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Comments on & Reviews of Ruth Hall, (1854)

Reactions to Ruth Hall were … complicated, because there were so many aspects to react to. Regarded as a novel, Ruth Hall was “admirable” and “full of false sentiment and questionable morality.” As a roman á clef, it was a work of genius and an embarrassment to its author. As an American work reprinted in London, it was “coarse clap-trap” by an “Arch-Quack” that exemplified a system of “shameless and systematic puffery” being adopted by British publishers. (Okay, that was mostly Wilkie Collins.)

The focus of much of the criticism was the roman á clef-ness, specifically that Willis was willing to express the dysfunctionalities of her family. Critics inveighed against “the bitter, the sarcastic, the vain, the self-flattering, the over sensitive and exacting, the spirit that will, for the gratification of gnawing revenge, tear aside the sacred veil of the family circle.” Even critics who hadn’t read the book took an opportunity to smack its author—usually in reviews of The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern, which appears to have received no attention unless the reviewer could mention that he or she hadn’t read Ruth Hall, but had opinions on it.

The Olive Branch was especially incensed, because its editor felt betrayed. The earliest essays of “Fanny Fern” were published there when it was edited by Thomas F. Norris, since deceased. Now editing his father’s paper, Erasmus A. Norris saw the “grasping publishers” who cheat Ruth Hall as a smear on his father. He responded accordingly: the Olive Branch castigated Willis and the novel, “revealing” the secret of her identity and reprinting some of the more vicious criticisms of the book. The revelation of who “Fanny Fern” was may not have been as great a shock as Norris intended, since her identity was already “perfectly well understood,” according to the Richmond Dispatch a few weeks earlier. But it and excerpts from the piece by “a lady well known to the public” were reprinted in a number of papers.

Some of the commentary is interesting in its own right. The “California lady” launches a diatribe against another woman who basically has dared to express anger. More than one writer appears to have taken the novel as straight autobiography, criticizing its accuracy and taking the author to task for ingratitude. The Knickerbocker gives a glimpse of what parts of the book likely appealed to its original audience. The Southern Quarterly Review attempts to place it in historical context. Long extracts from the work being reviewed were standard in 19th-century reviews; the Southern Quarterly Review misquotes creatively, sprinkling homonyms (“flower” for “flour”) through a scrambled passage which adds the prostitutes at the brothel a block away to the poor living in the tenement across from Ruth’s window. The glamor of the brothel disappears, along with Ruth’s sympathy for the prostitutes.


Maine Farmer 23 November 1854

Christian Observer 16 December 1854; #1

Christian Observer 16 December 1854; #2

Olive Branch 23 December 1854

The Albion 30 December 1854

Olive Branch 30 December 1854

The Knickerbocker January 1855

Richmond Dispatch [Richmond, Virginia] 4 January 1855

Erie Observer [Erie, Pennsylvania] 13 January 1855; from Olive Branch 27 January 1855

Olive Branch 27 January 1855

Putnam’s Monthly February 1855

Evening News [Charleston, South Carolina]; from Olive Branch 3 February 1855

The Leader 10 February 1855

The United States Review March 1855

Peterson’s Magazine April 1855

The Southern Quarterly Review April 1855

National Era 5 April 1855

Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion May 1855

North-Carolina University Magazine May 1855

The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature June 1855

The Pioneer June 1855

The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature November 1855

Olive Branch 17 November 1855


“Fanny Fern’s New Book.” Maine Farmer 22 (23 November 1854): 2.

[Note: An advertisement that Ruth Hall would be published in December 1854 appears in the advertising section of the Farmer.]

In another column will be found an announcement of “Ruth Hall,” the name of Fanny Fern’s new novel. In this connection, the following prediction by Dr. John S. Hart, which occurs at the close of a biographical sketch of this authoress, in his “Female Prose Writers of America,” will probably be read with interest:—

“Fanny Fern’s past success, and her constant, natural and healthful improvement up to the present time, warrant us in predicting for her a still more brilliant future. We think she possesses all the necessary elements of a great novelist. Her narrative and descriptive powers are of the highest order; her wit and humor are of the most brilliant and irresistible quality; her religious faith, her sympathy with the poor and weak, her intuitive insight into human character, and her subtle perceptions of the inmost workings of the soul, are certainly greater than those of most of the successful novelists of the age; while her constructiveness, as the Boston Post says, ‘is so large and active that her articles, as they grow, take form naturally like a flower.’ Now, should these qualities be brought to bear upon the writing of a continuous story, we think the result would be the production of a book, which in artistic merit would far surpass anything this author has yet written, and exceed in popularity all her other works. What direction Fanny Fern’s genius will hereafter take, is probably only known to herself; but the public await the developments of her future literary career with deep interest and hopeful anticipations.”


Review. Christian Observer 33 (16 December 1854): 197.

Ruth Hall. A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. By Fanny Fern. New York, Published by Mason Brothers. 12mo, pp. 400. for sale by T. B. Peters, 102 Chestnut St.

The author says that this is her “first continuous story,” and that it is “entirely at variance with all set rules for novel writing. There is no intricate plot: There are no hairbreadth escapes in it.” But there are such graphic pictures of poor human nature, and so much wit and good humor, mingled with the story, that no mysterious plot is needed to rivet the attention of the reader. It is an admirable tale, and, if we mistake not, it contains many personal reminiscences of scenes, too well known to the author in the sad experiences of life.


“The History of Ruth Hall.” Christian Observer 33 (16 December 1854): 198.

Since writing the brief notice of this very interesting work, which appears in a previous column, we have read an article in the North American and U. S. Gazette, which sustains the closing remark in our notice. The writer says:—

The story of Ruth Hall “is such a story as no one could tell who had not genius of a high order. Nor could mere genius conceive such a history. Through all the writings of Fanny Fern, and pre-eminently in this, there breathes unmistakably the spirit of one who has suffered. Her pathos, her burning sarcasm, her genial and overflowing humor, her scorn of what is base, her vehement denunciation of social wrongs, assuredly are no fictions. They come from one who has tasted largely of the mingled cup of life. No one but a mother who has loved and suffered, could write as she does of children. No one but a sister who has borne wrong and contumely at the hand of a brother, could write as she does of Hyacinth. When she addresses words of consolation to the poor and afflicted, it is evident that she writes from the fullness of a heart that has been wrung with anguish. She may well say, with the Carthagenian queen, “non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco.”

“But to return to Ruth Hall. It requires no gift of prophecy to predict that it will produce a sensation. It is a work instinct with genius; it deals with no abstractions, but with the living realities of the present time, and of this, our own land. It contains, we doubt not, many a portrait that will be recognized in the streets of Boston and New York, if not nearer home.”


“Fanny Fern’s New Book” (from Olive Branch, 23 December 1854; p. 2)

Mason Brothers of New York, have published Ruth Hall, a domestic tale of the present time, by Fanny Fern. From the reviews that we have read, there is no doubt but that it is intended as an auto-biography of her own life, and as such we shall speak of it. Knowing as we do her history, we are fully able to criticise in regard to its truthfulness or falsity, and we denounce the work as giving a false impression, and intended to obtain the sympathy of the reading public by giving them a one-sided story of her voyage through life.

Reference is made that cannot be mistaken to the publishers who first introduced her writings to the world, and she endeavors to make it appear that those “grasping publishers” did not pay a fair price for her articles. As the Olive Branch and True Flag were the only papers that she contributed to in the outset of her literary career, we will state that for articles that could not have taken more than two days time each week, she received eight dollars from the Olive Branch and five from the True Flag, making thirteen dollars for two days service; this was the mere pittance doled out by those grasping publishers—a price twice or thrice the intrinsic value of her articles, many of which were considered, and complained of, by our best subscribers, as of doubtful moral tendency.

We predict that this last work of Fanny Fern’s will send her into well-deserved obscurity. Her relatives who are plainly pointed out, are fully able to defend themselves, but when she attempts to injure the good name of our revered father, who rests peacefully at Mount Auburn, duty calls upon us to speak out in censure of such base ingratitude towards one who has done her numberless acts of kindness.

For reasons that are more than hinted at above, the usual courtesy that has heretofore been extended towards us by the enterprising publishers, Mason Brothers, of a copy of each, and all of their new works, has been omitted in this instance.


Review. The Albion 13 (30 December 1854): 621.

There are some books, of which it is difficult to speak as one could wish, for a variety of reasons. Ruth Hall (Mason) is such a one. We have watched the career of Fanny Fern from the first, and have seen but little in it to commend. Suddenly elevated to a pinnacle of popularity, she has demeaned herself as no right-minded woman should have done, and no sensitive-minded woman could have done—throwing out insinuations, that she was a very ill-used woman; that her family neglected her; and finally, that she “had no family.” Her “Fern Leaves,” of which two series are before the public, are more or less an expansion of these or of congenial ideas—neglected wives and sisters, hard-hearted fathers and uncles, fatherless and suffering children, and young but talented authoresses seeking a livelihood by the pen, forming the bulk of the work. “Ruth Hall” harps on the same strings; showing how Ruth Hall got married; how Mr. Hall died; how Mr. Hall’s “aged parents,” and the blood relatives of Ruth Hall, née Ellett, chaffered about helping her in her time of need, and how they didn’t; how she took to authorship, and wrote in the newspapers under the signature “Floy;” how she became famous, and humbled her brother Hyacinth, who had the good sense to discourage her from the first; and how she has a friend in the person of a Mr. Walters. This, and more of the same sort, is the plot of “Ruth Hall.” the book is ostensibly published as a novel; but is intended—if general report may be believed—as an autobiography of Fanny Fern herself. If designed for a novel, it is clumsy in construction, and full of false sentiment and questionable morality. If meant for an autobiography, it is a piece of malice and impertinence. Admitting—what we do not for a moment believe—the truth of the narrative, we see no reason why it should be published, but many excellent ones why it should not. An old proverb says, “there is a skeleton in every family.” It does not become this egotistical and querulous dame, if she have one in hers, to parade it before the world. It would be wiser to shut the door on it. Such a book as this will win its writer some praise—for there is talent in it—and give her even more notoriety than she appears to possess. We cannot however say that on the whole it is creditable to the female head or the female heart.


“ ‘Ruth Hall’ by ‘Fanny Fern’ ” (from Olive Branch, 30 December 1854; p. 2)

Below we give a voluntary expression of the sentiments of a lady well known to the public, but whose path in literature is so widely different from Fanny Fern’s, that she can be influenced by no jealousy or envy of the author in question:—

Our first recollections of “Fanny Fern” are connected with her appearance in the Olive Branch a few years since. We were then entirely ignorant of her real name and position, nor did we, in common with the indifferent public, feel any particular interest or curiosty respecting them. The impression of the careless reader would have been that the spicy scraps bearing this signature were the production of some hoydenish school-girl, ambitious to see her writings in print. With the supposition that they were the work of a young lady, was associated in indefinite, but slightly painful feeling that the writer was not sufficiently endowed with female delicacy. While a perfect sketch, artistically wrought out, and disfigured by no defects of style or coarse inuendoes, [sic] partially filled a column, the same column often contained another article, full of these blemishes. Vulgar expressions and exclamations were often used, though when these writings were afterwards collected and published in a book, these were carefully pruned away. Some judicious friend had evidently guided the pen to strike out phraseology which would have been injurious if not fatal to Fanny’s rising fame. Whether this judicious friend was the “Mr. Tibbetts” through whose agency her first work was introduced to the publishers, who received and forwarded to her all the proofs, reading the whole aloud to her as fast as it appeared in type, we are not able to say. Upon “Fern Leaves,” and successive volumes, thus carefully pruned of what too plainly revealed a certain coarseness in the habits of thought of the writer, the public has doubtless passed a just verdict. With the fame thus won, and the independence thus secured, would that “Fanny Fern” had been satisfied.

We do not intend to attempt an elaborate review of “Ruth Hall.” As a novel it will not bear it. We have read it through twice without catching any clue to its merits or intentions as a work of art. Disjointed fragments of what should be a beautiful and complete edifice, are all that meet the eye. As in the newly discovered remains of ancient cities, monstrous faces, carricatures [sic] of humanity glare upon us when we look for “the human face divine.” One cannot but feel that the mind of the artist must have been itself deformed to have designed such monstrosities. On looking over the preface, we perceive that the author disclaims the intention of writing a novel. We will therefore examine “Ruth Hall” as an auto-biography.

A work which appears before the world, heralded as such, with the evident intention of being so understood, should above all else, be distinguished for truth. Exaggerated, instead of correct descriptions, imaginary instead of real conversations, and letters which if genuine, have no point, and if fictitious, no interest, should not have been admitted to its pages. The work abounds in these. If “Ruth Hall” is “Fanny Fern” then the incognito of the latter is forever laid aside. Half the charm attached to her writings, has already vanished. She is no longer a “Maid of the Mist,” whose silvery veil conceals deformities and enhances beauties, but plain “Fanny Fern;” and “Ruth Hall” is “Fanny Fern” described by herself. Let us look at this description.

“Ruth Hall” is not without vanity. In the very first chapter, her lithe form had rounded into symmetry and grace, her slow step had become light and elastic, her smile winning, and her voice soft and melodious.

Again on page 48th.

“It was blessed to see the love light in Ruth’s gentle eyes; to see the rose chase the lily from her cheek; to see the old spring come back to her step; to follow her from room to room while she draped the pretty white curtains, and beautified, unconsciously everything she touched.”

We have not space for farther [sic] quotations, but must refer our readers to the 59th, 61st, 70th, and other pages of the work, not forgetting the lengthy and flattering phrenological descriptions commencing at page 278.

Another very striking characteristic of “Ruth Hall” is her want of filial piety. If we omit the evidences of this, half the book disappears. Whether the parents of her deceased husband, respect for whose memory at least should have restrained her pen, or her own relatives, become the subjects of her notice, vulgar ridicule and pointless wit are unsparingly lavished upon them. Whatever may have been the faults of those connected with “Fanny Fern’s” past history, a decent self-respect should have withheld her from thus parading them before the world. It is well known to this public that “Fanny Fern” has been twice married, but all allusion to this circumstance is omitted in “Ruth Hall.” How are we then to know that this suppressed history may not contain a partial justification of the course pursued by her friends? One intimate with her first husband, long ago informed us that she was a “poor housekeeper,” and “did not make him a comfortable home.” We have the therefore been half inclined to sympathize with “Mrs. Hall’s” lamentations over the missing accomplishment of bread-making.

But for infringing on the sacredness of communications intended to be private, we could give a different aspect to other allusions in “Ruth Hall.” Whatever may have been the defects of “Hyacinth Ellet,” he has never publicly failed to [“]know his father and his mother.” The grey hairs which “are a crown of glory when found in the way of righteousness,” should have shielded an aged parent from the irreverent attaacks of the daughter, and the hollow cough of an invalid struggling with a yet more pitiless foe, should have found its way to the heart of the sister. When the clods of the valley shall rest upon the heads of both father and brother, we shall not envy the emotions of “Fanny Fern.”

“Ruth Hall” proves herself capable of ingratitude. Her earliest benefactor, the kind-hearted and benevolent man who first encouraged and rewarded her timid efforts, has not been safe from her attacks, even in the grave. Later friends have been as unhesitatingly deserted and abused. Well may they feel “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless” friend. By the aid of these, she stepped from obscurity into public notice, and now “has no farther occasion for her stepping-stones.”

But self-esteem, ingratitude and want of filial piety, are venial sins compared with the irreverence for things sacred, which sullies the pages of “Ruth Hall.” The conversation of the dress-maker, that of Mr. Ellett with his ministerial friend, the allusion to Hyacinth’s description of the Saviour, with many other briefer passages, had they been written by Dickens, would have been pronounced impious. Written by a professed Christian, what then shall we call them? Filial disrespect and religious irreverence are blended in almost every page.

But “Ruth Hall” is represented as a model woman, and an exemplary Christian. All that “Fanny Fern’s” descriptive talent could do to throw a charm about her character has been done. Whether the defects of the heroine thus unintentionally betrayed, may not lessen our desire to copy this model, we will leave the unprejudiced writer to judge. One deeply read in human nature has said,

“Sweet are the uses of adversity

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a gracious jewel in its head.”

Knowing how “sweet are the uses of adversity” rightly received and improved, we cannot but regret that “Fanny Fern’s” adversity should have left to her so much of the “venomous.”

Out of four hundred pages in “Ruth Hall” seventy-five are entirely blank. Had the remaining pages been left equally so, we believe it would have been better for “Fanny Fern” and for the world.


Review. The Knickerbocker 45 (Jan 1855): 84-86.

Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. By Fanny Fern. volume: pp. 400. New-York: Mason Brothers.

If ‘Ruth Hall’ be really an auto-biography, as seems to be inferred by many of our contemporaries, it is without exception the most ‘out-spoken’ production of its kind we ever encountered. Even her relatives ‘get it right and left’—her father, her brother, her mother-in-law, all come in for their share, and no inconsiderable share either. There is one thing, however, which militates against the idea that it is an entirely authentic and veritable history; and that is, the praise that she is all the while awarding her heroine; her beautiful curls, her soft voice, her graceful manner, her charming little foot, and the like; yet even this may be an adroit piece of art, to avoid the disclosure of unpleasant truths in the first person. ‘Any way,’ the book is one of deep interest. It does not profess to be a novel proper. ‘There is no intricate plot; there are no startling developments—no hair-breadth escapes.’ ‘I have avoided,’ says the author, ‘long introductions and descriptions, and have entered unceremoniously and unannounced into people’s houses, without stopping to ring the bell.’ And so she has; and what is more, when she gets into these houses, she lets you know, without any circumlocution whatever, what is going on there. Witness the following, for example, describing Ruth Hall’s first interview with her mother-in-law after her marriage:

‘ ‘Good morning, Ruth; Mrs. Hall I suppose I should call you, only that I can’t get used to being shoved one side quite so suddenly,’ said the old lady, with a faint attempt at a laugh.

‘ ‘Oh, pray don’t say Mrs. Hall to me,’ said Ruth, handing her a chair; ‘call me any name that best pleases you; I shall be quite satisfied.’

‘ ‘I suppose you feel quite lonesome when Harry is away, attending to business, and as if you hardly knew what to do with yourself; don’t you?’

‘ ‘Oh, no,’ said Ruth, with a glad smile, ‘not at all. I was just thinking whether I was not glad to have him gone a little while, so that I could sit down and think how much I love him.’

‘The old lady moved uneasily in her chair. ‘I suppose you understand all about housekeeping, Ruth?’

Ruth blushed. ‘No,’ said she, ‘I have but just returned from boarding-school. I asked Harry to wait till I had learned house-keeping matters. But he was not willing.’

‘The old lady untied her cap-strings, and patted the floor restlessly with her foot.

‘ ‘It is a great pity you were not brought up properly,’ said she. ‘I learned all that a girl should learn, before I married. Harry has his fortune yet to make, you know. Young people, now-a-days, seem to think that money comes in showers, whenever it is wanted; that’s a mistake; a penny at a time—that ’s the way we got ours; that ’s the way Harry and you will have to get yours. Harry has been brought up sensibly. He has been taught economy; he is, like me, naturally of a very generous turn; he will occasionally offer you pin-money. In those cases, it will be best for you to pass it over to me to keep; of course you can always have it again, by telling me how you wish to spend it. I would advise you, too, to lay by all your handsome clothes. As to the silk stockings you were married in, of course you will never be so extravagant as to wear them again. I never had a pair of silk stockings in my life; they have a very silly, frivolous look. Do you know how to iron, Ruth?’

‘ ‘Yes,’ said Ruth; ‘I have sometimes clear-starched my own muslins and laces.’

‘ ‘Glad to hear it; did you ever seat a pair of pantaloons?’

‘ ‘No,’ said Ruth, repressing a laugh, and yet half inclined to cry; ‘you forget that I am just home from boarding-school.’

‘ ‘Can you make bread? When I say bread I mean bread—old fashioned, yeast riz bread; none of your sal-soda, salæratus, sal-volatile poisonous mixtures, that must be eaten as quick as baked, lest it should dry up; yeast bread—do you know how to make it?’

-----
p. 85

‘ ‘No,’ said Ruth, with a growing sense of her utter good-for-nothingness; ‘people in the city always buy baker’s bread; my father did.’

‘ ‘Your father! land’s sake, child, you must n’t quote your father now you ’re married; you have n’t any father.’

‘ ‘I never had,’ thought Ruth.

‘ ‘To be sure; what does the Bible say? ‘Forsaking father and mother, cleave to your wife,’ (or husband, which amounts to the same thing, I take it;) and speaking of that, I hope you won’t be always running home, or running anywhere in fact. Wives should be keepers at home. Ruth,’ continued the old lady after a short pause, ‘do you know I should like your looks better, if you did n’t curl your hair?’

‘ ‘I don’t curl it,’ said Ruth, ‘it curls naturally.’

‘ ‘That ’s a pity,’ said the old lady, ‘you should avoid everything that looks frivolous; you must try and pomatum it down. And Ruth, if you should feel the need of exercise, don’t gad in the streets. Remember there is nothing like a broom and a dust-pan to make the blood circulate.’

‘ ‘You keep a rag bag, I suppose,’ said the old lady; ‘many ’s the glass dish I ’ve peddled away my scissors-clippings for. ‘Waste not, want not.’ I ’ve got that framed somewhere. I ’ll hunt it up, and put it on your wall. It won’t do you any harm to read it now and then.’

‘ ‘I hope,’ continued the old lady, ‘that you don’t read novels and such trash. I have a very select little library, when you feel inclined to read, consisting of a treatise on ‘The Complaints of Women,’ an excellent sermon on Predestination, by our old minister, Dr. Diggs, and Seven Reasons why John Rogers, the martyr, must have had ten children instead of nine (as is generally supposed); any time that you stand in need of rational reading come to me;’ and the old lady, smoothing a wrinkle in her black silk apron, took a dignified leave.’

It would be difficult to find in any contemporary work, foreign or native, a more touching scene than the death of the heroine’s little girl. One can hardly read it without sobbing; and yet it is scarcely more affecting than a similar picture of the burial of her husband, with whom she had passed a wedded life of the most uninterrupted happiness:

‘Slowly the funeral procession wound along. The gray-haired gate-keeper of the cemetery stepped aside, and gazed into the first carriage as it passed in. He saw only a pale woman veiled in sable, and two little wondering, rosy faces gazing curiously out the carriage window. All about, on either side, were graves; some freshly sodded, others green with many a summer’s verdure, and all treasuring sacred ashes, while the mourners went about the streets.

‘ ‘Dust to dust.’

Harry’s coffin was lifted from the hearse, and laid upon the green sward by the side of little Daisy. Over him waves leafy trees, of his own planting; while through the branches the shifting shadows came and went, lending a mocking glow to the dead man’s face. Little Katy came forward, and gazed into the yawning grave till her golden curls fell like a veil over her wondering eyes. Ruth leaned upon the arm of her cousin, a dry, flinty, ossified man of business; a man of angles—a man of forms—a man with veins of ice, who looked the Almighty in the face complacently, ‘thanking God he was not as other men are;’ who gazed with stony eyes upon the open grave, and the orphan babes, and the bowed form at his side, which swayed to and fro like the young tree before the tempest blast.

‘‘Dust to dust!’

Ruth shrinks trembling back, then leans eagerly forward; now she takes the last lingering look at features graven on her memory with lines of fire; and now, as the earth falls with a hard, hollow sound upon the coffin, a lightning thought comes with stunning force to little Katy, and she sobs out, ‘Oh, they are covering my papa up; I can’t ever see papa any more.’

‘‘Dust to dust!’

‘The sexton smooths the moist earth carefully with his reversed spade; Ruth’s eyes follow his movements with a strange fascination. Now the carriages roll away one after another, and the wooden man turns to Ruth and says, ‘Come.’ She looks into his stony face, then at the new-made mound, utters a low, stifled cry, and staggers forth with her crushing sorrow.

‘Oh, Earth! Earth! with thy mocking skies of blue, thy placid silver streams, thy myriad, memory-haunting odorous flowers, thy wheels of triumph rolling—rolling on, over breaking hearts and prostrate forms—maimed, tortured, crushed, yet not destroyed. Oh, mocking Earth! snatching from our frenzied grasp the life-long coveted treasure! Most treacherous Earth! are these thy unkept promises?

‘Oh, hadst thou no Gethsemane—no Calvary—no guarded tomb—no risen Lord!’

-----
p. 86

Without going into particulars, it may suffice to say that the poor widow finally succeeded, after running the gauntlet of indifferent editors and selfish publishers, in winning name, fame, and fortune, and, as we infer, a husband, although this last is not very explicitly stated. With a brief programme of what ‘Fanny Fern’ would be as an editor, we take our leave of her present volume:

‘I wish I had a paper. Would n’t I call things by their right names? Would I know any sex in books? Would I praise a book because a woman wrote it? Would I abuse it for the same reason? Would I say, as one of our most able editors said not long since to his reviewer, ‘cut it up root and branch; what right have these women to set themselves up for authors, and reap literary laurels?’ Would I unfairly insert all the adverse notices of a book, and never copy one in its praise? Would I pass over the wholesale swindling of some aristocratic scoundrel, and trumpet in my police report, with heartless comments, the name of some poor, tempted, starving wretch, far less deserving of censure, in God’s eye, than myself? Would I have my tongue or my pen tied in any way by policy, or interest, or clique-ism? No—sir! The world never will see a paper till mine is started. Would I write long descriptions of the wardrobe of foreign prima donnas, who bring their cracked voices, and reputations to our American market, and ‘occupy suites of rooms lined with satin, and damask, and velvet,’ and goodness knows what, and give their reception-soirees, at which they ‘affably notice’ our toadying first citizens? By Jupiter! why should n’t they be ‘affable’? Don’t they come over here for our money and patronage? Who cares how many ‘bracelets’ Signora —— had on, or whose ‘arm she leaned gracefully upon,’ or whether her ‘hair was braided or curled’? If, because a lord or a duke once ‘honored her’ by insulting her with infamous proposals, some few brainless Americans choose to deify her as a goddess, in the name of George Washington and common sense, let it not be taken as a national exponent. There are some few Americans left, who prefer ipecac to homeopathic doses.’

There is one great merit in this book which we have omitted to set forth. The interest never flags. Fanny Fern knows enough of ‘dramatic effect’ to be aware that the stage must never be vacant, nor the actors ever idle. Her volume, we may add, is well printed, upon good paper, and bears upon its outer cover a fac-simile of her signature—a bold, firm ‘hand-of-write.’


“Fanny Fern” (from Richmond Dispatch [Richmond, Virginia], 4 January 1855; p. 2)

“Ruth Hall,” the last of the productions of this spicy little woman, has created a considerable sensation in Northern circles. It is now perfectly well understood that “Fanny Fern” is a sister of N. P. Willis, whom she has endeavored to immortalize in her last novel, under the name of “Hyacinth Ellet.” It is quite clear that, granting the facts as they are stated by the amiable Fanny, Master Hyacinth, who has hitherto been regarded merely as a nice poet and a harmless fop, may aspire to the distinction of being destitute of natural affections. It is evident that the person who could write such a letter to a sister, asking employment for her pen, as that which Fanny attributes to the delectable Nathaniel, must be entirely deficient of everything in the shape of a heart. Willis is not such a genius as Sterne; but, if he is the author of the letter attributed to him by Fanny, he may rank with Sterne in those fine sensibilities which were alive to the sorrows of an ass, and dead to the woes of his own kindred.

In the same novel, Mistress Fern, with affectionate devotion, pays her respects to her aged father, who, though for many years the proprietor and editor of a child’s paper in Boston, does not seem to have brought his own children up in the way that they should go. Fanny’s picture of her aged sire is not flattering, either to the paternal conduct of the father, or the filial piety of the daughter. But the hand that could trace aught against a father or mother, no matter what the provocation, writes its own condemnation. The world will be sure that there must be a screw loose in the organization of such a character, and listen with considerable scepticism to its charges against others. We should even doubt what she says about that puppyish imitator of European tom-fooleries, her immaculate brother, but for his fatal letter—a production which ought to be published with his sentimental poetry, as showing the difference between the author and the man.

The New York Express makes the following extract from a review of “Ruth Hall,” published in the Boston Olive Branch, and said to be “written by a lady well known to the public, but whose path in literature is so widely different from Fanny Fern’s, that she can be influenced by no jealousy or envy of the author in question:”

Whatever may have been the faults of those connected with ‘Fanny Fern’s’ past history, a decent self-respect should have withheld her from thus parading them before the world. It is well known to the public that ‘Fanny Fern’ has been twice married; but allusion to this circumstance is omitted in ‘Ruth Hall.’ How are we then to know that this suppressed history may not contain a partial justification of the course pursued by her friends? One, intimate with her first husband, long ago informed us that she was a ‘poor housekeeper,’ and ‘did not make him a comfortable home.’ We have the therefore been half inclined to sympathise with Mrs. Hall’s lamentations over the missing accomplishment of bread-making.

But for infringing on the sacredness of communications intended to be private, we would give a different aspect to other allusions in ‘Ruth Hall.’ Whatever may have been the defects of ‘Hyacinth Ellet,’ he has never publicly failed to honor his father and his mother. The grey hairs which ‘are a crown of glory when found in the way of righteousness,’ should have shielded an aged parent from the irreverent attaacks of the daughter, and the hollow cough of an invalid struggling with a yet more pitiless foe, should have found its way to the heart of the sister. When the clods of the valley shall rest upon the heads of both father and brother, we shall not envy the emotions of ‘Fanny Fern.’

‘Ruth Hall’ proves herself capable of ingratitude. Her earliest benefactor, the kind-hearted and benevolent man who first encouraged and rewarded her timid efforts, has not been safe from her attacks, even in the grave. Later friends have been as unhesitatingly deserted and abused. Well may they feel ‘how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless’ friend. By the aid of these she stepped from obscurity into public notice, and now, ‘has no farther occasion for her stepping-stones.’

If “Fanny” is guilty of these latter charges, she will fare badly in public estimation.—As to her two husbands, we are not prepared to express an opinion on that subject, until we hear the facts. We are certainly not inclined to attach much importance to the offence which the lady critic, with such solemn gravity, announces. If Fanny’s first husband left her because she was a poor housekeeper, and the bread did’nt [sic] rise, and the worthy gentleman’s stomach wasn’t kept “comfortable,” why, Fanny was fortunate in getting rid of such a nuisance. But we are inclined to think, from the developments in Ruth Hall, that, if Fanny’s bread didn’t rise, her temper did, and that this was the reason of her matrimonial troubles. However, let her never despair. There may be a third husband for her somewhere, and “there’s luck in odd numbers.”


The Erie, Pennsylvania, Observer comments (reprinted from the Erie Observer [Erie, Pennsylvania] 13 January 1855; from Olive Branch, 27 January 1855; p. 2)

“Life Illustrated” says “Fanny Fern, is a sincerely religious woman.” “Life Illustrated” may be right, but if it is, then “Fanny Fern” did not write “Ruth Hall.” No “sincerely religious” woman would take advantage of her reputation as an authoress to force upon the public a canting, whining attack upon her own father, her own brother, and the parents of her dead husband; and all to revenge herself for real or imaginary injuries. A “sincerely religious woman,” does not harbor a spirit of revenge! A “sincerely religious woman” loves her enemies, prays for those that despitefully use her, and keeps herself unspotted from the world. As the Buffalo Democracy well says, if her brother, N. P. Willis, has treated his sister with unfraternal neglect and coldness; if her father be a canting hypocrite, and others of her relatives and connections, knaves and fools, why drag them into the daylight and expose their weakness to its glare? Is it a woman’s part to do this heathenish act? and at a time too, when her woman’s heart should be full of grateful emotions towards a public which has lifted her from a condition of want, and extended to her the friendly offices her home failed of affording her. Where is her Christianity, the want of which she exhibits in others? Where the forgiveness of injuries and the remembrance of the Golden Rule, which should adorn the character of all women, and especially of one whose vocation as a writer, imposes upon her all the duties of an instructor and reformer.


“ ‘Who is Fanny Fern?’ ” (from Olive Branch, 27 January 1855; p. 2)

“Who is Fanny Fern?”
THE SECRET DISCLOSED!
The Willis Family, and Willis the Poet.

Everybody asks who is Fanny Fern? Everybody asks the question, but there is no answer. It is said that we know, but that we unaccountably keep the secret in our own bosom, or locked up in our editorial sanctum. We acknowledge that we have from week to week for many weeks and months, excited the public on this exciting question, and we have not replied to the interrogative of that public. Our readers and mankind have a plausible curiosity to ascertain for a fact, “Who is Fanny Fern?” We certainly have the honor, if honor it be—of introducing “Fanny Fern” to the world, and we must be supposed to know something about her—at least, we might know her real name. Inquisitive persons say, is “Fanny Fern” so artful that she is able to deceive her own publishers? It cannot be, and yet in these strange times man must believe all things even if something looks like improbability. But “Fanny Fern” it is said, about town, must be equal to Walter Scott and his publishers, in craftiness, if she can no longer conceal her real name from the world. Probably “Fanny Fern” is as well known to a large circle as our sheet is to the newpaporial fraternity, therefore we have concluded to give her genealogical tree.

Good old Deacon Nathaniel Willis was a hard-working, hard-plodding, honest man, who resided “once upon a time,” in Portland, Maine. He came to Boston to seek his fortune some thirty or more years agone. Here he established in the good Puritanical times, a weekly paper called “The Recorder.” He was projector, proprietor, editor, foreman and compositor in his own office for a season, and until money flowed into his pockets.

The Recorder was the acknowledged organ of the “Orthodox,” “Calvinistic,” or Congregational family of Christians. It had a great circulation and great influence in its youth and manhood, and perhaps it has to the present hour. The very best theologians and most popular divines of the Calvinistic school, contributed gratuitously to its columns. (Did “Fanny Fern” ever write “without money and without price?”) The profits of the Recorder soon handsomely supported the large Willis family. Nathaniel, the poet, eldest son of Deacon Willis, at one time induced his father to publish some poetic sketches which he had written from Biblical history, and they at once by their beauty, polish, brilliancy and excellence, secured for their author a name which has not to this day been blotted out of the memory of man, woman, or even child.

But what has all this to do with “Fanny Fern?” Listen! The secret is not yet divulged. We promised to show the genealogical tree. Here it is:—

Deacon Nathaniel Willis was, and is, an esteemed and worthy member of Park street Church,—so was his son, Nathaniel Payson—(but no more about that part of the story.) The deacon had a large family; his eldest daughter married a son of Deacon Josiah Bumstead, with whom the old man worshipped truly and faithfully at Park street church, and we believe he does now (good old patriarch of the good old golden days!) of the domestic happiness and exemplary private life of his daughter-in-law, no one has a right to say one word, except in her praise.

The next child was Nathaniel P. Willis, the charming poet and writer, whose name and fame are so well known that ink, paper, and time would be wasted by writing another word about him.

Louisa Willis, his sister, was one of the most beautiful women of earth. She married the Rev. Louis Dwight, a worthy and good man, but both husband and wife are now in Heaven.

Julia, another sister, was a blue-stocking, and for a time was an assistant, and subsequently sole editor of the Youth’s Companion, a religious, juvenile paper, which was started by Deacon Willis after he sold the Recorder to the present proprietors, and it flourishes as our readers know at this moment.

Sarah, the next sister to Julia, was plain in appearance—the plainest of the whole family—some folks called her homely—but she was smart as a steel-trap! She snapped at everybody—even her most intimate playmates (we speak now of Fanny in her teens.) She was proud, haughty, forward. She was, at home or abroad, full of life, talk, vivacity, romance and reality. She was, however, kept somewhat in the back ground of every day life by her older and more quiet sisters, who were often shocked at her forwardness on all occasions, even, we were about to say, if it were the hour o[f] family prayer.

Mary, her sister, was a most beautiful moss-rose, whom everybody loved and flattered, but she was taken away by angels to the Paradise above! Is it not said that whom the Gods love they take early? Of the other members of the Willis family it is useless to speak.

Sarah is, or was, Mrs. Eldredge, wife of the late Charles H. Eldredge, and afterwards she was married to Mr. Farrington. Of the first marriage “Fanny Fern” has spoken; of the second she has written not one word! But as we first announced and immortalized her in our columns as “Fanny Fern,” we have considered it an act of justice to ourselves, and our patrons to state plainly, “Who is Fanny Fern.”

“Fanny Fern” is actually, and of a truth, an assumed name. She is, or was in her teens, plain Sarah Willis, sister of N. P. Willis, the poet.


Review. Putnam’s Monthly 5 (February 1855): 216.

Having read Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall; and considering what we suppose to be the fact, and to have been already discovered by most of its readers, that it is, in substance, a furious bombardment of her own family, we think, that very seldom has so angry a book been published. It is full and overflowing with an unfemininely bitter wrath and spite.

We are not called upon to discuss the verisimilitude of the characters in the book. Yet it cannot all be true. We do not believe, for instance, that any parents of the grade and culture of the Ellets and the Halls were ever the deliberate teasing devils whom Fanny Fern has drawn. The school examination is the most outrageous caricature; the scenes with publishers savor very strongly of romance. If the book has any purpose in its anger, its heedlessness and overstraining will defeat them.

As a work of art, the book is extremely imperfect. This we say, on the charitable hypothesis that it is simply a novel, and nothing more nor less. It is better than the newspaper paragraphs, which have been the staple of Fanny’s former books. Those were sketchy, scrappy, and unsubstantial to the very last degree of flimsiness, although certainly they contained many terse and striking sentences. But careful thought and faithful elimination must go to the making of a valuable book; and of those, in Ruth Hall, there is none. If Fanny Fern should write ten times as much, and then selecting the tenth part of it, should construct it into a work of the size of Ruth Hall, she would do justice to herself and the public; which she has not yet done.


“Opinions of the Press: Ruth Hall, by Fanny Fern” (reprinted from the Evening News [Charleston, South Carolina]; from Olive Branch, 3 February 1855; p. 2)

Of the scores of newspapers that come to our office daily, one half at least have of late been taken up with elaborate and eulogistic notices of this work. The character of these critiques is anything but satisfactory, since most of them deal solely in superlatives, and are calculated to leave the impression upon the minds of the uninitiated that “Ruth Hall” falls little short of being a perfect production, and its author a super-eminent genius. Now, it is scarcely necessary to observe that nothing could be further from the truth—that “Ruth Hall” has no claim to be considered a work of art, nor Fanny Fern to be looked upon as other than a very clever, a very careless, a thoroughly indelicate writer, who wears “her heart upon her sleeve,” and parades the minutiæ of her private affairs under the tinnest guise of fiction before the eyes of that large portion of the public, who exhibit the amazing complacency of listening with patience to the sneers of an angry woman against her relations (of whose conduct towards her they have little opportunity of judging correctly) coupled with a modest share of inferential self-exaltation. No stronger proof is needed of a wide-spread depravity of taste—of a sickly and maudlin sentimentality pervading the great mass of readers, than the success and popularity of Fanny Fern. Her sketches have been honored with enormous sales, and the most extravagant laudation. The “mob of gentlemen who can write,” have come out en masse in her favor. Young ladies—especially those at boarding schools—have wept profusely over the details of hardships, they believe with a charming confidence to have been the experience of Fanny herself—and the whole class of injured women—whose “name is legion,” accepting this amiable female as their champion, “do shower honors and applause upon her.” She is regarded as a “victim”—an innocent, blessed, lamb-like sufferer—an angel upon whom “the winds of heaven” could not have presumed “to breathe too roughly,” but whose relatives, worse than the winds, have heaped upon her all sorts of indignities. We may judge of the “victim’s” patience by the animus of her last work. Therein, we are presented to the tyrannical father and a diabolical brother with a goodly collection of subordinate scoundrels, whose atrocities f[or]m the background which sets off the seraphic loveliness of a certain lady—a much enduring martyr—who, may, or may not be a fictitious personage. Seriously, we consider “Ruth Hall” as simply an ebullition of spleen which, from whatever provocation it springs, becomes revlting and absur[d], when thus dished up, garnished and elaborately spiced to suit the morbid palates of the multitude who waste their time in perusing these harrowing revelations of a commonplace woman. Of true literary merit this autobiography—as we presume it should be called—is almost wholly destitute. There are scores of Misses at every grammar school who can write better. Anything like a connected plot, a harmonious combination of events, or a natural embodiment of character, the author disdains even to attempt. “Ruth Hall” like all the other works of the writer, is rambling in style, loose in incident, utterly inartistic in general design and execution, and consistent and sustained only in a spirit of disgusting egotism, united to a bitter and acrid temper, which did it possess impassioned earnestness, would amount to malignity.


Wilkie Collins. “A New Bookselling Dodge.” The Leader 10 February 1855: 139-140.

Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. By Fanny Fern.

Houlston and Stoneman.

If we had examined this book solely on its own merits, we should have laid it aside as utterly unworthy of review. We believe it, however, to be the fair representative of a new system of puffing, which certain English publishers are now endeavouring to import successfully from America to England; and against which we think it our duty to assist in warning the public. This consideration induces us to regard Ruth Hall in the light of a useful text to speak from; and, for that reason only, we now select the book for notice.

All our respect and admiration—often and frankly expressed in these columns—for what is noblest and best in America and her institutions, must not blind us to the palpable fact that the public of the United States allows itself, at this day, to be more lamentably imposed on by shameless and systematic puffery than the public of any other civilised country in the universe. Of the general truth of this remark, that monument of cynical effrontery, Barnum’s Autobiography, affords, of itself, the most startling and irresistible of all proofs. Of the particular truth of our assertion, as regards literary puffery (the matter in hand just now), similarly indisputable proofs may be obtained by any one who will look over the literary advertisements of an American newspaper, and who will compare them, by way of specimens, with the literary advertisements of any English or French newspaper. We have plenty of impudent book-puffing to be ashamed of in this country. We have citations of garbled critical opinions, announcements of new editions which are not new editions, assertions of immense circulation, which really mean anything but immense sale, and so on; but, until lately, we had not reached that climax of audacity which consists in printing a book, with the publisher’s opinion of his own speculation placed at the beginning, by way of preface, for the reader’s benefit. Just as a quack-doctor at a fair tries to sell the “infallible German corn-plaster,” ,” or the “Cordial Elixir of Eternal Youth,” by stating his own opinion of the inestimable virtues of the ointment or the drug, so do American publishers try to sell books, which are quite as useless as the corn-plaster, and not by any means as harmless as the Elixir of Youth; and so, we are now obliged, and ashamed, to add, do some English publishers also.

Ruth Hall, being the last new specimen of this discreditable and impudent system, is, for the first six pages at least, a curiosity which it may be worth while to investigate rather closely, for the reader’s sake. Besides the names of “Messrs. Houlston and Stoneman,” the names of Messrs. Orr & Co.,

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and of Messrs. Sampson, Low, and Son, appear at the foot of the title page, as joint publishers of the book with the American firm of “Mason-Brothers.” (It seems to take a great many quack-doctors, in the literary line, to sell a very bad article of the literary sort!) But we have not done with the names attached to Ruth Hall yet. There is the authoress, or “Arch-Quack” (as Mr. Carlyle would say), to be mentioned—a lady who passes under the assumed name of “Fanny Fern,” and who leads the prefatory shouting about Ruth Hall, by informing us that the work is “at variance with all set rules for novel-writing”—which it most certainly is. After this preliminary flourish, the covered carts of Doctors “Houlston,” “Stoneman,” “W. Orr,” and “Low,” are drawn up; and these gentlemen, having a book to sell, begin to try and make their little profit by telling the public what a very wonderful book it is. “It simply remains,” cry these eminent quacks in their preface, “for the British publishers” (or Cheap-Johns) “of Fanny Fern’s works to venture a few remarks upon the general character and tendency of her writings.” We are then told that these infallible corn-plasters—we beg pardon, the right phrase is, “this lady’s works”—are thrown off extemporaneously; that the secret of her literary success is her fidelity to nature; that she has none of the airs of professional authorship; that she makes her descriptions like her own free talk; that her style is free from all bookishness, and from all hard traces of weary study; and, moreover, that it flows on as easily and blithely as the song of early birds. “The song of early birds!”—who would have thought Houlston, Stoneman, Orr, and Low had so much poetry in them? We shall love to think of all four henceforth as the Early Birds of British publishing! But let us proceed. Let us hear with admiration, on the indisputable authority of critics who are commercially interested in promoting the sale of the books they review, that “with the perennial mirth of our author there is frequently blended a genuine sense of the pathetic, and the brilliant flashes of humour are often relieved with sudden bursts of sympathy.”

It is pleasant to be told this, even in the most awkward style; pleasant to hear further that Fanny Fern’s “heart is thoroughly with the people,” and that her “love of truth and beauty leads her to detect all the elements of goodness in common every-day life.” After a little more purely disinterested praise of this sort, the Early Birds quit the lofty regions of poetry and criticism, and address the hard-hearted public with “facts and figures.” They inform us that on both sides of the Atlantic Fanny Fern “numbers her readers by hundreds of thousands;” and that former copies of her works have reached a sale, “in America only, of 150,000, within five months of their publication.” We have hitherto been in the habit of believing that when a writer numbered readers by hundreds of thousands, it was quite unnecessary to mention the fact, because that fact was sure to speak for itself. But Fanny Fern’s is an exceptional case. Although, on the showing of the Early Birds, her works have a circulation, “on both sides of the Atlantic,” equal to that of Sir Walter Scott or Mr. Charles Dickens, we lament to confess that we ourselves had never as much as heard them mentioned, until we read the “British Publishers’ ” Preface to Ruth Hall. This, as we have said before, makes Fanny Fern’s an exceptional case. There are some famous people in this world of whose existence it is just as well to remind the general public now and then.

We have now given the “British Publishers’ ” opinion of their own speculation, and have nothing further to say of it, but that it proves, as much as any example can, the profound truth of Charles Lamb’s famous remark, that “publishers are the only tradesmen who deal in a commodity of which they do not possess the slightest knowledge.” More utterly worthless nonsense has not often been set up in type than the nonsense contained in every page of this book, over which Messrs. Houlston, Stoneman, Orr, and Low fall into such eloquent prefatory raptures. If our readers can imagine anything so absurd as a sentimental imitation of the new and famous writer who is the delight of 150,000 readers on the other side of the Atlantic; rhapsodies, in Yankee-English, on love, marriage, and babies; paragraphs of fine sentiment that have been written a hundred times before, in language a hundred times better than Fanny Fern’s, alternate with attempts at humour, which, when we consider that they are the productions of a woman, are absolutely revolting in their coarseness and vulgarity. Of the affectation in the style of the book, and of a certain virtuously-prurient tone which pervades parts of it, and which will doubtless make it welcome to ultra-delicate readers, nothing but an example can present a fair idea. “Ruth Hall” has just been married. Here is a specimen of the interestingly allusive manner in which the “British Publishers’ ” favourite author describes

A BRIDE’S FIRST SENSATIONS.

Poor Ruth, in happy ignorance of the state of her new mother-in-law’s feelings, moved about her apartments in a sort of blissful dream. How odd it seemed, this new freedom, this being one’s own mistress. How odd to see that shaving-brush and those razors lying on her toilet table! then that saucy looking smoking-cap, those slippers and that dressing-gown, those fancy neckties, too, and vests and coats, in unrebuked proximity to her muslins, laces, silks and de laines!

Ruth liked it.

After having been married, Ruth is confined. Here is the account of the confinement, beginning with the most interesting moment, and ending with the most absolute nonsense. (The reader will be kind enough to take notice that we give a whole chapter in the present quotation):—

CHAPTER VII.
THE FIRST-BORN.

Hark! to that tiny wail! Ruth knows that most blessed of all hours. Ruth is a mother! Joy to thee, Ruth! Another outlet for thy womanly heart; a mirror, in which thy smiles and tears shall he reflected back; a fair page, on which thou, God-commissioned, mayst write what thou wilt; a heart that will throb back to thine, love for love.

But Ruth thinks not of all this now, as she lies pale and motionless upon the pillow, while Harry’s grateful tears bedew his first-born’s face. She cannot even welcome the little stranger. Harry thought her dear to him before; but now, as she lies there, so like death’s counterpart, a whole life of devotion would seem too little to prove his appreciation of all her sacrifices.

The advent of the little stranger was viewed through very different spectacles by different members of the family. The doctor regarded it as a little automaton, for pleasant Æsculapian experiments in his idle hours; the old lady viewed it as another barrier between herself and Harry, and another tie to cement his already too strong attachment for Ruth; and Betty groaned, when she thought of the puny interloper, in connection with washing and ironing days; and had already made up her mind that the first time its nurse used her new saucepan to make gruel, she would strike for higher wages.

Poor, little, unconscious “Daisy,” with thy velvet cheek nestled up to as velvet a bosom, sleep on; thou art too near heaven to know a taint of earth.

Is that the sort of writing which delights readers “on both sides of the Atlantic?” Think of 150,000 of the countrymen and countrywomen of Washington Irving finding amusement in such a passage as this:—

RUTH’S NURSE.

Ruth’s nurse, Mrs. Jiff, was fat, elephantine, and unctuous. Nursing agreed with her. She had, “tasted” too many bowls of wine-whey on the stairs, tipped up too many bottles of porter in the closet, slid down too many slippery oysters before handing them to “her lady,” not to do credit to her pantry devotions. Mrs. Jiff wore an uncommonly stiff gingham gown, which sounded, every time she moved, like the rustle of a footfall among the withered leaves of autumn. Her shoes were new, thick, and creaky, and she had a wheezy, dilapidated-bellowsy way of breathing, consequent upon the consumption of the above-mentioned port and oysters, which was intensely crucifying to a sick ear.

One more extract, and we will trouble the reader with no more. Ruth’s daughter, “Daisy,” has caught a caterpillar, and is playing with it.

EARLY PIETY.

Daisy places him (the caterpillar) carefully on the back of her little, blue-veined hand, and he commences his travels up the polished arm, to the little round shoulder. When he reaches the lace sleeve, Daisy’s laugh rings out like a robin’s carol; then she puts him back, to retravel the same smooth road again.

“Oh, Daisy! Daisy!” said Ruth, stepping up behind her, “what an ugly playfellow; put him down, do darling; I cannot bear to see him on your arm.”

“Why—God made him,” said little Daisy, with sweet, upturned eyes of wonder.

“True, darling,” said Ruth, in a hushed whisper, kissing the child’s brow, with a strange feeling of awe. “Keep him, Daisy, dear, if you like.”

If such coarse clap-trap as that succeeds as well with the English public as it is said to have succeeded with the American, we must be mistaken indeed in our estimate of the present condition of popular taste on this side of the Atlantic. We are strongly inclined to suspect that the “British Publishers,” in spite of their “puff preliminary,” will not find Ruth Hall so promising a speculation as they had anticipated. But, whatever may be the fortunes of the book, no circumstances can change our opinion on the discreditable nature of the new puff-system which it represents. When publishers come before the world as critical eulogists of the works they sell, it is time, indeed, that the press should speak out, and that the public should be warned.

[Note: The author of this unsigned piece is identified in William Baker’s A Wilkie Collins Chronology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007; p. 75.]


Review of The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. The United States Review March 1855: 235.

The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. New-York: H. Long & Brother. 1855.

We have an indistinct recollection of having heard or read the name of “Fanny Fern” in some newspaper or literary journal at some former but forgotten time. We are therefore the more pleased to find in a compendious volume, the “Beauties” of the lady whose voluminous writings have doubtless engross the laborious hours of her eulogist for many months. And here we may remark, that the anonymous compiler has selected a strangely bad device: he professes to give the “Life and Beauties” of his authoress, and yet represents himself upon the embossed cover as a viper biting a file. We have not read “Ruth Hall,” we are happy to inform the public; and therefore can not venture an opinion as to whether this volume be the ebullition of the rage of “Mr. Tibbets,” or the real admiration of a distracted adorer. We learn from it, however, that the fair anonymity whose perfections pretend to be here chronicled, was a most undutiful daughter to a most indulgent father, a most reckless critic of the faults and foibles of a ringletted and super-exquisite brother. If these are to be esteemed the “Beauties” of a female character, we (not belonging to the school of Lucy Stone) can not properly appreciate them. On the whole, the book is very readable, and would make a good accompaniment to Mr. P. T. Barnum’s exhibition of the “Happy Family.”


Review of The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. Peterson’s Magazine 27 (April 1855): 317.

Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. 1 vol. New York: H. Long & Brothers.—a retaliatory publication, called forth by “Ruth Hall,” though, we believe, not emanating from the libelled parties. We have no faith in slanderous literature, and wish, therefore, that neither this, nor its predecessor, had appeared. The result of “Ruth Hall,” which began this war of private scandal, may have been to “put money into the purse” of Fanny Fern: but it has damaged, to an extent that no money can repay, her character, as a daughter at least. We are sorry to have to say this, but our duty, as public journalists, and especially as editors of a ladies Magazine, demands it of us imperatively.


Review. The Southern Quarterly Review April 1855: 438-450.

Art. VI.—Ruth Hall; A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. By Fanny Fern. New York: published by Mason Brothers. 1855.

Nowhere is the present activity of the female mind more prominently displayed than in literature. Christianity reclaimed woman from the serfdom of barbarism and the sensualism of Gentile civilization, and modern enlightenment, if not yet permitting her the ballot-box, has welcomed her to the walks of poetry, romance and history; she has free use of pen and pulpit. English literature is especially rich in female authors, some of whom have shown as much force, tenderness and truth, as if they had been born sons instead of daughters of genius. “Pendennis” excepted, we know of no modern book more manly, more vigorous, or more impassioned than “Jane Eyre,” or “Villette;” and certainly not one, save, perhaps, the finest parts of the “Caxtons” and “My Novel,” to compare with the biblical pathos and simplicity of “Ruth,” by Mrs. Gaskins. We are also disposed to rank Miss Strickland with any of the chroniclers and annalists of the day, and to place the name of Mrs. Jamieson high on the list of authors of the first rank. But such efforts and such successes are comprehensible, and within the province of difficult possibility. We can believe that woman, restored to speech after centuries of silence, should have something to say—some truths to utter, some secrets to reveal to her mates and her masters; and it is natural that we should listen to the opening of the sweet mouths sealed fast for all the ages since Sappho sang. We can even understand the momentary triumph of “Uncle Tom,” (and such black saints are never bred out of the house of bondage.) The dramatic picturesqueness and home-life or nationality of Mrs. Stowe’s book, to say nothing of of its political interest and eloquent fanaticism, sufficiently explain its sale and popularity. But “Ruth Hall,” the title of the book which we have quited, is another matter. The volume itself, and its immense circulation, are eminently deserving the serious consideration of every Review that pretends to keep pace with the present fruitful steps of time.

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“Ruth Hall” contains four hundred small but well-filled pages, parceled into ninety chapters. It is printed in good style, on good paper, in pretty binding, for a fair price. We fear to state the exact number of editions struck off, or copies sold; they are said to exceed those of any contemporary work, and, beyond all doubt, the work has proved an unquestionable and palpable hit. In the other volumes to which we have referred, and in every other book of equal size we remember to have read, there was more or less intrinsic evidence of cause and effect; but here, the cause of the effect is wholly extrinsic—and not merely extrinsic, but apparently non-existant, or so infinitely remote, as to be in reality imperceptible. If any one, after a diligent perusal of “Ruth Hall,” could fathom the secret of its power, and pierce the mystery of its spell, it would spare us the pains of the patient investigation we are now about pursuing. To foretell its success from the untried manuscript, would have been one of the few feats of prophecy vouchsafed to the present generation, and we shall salute such a seer with mysterious awe. If publishers were not in the habit of doing things with their eyes shut, Messrs. Mason Brothers would come in for a larger share of our reverence than we usually bestow upon our fellow-mortals. But, it is comparatively easy, when some impossible deed is done by apparently unequal agency, to explain the suggestive and illuminating fact by purely natural causes.

Almost all classes of men and women, almost all varieties of human beings, in every stage of civilization, and every occupation of life, have had books or ballads written or composed for their own especial and peculiar benefit. We presume, that the Pyramids were books in their way, immense folios, it is true, and not happily adapted for circulating libraries, but still lettered with language in which priest conversed with priest. Their standard works took form and expression in the graven obelisk. Athenian literature was early wedded to the plastic spirit of variety, and the sea-shore hymns and the mountain songs swelled into the primitive epic, which branched, in turn, into tragedy, comedy, ode, and pastoral. The performances at the games were as various as the tastes of the spectators. At those delicious feasts,

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there was food alike for peasant and philosopher. Rome displayed equal variety. But when manuscripts were of such cost as to be only attainable by the rich, and only sought for by the cultivated, it was essential that a composition worth the parchment and the labor of copying, should be addressed to the highest class of minds, the highest order of intelligences. No matter whether the subject was logic or satire, didactic or dialectic, it was invariably for the highest possible tribunal. The song, the satire, the pastoral, the play, were penned, with most self-denying hand, to suit the exacting and delicate fastidiousness of the most refined taste. The author did his best, not merely from the imperative impulses of genius, but also from the necessity of the case.

When printing gave wings to the creeping manuscript, and instead of scattered torchlight, flashed broad daylight on the world, the same system was pursued. Variety became infinite. Books have been multiplying, with insect fecundity, for four centuries; there are books on every art, on every science, on every pursuit, for all ages, all tastes, and all employments; books on farming, on statistic, on dancing, fencing, boxing; books on the thumb, on the eye, on the hand, on the foot; books on horses and cars—books on every thing. But their authors have steadily adhered to the fundamental principle of writing their best, of addressing the very highest audience they hoped to gather, of speaking to experts in the art they professed to treat of. Every blacksmith and every tailor has his own book; all classes have been written to, all but one have been fairly represented in type. The almost universal ability to read, and the consequent love of reading, have developed, in this nation of readers especially, an immense middle class of ordinary readers of average intelligence. This great middle class is composed four-fifths of women, inasmuch as the hard-worked men of the day have little leisure and less taste for any thing beyond the sphere of the counting-room. Although not entirely overlooked, this mighty audience has been sadly neglected by those who pretend to write for the instruction and delight of society. Thousands of common-place volumes have undoubtedly been circulated, a milk-and-water diet has been abundantly prepared—works of uncontroverted weakness and stale pulseless passion have teemed from every press.

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But flat insipidity is not tolerated even by the middle class. “Ike Marvel” came near the mark once or twice, but the “Reveries of a Bachelor” was just a flight bey9ond his audience, and not quite the thing. Until the advent of “Ruth Hall,” no writer had hit the nail precisely on the head; the small intelligences were yet without a pet-book, and gleaned but a scanty, precarious subsistence from annuals, albums, scrap-books, magazines and weekly newspapers. And when we consider the difficulty of reaching the sympathetic of this massed mediocrity, how many things must be attained and avoided in the composition of a suitable book, the nicety of casting exactly to their mould, it is not surprising that they were so long ungratified. In such a work, there must be nothing too abstruse or hidden for Nancy’s penetration, or Nancy will either be bored to death and vote you an ass, or else shrewdly whisper to herself, “a little beyond my depth,” and shrink back to shore. Again, the situations of the book must be such as are within the experiences of William. Is not the man to step out of himself and cultivate new postures? William will never know how to feel in an attitude in which he has never been, nor will he sympathize with those who are in such impossible positions. The scene must come home to his own little beat—he will not, he cannot enlarge his circle one inch beyond his daily round.

All the shadowy, subtle hinting, such as that which redeems “Hard Times” from littleness, must be studiously shunned. To the intellectual middle class, such things are in the nature of mocking side-winks, thumb-to-the-nose, and theatrical asides. Not the voice of a syren, or the flutter of an angel’s wing, can lure Nancy beyond her depth. She is quick and sensitive too—she knows that Hawthorne’s Psychology was never meant for her; she has a disagreeable sense of insecurity and ridicule; she will never extend her hand to pull a flower in such a suspicious-looking garden, lest it should be laughed at as a weed. The work in question must be uniform, all of a piece and cold; no unequal surging, no throb of genius swelling the dead leaves; all must be smooth as an English lawn—the very flowers must not grow beyond a given height. What has Nancy to do with the storm-

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gusts of passion that heave and vex the pale governess of Miss Bronte? What has Nancy to do with Lucy Stone’s deep, fiery heart, and uncontrollable eloquence? Perhaps, they dimly show her heights she has but guessed of, or depths which her nature has instinctively shunned. Perhaps, they may awake her awhile to a suspicion of her own comparative littleness; for Nancy is humble. But the impression is not a pleasing one—the volume is shut in the middle. Terra incognita! Nor will William believe any of those grim truths which steadily front a full-grown man until they force conviction down his throat. Talk to William of the clinging of beauty to deformity, of the myriad delusions of love, he will cry “psaw!” for he has wandered through life, as well as youn, with his eyes open, and he knows that she who loved him, loved him alone—that he was never unfaithful or dishonest, and that no one who was dear to him ever wept a tear for Burke, who died in the gutter.

Our book must be pious and truthful—virtue must be applauded and vice condemned; for, praised be the Heavens, most of those who sit at our city hearths or feed the smoke that curls from our country cottages, have good and pur imaginations—they have no relish for the impurities of Sue, or the heartless worldliness of Hugo, or the sublimated sensualism of Lamartine, or the poetic voluptuousness of George Sand. They are christian in heart and soul; they prize honor more than life, and will never affect to countenance immorality in any shape, or sneer down the sacred household truths at the bidding of tone who would ruin all that renders life holy. Nancy is pious, she goes regularly to church twice a day, not to be looked at but to pray—she has sweet prayers to utter and she will not be cheated out of her faith. But the book must not be too ascetic, because Nancy is no recluse—she has other and abler texts for meditation than can ever be supplied again—she will not listen to long sermons, under the name of light reading—she likes a little fun as well as the next one, and though perfectly impervious to humor, she has an undeniable eye for wit. To achieve such a book—a book demanding all these varied elements—a book so systematical and equal—a miracle is required—a miracle, such as the publication of “Ruth Hall,” the miracle

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of inspired mediocrity. It is inspired mediocrity alone that could have produced this wonderful work; inspired mediocrity revealing its hallowed secrets and visions to the small intelligences. Ruth Hall, complies with all the conditions demanded by the middle class; it is rather every body’s experience; it is pious, pathetic, funny, and dramatic—it is equal from first to last—never rising above the key note, never sinking below it; always intelligible; always correct and proper; not one new thought is introduced from first to last; the heroine is within the scope and reach of every honest woman, the hero is within the grasp of every honest man. The villains, are every day villains, to be met with in every square and on every wharf; there is nothing astounding, nothing incredible, and to crown all, virtue is seen to bring its own reward. The story of “Ruth Hall” might be well told by “Punch Headings,” illustrated by Leech; twenty lines so illustrated, would tell the whole tale, and vastly more. The scene opens the night before Ruth’s wedding day; she had been “very plain,” as a child, “odd and queer,” as most heroines are, now-a-days, in fiction as well as fact. But she improved so much at boarding school, that her exquisite brother, Hyacinthe [sic], declares “ ’pon honor, she has made a narrow escape from being handsome.” We doubt, whether that face ever existed, which did not, at times, discover in itself, an approximation, at least to its own ideal of beauty. Ruth marries Harry, a noble looking fellow; as indeed, all Harrys seem to be in the bridal mind—“his manly form, dark eye, chisselled lips and swelling throat.” The charm, or exact meaning of “swelling throat,” we do not profess to understand. It may, perhaps, have some relation to the heavy Greek chin and massive under jaw. She experiences an odd sensation, (and her is a touch of genuine nature,) “to see that shaving brush and those razors lying on her toilet table! Then that saucy, (dear, fascinating saucy!) saucy looking smoking-cap, those slippers and that dressing gown, those fancy neck ties, too, and vests and coats, in unrebuked proximity to her muslins, laces, silks and de lanes.” Her sorrows, as well as her joys, commence at the altar. Her father-in-law is a heartless miser and her mother-in-law, of course, jealous of her influence over Harry.

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Her own mother in heaven, her own father an improvident spend-thrift, and her own brother a conceited fop, she has no resource but in her handsome husband. She remains awhile in patient martyrdom with Harry’s parents; a tiny wail is heard; Ruth is a mother, the world is richer than it was. Harry is revolving plans, for a separate home, for his little family—a country cottage five miles from town, amidst gray rocks, and drooping elms, and bees, and humming birds, and sweet briar, is provided. The swift seasons come and go, and life leaps lovingly on in that tranquil resting place. But the snows of the first winter whiten little Daisy’s grave—their first child is dead and the mother is, for the first time, presented in her deep grief. But a second and severer trial awaits Ruth. Harry is ill with typhoid fever—his powerful frame is unstrung. Ruth is never absent from his side; his father is also there, with the indifference of a demon, and the imbecility of a man, predicting Harry will never get better. He is dead and Ruth, with fearful calmness, wipes the death-damp from his brow and the oozing foam from his pallid lips. After his burial, her poverty and trials begin in earnest; it is a struggle for bread with an unusually unsympathetic world. The old people, who have always regarded her with mysterious antipathy, which crabbed old age, sometimes evinces for suffering youth and beauty, squabble among themselves how to get rid of her, and finally succeed in washing their hands of the unprotected widow. They would have kept the children, but the mother had some ridiculous cleaving to them, so let her take the consequences of her folly. She will soon be brought to her senses. Harry’s mother doubts the last fact, however, for she has discovered, and her remark is a profound one, that whenever you meet “a blue eyed, soft voiced, gentle woman, look out for a hurricane.”

Ruth and her children are in a tall, dingy New York boarding-house—companions of clerks, market-boys and apprentices, where soiled table cloths and sticky crockery, oily cookery and bad grammar predominate, kept by the Skiddys, one of the many families created by Dickens. She applies to her father for money to pay her rent, receives a dollar and must abuse; her little Katy meets a gentleman in the street, who remembered her tall, handsome, black whiskered father, and gives her one bank note in his

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name. The amount of the bill is not specified, but we wish it was as large as Becky Sharpe’s one note. The mother is waiting for the little daughter’s return, enjoying the view from her one window. The prospect here presented, is so life-like, so characteristic of New York, and so happily executed, that we shall insert it as a specimen of what inspired mediocrity can sometimes accomplish:

“Katy had been gone now a long while. Ruth began to grow anxious, she lifted her head from the pillow, took off the wet bandage form her aching forehead, and taking little Nettie upon her lap, sat down at the small window to watch for Katy. The prospect was not one to call up cheerful fancies. Opposite was one of those large brick tenements, let out by rapacious landlords, a room at a time at griping rents, to poor emigrants and others, who were hardly able to prolong their lease of life form day to day; at one window sat a tailor, with his legs crossed and a torn straw hat perched away upon his head, cutting and making coarse garments for the small clothing stores in the vicinity, whose Jewish owners reaped all the profits. At another, a pale-faced woman, with a handkerchief bound round her aching face, bent over a steaming wash tub, while a little girl of ten, staggering under the weight of a basket of damp clothes, was stringing them on lines across the room. At the next window, sat a decrepit old woman, feebly trying to soothe, in her palsied arms, the wailings of a poor sick child. And there, too, sat a young girl, from dawn till dark, scarcely lifting that pallid face and weary eyes, stitching and thinking, thinking and stitching. God help her. Sometimes the face was young and fair, sometimes it was wan and haggard; but never without the stain that the bitterest tear may fail to wash away, save in the eyes of Him, whose voice of mercy whispered, “Go, and sin no more.”

“Still, tier above tier, the windows rose, full of pale, anxious, care worn faces—never a laugh, never a song, but instead ribald curses and the cries of neglected children. From window to window, outside, were strung on lines articles of clothing, pails, feather-beds and torn coverlets, while up and down the door steps, in and out, passed ever a procession of bare-footed women and children to the small grocery opposite, for a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a few onions or potatoes, a cabbage, some herrings, or a sixpence worth of poor tea, a pound of musty flour, a few candles, or a peck of coal—for all of which these poor creatures paid twice as much, as if they had the means to buy by the quantity.”

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This is incomparably the best written passage in the book, and was drawn from nature, with a firm, correct hand. It is a favorable specimen of that studied word-painting, which sometimes passes for genius, and is poetic and picturesque withal. Its effect is heightened by coming in the midst of feebly conducted and unnatural dialogue, bits of originality, sentiment and scraps of pointless satire. Ruth applies for needle-work, but not very successfully, and after that presents herself as a candidate for a teachers’ vacancy, in the Fifth Ward Primary School—she was rejected because she had studied out of Webster’s Dictionary, instead of Worcester’s. Ruth changed her lodgings, with a view to still more rigid economy, hires a room without board from Mrs. Waters, another character extracted from Dickens’ immense repository of puppets ready-made. A thought strikes her—how odd it never occurred before—why could not she write for the papers? Like the rake’s last refuge, divinity now dawned the starveling’s last hope—“newspaperial” celebrity. Hyacinth, (supposed to be Willis with how much truth we know not, as it is a feature in the sale of the work)—Hyacinth discourages her and advises some unobtrusive employment. But a bitter smile disfigures her gentle lip—she feels she can do it, and will do it! There will be scant meals, and sleepless nights, and weary days, and a throbbing brow, and an aching heart—but it shall be done!

She clasps her hand over her heart—a hot tear falls upon her cheek—a bright spot burns on her temple—her eye glows like a star, mediocrity is inspired! She writes; she wanders about the streets, looking into office entries, reading signs, and trying to gather from their hieroglyphics some light to illume her darkened pathway. Day after day is only chronicled by repeated failures—the fare is meagre and the purse empty. Employment is found at last and Ruth’s MSS. is accepted at the office of the Standard; an article of hers is to be published in the very next issue.

Before its appearance a kind Homœopathist (gentle spirit of Hahnneman befriend us!) cures her little Nettie. Her eldest daughter Katy, who has been on trial at her father-in-law’s is returned, found deficient in business talent. Her first articles under the signature of “Floy” are copied into all the Exchanges. She has

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bread to give her children—she drives bargains with editors—is familiarized with stale tobacco smoke—Hyacinth grows jealous; she receives complimentary letters from John Stokes, and endearing communications from Mary R—. Her children spend their first miserable endless day at school, the editor of the Household Messenger pronounces her a genius, she writes four pieces a week for the Standard and Pilgrim—ah, could he secure her and have those four condensed into one for the Household Messenger! He writes respectfully, she replies sisterly; he answers, offering triple pay; she rejoins at once, accepting it. Her discarded publishers are indignant; a long correspondence ensued. Mr. Walter is put off; letters multiply from all quarters, from north and south, east and west; her autograph is repeatedly solicited; her hand and heart are more than once fervently sought. The longest chapter in the book is a phrenological examination of her head for the benefit of Mr. Walter. But the butterfly-life of the “newspaperial” contributor was not enough for the soul of inspired mediocrity. She must write a book. The book is written and published, it sells freely, her fame and fortune are made, widowers sigh for her hand, gentlemen of fortune request her to sit for her bust to be grouped with those of the Hemans and the Landon. The production and triumph of “Life and Sketches” is the grand climax to which “Ruth Hall” had been tending. And that grand fact happily performed, the volume expires, giving birth to the inner book. Hyacinth is proud of his sister, her parents are astounded into love, and the heroine departs, wearing by way of a flag, a printed certificate of a hundred one hundred dollar shares in the Seton Bank.

We think we have fairly and conscientiously presented an outline of this celebrated work. We would imagine that it required the touch of genius to spread such meagre incident over a surface of four hundred pages, in a way to captivate a rational being’s attention from first to last. Such a fact would appear to require burning eloquence, artistic finish, dramatic power, pungent wit, and resistless humor, all of the highest order. A bright intellect, proud in its conscious power, would glance contemptuously at “Ruth Hall,” and promise to dash off twenty such barren trifles

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a year. But, oh! the pity of it. Genius could never produce such a book from now till dooms-day. Genius could never keep the heroine so remorselessly within reach of every damsel whose first literary dreams are dawning. Genius could never conjecture what mighty charm lurked for the million poetesses of the land, in those tributary letters from Billy Sands, and Thomas Pearce, and Kitty. Genius could never have forgott[e]n and lost sight of the woman Ruth in the authoress Floy, and parted from her with that triumphal wave of the Seton Bank stock banner, an exit more impressive than Fanny Kemble’s from Niagara. For all these things, the miracle of inspired mediocrity was needed. Genius never could have invented those short and deliciously small chapters, deposited as careful mothers deposit a tea-spoon-full of preserves in a bounteous margin of white plate; genius could never frame those delicate chapters, so exquisitely with choice sentiments, fringing the dialogue like a border of flowers! Genius could never point those same pet chapters with initial or final exclamations, recorded in isolated and independent beauty such as “Ruth liked it!—Ruth sleeps!—Fate folded her hands! Hark to the Sabbath bell! Oh vanity, thy name is William Sterns!”

The miraculous power already mentioned, was alone equal to this. Genius, with all its daring, would never have ventured to lasso in characters hap-hazard from the herd, at such a fearful rate; and great as is its power of taking up and dropping its creations at pleasure, it will not part with them until it has given them a sure but brief impress of its firey seal! Genius could not pos[si]bly make so much and get so little of the wet nurse, of the predictions of the step-mother respecting the probable loss of Ruth’s hair; of the critiques on Harry’s summer-house and parlors, fragrant with wild flowers; of the parental persecution of Pat, the Irish gardener; of the counting-room of Tom Develin; of the intended, but postponed visit of the two fashionable ladies to Ruth’s poor boarding house; of the compulsory parting with Harry’s old clothes; of the proposition to buy Harry’s coral pin; of the California flight of Mr. Skiddy; and, last of all, so much and so little of brother John Walter and sister “Ruth Hall.” Genius would eternally be either above or below the mark—dodging round and

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round, hovering about, high and low—but never exactly right. Genius may fume at the golden success of “Ruth Hall” and fancy that it could go and do likewise; but, never, never, though its heart broke in the effort. Never, even though urged on by the trim spurs of starvation and inspiration will it be able to accomplish such a work. There would be rough ugly diamonds instead of that glittering string of inflamed paste. “Fanny Fern” has not lowered her flight one inch to gain her hearers—she has flown at the top of her bent, to just the very elevation required—neither high nor low—but even on—straight ahead. Nancy is never once puzzled, William never once drawn out of himself. The small intelligences have it all their own way from preface to exit. How much of auto-biography may be found in the work, we know not, inasmuch as we have no inkling of who is meant by the vegetable pseudonym of “Fanny Fern.” But there must be much self-infusion in the book, or even inspired mediocrity could not have so completely forgotten and merged the woman Ruth in the authoress Floy. From the commencement of her literary career to the publication of “Life and Sketches,” Ruth Hall ceases to be an interesting woman. To be sure, she had done or said nothing particularly great or astonishing before, but from that moment the sympathy excited by her sorrows ceases and is expected to give place to admiration of her success. Ruth does absolutely nothing but write. Letters from publishers, and lovers, and admirers compose the last third of the book. She is nothing but a woman who has perpetrated a book; as if that astonishing merit, like the birth of a child, was the crowning feat of her existence—a final catastrophe, a wondrous development. We, therefore, imagine that Fanny Fern having embarked so faithfully in auto-biography, refrained from self-praise and extollation, although she has continued to give an equivalent for her own silence, in the phrenological examination and in the adulatory epistles so freely introduced.

Ruth Hall has, also, dodged the whole critical and reviewing world, and gone, right straight, to the homes and hearts of the small intelligences without the aid of endorsers. It was placarded, in the daily papers, as the miracle of the age, as, indeed, it is, and distributed by a thousand carriers, wherever Yankee in-

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genuity or Yankee tact could penetrate. The gigantic porters keeping watch and ward at the castle gates against all comers of ordinary size, found this little fliberty-gibbet skipping in between their colossal legs. Fanny Fern became famous in a day. Her Life and Beauties are already given to a gaping world, and all the newspaperial essays, the first effusions, the dead letters, will probably have a speedy resurrection. All this is well enough once—it is something to have the existence and possibility of inspired mediocrity fully and conclusively established; but in the name of Horace, let it not go on whispering, and posturing, and whining forever, until genuine inspiration, true genius and power are mute. Let mediocrity content itself, with once having made a pleasant story, without plot or incident, with having made attractive the conversations between mothers and children, and enemies and patrons, such as you cannot escape in a morning’s business and an evening visit, with having made a heroine of a good, pious, single-minded widow, by marrying her to literature, and making her the mother of a book. We are heart-sick of the crude, hasty, undigested things that pretend to the unity and completeness of books; we are intellectually insulted almost every time we dare to open a work of fiction. It seems to be a hopeless task for any mortal man or woman to wade through the putrid sea of imbecility, now flooding us with books, as numerous and small as shoals of minnows, and emerge with any thing like a respectable prize in hands. It seems impossible, even to obtain a hearing amidst the hum of small voices—this buzz of the bee hive. But let genius once more sing at heaven’s high gate, and the sweet notes will reach us even through the uproar; let its clarion be pure gold, and its voice clear as the ice-brook of the Samosierra, and it will not speak in vain. There is yet no farewell to literature, the last of the lingering arts, as Hope was the last of the Gods; there is yet amongst the nations, an audience of taste, more appreciative, more rewarding, than even the massed enthusiasts of inspired mediocrity; the audience that now harkens to Thackeray and still clings to Dickens; the audience that thrilled to Jane Eyre, and melted at Ruth, and brooded over the “Scarlet Letter;” the audience that turn abashed and insulted from the presumptuous littleness of “Ruth Hall.”


Review of The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. National Era 9 (5 April 1855): 55.

Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. New York: H. Long & Brother. One volume, pp. 330. Sold by all the Booksellers in Washington.

The cover of this volume bears a vignette, in gold, of a serpent biting a file—a most enigmatical symbol, certainly; and we opened the volume, curious to know who was the serpent, and who the file: for the title, “Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern,” would, upon all other books, be the direct indication that Fanny had an admiring auto-biographer, quite as much in love with her as the author of “Ruth Hall” seems to be with the heroine of that popular work.

We do not happen to ride in the troop of admirers of Fanny Fern. Her Ruth Hall, in despite of the cruelty of her trials, is a book not to be commended or justified. The purpose of this book turns out to be, the defence of the reputation of those real persons whom the author of Ruth Hall had, under a very thin veil of imaginary names, severely castigated by her wit and satire.


Comment. Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion 46 (May 1855): 465-466.

Fanny Fern it seems was resolved to make a sensation—and she had made it. Her book—Ruth Hall—in which she abuses her nearest relatives—her father, a Boston editor, and her brother a New York editor—has given her a very unwholesome kind of celebrity, which, however, they say she enjoys very much. The lady’s name is Sarah Payson Willis, and she is now a widow, 44 years old or so, with two children, daughters. She was born in Maine, and married, in 1837, to Mr. Eldridge of Boston, cashier of a bank there. He died in 1846, and the widow afterward married a Mr. Farrington, a widower with a family. In a short time he left Boston for Chicago, in the West, they say, and has never turned up since. Mrs. F. then began to support herself and children by contributing to the Boston Olive Branch and True Flag, and her style was so dashing and trenchant that her nom de plume—Fanny Fern—became noticed, and she soon published a collection of her “Fern Leaves;” which sold well and brought her in a profitable return. All this is told in a book lately come out in Boston—one of those things, with a connection or resemblance, generally published in the wake of any work that manages to make a hit. This Life of Fanny Fern is very satirical and personal, and says the gay widow is dashing, voluble, impulsive, and so forth—which, indeed one would

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suppose, from the style of a great many of the Fern leaves. This exposure looks very severe; but the lady herself probably does not object to it; it only increases the noise of her name. In Ruth Hall she is very bitter on the literary Lord Chesterfield, her brother; and people have supposed this “Life” has been published with his instigation or approval. But we don’t believe he would engage his thoughts in any such retaliation. The lady herself furnishes the antidote of the bane she administers; and we can easily perceive that she would be just the spirit to plunge into faults and exaggerations. One great cause of her irritation seems to have been the little encouragement her writings received from the arbiter of literary elegance—her brother. At all events, the lady may now “put hay in her boots,” as Gil Blas was advised to do; for she has taken the pensive public by the ear, and whatever she writes will be read.


“Ruth Hall—A Domestic Tale of the Present Time. by Fanny Fern” (from North-Carolina University Magazine, May 1855; pp. 174-176)

It is surprising how easily a book can be gotten up at the present day, i. e., how small an amount of writing it takes to constitute one. Ruth Hall is before me, a work of four hundred pages, which, if the leaves were properly filled out, and the margins less deep, would sink to two hundred and fifty. What the object of the “Tale,” is, I am not prepared to say—it shows beyond a doubt, how a brave hearted woman can combat, and combat successfully, with a cold and selfish world,—but whether the sad history of Ruth Hall represents either in part or whole, that of Fanny Fern, or that sprig of fashion and heartlessness, Hyacinth, her reputed brother, I know not. However this may be, certain am I that it has created a sensation among the novel-reading portion of the community, in accordance with the old kitchen proverb that “a new broom sweeps clean.” And this sensation prevails to a greater extent among the “fair,” than elsewhere, owing, no doubt, to that sympathy which binds members of the same class together, or better, perhaps, because women can reflect the sentiments of women, in truer lights than others. The fact that a woman guided the pen, is stamped on every page of Ruth Hall—there is not that manliness, so to speak—that unity of design—that perfect relation of parts about it; which we find in the productions of more vigorous writers.—But if Ruth Hall does not appeal to the head, it does to the heart; and whether she is a real or fictitious character, few are so mean spirited as to read without emotion, the narrative of her trials and sufferings, nor fail to recognize the power of a true woman’s love, which can light up with joy and comfort, the darkest corner of earth.

The first part of the “Tale” is exceedingly simple, and one is hardly interested before he gets half through the volume. This is an objection, not because the former is not as interesting as the latter part, but because the two do not bear that relation to each other in this respect, which they ought—many of the observations are trite in the extreme, and the style is of that nature which is peculiar to Fanny Fern—childlike simplicity.—After these general remarks we will proceed to examine more minutely the merits of our author in this, her new publication.

The childhood of Ruth Ellet, was passed under the eyes of a cross-grained miserly father, her mother having come to her death, as we suppose, when Ruth was quite young. Soon after her return from the boarding school, where her simplicity was so great as to lead her into several innocent errors, she became the wife of Harry Hall. The married couple lived twelve disagreeable months with the parents of the aforesaid Harry, at whose home Ruth became the mother of Daisy, her first-born; but on account of family dissensions they soon removed to a neighboring cottage, where Daisy died of the

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croup. The associations about the place being any thing but agreeable to the mother, they next removed to the city, where Ruth gave birth to two other children, Katy and Nettie, after which happy events a most unhappy one occurred—the death of their noble father, Harry Hall. Although the parent, parents in law, and brother of Ruth were wealthy, she was now forced to support her two children and herself by the sweat of her brow. After undergoing many and severe trials, the narration of which constitutes the greater part of the volume, Ruth becomes celebrated as a writer under the name of “Floy,” and the “Tale” ends with her retiring from the world in affluent circumstances.

Such is a summary of the life of Ruth Hall, the heroine of Ruth Hall, the xlsDomestic Tale.’ As in the characters of almost all such persons there will be found something worthy of praise, so in the present instance there is much to be pleased with, while, in our judgment, there is also much to condemn.

I know not why it is, but novel-writers of the present day, contrary to what might be supposed to be the case, have a predilection for representing their leading characters as personifications of simplicity—perfect children of nature. A better illustration of this than the early life of Ruth Hall, could not be furnished. While at her boarding school this quality was so fully developed in her, that on account of it she was led into some unpardonable errors, and was often imposed upon by her classmates. She must have been, at this time, a good large girl, as the saying is, as is evidenced by the fact that her compositions were taken down in short hand by the village editor for publication in his paper. Such a character is little in accordance with the present age of young Americanism, nor, omitting any objection that may arise from the preceeding observation, is it less reprehensible, for it fails to show nature in her true colors. Simplicity is a quality we admire wherever it is found, and especially in woman, where it is found so seldom, but there is an end to everything—a virtue carried to an excess often becomes a vice,—and simplicity, unmixed with some knowledge of the world, will render one a butt for the wag, and a prize for the thief. I was forcibly reminded, while reading this part of Ruth Hall, of the old man mentioned by Addison in one of his papers, who in this attribute of character, seems to have rivaled our heroine. This simple old fellow on one occasion was walking along one of the streets of London about dusk in the evening, when, on observing a man behaving in a quite affectionate manner towards a woman, he raised his hands in silent supplication to Heaven, that there was so much Christian charity yet in the world, mistaking the embrace of the lover for the bestowment of alms. This is not the only instance of Ruth Hall where we conceive a character to have been improperly drawn, but we will say more of this hereafter.

The lady-readers of our author will tell us that we have now come to the most interesting portion of the book, the death of Daisy. If Ruth Hall represents Fanny Fern to the letter and if the first born of the aforesaid Fanny died of the croup, then it is doubtless proper that Daisy should have come to her death as she did. It seems to me, however, from the general character of Fanny Fern’s writings, that she seeks to move her readers to tears when she would fail to interest them in any other way, and this, perhaps is the secret of the success of her writings with the fairer portion of the community, whose eyes are ever ready to drop the tear of sympathy. Such a practice is often resorted to, especially by female writers of this class, and, like charity, it covers, in the eyes of some, a multitude of sins. We may be charged with want of

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candor, but we cannot forbear expressing the opinion, and will hold that opinion to be correct until the contrary be shown, that Daisy is introduced to see how many sweet things can be said of the dear wee one, and her death brought about to furnish an occasion for displaying depth of pathos—or perhaps, in the future Ruth saw that she was the mother of two other children, and she thought, no doubt, that a woman, with two babes, dependant on her own exertions for the support of the three, was a fate hard enough for her brave, patient heart to bear up under. But this is merely a matter of opinion, not of fact, and we proceed from these comparatively unimportant remarks to those parts of the work more deserving of attention.

It seems to us that our author has given birth to too many characters. She is of necessity, obliged either to drop them, or to kill them off. This is a very convenient way of getting rid of a disagreeable customer, and is frequently made use of.—I have often thought how deplorable would be the condition of many of our xlsDomestic-Tale’ writers if they were deprived of the power of life and death over their characters. You have, perhaps, both heard of and experienced what is called the tediousness of the introductory portions of the prose writings of Sir Walter Scott. Paradoxical as it may seem, were it not for this very tediousness, his tales would lose half their interest. He holds his personages up to the view, the character of each is distinctly drawn so accurately, that when they are brought out upon the theatre of action, they act in such a manner as the previous delineation of these characters would warrant.

Early in the “Tale” Mrs. Leon is introduced, who promises to play a distinguished part. But her exit is as sudden as her introduction, and we hear no more of her until we are more than half through the book, and the manner in which we there stumble upon her, evinces great want of skill in our author. Mrs. Hall and her two children, taking a walk one afternoon accidentally passed by some hospital, when Nettie, being attracted by the flower-grounds, she enters the place, and there finds the dead body of Mrs. Leon. Apart from the objections now under considerations, this is open to the farthest objection of bearing too great an improbability. We forbear comments so far as this is concerned, and proceed with our review. Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy are the next persons to whom we beg leave to call attention. This amiable pair have a few chapters to themselves, in which are described, with much effect, several domestic scenes, and are then consigned to what, in the estimation of every one, will be considered a worthy oblivion. Our friend, Mr. Bond is the last pop-and-go character we shall call to your [n]otice; and while we are at this part of our subject we would respectfully ask of any reader of Ruth Hall, if he had sufficient acum[e]n, to make out what that mysterious noise was in the aforesaid Bond’s room, the cause of it, and the consequence thereof, to speak logically—we confess we were unable altogether to understand it. Our author leaves it unexplained, and we are somewhat inclined to the opinion that it is inexplicable. It is unnecessary to adduce more examples to show a want of combination in the volume before us.—This is the most glaring defect in the plot, and she has, therefore, failed in writing a novel, as every one must who labors under this disadvantage.

One of the most unnatural things, perhaps, in the whole “Tale,” are the puns put in the mouth of Nettie—they will be found, by the lovers of the curious, in the eighty-second chapter. I have heard members of the senior class of the University of North Carolina, make worse and as spoken by a child, some six or seven years old, it is absurd in the extreme. We have little to say of the persons supposed to be represented under fictitious names, as belonging in no wise to the province of a reviewer.


“Ruth Hall.” Reprinted from Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature 35 (June 1855): 196-200.

America is determined to keep us amused. We are never left for long together without a “startling novelty” from the “almighty republic.” “Keep your eye fixed”—said one of her “newspaperial” bards—

“Keep your eye fixed on the American Eagle

Whom we as the proud bird of destiny hail;

For that wise fowl you never can inveigle,

By depositing salt on his venerable tail!”

But the advice was hardly necessary. What with the great Sea-Serpent, and Spirit-rapping, and “Uncle Tom” and Barnum, we are kept, nolens volens, at the full stare; and, as for “inveigling that wise fowl,” why, really, we haven’t the leisure to think of such a thing, so long as the divine (or, as we ought to say, Jupiterial) animal keeps us on the defensive. Let him turn tail for a minute or two, and give our celebrated Lion time to find his salt-box, and we will see what can be done. But we can’t promise him a Barnum—we haven’t the article in stock, and don’t know where to look for it.

It is unfortunate for Fanny Fern, and unfortunate for the interests of literature and just criticism, that her “Ruth Hall” should have appeared contemporaneously with the autobiography of the Big Showman. It is also, we think, other questions apart, an ill-advised, as well as an ill-timed publication. But, in what we are going to say of this lady and her book, we shall separate her and the volume from “Bookselling Dodges” which have provoked the just indignation of our contemporaries, and endeavor to speak conscientiously and advisedly rather than “slashingly.” We must, indeed, be occasionally severe, but we would be kind and thoughtful too. If the lady should see these pages, she will find we think she has a “mission,” if she will only condescend to accept it, and “subdue the vivid shapings” which deform her natural proportions. We take it that she is a person who will not be driven, but who may be led; and, considering the mingled spirit of jealousy and respect with which American authors, and of course American female authors in particular, look to English criticism, we cannot reconcile it with our notions of duty to write a “smart”—and irritating—paper, which could not be expected to produce anything but defiance, and an intensification of the faults of the criticized. If a reviewer cannot afford to be a Christian gentleman, when he has pen in hand, his is indeed a pitiful trade.

The publication of “Ruth Hall” is ill-timed, not only in a business point of view, but because our critics have not yet recovered from the irritation which Mr. Barnum’s book has caused them, and have the word “humbug” yet lingering on the tips of their pens; add to this, that the frequent extravagances, affectations, and vulgarisms of Fanny Fern’s style, with her true Yankee ostentatiousness of sentiment, make out a strong primâ facie case against her, and that it is not every reviewer who will be at the pains to read a book two or three times to make sure of a basis of talent and good-feeling in its author. Fanny Fern’s reputation on this side of the Atlantic is of a gipsy character, and of mushroom growth; and a work which has, to a hasty reader, so much the air of an autobiography written in the third person, could scarcely have done worse for itself and its author than by appearing in the wake of Barnum.

For “Ruth Hall” has, most unluckily, an autobiographical air; and it is, we repeat it, a very ill-advised publication, as well as an ill-timed one. In America, it has raised clouds of scandal around itself and its writer; and over here, it has been strongly condemned. It is, indeed, to be regretted that any portion of our press should have taken it for granted, upon no better foundation than literary gossip, that the book is a revengeful “show-up” of Fanny’s connections, and proceeded to deal with it as a réchauffë of her own life, served up with ingratitude, “malice, and all uncharitableness,” for sauce. We would fain hope that the approaching publication of the lady’s real life-story will

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make some who have written in haste repent at leisure; and that one writer at least, who has wound up his article with an ambiguous statement which will be read by many as an insinuation against her personal purity, will not hesitate to come forward in sackcloth and ashes, when he has discovered his mistake, and do public penance for his malice or carelessness.

Our own idea is, that wherever “Ruth Hall” has been taken for an autobiography, there can be little critical discrimination. There is much truth in the old saying, that a woman’s story may generally be known by the superior blackness of her villains; and we should never have doubted that the worst characters in “Ruth Hall” were fancy portraits to which a talent for minute observation had given a life-like air. With respect to the general structure of the story, we should have supposed its author had taken actual experiences for starting points, and worked them out into incidents as she pleased; a hazardous process, but not necessarily a wrong one. We have no doubt this will prove to be the true state of the case: the alternative is, that Fanny Fern is a worthless woman, without one spark of that magnanimity of soul wanting which no two-legged creature is other than contemptible. One strong reason for rejecting this alternative is, that Fanny Fern has entirely passed over in her narrative a topic in her history which offered peculiar temptations to a malicious and daring woman. This should have occurred to her critics, as it will do to ordinary readers who know anything of her life. We, personally, decline mentioning names and incidents which are no one’s business. If the lady publishes her true biography, as we hear she is going to do, it will be her own act, and we shall then feel that we need not respect the privacy she has broken, and shall make our own comments.

We have called the process we have assumed for the construction of “Ruth Hall” a hazardous one, and the personal feelings that “do so easily beset us,” among which vanity is not the least, must make it so in any case. But self-glorification, and oblique depreciation of others, were the least of the dangers to which Fanny Fern exposed herself in producing this book, as she must now be convinced. A scandal-loving public insist on finding the original of every portrait, and darken counsel with “that’s her own father;” “that’s her own brother;” and “that’s a gentleman who—&c.” We think we can find an excuse for the unhappy blunders she has been guilty of. It is easy to conceive that, possessing even more than the ordinary sensitiveness of the sex to public opinion, she might be much annoyed by passages of gossip continually in circulation about her; and that she might take inaccurate measure of the general curiosity and the general sentiment. Then, she would work up into a story such of her own experiences as would suffice to give the world an approximatively vera effigies of Fanny Fern, and silence the speculators; but she would introduce characters and features which should leave her own portrait, and her literary history the only absolutely true portions of the book; no one (she would say to herself) can suspect me of intending to villify my own father; but Ruth must have passionate antecedents in her childhood, and I must introduce such and such scenes. Add to this, that Fanny has evidently studied Jane Eyre with devoted admiration, and has, unconsciously perhaps, made it a model for such imitation as her own special gift would permit her to achieve. Now, it takes no conjuror to tell us that a would-be artist sitting down to write a story with one eye on her work, and one on herself and Jane Eyre, and both on the mob (if such an impossible figure of speech may be permitted), is safe for producing a distortion which should fail of every object she had in view, in lieu of conciliating them all. Call this, if you will, the mistake of a vain, spoiled woman; say it is the aberration of a morbidly excited nature, brooding over a painful history; and you will probably be right—but it involves nothing that would justify a reviewer in trying to write an authoress down. At least, it shows that she has grasped (obscurely and clumsily) the true secret of bookwriting, i. e., that you can only write well what you have lived; that the backbone of a story must be something which is real to you, or it will not prove so to the reader. As for the individuals who complain of being caricatured in “Ruth Hall,” they should have remembered the stulte nudabit conscientiam animi, and held their peace; for if it is Fanny Fern’s revenge, why—Fanny is a mean, bad woman—but then, you know, a revenge is a revenge, after all, i. e., injury given for injury. The pictures given of American able-editors, and the struggles of a literary neophyte, are not, we believe, in the least overcharged, but the contrary; still it is not to be supposed that press-men over there, or over here,

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for that matter, would like to be shown up, or would fail to give tit-for-tat in reviewing the book.

We proceed to say a brief word of Fanny Fern’s writings, apart from the scandalous questions raised by the publication of this story, and shall have a word to say besides on the position of the literary man, by way of close.

A couple of years ago, the general reader, scrambling among periodicals and country papers at odd moments, began to notice short paragraphs signed “Fanny Fern.” They were so thoroughly, obtrusively, American in tone and style, that it did not require casual allusions to dollars and dimes, or woman’s mission, or “upper-ten-dom,” to make you exclaim, “why here’s a kind of female Sam Slick!” For the new vision evidently had a good deal of humor, and had seen life. But it immediately occurred to you that she had seen it from an unusual point of view, and had probably acquired the painful portion of her experience at a late period—that her disbelief in the rose-color was of comparatively recent date. Sometimes, she made you laugh: sometimes, you may perhaps not be ashamed to confess it, she made the tears start. Often she was hoydenish; often coarse; occasionally, you said, “immodest,”—but then, she was an American, and an American lady’s mode of life is peculiar, and calculated to develop playful rompishness into boldness; if Fanny Kemble might be pardoned for riding about in pants et id genus omne, Fanny Fern might be excused for an occasional escapade. When you came to see her scraps collected, when you got hold of the first and second series of “Fern Leaves,” you found that they were not always correct in either grammar or taste, and not always free from the insincerity which results from being obliged to write up to a certain mark in the “sentimental” line. There was a good deal of upholstery and millinery-work in the language; there were too much “awe,” and “hush,” and “trembling,” and “tears;” the “dimpled shoulders,” and “round arms,” and “large blue eyes,” and “wealth of curls,” and “slender foot,” and “bird-like carolling,” “came over again too fast”—as lazy Paley naïvely said of his stock of sermons, when he changed to Stanwix. There was a palpable lack of training, and an original and not unpleasing discursiveness often ran riot into wildness. But Fanny undoubtedly sketched a scene well, and knew what points to seize and what to let alone; she could write quietly and naturally; and, on the whole, she looked at life with a generous and discriminating eye. You thought she had also much moral courage, and might grow into a useful and influential writer, if she were neither worried nor flattered.

But, unhappily for her, and perhaps for the world, she has been both worried and flattered, and restlessness and egotism at fever-heat have forced into a partnership of mischief a really respectable talent, and thrown off “Ruth Hall.” Looking at this book abstractedly, we should say that it contains plentiful illustrations of her best and her worst qualities. Her best, for it has touches of nature and real pathos, with what to pathos of right belongs as next of kin—real humor; her worst, for it too frequently sickens you with cant, and stilted sentiment. A story it is not; it is a series of sketches, with a slight connecting-thread of individual history; l’art de conter, the authoress has yet to learn, if she thinks it worth her while. Her English is not always correct, for she uses such phrases as “whom he considered was,” &c.; and requires to be told that there is no such word as “feminity,” though femininity does exist. Fanny cannot dislike conventionality of language more than we, but she should not be eccentric for no purpose whatever, and should renounce that abominable affectation of closing chapters of the “thrilling” order with short sentences. Probably she thinks they are like “nails fastened by the masters of assemblies,” but they are more like doll’s pins fastened b y a smirking mistress of frippery. The length of a chapter may probably be considered a matter of taste, but Fanny really ought not to give us ninety to about two hundred pages; which, if we know anything of Cocker, makes an average of two pages per chapter. The fact is, she is deficient in concentration, and hints rather than develops, so that she finds it expedient to “skip” now and then, and dart from scene to scene without ceremony. Well; we do not wish to be hard upon her, and certainly, we do not wish that she should try to be anything but what she is naturally. But if she wants to produce a respectable work of art, she must watch her moods, and take pains not to appear unnecessarily wilful. We only hope our advice does not come too late—that she has not assumed for good and all a false standard for her guidance. We had very nearly omitted to mention that English taste will certainly not tolerate any such freedom of allusion as she is guilty of

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in enumerating the books of Mrs. Hall Senior. We cannot specify—and we keep silence, “more in sorrow than in anger.”

It is to be supposed that a writer who counts her readers by millions in America and in Europe, must have good qualities of some sort. In truth, she has vivacity, poetical feeling, ready insight into character, good descriptive powers, a quick sympathy with suffering, much moral courage, and an unusual talent for addressing children. Well, these should go for something—we have said enough of her faults, and will say no more. It strikes us that if this lady will devote herself with chastened energy, and the womanly address she has at command, to the subject of the social position of her own sex, and the education of the young of both sexes, she may yet do a work for which the world unborn shall thank her. Enough—we hope yet to see her well quite of the egotism which is acting like a consuming fire upon her better self, and to be able to bid her God speed in a career of steady usefulness.

We have neither space nor inclination to analyze or extract from a shilling book, but readers who please may turn, for specimens of the author’s happiest manner, to “Ruth Hall,” at chapters 18, 30, 51, 72, 75, 76 (the phrenological document is evidently genuine, and we refer to it as a curiosity), 77, 78, and 86. We indicate very few instances of pathos, because that is generally overdone—the humor seldom is. We should perhaps add, that the book contains one undoubted portrait, which will be recognized by every literary man, but in the present state of our information, we decline condemning its introduction.

A few sentences on that ever-recurring subject, the claims of literature upon Society in a pecuniary point of view. We have scarcely dismissed Mr. Fullom’s “Great Highway,” before we have in “Ruth Hall” another tale of literary struggles, another exposé of literary backgrounds, from the other side of the water. Really, the topic is a very painful one. We have not a moment’s doubt that in the bitter winter just past there have been literary men, and literary women too, in this London of ours, who have written meritorious things by fireless hearths, with no better suppers to look forward to than Ruth’s bowl of milk,—men and women, we mean, not improvident or intemperate, but in all respects quiet, regular, conscientious people. Such cases are, no doubt, exceptional; but the fact that they do exist, suggests the very obvious remark that there is something wrong somewhere. Imperfectly rewarded industry of any kind is shocking to contemplate; but, sophisticate as we will, there will always be something peculiarly shocking in the spectacle of neglected, and half-starved intellectual labor. We do not wish to be lachrymose or to deal in clap-trap of any kind; but there are considerations which convince us that the relation of the honest worker in thought and feeling to society at large should not be dealt with on ordinary commercial principles. Our honest instincts say No! And all the world have, till they stifle it, something of the feeling of the Irish peasant for “the boy that’s got the larning in him,” and the Spaniard for the travelling scholar with the spoon in his sombrero. And this fact has its correlate in the feeling of delicacy which is at the commencement of his career painfully strong, and which never leaves him altogether,—the feeling of delicacy about accepting money for his labor, which torments every high-minded literary man; and we should suppose in some degree every honest preacher, teacher, and lecturer. It is not pride, but a sense of incongruity upon receiving “vile drachmas” for spinning out one’s dear soul into words. We do not believe any man who is born to teach, any literary man or preacher who is not an interloper, can receive money distinctly FOR teaching, i. e., for influencing human souls for good, without a feeling of degradation, which, often repeated, becomes demoralizing, and leads to hollow, insincere work. We say this most deliberately and emphatically; in a word, we mean it. The solution of the difficulty which arises is to be found in the words—perfect liberty of vocation for every man and woman. Society must make such arrangements that the question—How shall I win the daily bread? shall never come into collision with the question—How shall I do the work my Father has given me to do?—arrangements in virtue of which a man shall not find himself baffled when, as Emerson puts it, he tries to fling himself into the charmed circle in which the young ravens are fed when they cry,—to live, instead of grovelling. We are looking a long way a-head, we know; we are supposing an abolition of social distinctions,—which every honest heart sickens at and knows to be rotten; a revision of that “great shell system” (see Disraeli’s “Popanilla,”) which every man who thinks, when he changes a five-pound note and pays his butcher, knows to be false; and—in fact, we are overleaping half a millennium! But there is no progress

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without anticipating, and the absolute test is only to be realized by an approximating series of next-bests.

It is a step in advance that the days of noble patronage, and the patronage of the salon are at an end, though there is no doubt sufficient “magic in the web” of literary cliqueism at this moment to puzzle your raw beginner. But we expect it will always be true that the peculiar organization which fits a man to be a teacher of his fellows, will unfit him, more or less, for getting his bread upon ordinary commercial principles. The mere existence of a publishing class, a class of “mediums” between the pen and the press, is a confession of the fact that there is a felt discrepancy. The capacity to “make money,”—which is the monstrous equivalent of modern civilization for living,—does not depend upon “prudence” and all that, though prudence is an auxiliary, but upon a certain instinct of acquisition, which is strong in most men, and almost entirely lacking in some, especially in those who do the thinking for the rest. Nothing remains from all this, but that: I. The necessity to earn one’s bread BY the pen is one which could only arise in a detestably artificial and transitionary period, and that every man who is under that necessity is in a false position, from which both he and society must suffer. II. That society must even put up with it and not grumble, if she is told now and then that she ought to see if some combination cannot be devised by which those whom she delights to honor might be placed in an approximation to their normal position, which is that of Teachers with nothing to do but to teach, and with no feeling of obligation existing on either side. Society would have thought it a good joke to be asked to put ten thousand pounds into the hands of prudent trustees for Goldsmith’s benefit; but the Vicar of Wakefield would have been cheap at a million. Society,—the knowing jade, so ’cute you see! fancies she would not get half so much work out of the scribblers, if the spur were withdrawn; and she is right. But she should make the reflection also, that she would be better without the greater part of the work that is produced under the spur, and that the “unrestricted competition” which comes out of the muddle is actually more expensive to her than any liberal scheme of concert she might adopt for mutual benefit.


“A California Lady’s Opinion of Fanny Fern.” The Pioneer 3 (June 1855: 363-367.

Ruth Hall! Who has not read “Ruth Hall?” another “Fern Leaf from Fanny’s Portfolio”—at first glance deceptive, notwithstanding its superficial showiness, effective in spite of its false luster, and charmingly fascinating with all its gaudiness and glitter.

Of course, every one believes that Fanny Fern is the heroine of the tale, and that all the other characters are her kith and kin; and the work is seized with an avidity natural to eager and curious minds, for it aims to gratify a weakness of the world—curiosity about the private life of individuals whose minds are stamped with genius, or whose reputation places them in a position above the common herd.

And now for a word about this hero worship and hero hatred, so improperly directed by the public. Why should the world care about anything in extraordinarily gifted individuals, except what is really uncommon? What have we to do with their private lives, petty sins or family quarrels? Their sins they themselves must answer for; their private sufferings—if we cannot relieve them—should not be forced upon us. But no; among one class, jealous of superiority, the distinguished are regarded as common targets at which to aim the sharp arrows from slanderous tongues; while among another, consisting of worshippers of the high and beautiful, they are considered as above human reproach and as entirely devoid of human weaknesses. Howe’er it be, by common consent the slightest incident in the lives of “beings known to public fame” is “exceedingly interesting;” and the very people that know not a line of the sublime Poet’s effusions, that cannot appreciate a single original idea of some glorious Essayist, would “give the world” to know whether such really eat bread and butter like other people—whether they live upon an airy dream, or walk, talk or sleep in any peculiarly romantic manner; and should there be a rumor of a “Real Live Lion’s” being in the neighborhood, what a staring of eyes—what appliances of lorgnettes there would be! And then how like a book must he always talk! What a bore it must be to be put forever upon one’s good intellectual behavior, as though literary fame debarred one from any relaxation from mental gymnastics! We once witnessed an amusing illustration of the disappointment occasioned by the forgetfulness of a distinguished poetess of the lofty airs of her elevated nature. She met a friend in a public picture-gallery, on the occasion alluded to, and a crowd gathered about her, eager to catch a word of the sublime conversation; but retired in disgust at hearing the divine oracle ask her friend where he procured those excellent sweet potatoes she had eaten at his house a day or two before.

We do not intend this tirade upon hero worship for the truly appreciative, but for those false enthusiasts who gather autographs, portraits and anecdotes without an idea of the worth and character of the subjects of admiration; those who rush forward to gaze with vulgar staring, for the mere gratification of idle curiosity, or to have the

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pleasure of making demigods of themselves by being “posted” upon the looks and actions of some of “God’s chosen ones;” those who are able to retail facts and fictions about celebrated authors, but have no knowledge of the grandeur of their original thoughts, or the merits of their works, which may, however, have been duly purchased and placed upon the shelves of the private, unread library, among the last new publications.

Some of the “big Lions,” we grieve to say it, petted or fretted, teased or pleased by public opinion, which is equally capricious in laudation or complete annihilation of character and intellectual merit, are tempted to cater to this false hero worship, or pamper this morbid appetite.

And thus has Fanny Fern, with some knowledge of the weaknesses of the world, endeavored to attract particular attention to her powers, and presuming upon the ground that the heavenly gift of genius should exempt her from the usual trials of humanity, to draw forth sympathy for her supposed private sufferings, abuses and injuries. But while striving to do this, she has succeeded rather in exposing to the world her peculiar bitterness of heart, together with a variety of other faults to which the pubic in general and her admirers in particular were completely blind before the appearance of “Ruth Hall.”

Oh, Fanny Fern, we grieve to learn that you possess so hard a heart, so malignant a spirit! We have gloried in your genius, and trusted in your wonderful powers to awaken the wayward, through your brief life sketches, to a sense of wrong-doing. We have honored what we were deceived into believing your delicate and discriminating sense of right and wrong, and although we have detected gall mingled with the rich sap of your beautiful “Leaves,” we have forgiven it, hoping that should there breathe a mortal possessed of the faults your sarcasm and satire so clearly and boldly arrayed, his eye might fall upon your graceful Leaves, his heart he touched with remorse, and with a tear of regret, and the burning blush of shame upon his cheek, he might resolve, with a repentant prayer upon his lips, to “go and sin no more.” Oh, Fanny Fern, you have perverted the good your covert hints of reform might have accomplished! The eyrie to which you once soared is deserted, for by the indulgence of a petty, vindictive spirit of revenge, you have fallen, never to rise again.

right it may be to employ genius and the rules of art in caricaturing the sins and follies of humanity in a general way; but what provocation can there be so great that it should induce a woman to exaggerate and lay bare to the public gaze the sins and follies of father, mother, brother or sister? If indeed it was the fate of Fanny Fern to belong to a family of monsters of cruelty and crime, was it not enough that her spirit, gentle as a dove’s, had conceived and sent forth to the guilty gaze of the sinner the touching story of the heart’s wrongs, so delicately unfolded in “The Widow’s Trials,” “The Wail of a Broken Heart,” “Summer Days,” or “The Young Wife’s Afflictions”? But must these sketches be copied almost literally into “Ruth Hall,” that the public shall know to whom they apply? If true, they must already have left their impressions where it was intended they should be felt.

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The wicked cause of little Daisy’s loss, for instance, could scarcely read the recital of that death-scene and parent’s agony, without a tear of repentance. The haggish, stony-hearted grandmother, who shook so roughly the innocent little Katy for stopping her ears that she might not listen to abuse heaped upon her angelic mother’s head, could not be expected to pass many peaceful days or nights after perusing the account of the childish misery and mother’s grief; and oh! could that vile man that feasted his friends upon the fat of the land, withstand that beseeching, imploring appeal of little Nettie’s, “Please, mother, can I have a little more supper?”

Sure it is, if before the publication of “Ruth Hall,” the public had suspected that Fanny Fern might be the victim of so many bitter heart-pangs, how much more would they have sympathized with her that she did not, in the Christian tenderness of her beautiful nature, directly draw down in public opprobrium upon those who are near and who should be dear to her! The family circle has always been considered as sacred—its sorrows and joys, its errors and sins. The child even who has wept in secret over the shortcomings of its members, has until now ever been found ready to shield the erring parent or brother from the censure and scorn of the world—ever ready to palliate and excuse the grossest faults. How could we regard it in any other light than melancholy and reprehensible, if one of the family band—and that one a daughter and sister—should draw the veil and disclose the secrets of the domestic circle—should hold each thoughtless act of a brother or hasty speech of a mother in a false light—should exaggerate them and lure the easily prejudiced on to crush forever all of truth and holiness that might remain to redeem the wrong? If a father’s sinful heart has not descended to the child, how could the undefiled nature of the latter brook to see his silver hairs going down to his grave in disgrace, pointed at with the finger of scorn and hatred? Such an act would be most unnatural, and a shocking evidence of a spirit not purified by suffering nor chastened by sorrow. And yet the hitherto much admired Fanny Fern, at the time when she would prove herself a bright example of Christian fortitude and patience, has violated the sanctity of the fireside and shown herself to be a lamentable example of malicious spite unprecedented in the literary annals of the world. The course of revengeful triumph which she has pursued, taints her name forever in the opinion of the noble-hearted women of our country. Is this example of hers worthy of a true mother? Can it be possible that one, who has taken upon herself the holy responsibility of rearing daughters to be brilliant ornaments of society and pure children of God, can thus influence their youthful minds by teachings of hatred and bitter revenge?

The course of Fanny Fern, even under the supposition that her lot may have been uncommonly and unnaturally hard, should be deprecated, and the corrupt principles of her example, even supposing her story to be true, should be denounced.

But what ought we to say—are there expressions severe enough to condemn her, should we find her book a tissue of slanderous fabrications? What are the inferences to be drawn from it? Its general

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aim seems to be the glorification of herself and the utter damnation of every one else connected with her either by the ties of kindred or the bond of acquaintanceship; and however much we may weep and smile by turns at the flashes of genius and play of wit and talent in the book, we cannot fail to note its inconsistencies, and tremble for the injurious effects of its circulation among the thoughtless and highly imaginative. Is it not barefaced effrontery in an authoress, to tell us, almost in so many words, that she is a saint immaculate, while at the same time he to whom she owed her being, every brother and sister, almost every acquaintance with whom she was at any time of her life brought into close contact, were destitute of all good? Whence, then, did she receive her remarkable traits of character? Can pure water spring from poisoned fountains? But nay, she goes further. As though this were not enough, she must assert that, while her husband was next to immaculate, his parents and friends, also, were equally bad with her own. Can it be that she is so foolish as to think for a moment that the public will believe this impossible condition of affairs—this wholesale iniquity everywhere except with herself, husband and children? We admit freely, that it is rarely that the utmost harmony exists in large families. Nor is it reasonable to consider the family of Fanny Fern as excepted from the general rule. But it is a little too much for us to be called upon to credit, that the father, the brother, and the acquaintances of such an earnest, high-minded, gentle beautiful creature as Ruth Hall is represented to be, ever turned a totally deaf ear to her necessities, or seized every opportunity they could, without a single motive, to insult and crush her. It is a libel upon the denizens of the Athens of America—that city where talent always finds hosts of liberal friends rushing to its side and proud to render assistance—it is a libel upon Boston to assert that a delicate woman, endowed with the loveliest traits of character and with very wonderful mental powers, was left in neglect and hunger. We do not believe in the desertion of friends without a cause.

But even in our limited experience, we have met individuals who are ever dissatisfied and jealous; who are unreasonable in their demands; who are willingly self-martyrs, and whose oblique and unfortunate and disagreeable disposition it is to consider themselves the best abused in the world. If the father (whose circumstances are none of the best) does the little that is in his power—if the brother, whose pecuniary circumstances are equally unfortunate, may seem to be unreasonably neglectful, does it comport with the character of a meek, pure, gentle, beautiful daughter and sister, such as Ruth Hall is described, to come out and most venomously hold her nearest up to the scorn of the world. Now which are we to consider as the true character—that described in the book, the pure and faultless—or that to be implied from the book, the bitter, the sarcastic, the vain, the self-flattering, the over sensitive and exacting, the spirit that will, for the gratification of gnawing revenge, tear aside the sacred veil of the family circle? We cannot but regard “Ruth Hall” as a fiction sprung from a malignant heart, and intended by its artful mixture of fact, of exaggeration and untruth, to convey an erroneous general

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impression concerning the faults and shortcomings of those who are near, and who, nothwithstanding all that may have really taken place, should be dear. And we cannot but consider the book as sufficient to condemn Fanny Fern forever in the opinion of every true mother, sister and daughter.

Had the authoress remained in the high position she had gained through her first productions by a true and noble use of her powers, we should gladly have joined in her exultation and honest pride, and with enthusiasm have cried, “Brava, brava, Fanny Fern!” for to few have honor and praise been so soon awarded. Few ladies can boast of receiving pecuniary remuneration for contributions to the press at the commencement of a literary career; and many a good writer has been grateful for a mere hearing, until reputation has been established. But now we turn from “Fern Leaves” with abhorrence. The spirit that conceived the fiction, “Ruth Hall,” has blasted them, and dry and perfumeless they remain forever.


Review. The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature 36 (November 1855): 1002.

The enterprising house of Mason Brothers, has lately issued a few works of fiction of unquestionably superior order: Ruth Hall, already famous for its literary ability and its pungent satire, is in some respects a remarkable work. It is very unequal—the first part greatly surpassing, in the animation and skill of its delineations, the narrative of events which composes the latter part. It displays consummate art in depicting characters—bringing out, with a few sharp strokes, lineaments that can never be forgotten, and imparting a life and individuality worthy of Dickens himself. With the moral influence or design of the work we have no disposition to meddle. On all accounts, it is inexcusable; but no obliquity of intention can blind the reader to the evidences of genius and extraordinary power which the work discloses. …


“Fanny Fern” (from Olive Branch, 17 November 1855; p. 2)

We received a marked copy of the N. Y. Evening Mirror, which contained an article, filling over six columns of that paper, lauding Fanny Fern to the skies. We cannot conceive why it was sent us, as the files of the Olive Branch last winter will show the opinions we hold in regard to that woman and her writings, and we have seen no occasion to change one word written at that time. We but express the prevailing opinion in New England, when we say that such trash as that contained in the Mirror article will not go down in this region. Fanny Fern has had her day, and now receives but little countenance among the high-minded and honorable in any community. We give below a few opinions of the press:—

Poor Business.—The New York Mirror contains a fulsome panegyric of Fanny Fern, occupying nearly seven columns of that paper. The writer compares her to Byron and thinks she is among prose writers, what he was among poets. Moreover, he considers Fanny a modern miracle, and the embodiment of all writers extant! Fanny Fern undoubtedly possesses considerable power as a writer, but the woman who is so utterly lost to delicacy and decency, as to slander her oldest and best friends who now sleep in their graves, and to hold up to scorn and ridicule her brother, who, no doubt, has great faults—and her father, whose hair is white with the frosts of age, and who, though he may be opinionated or even bigoted, has spent a long life in honorable labor, and has sacrificed ease to rear and educate a large family of children—the woman who could do this should not be very boisterous in her assumptions of injured innocence, or her petitions for the world’s sympathy.”—[Cincinnati Columbian.

Fanny Fern.—Somebody has taken the trouble to send us a marked copy of the New York Evening Mirror, containing a long article highly eulogistic of “Fanny Fern,” and her book “Ruth Hall,” which article we suppose to be paid for as an advertisement in the Mirror. We so far agree with the writer, in his estimate of the character both of the lady and her book, that we feel no desire to copy the puff. We do not admire the Fanny Fernism which has made a sensation in gossipping circles; we know enough of some of the people whom she has abused to induce us to distrust her portraits of all. We are not surprised at this attempt to keep up a fictitious valuation of herself and her writings; and we respectfully decline to aid us in bolstering up her reputation in order to prepare the way for any new book which she may be about to issue.”—Lynn (Mass.) News.

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