“Novels are such trash,” said the old lady as she put down three new books.
“Why then, Mis. Hall, did you this day buy those novels?” asked the doctor.
“Mr. Develin recommended these books to me as literature that I could compare to Ruth’s, not that I need to prove that her work is inferior.” The old lady continued, “He presented me with these books, all of them also written by ladies, not that I approve of any woman writing.”
“Mis. Hall, you’re not likely to find any worthwhile material. Have women any knowledge of work, or money?” The doctor added, “Women are all surface.”
“Land’s sake, Doctor!” returned Ruth’s mother-in-law. “I only want to show you Ruth’s faults in life when she is compared to the ladies in these works.”
“I don’t care a pin about that devilish woman, Mis. Hall. Nor do I care about by , or Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, and especially not Our Nig by Harriet Wilson.”
“You must care, Doctor, that some members of the congregation have accused us of mistreating Ruth and her brats,” returned the old lady. “So I will show that yellow-haired ungrateful frivolous… thing for what she really is, an abomination to the sex. Mr. Develin has already marked some parts of these books suited to my cause, likely since he feels the same way as we do about her.”
Try as you may, my dear madam, you will not prove that Ruth is anything but the ideal of 19th Century womanhood. She was a good wife to your Harry and a good mother to your grandchildren. She was forced by friends and family into a situation that allowed her few options. The heroines of your novels were also in need of friends, who you yourself could have been to poor Ruth. Those books, along with a bit of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, will show the importance of friendship and marriage to your daughter-in-law, and all women in a patriarchal society.
“Let’s see what has been marked in Hope Leslie,” decided old Mrs. Hall. “Ah, we go to the very beginning of the book. This man named Fletcher has been separated from the love of his life. ‘Fletcher obeyed the voice of Heaven… Our fathers neither had, nor expected, their reward on earth.’ (Sedgwick, p. 12) And what would Ruth say to that? She murdered my son, and then went on to become richer than her own father! And religion, pshaw! She never went to church, and I don’t doubt the church is secretly against her writings.”
“I shall read some more of this book, Doctor. Look here, a girl named Mag-a-wiskey has saved the life of the boy she loves, ‘I have bought his life with my own.’ (Sedgwick p. 93) That is the greatest sacrifice, but would Ruth make it? She went on to forget my dear Harry, writing articles and cavorting with newspaper editors. Not like this nice Indian girl, who it seems, never marries another. And look, this other girl, Miss Downing, never marries either. ‘Her hand was often and eagerly sought, but she never appears to have felt another engrossing attachment.’ (Sedgwick p.349) If only Harry had never married her…”
You seem satisfied that Ruth should have known the fate of your son, and that she should have avoided the marriage. Ruth brought nothing but happiness to Harry when he was alive, and she only honors his memory afterward by surviving with their two daughters. By trying to blame and defame the love of your son’s life, the two of you try to destroy his memory as well. Magawisca, Mr. Fletcher, and Esther would likely agree that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have lokved at all. Magawisca and Esther realize that they can be independent of men, while still fulfilling their duties in society.
“What does this book say, Mis. Hall?” asked the doctor. “I see that Mr. Develin has marked some of these pages for us as well.”
“He told me that Charlotte Temple is a story that teaches young girls how not to act, and the importance of good friends. I feel that I’ve always had the best of friends, and some might say my ability to pick them shows my character, though I would never be so bold as to say so myself.”
“This appears to be the story of a girl who has lost everythin
g– virtue, family, and friends. Her friend is blamed for getting her into some dreadful mess. This nasty Maidmoselly, ‘has stifled the sense of shame in her own bosom… and will spare no pains to bring down innocence and beauty to the shocking level with herself.’ (Rowson p. 32) O-o-oh d-e-a-r! This Charlotte, or better Harlot, has been brought down by another hussy. I don’t recall Ruth having such a friend, do you, Doctor?”
“Certainly not, Mis. Hall. And look here. ‘She has no redress, no friendly, soothing companion to pour into her wounded mind the balm of consolation, no benevolent hand to lead her back to the path of rectitude.’ (Rowson p. 67) I understand her parents were back in England, and she had but one traveling companion. But what of Ruth? A father of wealth, a rich dandy brother, and doubtless a friend or two. From whence did she seek aide, Mis. Hall? Me, a man of small income, and after killing my son! That tells the whole story.” The doctor had worked himself into a fit.
soul,” continued the old lady, “died penniless just as her father was coming to save her, though I don’t know if he should have come from England to help such a girl. I know some have criticized us, but her father was about, and she was not dying ! Besides, I offered to take her children, and you can be certain, Doctor, nobody else made such a caring offer to Ruth.”
Where were you, dear mother-in-law, when Ruth was suffering? Did not Ruth want for the two of you to be friends? Your book, Charlotte Temple, also describes the generosity of one Mrs. Beauchamp, who risks her own reputation to help a fallen virgin. You would have risked nothing in helping your own family. Ruth followed all the rules in getting married. Do you not remember telling Ruth, “you’re married; you haven’t any father… what does the Bible say? ‘Forsaking father and mother, cleave to your wife,’ (or husband, which amounts to the same thing, I take it.)” (Fern p20) She had no father before or after she was married, and her brother was useless. Her friends deserted her, just as Mademoiselle deserted Charlotte. Where were you?
“I’ll hear no more of these books!” exclaimed the doctor. “We do not need books to prove that Ruth was worthless. She made Harry spend all of his money on… well, too much I suppose; something or other, and more here and there. Not a penny to his name when she killed him! I didn’t teach him that!”
“Just one more novel, Doctor,” returned the old lady. “Mr. Develin says that this last one, Our Nig, should prove th
at Ruth exaggerates her hardships. The book is written by a slave-girl who is trying to make money to support her young child. How horrible! It seems she could not find work, and she was sickly. If only Ruth would read such a tale, she would not go on so. Ruth with her pale, golden hair and blue-gray eyes! She’s from a good family, or so folks believe.”
“Says here this Frado was left by her family in the care of some neighbors. I suppose they had the right to get some worth out of her, Mis. Hall”
“Of course,” replied the old lady. “We had every right to get some worth out of that child Ruth imposed upon us, too. I never whipped her til she bled like this poor Frado, and I let her go to school, and even play as long as she kept the Sabbath. See what t
his monster Mrs. Bellmont did to Frado? She ‘kicked her so forcibly as to throw her upon the floor. Before she could rise, another foiled the attempt, and then followed kick after kick in quick succession and power.’ (Wilson p. 44) I never even laid a hand on Ruth.
“Look-ee here, Mis. Hall,” proclaimed the doctor. “After Frado gets away from Bellmonster, she is ‘watched by kidnappers, maltreated by professed abolitionists, who didn’t want slaves at the South, nor niggers in their own houses, North. Faugh! to lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next to one; awful!’ (Wilson p. 129) Ruth, looking like anyone else, should have had no problems finding work or charity from friends.”
“Well, diamond cut diamond, she’ll never cross our threshold again,” said the old lady. “And good riddance all the same. She can expect no more charity from us.”
Your “charity” nearly cost Ruth her life, forcing her to work so hard in order to support herself. You never kicked Ruth when she was down, dear madam? She did not suffer Frado’s physical abuse, but Ruth knew what it felt like to be kicked. When you refused to help her, when you stole her child. All of Ruth’s acquaintances were forced to choose sides, and she was left alone. Just like Frado, Ruth was not allowed in her cousin’s house, and she could not travel to yours. She was not given a jobs by friends and family. Remember that her own brother would not hire her. She was held back by her position in society because nobody would claim her, including you.
“Who’s coming to the door, Doctor?” asked the old lady.
“It’s that no-good Mr. Dana,” returned the doctor in a low voice. “Good day, Mr. Dana! What news?”
“Of the War, you mean, Doctor?” asked Mr. Dana.
“Fudge! We have no sta
þke in the War, Mr. Dana. Have you any other news?” demanded the doctor. “Mis. Hall and I were just discussing Ruth, and how she really has not suffered as so many other women, and men, for that matter, but that’s neither here nor there.”
The old lady was obliged to continue, “We said that Ruth made our Harry so unhappy that he died, and he spent all of his money on her.”
Mr. Dana gave his account of Ruth’s life, which he knew the old couple wanted. “She is happily married, and still publishing books at her home in _____.”
“I suppose her new husband is as bewitched by her as our Harry was,” said the old lady.
“Actually,” returned Mr. Dana, “they have a very good relationship, just like she had with Harry, as I heard it, and from a reliable source at that. I’ve been reading books by other ladies, as I see you have, and I came across this Margaret Fuller book.”
“Well what has she to say, then, Mr. Dana?” asked the doctor.
“Fuller says that there are four kinds of marriage, and t
hat the kind you described is what Fuller calls “mutual idolatry,” and the two parties ‘lock the gate against all the glories of the universe.’ (Fuller p. 42) But those two, Harry and Ruth, they could still look around, or so I was told. They had, and Ruth now again has, the ‘highest grade of marriage union, the religious, which may be expressed as pilgrimage towards a common shrine.’ (Fuller p. 48)
“Pooh! pshaw! stuff!” interjected the old lady. “Ruth and Harry? I Think not, Mr. Dana. She was a girl who thought money came in showers, and she liked to gad in the street like some undisciplined child!”
“I’ll shake hands with you there, Mis. Hall,” added the doctor. “You are badly mistaken, Mr. Dana. Ruth drove Harry to death, not toward a common shrine. Look at Mis. Hall and myself, Mr. Dana, and tell me that we do not have such a high grade of marriage.”
“You both certainly do work toward a common end,” smirked Mr. Dana.
You are quite correct, Mr. Dana, in assessing that the old couple’s desires are common, or base. Neither of them want to see anyone else’s happiness, least not Ruth’s. What can you say, madam, to a daughter-in-law who has lived through your best attempt to destroy her? She was down because she was a woman in the 19th Century who had lost her husband and her friends. Anyone who would not actively come to her aide was actively kicking her. Yet she survived, dear madam, without your help. Ruth shows that one’s true family is not determined by blood ties, but by the willingness to assist that person in times of trouble. A woman in the 19th Century still needed the help of a man, but Ruth used her abilities to find those men. Ruth was independent, and her book, along with the others you have skimmed, showed many women how they could function within society and be independent at the same time, hopefully without the hardships. And that’s the whole story.
I have written a paper that explores the humor and style of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, while also exploring topics presented both in that book and in other works. The project should be read as a paper within a paper. I know that the format is a bit strange (and I probably should have discussed it in advance), but I really wanted to present the paper in this way.
The paper studies Fern’s use of voice and of narrator to create both humor and fluidity. I took particular interest in the old couple’s proficiency in contradicting themselves while talking. I wanted to create a fictional conversation that debated the usefulness of som
e of books that we have read this semester, while holding true to the style of Fern’s novel.
I feel that I should discuss the style just a bit. The old couple use specific words throughout the text that I have also used for them. Their favorite topic tends to be either money or putting Ruth down. They both tend to speak their minds without thinking, which results in certain contradictions. The narrator is the voice of reason, but also the voice of accusation, as seen in the text. The reader understands that it is not the voice of the Mis. Hall’s conscience, nor that of an independent narrator. This is, so it seems, the voice of the understandably cynical author, which is what I become in the next few pages….