Tiernan was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1836, but grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where she lived during the Civil War. Her great grandfather Robert C. Nicholas held a seat in the House of Burgesses and was named Treasurer of Virginia in 1766. Her two brothers fought for the Confederacy, one dying at the Second Battle of Manassas (1862), the other after being wounded at the Battle of Fayette Court House (1862). Tiernan married the elderly merchant Charles B. Tiernan in 1873 and returned to Baltimore, where she belonged to the Women’s Literary Club and contributed writing to various magazines. Little is now known about her personal life, though her husband described her in a family history as being “a lady of intelligence, and of an attractive personality.”
Tiernan’s first novel, Homoselle, is a fictional romance based on Gabriel’s Insurrection, an aborted slave rebellion in Richmond in August 1800. Tiernan depicts an English journalist named Halsey who visits an idealized, bucolic Virginia, and discovers—in time to intervene—a plan to revolt among northern white abolitionists and scheming slaves. Although Tiernan’s story concentrates on a romance plot, critics have focused on her fictional slave Gabriel. Ironically, Tucker did not model Gabriel after his historical namesake but after another famous rebel slave, Nat Turner, whose uprising in August 1831 killed between fifty and sixty whites and resulted in the execution of many more slaves. Tiernan invests her character with the fierce intelligence often attributed to Turner, describing him as “one of the few Heaven-taught leaders of men who have figured in world history.” In the end though, Gabriel, unlike the Turner who is portrayed in his reputed confessions, is repentant: “Sometimes I think I was doin’ the Lord’s will in tryin’ to free my brethren; and then agin I feel like I was wrong.”
Although it was quashed before it began, the historical Gabriel’s Insurrection, like Turner’s rebellion later, managed to arouse considerable fear among the white population in Virginia and indeed throughout the South. Tiernan’s novel is distinguished by her marked sympathy for the slaves and her recognition of their longing for freedom. Her narrator describes Gabriel’s lined face “with reverence and pity” and wonders at how swiftly whites can expunge such a figure from history so that he survives only in “the shadowland of myths.”
Suzette (1885), Tiernan’s second novel, is a love story set in antebellum Richmond and once again features a sympathetic look at the horrors of slavery. Her experiences in wartime Richmond, meanwhile, inspired her third novel, Jack Horner: A Novel (1890). The book provides a fascinating look at civilian life during wartime, and explores both the personal hardships and patriotic fervor that resulted from that circumstance. “Gayety is never so gay,” Tiernan wrote, “and religion never so fervid, as in a besieged city… A song or a dance to-night, a battle in the morning; dirge and jubilate ever alternating as in ordinary life, but at accelerated speed like pulses quickened by fever.” Hetty Pegram, wife of Confederate General John Pegram, wrote that Tiernan’s Jack Horner “contained the best description of life in Richmond during the Civil War that she had ever seen.” Tiernan’s short story, “Two Negatives,” describes the work of a Treasury clerk during the Civil War, the wartime privations of the city’s residents, and the social implications of those men who chose not to fight.
Tiernan’s main characters—all women—are intelligent, resourceful, and independent. The element of mystery in each novel derives from the women’s inquisitive nature, and though each book ends in the comedic tradition with the marriage of the protagonist, none is solely focused on that goal. The slaves are also far from clichéd characters, and Tiernan treats them with respect and admiration for their strength and kindness, without romanticizing them. Her writing, while largely forgotten today, is nevertheless graced with a dry and insightful wit that could be considered comparable to that of the English novelist Jane Austen.
Mary Spear Tiernan died of pneumonia in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 13, 1891.
- Homoselle: a Virginia Novel (1881)
- Suzette: A Novel (1885)
- Jack Horner: A Novel (1890)