Ruth Hall: a Domestic tale of the Present Time by Fanny Fern

Oh what a maddening books. There’s a lovely story, drawn from the author’s own experiences, a story with something to say, and at times it’s wonderful, but there are too many times when it is spoiled by the author pushing her point, her side of the story, a little too hard.

Of course I should make some allowance for the fact that Fanny Fern’s ‘Present Time’ was in America in the middle of the 19th century, but that isn’t quite enough.

Fortunately I could see the heart of the story, and I am glad that I read it.

It begins beautifully, with Ruth, our heroine, looking out at the night sky on the eve of her wedding. Her mother had died when she was very young and her father, a man who was both wealthy and parsimonious, had sent her away to boarding school. He would be glad to have his daughter off his hands. And she was happy, because she was in love and the future seemed full of promise.

Ruth Hall

The story is told in a series of vignettes, looking at Ruth through many different pairs of eyes. It’s very effective.

Ruth and Harry are blissfully happy together. He works hard, he is very successful, and they move up in the world. They have just one problem: his mother. She thinks that Ruth is flighty. She thinks that she is a spendthrift. She thinks that she lets her children run wild. She can’t – or won’t – accept that the young couple have struck out on their own, and chosen how they want to live. For the moment.

Ruth’s world came crashing down when Harry was taken ill and died. She was nearly destitute, and neither her father nor her in-laws were prepared to help. They disagreed about much, but on one thing they were agreed – Ruth had made her bed and she must lie in it! And so Ruth moved to a cheap boarding house, where she struggled to support her daughters, struggled to keep going as wealthier friends snubbed her.

Ruth fell so low that she had to let one of her daughters to her mother-in law, to be brought up her way, because he just couldn’t support them all.

It was then that Ruth hit on the idea of becoming a newspaper columnist. She wrote late into the night, as her younger daughter, and she sent samples of her work to her brother, a successful publisher. He sent them back with a note saying that she had no talent, and that if she persisted in trying to get into print she would embarrass them both.

But Ruth did persist. She persuaded an editor to hire her, and her column – written under a pseudonym – was a huge hit. Ruth learned on her feet; she became a canny businesswoman, she found a publisher who believed in her and supported her, she brought her family back together, and she made all of those who had doubted her, snubbed her, criticised her, eat their words.

I loved the arc of the story: the happy marriage, the tragic loss, the struggle, the triumph against the odds. I loved the emotions that Ruth’s story provoked. And some of the vignettes were quite lovely.

But I couldn’t quite believe that the tired woman, plagued by terrible headaches became so competent quite so quickly. I know that grief can do terrible things, I know that mother love is so very powerful, I know that one small success can be a springboard, but a little more subtlety really would have made this a much better story.

I know that this is an autobiographical work, but I couldn’t help feeling that it lacked maturity, and a willingness to see different points of view. The author could see no fault in Ruth – and she spent far too much time in the later part of the book having all and sundry singing her praises – and she could find no understanding for the ‘villains’ in her life. Her mother in-law may have been a horror, but she turned into too much of a monster.

Few things in life are as black and white as this story paints them.

But not many novels from the middle of the 19th century allowed a woman to triumph over adversity by her own efforts, and to be standing alone on her own two feet on the end. That was lovely to see – especially with the knowledge that this was a roman a clef – the story was very readable, and so I’m glad that I read it, even though I was infuriated by it at times.

5 responses

  1. Fascinating review of a book that is entirely new to me. It sounds like there were *nearly* enough positives for you to take away, so I shall surely keep an eye out for it. I’ve just read Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did, in which journalism becomes the financial salvation for a woman left bereft with a child in the 1890s – it seems almost a commonplace sometimes, yet is surely as tremendously difficult as if we tried to do it nowadays.

  2. I read this a few years ago, Jane, and felt very much as you did–not entirely satisfied, but intrigued by its portrayal of a strong woman. And you reminded me of my irritation with the mother-in-law – unredeemably bad characters are always a bit annoying, aren’t they? I know you wrote a while back about Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” which I read not long after Fern’s novel. I remember thinking that that’s the kind of subtlety that Fern didn’t quite manage?

  3. How did you come across this? There are certain parallels here with Frances Hodgson Burnett in as much as she was also forced to earn a living through writing after the family lost all its money.

  4. I agree, a fascinating review, and now I’m very curious to read this. I thought of so many women writing to support themselves or their families – Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Oliphant, first. And it’s from those dratted 1850s, a challenge to fill for the mid-century of books!

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