Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
In 1854, one of America’s most popular newspaper columnists, the pseudonymous Fanny Fern, published Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of The Present Time, an autobiographical novel so thinly veiled as to be downright scandalous. In a preface, Fern announced that her book was “entirely at variance with all set rules for novel-writing,” eschewing an intricate plot, elaborate descriptions, and cliff-hanging suspense. Instead, the author likened herself to a casual visitor, dropping by unannounced with gossip to share—and, clearly, some scores to settle. Fanny Fern’s identity had been an increasingly open secret, but now the life of the woman born Sara Payson Willis in Portland, Maine, in 1811, was revealed, yoked to that of the novel’s long-suffering, noble heroine. Yoked, too, and thoroughly skewered, were Willis’s family: her monstrous mother-in-law, her mean and hypocritical father, and especially her brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis. A famous man of letters and newspaper proprietor, “N.P.” was flayed in the pages of the novel via the character of Ruth’s brother Hyacinth Ellet, a fop, fortune-hunter, and fraud.
Unlike many sentimental fictions of the time, Fern’s book did not claim to impart any obvious moral lesson. Instead, the author wanted to “fan into flame … the faded embers of hope” among readers who felt abandoned and abused—who were, like her heroine, victims of fate rather than of their own failings. Ruth starts the story a lucky young woman: intelligent, beautiful, and about to marry a man she loves. We meet her on the eve of her wedding, reflecting back on her unhappy childhood as an awkward, solitary child, who craved true love but was surrounded by people who cared only for flattery. She appears to have triumphed over her past, however, in a marriage that is blissfully happy. It can’t even be marred by the obsessive malice of her husband’s parents, who are determined to see the worst in Ruth. Their power is limited—until Ruth is widowed. Then she is vulnerable to the neglect and cruelty of her in-laws and her own family. She struggles to keep herself and her two young daughters housed and fed, trying all the limited employment options open to a woman, while her family members duck and twist to avoid providing for them. At her lowest ebb, Ruth decides to become a freelance journalist.
In the second half of the book, Ruth and her creator slowly claw back pride and power, as the sentimental tale transforms itself into a fantasy of vengeance for every downtrodden and underestimated Victorian woman. “I tell you that placid Ruth is a smouldering volcano,” her mother-in-law observes, reluctantly admitting that she’s met her match. One hard-won draft at a time, Ruth ascends to fame and fortune, vanquishes her familial and professional enemies, reclaims the daughter her in-laws tricked her into giving up, and leaves her bleak city lodgings for a country home, paid for with her own pen.
Fanny Fern’s life story tracks closely to Ruth’s, with a few important differences. Where Ruth has only her obnoxious brother Hyacinth, Fern was one of nine children, and had already had some literary success, publishing articles in her father’s newspaper, before she married. Like Ruth’s, her first marriage was a happy one; at twenty-six, she married a Boston banker, Charles Eldredge, and had three daughters. It was a traditional Victorian domestic arrangement, in which she did not need to earn her own living. But after seven happy years, a run of tragedies battered Fern with twice the cruelty she inflicted on her fictional counterpart. Between 1844 and 1846, she lost not only her husband and eldest daughter but also her mother and sister to illness.
Widowhood left Sara Eldredge poor, and she first looked for support via a route Ruth never considers: a second marriage. Her husband, Samuel P. Farrington, was brutal in his jealousy, and after two years his wife made the rare and difficult decision to leave him. Risking poverty and scandal, she took her daughters and moved into a Boston hotel. After two more years, during which he smeared her reputation and turned her family against her, Farrington divorced her, leaving her bereft of both moral and financial support.
As a widow, Ruth struggles to find any respectable work, and the frustrations are vividly portrayed in the novel—from the pittance paid for skilled and time-consuming home sewing work to the farce of the application procedure for a school teaching post. Several employers don’t believe that Ruth, as the daughter and daughter-in-law of well-to-do families, really needs the money. Her refusal to give up her children to their awful grandparents makes it impossible for her to take work in a factory. The grim, bustling city quarter where she’s living is full of dangers for a pretty widow and her daughters. Out of her boardinghouse window, Ruth can see a building with permanently drawn blinds, a stream of male visitors, and ghostly female faces at the window. It serves as a warning, and spurs her determination.
Writing turns out to be Ruth’s salvation, though her brother, despite his literary connections, never helps her career. Similarly, Fanny Fern’s famous brother N.P. owned the Home Journal, the publication that would evolve into today’s Town & Country magazine, but refused to publish or promote his sister’s work. Ruth accepts she must begin “at the lowest round of the ladder,” and begins knocking on the doors of small papers until she finds one willing to give her a chance. When her first piece finds a publisher, she’s caught between optimism and the realities of the market. “The remuneration was not what Ruth had hoped, but it was a beginning, a stepping-stone.” Fern, likewise, began her career as a contributor to two small Boston papers, the True Flag and the Olive Branch. Her first article, “The Governess,” appeared in 1851. In contrast to Ruth, whose ambiguous pseudonym “Floy” lets readers speculate over her gender, the writer now known as “Fanny Fern” left no doubt that she was a woman.
The novel portrays publishing as a male-dominated environment, in which talent and inexperience are easily exploited, and low-paid editors and writers grind out content to burnish the reputation of owners and financiers. Before long, however, Ruth’s pseudonymous columns gain a wide readership, and speculation grows about her true identity. An enterprising editor offers her a much increased salary in exchange for exclusivity, and book publishers approach her about collecting her columns. In real life, the editor who approached Fern to capitalize on her growing fame was another of her brothers, Richard, who published a New York paper called the Musical World & Times. He had no idea that the writer he was trying to poach was his sister, yet he stood by his offer once he found out. Perhaps thinking the coincidence too great, Fern made Ruth’s champion a stranger in the novel, who nonetheless writes to her to express his “brotherly” interest in her welfare, and addresses her as “sister.”
In 1853, Fern contracted with a publisher for her first book, a collection of her columns titled Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio. Just as she has Ruth do in the novel (and as Louisa May Alcott did with Little Women a few years later), Fern gambled on the success of her book and retained her copyrights, choosing instead to earn ten cents for every copy sold. The enormous success of the book, which outsold even the previous year’s staggering best seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to the tune of some 70,000 copies within the year, enabled her to buy a house in Brooklyn. She published another novel, Rose Clark, in 1856, as well as four more collections of columns and two books for children. As the preface to Ruth Hall makes clear, Fern had little interest in shaping her novels to fit lofty artistic standards, and unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was not trying to advance a political cause. She wrote for the moment, and for the world as it was, without much interest in posterity.
Fern’s columns were frank and conversational, and she had a huge range of interests, from prison reform to literature to the importance of breakfast. She’s credited with coining the phrase “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and she wrote often about middle-class domestic life. She was called sentimental, as women writing about children usually are. Yet there was a core of fury in her work, fueled by her society’s hypocritical treatment of women, which idealized them as wives and mothers and yet denied them legal rights and opportunities to support themselves. In Ruth Hall, the original sin of all the bad characters is hypocrisy, the capacity to act with outrageous cruelty and still believe in (or at least, declare) their own piety. “The woman writes as if the devil was in her,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Fern, but there was nothing inside Fern but Fern herself. She did not strive for a gender-neutral voice, or to “transcend” her sex, as women writers were so often called upon to do in exchange for critical acclaim. Her energy and inspiration as a writer clearly stemmed from her identity as a woman and a mother.
In Ruth Hall, the main plot is frequently diverted into vignettes and asides that expand Ruth’s world and give a flavor of Fern’s versatility as a writer of short, vivid stories. Often comic and, yes, sentimental, these wider stories continue the preoccupations of the novel, especially in the relationships between parents and children. Fern writes with a mother’s attention to the details of young children’s bodies and behavior, from the way they look when sleeping to the particularities of their voices and perceptions. One extended comic tale follows Ruth’s landlady, who briefly abandons her husband with a seven-month-old baby. The father’s struggle to soothe and feed the infant, until Ruth comes to its rescue, “loosening the frock-strings and rubbing its little fat shoulders with her velvet palms,” are described in the kind of detail that only comes from intimate observation. By rendering that intimacy so precisely, Fern grounds the vague Victorian fantasy of mother-love in its unglamorous physical reality. She brings out the truth tucked inside the sentimental fiction.
Ruth is the moral heart of the novel, but there is also a background hum of other voices. In several letters supposedly written to “Floy” by her readers, we hear the voices of desperate women, and several men proposing marriage, as well as a few prototypical mansplainers pointing out errors in her columns. Elsewhere, servants are given space to pass judgment on their employers. When Ruth’s wealthy cousins grudgingly allow her to do her laundry in their house, their maid observes, “White folks is stony-hearted.” The narrative usually supports the servants’ viewpoint, but still portrays them in flagrantly racist and classist terms, rendering their speech in strong dialect and the childlike third person. Nevertheless, a few years ahead of the Civil War, a sense of Northern superiority is apparent in glimpses of the slaveholding South. For example, Ruth receives a proposal from “a Southerner who confessed to one hundred negroes,” and it’s a mark of Hyacinth’s cravenness that the word slave is “tabooed” in his paper, for fear of offending his Southern subscribers.
After the success of Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern’s star continued to rise. Where Ruth takes her earnings and buys a secluded country house in which to raise her daughters, her creator moved to New York and immersed herself in its booming literary culture. She became involved in various women’s rights causes, and in 1868—after she was excluded from a dinner held for the visiting Charles Dickens by the New York Press Club—Fern joined fellow writer Jane Cunningham Croly in founding the Sorosis Club, a social and intellectual community for women that soon had chapters all over the country. Fern was one of the first writers to positively review Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; she wrote to him privately that she thought it was “delicious!” In 1855, the editor of the New York Ledger approached her to write a serialized story, offering her $25 per installment, which he raised to $50, then $75, and finally $100 before she accepted, making her one of the highest-paid writers in America. She wrote a weekly column for the Ledger for the next seventeen years.
And where Fern left her heroine single, her own romantic life would have one further twist. In the novel, she briefly introduces us to the principled and put-upon Horace Gates, “a gentlemanly, slender, scholar-like-looking person,” who single-handedly edits Hyacinth’s paper. When Hyacinth refuses to publish his sister’s columns, along with committing various other offenses against common sense and journalistic integrity, Horace dreams of quitting. In life, N.P.’s editor James Parton saw the threat through—he resigned his position when Fanny Fern was barred from the pages of the Home Journal. Parton went on to become a popular author of biographies of presidents and other prominent figures (including two volumes about “Eminent Women of the Age.”) In 1856, he married Fern, who at forty-five was eleven years his senior, and the couple lived happily in New York until her death in 1872 (after which Parton married Ellen Eldredge, Fern’s daughter by her first husband). But on her third marriage, Fern did not take James Parton’s name. The woman who had been Sara Willis, then Sara Eldredge, then Sara Farrington officially adopted the only name that was truly hers: Fanny Fern. When she died, that name was all that appeared on her tombstone: the identity she had created by and for herself.