Feminism Can Be Fun! Unless You Are Fanny Fern.

fanny fern

Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern, 1854

At risk of stating the obvious: I care about the history of the written word. I have a particular interest in the role of women in the history of the written word.

Ruth Hall is a novelization of the life of Victorian literary giant Fanny Fern, written by herself. It is the real life rags to riches story of the woman who rose from the ashes to triumph over the publishing industry and become one of the wealthiest writers of her time. Clearly right up my alley.

Here’s the brief story of Fanny Fern’s life. I’m starting from her marriage, because that’s where she started her own life story, not because I suck at feminism: She loved her husband. They had three daughters. The eldest died as a toddler. Her husband died and left her an impoverished widow with two young daughters to care for. Her relatives and his both refused to provide adequate financial support. She lived in squalid conditions, unable to earn enough by sewing to provide for her daughters. She decided to try writing as a means of supporting herself. Her brother worked in the publishing industry, but refused to help her. Several publishers turned her down. Eventually, she found a sympathetic publisher who gave her a shot. Her articles were well received and soon became enormously popular. She never signed an exclusive contract, so newspapers frantically competed to publish her work, making her the highest paid columnist of her time. She laughed in the face of everyone who ever doubted her, including all her living kin except her daughters.

Makes you smile, doesn’t it? It makes me want to cackle gleefully with vicarious pleasure.

As you can imagine, I was a receptive audience for Ruth Hall. I was on board, ready and willing to hear this badass feminist tell the story of how she overcame institutionalized misogyny in the publishing industry. Yes, Fanny Fern, let the glory of your victory rain down on me in delicious droplets of sweet, sweet triumph!

That being said, I didn’t like the book. Tone is important to the enjoyment of a novel, y’all. Fanny Fern is just so sanctimonious that I lost faith in the genuineness of her version of events. She portrays herself as an absolutely perfect, angelic woman. She depicts her in-laws, her father, her brother and her would-be publishers as villainous. I just don’t buy it. Ruth Hall, the character styled after the author, would have been more believable and relatable if she was flawed. Her father’s stinginess would have been more disappointing if he seemed like a man not a devil.

fanny fern2

I so very badly wanted this to be a genuine, honest, open telling of the very real story of Fanny Fern, the woman writer who overcame very real obstacles. But, it isn’t that.

You know what, I am absolutely willing to believe that Fanny Fern’s experience felt like the triumph of a faultless, deserving soul over hostile enemies. But, I know that relatives don’t have to be villains to shut down your dreams. In a patriarchal system, you don’t have to be a spotless, perfect woman to demonstrate that you have gotten less than you deserved. The men who have more aren’t perfect. In a patriarchal system, men don’t have to be evil to refuse women the advantages that they give to other men. They just have to be copying the behavior that they have learned from birth to be standard.

Oh, goodness. My book reviews tend to take unexpected turns. Unexpected by me; readers probably anticipate deeply personal, feminist, moralistic outpourings.

I’m going to wrap this up, because my view on this book is pretty simple.

You might like Ruth Hall if:

  • I honestly don’t know, because I thought I would like it and I didn’t. If you can get past the one-sided, vindictive tone this might seem like a fun story of overcoming the odds to find greatness.

You might not like Ruth Hall if:

  • you like your based-on-actual-events stories to contain flawed, plausible characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love an allegory. I more willing than most readers I have encountered to accept one-dimensional allegorical characters, but when you’re writing about yourself, your own father and brother, and the mother of your beloved dead husband, I just won’t buy that they were monsters or angels. They were people. Maybe not the greatest, most wonderful people, but people.

Final Thoughts: Look, guys, confronting the misogyny or other messed up mindsets in this world can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. I know. I know. I know. But, we need to remember that all the people we encounter, even the ones who hold on to horrible, outdated, oppressive perspectives, are humans. They are probably doing their best at their own level of consciousness. I’m not talking about overtly hateful people. I’m talking about the more subtle, everyday ways that we have of keeping underprivileged people where they are. I think, and this is just my humble opinion, that when we confront these attitudes, we have to do it with a spirit of generosity. This is a constant struggle. Right now, I am thinking about someone who I am tempted to write off as irremediably, toxically, pig-headedly chauvinist. But you know what, I have also seen this person be kind and considerate and caring towards others, including myself. If you have read this far, you are probably someone who sees harmful actions and attitudes in the world around you. You probably want to fight these attitudes. You probably want to cut people out of your life for espousing these points of view. But, when we fight oppression, we must remember that we fight against people, not monsters.

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13 thoughts on “Feminism Can Be Fun! Unless You Are Fanny Fern.

  1. I’m surprised anyone wouldn’t like this book. Yes, the characters are extreme — either extremely evil or flawlessly good — but much of it really is based on truth. Her family was downright awful to her, with her father even pushing her into a loveless marriage where she was repeatedly sexually abused by her husband. She was shunned by the family when she complained and was told she was expected to perform certain duties as a wife, whether she wanted to or not. And she was really as poor as she implies here, made worse by her being fairly wealthy before the death of her first husband.

    I think, perhaps, you could consider the book not as a story of finding success in literature or the publishing industry despite lack of support. Consider it instead the story of a mother whose options were extremely limited when she became impoverished: Re-marry, give up your children, or do less than savory things to make money (if I recall, she lives in a seedy area where there aer prostitutes). Instead, Fern (or Hall) forged her own path, on her own, and created her own job (at a time, it might be added, that few magazine contributors were paid at all, let alone well enough to survive). This really is a beautiful success story, and one that Horatio Alger could never match.

    Personally, having been aware of her brother N. P. Willis well before knowing anything about Fern, I also enjoy the catharsis she clearly relished as she exacted delicious literary vengeance on a family who, frankly, deserved it. Her fictional interactions with Willis in particular are telling: She expresses open and uninhibited love at first, and he shuns her for worry that she will disturb his perfect outfit. The reality was not dissimilar.

    Incidentally, Nathaniel Hawthorne dismissed all the “scribbling women” of his generation — with the exception of Fanny Fern, who he said wrote like the devil was in her.

    • Thank you for your comment. I didn’t know about her abusive marriage. I did know about Hawthorne’s misogynist comment and that he later exempted one woman, Fern, from it.

      I do think that Fern was an incredible and admirable woman. I am quite willing to believe that her family was horrible to her. However, historical accuracy does not a good read make. I just didn’t enjoy her writing style. I think it’s worth reading, but as fictionalized history, not as literature. You’re right that it’s a great success story, which is why I really thought I would like it. I’m glad that people do read it and like it. It’s just not for me. Fanny Fern is still a badass though.

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