Thursday, December 30, 2010

Aunt Cynthy Dallett

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

When Sarah Orne Jewett published this week’s selection in an early January issue of Harper’s Bazaar 115 years ago, its title was the seasonally appropriate “The New-Year Guests.” She changed the title four years later when the story was reprinted in a book-length collection—an implicit acknowledgment of a heroine whose type appears often in her fiction: a New England woman living alone in her home. Such a character appears in a previous Story of the Week selection, “Going to Shrewsbury,” in which Mrs. Peet loses her home to an unscrupulous relative; we noted in our introduction how Jewett depicts the precariousness of solitude for women. Similarly, this week’s story, “Aunt Cynthy Dallett,” portrays how, for two women, such isolation can become unstable due to more benign reasons.

Still, Aunt Cynthy and her niece, while sometimes lonely, value their isolation and their respective homes. Margaret Farrand Thorp, in her 1966 study of Jewett’s fiction, notes (using this story as a paramount example), “Misanthropy has nothing to do with this state of mind. Most of the solitaries like to mix with people and like to talk, but there are other things they value more, independence, the pleasure of being surrounded by their own possessions, freedom to order their lives and do things in their own way.” The tension in “Aunt Cynthy Dallett” results when the two women, one growing older and the other poorer, are faced with the possibility that they can no longer sustain the households they have grown to love. But, since it’s New Year’s Day, Aunt Cynthy ultimately follows the tradition established by her father, who “made a good deal of it; he said he liked to make it pleasant and give the year a fair start.”

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“No,” said Mrs. Hand speaking wistfully,—“no, we never were in the habit of keeping Christmas at our house. . . .” 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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