Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Autumn Holiday

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

Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields in their drawing room at 148 Charles Street, Boston. Courtesy of The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project.
When Jewett first submitted “An Autumn Holiday” to Harper’s Magazine, the story was called “Miss Daniel Gunn.” The editors nixed the original title, which hints (not very subtly) that the story is not what readers might think after skimming its opening pages. The story, as Marjorie Pryse summarizes in a recent essay, “appears, like much of Jewett’s work, to lack form . . . a roundabout effect of the narrator’s ‘tour of exploration and discovery’ and her unexpected visit with Polly Marsh.” The transition from one part of the story to the next is bewildering enough that readers might miss the parallels and themes common to both halves.

In the first section, the narrator ambles through the fields and woods on a gorgeous autumn day, employing pastoral descriptions that will remind readers of the nature writing of Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. Along the way, she describes how she likes to leave the main roads and explore “new fields.” Then the story veers into its second part, a comic tale that (like Jewett’s “Tom’s Husband” a previous Story of the Week selection), contemplates gender roles in society. We visit the home of Miss Polly Marsh, an older and somewhat eccentric neighbor, who (like the narrator) is unmarried. Inside, Miss Marsh and her sister Mrs. Snow, both in the “autumn” of their lives, are working at their spinning wheels. The two women break from spinning yarn to spin a yarn, so to speak—sharing the local gossip and then relating the odd tale of “Cap’n Dan’el Gunn” and how his neighbors came to accept and accommodate his unconventional behavior. At the very end, Mrs. Snow whispers a secret to the young visitor: revealing the decision Miss Marsh made earlier in life that kept her peripheral to society—just as Cap’n Gunn might have been treated had he been “some poor flighty old woman.”

Significantly, this story was written the year Jewett met Annie Fields, with whom Jewett would live in a “Boston marriage” for the rest of her life. Rather than a simple pastoral tale, then, “An Autumn Holiday,” writes Josephine Donovan in A Companion to the American Short Story, is a “powerful rejection of normalization.”

Note: On page 581, there is a mention of “Canterbury New,” a hymn composed by Henry John Gauntlett in the middle of the nineteenth century. (The “old” Canterbury hymn was composed by Orlando Gibbons during the 1600s.)

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I had started early in the afternoon for a long walk; it was just the weather for walking, and I went across the fields with a delighted heart. . . . . 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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