Sunday, September 26, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'Ruth Hall'
I just finished this book ten or so minutes ago, and it's required reading for my 19th Century American Women Writers course. Normally, I don't review required reading, since my opinion of it might be unfairly colored, but I really enjoyed this one and was inspired by a list of Required Reading That Doesn't Suck to write about my own positive experience with this book.
The Book: Ruth Hall
The Author: Fanny Fern (aka Sara Payson Willis Parton)
How I Found It: As I said before, it's assigned reading for a course.
The Review: Ruth Hall is an autobiography disguised as fiction; the story was based on Fanny Fern's own experiences, and many of the people in her life who treated her unfairly--particularly her own brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis, a newspaper magnate, are painted in quite an unflattering light in this book. I know only the parts of Fern's life that my professor has told my class, but she seems like a fascinating woman and this book really made me wish that more of her novels and articles were in print today.
The novel starts where most books of the time would end--we meet Ruth the night before her wedding. We learn in a few paragraphs about her unhappy childhood with a domineering father and a vain, unkind older brother. Ruth is married, and though her husband is an exceedingly kind and loving man, her in-laws are controlling and criticizing of Ruth's unusual way of doing things and her and Harry's equal marriage. A classmate compared the elder Mrs. Hall to Marie in Everybody Loves Raymond; to me, she struck me the same way Mrs. Norris did in Austen's Mansfield Park. The Halls turn out to be despicably evil and rather over-the-top, but you can't deny that they're fun to read about.
As idyllic as Ruth's married life is, it is quickly overcome by tragedy. Ruth and Harry's first child dies of croup, and Harry dies a few years later, leaving Ruth penniless, with two children to support. Both families refuse to provide for Ruth, who must seek some kind of gainful employment in order to provide for herself and her children. It is Ruth's quest for financial independence that drives the rest of the novel, and presents Fern's vision that women must be financially independent above all things.
I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. I trust my professor's judgment, but we had just come off of a very slow, very theological novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and though I knew Fanny Fern was progressive, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. From the opening scene, I predicted a tale of woe and despair, similar to Jane Eyre. So I was pretty surprised when Ruth turned out to have a pretty happy life at first, and that I really liked Fern's writing style. The story itself eventually did live up in some ways to my Jane Eyre predictions, and had a few echoes of Mansfield Park, but I really liked the way it was told and the ultimate message of the work.
One of the reasons I liked the book so much is that Fern's talents as a newspaper columnist are very evident in the way the book is structured. Each chapter averages only two to three pages in length; they are short, snappy, and on occasion sarcastic. Fern does not take up much time with exposition or introductions; we breeze through periods of time with barely any mentions of how that time was passed. We are simply taken into scenes and taken out again. Sometimes it was disorienting, since one is never sure of how much time passes, but it was a different way of doing things, and I actually came to like it. The book read very quickly for this reason; it was far more accessible than other works I've read from the time period.
Ruth herself was an engaging and resourceful heroine. The reader knows from the beginning that Ruth's quest to find employment will be successful, since it was for Fanny Fern, but she has to go through so many setbacks to get there that the reader is spurred on, waiting to see how the resolution will be reached. Ruth's family, the Ellets, are too cheap to support her; the Halls just refuse to out of spite. There are some truly evil characters in this book--to the point of being cartoonish, as I said before, but they did feel like genuine threats, and they were more realistic characters than I've seen in other novels of the time period. I really liked that Fanny Fern wrote from a very feminist perspective, but it never felt, to me, like the message of financial independence was being shoved down my throat. It just seemed like a realistic thing for her to desire, given her circumstances.
So the novel was quick to read, entertaining, and informative, and I really found myself enjoying it. Was it self-serving? Somewhat, yes. Fern made sure everyone who wronged her was portrayed in a negative light, and there is a chapter where Ruth visits a phrenologist and all her various virtues of character are extolled to the reader. Things are definitely over the top at times, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of feminist literature, or to those looking for a story similar to the aforementioned Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park, as well as the works of Charles Dickens.