THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, December 4, 1994 TAG: 9412050235 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J2 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BY LENORE HART LENGTH: Medium: 74 lines
SARAH ORNE JEWETT
Her World and Her Work
Addison-Wesley. 416 pp. $27.50.
Three years of high school English left me with the vague impression that the female contribution to the 19th-century canon consisted of Emily Dickinson's poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnets and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. My addiction to rooting in used bookstores gradually yielded the Bronte sisters, Christina Rosetti and Mary Shelley. College found Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf begrudgingly admitted to the syllabus, though my Chaucer professor made it clear what he thought of that. I took up creative writing and received from my instructor the highest compliment of the time: ``You write like a man.''
So many years to find the ``lost'' women writers of past centuries; I am still catching up. No wonder series like the Radcliffe Biographies seem long overdue. But better late than never.
The newest issue is Sarah Orne Jewett by Paula Blanchard. Jewett's best known for Country of the Pointed Firs, and her novels and stories have recently been reissued in the Library of America Series to critical acclaim. For her time, Jewett wrote with an unusually strong female voice of New England town and country life.
A contemporary and friend of Henry James, John Greenleaf Whittier, Julia Ward Howe and Willa Cather (to name a few), she decided early against marriage, devoting her life instead to writing and her friends. She focused tightly on everyday reality: nature, religion, the importance of friendship and community. Some of her female protagonists ended their story in the approved fashion, by marrying (Victorian critics liked these best). But others had the temerity to stake out a single, independent life.
Unlike the average Victorian female character, Jewett's women are widows and spinsters who support themselves, while still nurturing children and perpetuating the community network around them.
Jewett had a lifelong friendship with Annie Fields, wife of Atlantic Monthly founder James T. Fields. Sarah began traveling with Annie when she was grief-stricken; they also entertained other writers, painters and sculptors. Members of Nathaniel Hawthorne's family frequently visited.
Material from the women's journals and other sources bring to vivid life that era's close community of New England artists. Afflicted with a debilitating illness, Jewett was a devotee of homeopathic cures, and often diagnosed and treated others - not always with the best results, as when she prescribed brandied cough medicine for the teetotaling Whittier.
The author portrays Jewett's disciplined life soberly - there's little in the way of scandal or excess here to titillate the celebrity bio hound. It's a critical analysis chock-full of illuminating details about the writer and her times. I've long welcomed such even-handed scrutiny of women's literary heritage, ever since I read John Crowe Ransome's essay cataloging Emily Dickinson as ``a little home-keeping person'' whose life ``was a humdrum affair of little distinction.'' Ransome failed to note that life is the sum of such ``humdrum'' affairs wedged between birth and death; that drama is also made by ``nobodies'' like Dickinson.
An often-borrowed verse from Ecclesiasticus adjures: ``Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.'' Ditto for famous women, and for our mothers, likewise. MEMO: Lenore Hart, author of the novel ``Black River,'' lives on the Eastern
Shore. ILLUSTRATION: Photo
Sarah Orne Jewett