivolous as it sounds compared with the curriculum of girls’ schools in good standing at this end of the century, the history of the South furnishes many evidences of the profundity as well as the brilliancy of its women.
With her friends, Sally Chevalier and Sally Watson, Fanny Taylor was a pupil in the dancing academies of Mr. Xaupi and Mr. Boisseau. They excelled in the grace and beauty of their dancing, and at the Assembly balls it was their custom to occupy places in the same cotillon. They enjoyed the delicate celebrity of having pieces of dancing-music named after them, and when “Sally Chevalier,” “Fanny Taylor,” or “Sally Watson,” was called for, Judah, Ruffin, and Lomax, those dusky magnates of the ballroom, brought forth the melody with an air that was their own peculiar tribute to the fair young queens.
About the time she reached maturity, Fanny Taylor removed with her mother from Richmond to “Glenarron,” the superb James River estate of her brother-in-law, Mr. William Gait. Shortly afterwards she re-turned to Richmond, where she spent a winter as the guest of her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Warwick. She became noted as the most beautiful woman in the Old Dominion. In a word, she was the belle of Richmond, which boasted the most delightful society in the South, and she would not have exchanged places with a princess of the royal house of England.
Richmond of those days was too small for social divisions and subdivisions. There was but one set, and everyone who went into society at all belonged to it. It was well established and conservative. Its traditions were ancient, and it tolerated no innovations. It had its calling hours from twelve till four, when its drawing-rooms were crowded with young men from the neighboring plantations, professional men, and legislators, on whose ears the tones of the Capitol bell announcing the opening of the session were wont to fall in vain. There were dancing-parties for young people, beginning at seven or eight in the evening, and dinner-parties for distinguished guests at four o’clock in the afternoon.
The graceful art of carving formed an indispensable part of a gentleman’s education, and a host gave tangible proof of his hospitality when from his end of the table he served his guests with his own hand, selecting the choice parts of a joint or fowl for the guest of honor.
The ladies retired at the conclusion of dinner, leaving the gentlemen in possession of the table, being a custom of their English forefathers which their colonial antecedents had adhered to probably in the log-cabin days when there was a state occasion.
There were no teas and no debuts. Girls never came out, because, as Thomas Nelson Page has said, “they had never been in.” As soon as they were old enough to be out of the nursery they drifted naturally into the drawing room, and there grew up in that social sphere which many of them were destined later to sway as queens.
Within a year after her reign in Richmond society Fanny Taylor became the wife of Archibald Morgan Harrison, of Fluvanna County, a most distinguished agriculturist, at a time when it was worth being a Virginia farmer and a country gentleman. They lived at “Carysbrook,” Mr. Harrison’s estate on the Rivanna River, in the royal style easily possible to the South in her days of prosperity. She was a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and her husband was a great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison, the father of Benjamin the signer. Their life of pastoral beauty closed with Mr. Harrison’s death. His widow was at the height of her loveliness, and when she went once more into the world she evoked the most unstinted and genuine admiration. Mrs. Nellie Custis Lewis, who was expending on her motherless grandchildren all the solicitude that her grandmother, Martha Washington, had lavished upon her when she was similarly bereaved, expressed the desire that her son-in-law should woo Mrs. Harrison. So truly did she admire the qualities of her character, as well as her great personal beauty, that she was the only woman she had ever seen, she said, whom she would welcome as her daughter’s successor, and willingly see placed over her grandchildren. She never had an opportunity to extend that magnanimous, how-ever cordial, greeting, for the youthful Mrs. Harrison, after six years of widowhood, bestowed her hand upon Colonel Thomas Harding Ellis, of Richmond. He had been secretary of the American legation at Mexico, and was subsequently for nearly fourteen years president of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, his administration covering the period of the war, when the canal was the most important line of improvement in the State for supplying with agricultural produce the city of Richmond and the army of Northern Virginia.
They visited Washington shortly after their marriage, where they were guests of Mr. John Y. Mason. Mr. Mason presented them to President and Mrs. Polk, whose courtesies to them added much to the pleasure of the Washington chapter of their honeymoon days.
Mrs. Ellis’s mother had stood at the bedside of her uncle William Henry Harrison when, in the presence of his cabinet, he uttered those memorable last words, “I desire the principles of the Constitution to be maintained.”
The union of Colonel and Mrs. Ellis terminated with the death of Mrs. Ellis in July, 1897, followed, in a few months, by that of her husband. For nearly fifty years had they traversed life’s highlands and lowlands together, closest companions, tenderest of lovers, she possessing all the strength not incompatible with the finest and gentlest traits of female character, and retaining to the last all the delicacy of her wonderful beauty, and he the embodiment of chivalry, the highest type of a Virginia gentleman of the old regime.