Friday, January 30, 2015

In Dark New England Days

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In August 1885 Sarah Orne Jewett complained in a letter to a friend about the relative scarcity of good reading to counteract the effect of “trashy newspapers and sensational novels” on her neighbors:
How seldom a book comes that stirs the minds and hearts of the good men and women of such a village as this, for instance. One might say that they are not readers by nature or that they do not get their learning in this way, but the truth must be recognized that few books are written for and from their standpoint. That they have read certain books proves that they would read others if they had them. And whoever adds to this department of literature will do an inestimable good, will see that a simple, helpful way of looking at life and speaking the truth about it—“To see life steadily, and see it whole,” as Matthew Arnold says—in what we are pleased to call its everyday aspects must bring out the best sort of writing. My dear father used to say to me very often, “Tell things just as they are!”
In her own novels and stories Jewett focused on these “everyday aspects” of villages like the one in which she lived. Her fiction, writes scholar Josephine Donovan, marked the culmination of “a new movement in American literature,” one that “expressed a conscious rejection of the earlier tradition of women’s literature with its romantic ‘heroines’ and ‘sentimental histories.’” Jewett instead portrayed the people she knew. “A dull little country village is just the place to find the real drama of life,” she told an interviewer.

She could still write the occasional Gothic tale to compete with the best of her peers, however, and her stories often caused her contemporaries to point out the parallels between her fiction and Hawthorne’s—much to her exasperation. “It seems very foolish to say my stories are like Hawthorne's and I wonder why people do!” she wrote to a friend in 1877. “They don't seem a bit alike to me.” Nevertheless, later critics continued to confirm the influence. Most prominent among them, perhaps, was the literary historian F. O. Matthiessen, who called Jewett “the daughter of Hawthorne’s style” in a 1929 treatise.

More recently Marilee Lindemann, in a chapter on Jewett in
Modern American Women Writers, specifically points to “In Dark New England Days” as “a Hawthornesque parable of the repressiveness of New England’s past that shows two sisters, Betsey and Hannah Knowles, deprived first by a stern, tyrannical father and then by a thief.” Yet even in her gloomier tales, Jewett presents characters similar to those that populate all her fiction: women living alone or in pairs, often precariously, sometimes successfully, but always struggling toward independence.

Note: On page 125, Mrs. Downs uses hoarhound [horehound], elecampane, and “warm roots” to cook a medicinal concoction to address Hannah’s illness. The 1897 edition of The Cottage Physician contains folk remedies using these ingredients for both cough syrup and “Female Restorative Strengthening Syrup.”
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The last of the neighbors was going home; officious Mrs. Peter Downs had lingered late and sought for additional housework with which to prolong her stay. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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