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.