[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

Ruth Hall
by “Fanny Fern” (1854)

“Fanny Fern” was Sara Payson Willis (1811-1872), whose father, Nathaniel Willis, founded and edited Youth’s Companion. By the time Ruth Hall was written, Sara was already famous as the essayist “Fanny Fern”; her newspaper essays were published in 1853, in two popular collections titled Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio.

Ruth Hall was her first novel (she eventually wrote another, and a novelette), but in theme and tone it’s very much a piece with the newspaper essays: sentimental and satiric. Sara could be devastating, especially, on the subject of families and family relationships; here, the character of Ruth’s brother—“Hyacinth Ellet”—is based on Sara’s own brother, whom she’d already portrayed as “Apollo Hyacinth” (in the second collection titled Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio). The novel itself is vaguely autobiographical. (At least one critic also targeted Willis’s personality in a review of The Atlantic Souvenir for 1831, calling him “the blue-eyed-maid-praising, the dreamy-thought-inspiring, the love-sonnet inditing Willis, to whom a pocket looking glass would be the most acceptable offering on this side of a span of Arab coursers ….” [in The Euterpeiad, 15 Nov 1830, p. 125])

The book’s also a fascinating mixture of anger and sentimentality. Ruth is as misunderstood and put-upon as any romantic heroine, beset by hypocrites and by fate. Her Cinderella ending is the product, however, of her own talent and determination. The format of the book is unusual for that time; many of the 90 chapters are basically one scene, some of them a little over a page. This montage effect allows Sara to focus on the action and emotion of each scene.

Not all readers approved, but Nathaniel Hawthorne did, writing of it, “The woman writes as if the devil was in her ….” (We’ll ignore the rest of that sentence, which reads, “and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.”)

Ruth Hall is available in paperback, edited and with an excellent essay by Susan Belasco Smith. The first edition is presented in one file, with original page numbers indicated. The front cover of the book is also available; the back cover has Fanny Fern’s “signature” blind-stamped.

Contemporary reviews and commentary are on a separate page.

The text is also available as an ebook.

[Notes: The nursery rhyme Ruth tells Nettie on page 258 is discussed in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Peter and Iona Opie, rhyme #367.

Page 264 begins with the currently unidentified word, “rer”; I’ve checked my usual sources and have been unable to define it. (The Oxford English Dictionary does list it as an obsolete form of “rear.”) It may be a typographical error.]

Ruth Hall | contemporary commentary on the book

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