Back in the middle of the nineteenth century in America, the women were taking the publishing world by storm. Yes, Hermann Melville wrote Moby Dick, and Thoreau wrote the enduring classic Walden, and Nathaniel Hawthorn had himself a modest success with The Scarlet Letter, which sold a little over 10,000 copies. But the women were wiping the floor with them, bestseller-wise. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in the first two weeks of publication, and by the end of the year it would have sold 310,000. But like so much women’s writing, no place was reserved in the canon for the other great popular books of that period, and writers like Susan Warner and Susanna Cummins have dwindled in obscurity until excavating literary critics have recently dug them back up. Amongst their number was Sara Willis Eldridge Farrington, who managed to achieve the accolade of being one of the highest paid writers of her era under the name of Fanny Fern. She was famous primarily for her journalism, and out of that came her books, most compilations of her articles, but one an autobiographical novel, Ruth Hall. Like all good bestsellers, the novel Ruth Hall came with controversy attached, as publicity around its publication brought forth the revelation of Fanny Fern’s true identity and the fact that the book told the story of her life. And what a life it was – a good rags to riches tale of a young woman, beset by tragedy and cruel relations who managed to turn her life around for the sake of her children by her writing talents.
Nathaniel Hawthorn, who generally didn’t have a good word to say about the women invading the literary scene, made an exception for Ruth Hall: ‘I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.’ I was very struck by this remark when I read it in my trusty introduction, because for all the embroidered-hanky waving weepiness of the novel, I knew just what he meant. Poor Ruth Hall suffers bitterly from unjust fate, marriage bringing her quite the most appalling set of in-laws to add to her own mean and money-grabbing relatives. So when she loses both her baby and her husband to illness, there is no family to cushion the blow with love or with financial aid. Ruth is thrown back on her own resources, which, as any aficionado of the nineteenth century will tell you, were worth pretty much zilch back then. Women had merely ornamental value in this era, or else they tumbled out of their class, into an unreasonable form of social ostracism and poverty. Without a male protector, women didn’t stand a chance, and Ruth Hall’s family (just like Fanny Fern’s) knew this and simply stood back to watch.
Who wouldn’t be hopping mad under those circumstances? Although the novel is a relatively unexpurgated version of Fanny Fern’s life, she did miss out a bit, and that was an ill-advised marriage to a brute of a man named Farrington, a suitor forced upon her by her family when her first husband died. The marriage was a disaster from the start, and after two years, Fanny Fern took the unprecedented step of leaving him. Farrington was so enraged by this that he took some time and trouble slandering her with infidelities she had never committed. It is amazing to think that Fanny Fern managed to fight back in the face of such obstacles, finding an editor who would take her work, slowly building up her reputation and her portfolio and finally becoming one of the most prominent voices in journalism. So if there is a choppiness to the novel Ruth Hall, if it seems a strange mix of comedy and tragedy, of social comment and sentimentalism, of one-dimensional schemers and, in the center of it all, the almost unbearable paragon of virtue and magisterial talent that is our heroine, then it’s because the life it records is one that was wholly out of synch with its time. Fanny Fern was what the social critic Pierre Bourdieu would have called a ‘miraculeuse’, a woman who somehow managed to transcend her social condition in a way that beggared belief. And doesn’t she know it.
If the first half of the novel is a relentless sob of misery, the second half that charts Ruth’s rise to fame is an involuntary retch of sycophancy. Ruth finds herself a patron in the form of honest newspaperman, John Walter. Thanks to his stewardship and mentoring, every person who has thought badly of Ruth is obliged to confront her virtue and her meteoric rise in society. Can you imagine what it must feel like, as an author who has finally made it in the teeth of reputation-destroying slander, to create a character who will say things like: ‘The truth is simply this: “Floy” [Ruth’s nom de plume] is a genius; her writings, wherever published, would have attracted attention, and stamped the writer as a person of extraordinary talent; hence her fame and success’. Or who takes Ruth to a phrenologist (who reads bumps in the skull for character traits, considered quite plausible back then) who pronounces ‘in the general tone of your mind, in elevation of thought, feeling, sympathy, sentiment, and religious devotion, you rank far above most of us, above many who are, perhaps, better ranked to discharge the ordinary duties of life…. we seldom find the faculties so fully developed, or the powers so versatile as in your case.’ Oh my goodness me, such a sweet, sweet taste to revenge, to show up all the family and friends who failed to support you, who looked the other way when you were poor and down on your luck, who listened to cruel gossip and enjoyed it. And to rub their faces in a newly-minted reputation founded on adulation and admiration and great big, fat royalty cheques. What a thrill that must have been.
For this reason, the novel was not a critical success at the time of its publication. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote: ‘If Fanny Fern were a man, – a man who believed that the gratification of revenge were a proper occupation for one who has been abused, and that those who have injured us are fair game, Ruth Hall would be a natural and excusable book. But we confess that we cannot understand how a delicate, suffering woman can hunt down even her persecutors so remorselessly.’ Oh we can’t, can we? Such failures of the imagination have to be put down to the blinkers of gender politics that insisted a woman could only be certain things; the same sort of rules and regulations, in other words, that put Fanny Fern in the gutter in the first place. The novel is riddled with the kind of contradiction that the social constraints fostered – Ruth Hall cannot enjoy writing because no woman could be so manly as to welcome occupation, she cannot enjoy success because she must remain humble and modest at all times, she had to be indifferent to her own comforts and only act for the sake of her children. But Fanny Fern was brave enough to end the book with Ruth still unmarried – something that was in fact unthinkable to the audience of her day. Reading the novel, I see that so much has changed in the way we consider women’s lives – and thank goodness for that. But I also cannot help but think that some things haven’t changed at all. Are we ready yet to accept that women can be angry and vengeful without seeing them as monsters? Is it not still the case that women are quietly coopted into being conciliatory, modest, forgiving, sweet-tempered, and still, oh so very nice, no matter what trials they have had to endure? Well, that was the part of Ruth Hall that made me most uncomfortable, as I pondered the journey the heroine had taken, and the conclusion that left her ready to take off once more for unchartered lands. Would she have ended up in the 21st century in the place that Fanny Fern would have wanted for her?