Friday, July 2, 2010

Going to Shrewsbury

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories

Paula Blanchard, in her biography of Sarah Orne Jewett, writes about a recurring character type found throughout the author’s fiction: “a succession of elderly women farmers, most of them having been widowed early and raising children alone.” The price of this precarious autonomy in the late nineteenth century could be sometimes devastating, as we see in “Going to Shrewsbury.” Jewett’s 1899 story portrays an endearing widow who, after forty-five years, loses her farm to a nefarious nephew who had “coaxed an’ over-persuaded” her late husband to use the property as collateral for a loan.

Suddenly homeless and dependent on the goodwill of others, Mrs. Peet takes her first-ever train-ride to a new and uncertain residence among relatives in the town of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Mrs. Peet’s looming resettlement, as the late scholar and critic Richard Cary notes, presents us with another theme found in many of Jewett’s stories: “The country represents a treasury of all that is good in the past; the city, all that is dreadful in the present. . . . Country women are reserved and self-sufficient; city women, volatile and helpless.” Or as Mrs. Peet herself says, “Town folks has got the upper hand o’ country folks, but with all their work an’ pride they can’t make a dandelion.”

The train stopped at a way station with apparent unwillingness, and there was barely time for one elderly passenger to be hurried on board before a sudden jerk threw her almost off her unsteady old feet and we moved on. At my first glance I saw only a perturbed old countrywoman, laden with a large basket and a heavy bundle tied up in an old-fashioned bundle-handkerchief; then I discovered that she was a friend of mine, Mrs. Peet, who lived on a small farm, several miles from the village. She used to be renowned for good butter and fresh eggs and the earliest cowslip greens; in fact she always made the most of her farm’s slender resources; but it was some time since I had seen her drive by from market in her ancient thorough-braced wagon.

The brakeman followed her into the crowded car, also carrying a number of packages. I leaned forward and asked Mrs. Peet to sit by me; it was a great pleasure to see her again. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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