Friday, January 10, 2014

A Winter Courtship

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

“Winter,” 1855, oil on board by George Henry Durrie (1820–1863), a popular painter of New England winter landscapes. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
Sarah Orne Jewett “is at her best when she stays among her old women,” writes Paula Blanchard in a still-definitive biography. Indeed, the characters of many of Jewett’s most successful stories are middle-aged or elderly widows living alone on their farms after the children have grown up and moved away. Some of these characters eventually thrive from their new independence (see, for example, “Aunt Cynthy Dallett,” a previous Story of the Week selection); others find their condition lonely or precarious (as in “Going to Shrewsbury”). Still others enjoy second lives in courtship and remarriages.

During the cold winter journey described in the playful tale “A Winter Courtship,” passenger Fanny Tobin and wagon driver Jefferson Briley provide their own heat underneath the protection of a pair of buffalo robes. Blanchard writes, “Their courtship is conducted on two levels, one a coy exchange of compliments and the other a sober consideration of the practical advantages of joining forces.” In light of the story’s final punch line, Richard Cary, another Jewett scholar, sees the pairing as ultimately lopsided: “Briley likes to imagine himself a pony express driver dashing over dangerous Rocky Mountain trails, and Mrs. Tobin cannily exploits this Walter Mitty weakness to her advantage.”

Another element found in many of Jewett’s most popular stories is the use of rural Maine dialect. Readers should be able to tease out the import of most of the dialogue between her two protagonists, but there are a few expressions that probably need explaining. The term meechin’ has several meanings, but here describes a servile or humble person (often falsely so); pudjicky refers to someone who is overly sensitive; and bangein’ was a colloquialism for idling, loafing, or taking advantage of someone’s hospitality.

Note: A cloud (page 696) is a large, loosely-knitted head scarf.

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The passenger and mail transportation between the towns of North Kilby and Sanscrit Pond was carried on by Mr. Jefferson Briley, whose two-seated covered wagon was usually much too large for the demands of business. . . . 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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