Somewhere, I read that Willa Cather had claimed that Sarah Orne Jewett had been influential in her own development as a writer. Given that old Willa had developed rather nicely—I've read ten Cather books now, and there's not a pig in the bunch—I considered taking a flier on Sarah. Then, I vaguely remembered her name from 11th grade English, and given that Miss Garner, my 11th-grade English teacher, was the first great love of my life, the decision to read Jewett became pretty much a no-brainer. If it's good enough for Cather and Miss Garner, it ought to be more than good enough for the likes of me. And, indeed, it was that. I found this to be a really engaging book.
A young woman shows up on her mother's doorstep, after having been absent for some years, carrying a young child. The young woman expires, but not before requesting the local doctor, Dr. Leslie, become the official guardian of her daughter, Anna Prince. The grandmother brings the girl up for the first few years of her life, with regular check-ins by Dr. Leslie. Anna grows up fairly wild and undisciplined for a few years on her grandmother's farm, developing, thereby, a deep love for the wilds of Maine. After her grandmother dies, she goes to live with Dr. Leslie and takes interest in his work. Eventually she accompanies him on some of his visits, shows interest in and aptitude for doctoring, and determines that she would like to become a country physician herself.
So she studies to be a physician and so forth. And naturally, given that this was published in 1884, most people disapprove. Woman, after all, were created by God to be home makers and to please
their husbands. Period. It says so in the Bible
. Double Period! (Damn! How come no one told my spouse she had been ordained by God to please
me? Ah, the difference a century makes.) So we have this conflict, and wonder how it might resolve. Well, we don't wonder if we've read the book. But, I'm not going to tell you about all the difficulties and self doubts and resolutions and re-resolutions, along with all the trips around the luminous country and visits to simple country folk and meeting a rich, lost aunt after a couple of decades of speculation about her and temptations to embrace old-fashioned "domestic felicity", and so forth. It's worth reading to find out.
This book carries lots of interesting descriptions of the people of Maine at the time and their diversions and interests. A lot of that, of course, involves snooping on the neighbors and engaging in idle gossip. But it is portrayed very realistically and sympathetically by Jewett (I hear echoes of some of my more elderly New Hampshire in-laws and also my Kansas kin). She also takes time to describe the settings of her scenes, the flowers, trees, birds and so forth. Sometimes, excessive descriptive passages can get tedious and boring, such as, for example in Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho
(this, based on my recollection from when I read it on the London Underground back in the dark ages). I didn't find the description of settings and people to be tedious in the least in this book. I'm guessing that means that Sarah Orne Jewett was a much better writer than Mrs. Radcliffe, despite the latter's having influenced the incomparable Jane Austen.
There's also lots of interesting philosophical discussion about the human condition and the place of women in the world and so forth. As I read this book, I realized that it should be popular with feminists (well everyone, it's a good book, and besides, we should all be feminists by now), and wondered how in the hell feminist studies could skip this book (or Anne Brontë's works—much more feminist than her more famous sisters) and instead include Kate Chopin's piece of dreck, The Awakening
. Or maybe they don't anymore; but the point remains, Chopin's book is crap and should long ago have been tossed into the dust bin. It should make proper feminists cringe. This book, not at all.