Sarah Orne Jewett chronicled women's lives in a more placid time

November 13, 1994|By Laurie Kaplan

In "Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work," the latest volume in the Radcliffe Biography Series, Paula Blanchard explores the rich life and times of one of America's distinctive female writers.

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) lived the stereotypical upper-middle-class 19th-century spinster's life: fulfilling a daughter's duties to her parents, visiting family and friends in the United States and Europe, nursing relatives back to health, exchanging flower cuttings with neighbors. Between excursions and traveling adventures, however, Jewett managed to shut herself away in a room of her own to write, to work productively while conforming to the standards set by society for the behavior women.

Although writers such as Henry James, William Dean Howells and Willa Cather deeply admired Jewett's work, during her lifetime the writer was both criticized and acclaimed for her "feminine art." Incredibly prolific -- between the years 1883 and 1890 she published at least 60 sketches or articles as well as nine books -- Jewett repeatedly distilled some of her most deeply felt themes: the transcendental connectedness of all things, the spiritual resonance of Nature, the regenerative power of the land. Immorality, squalor and absolute evil are missing from her view of a rather friendly universe; the villains of her works tend to be selfish collectors and interloping hunters.

Fifty years ago, Van Wyck Brooks concluded that Jewett's "vision was certainly limited. It scarcely embraced the world of men. . . . " But Sarah Orne Jewett understood well her own artistic strengths, and delineating "masculine life" was not, for her, the be-all and end-all of fiction. "I am certain I could not write one of the usual magazine stories," she wrote. "If the editors will take the sketchy kind and people like to read them, is not it as well to do that and do it successfully as to make hopeless efforts to achieve something in another line . . . ?"

For a quarter-century after her death, Jewett's work was not widely read. In the past few years, however, as critics re-evaluated literature by and about women, Jewett has been acclaimed as "an unsurpassed chronicler and interpreter of women's lives." Vigorous countrywomen and farmers, independent widows and spinsters, and upper-middle-class young women linked together by friendship -- generations of strong and independent leaders and matriarchs populate her works.

Jewett's essentially minimalist vision is deep rather than extensive. Looking inward, concerned about spiritual alienation and community fragmentation, Jewett's fiction focuses on the moral dilemmas of people who seem to live the most "ordinary" lives.

Ms. Blanchard early on tackles the question of Jewett's position in society and, consequently, her sexuality. She emphasizes Jewett's "choice" not to marry, her "conscious androgyny," and the nonsexual/semi-sexual partnership she shared with a number of women, and with Annie Fields, widow of the influential publisher James T. Fields, in particular. Their "Boston marriage," which was accepted as a normal emotional expression of female bonding in the 19th century, provided each woman with freedom as well as security. As "equal comrades and colleagues," the women could work -- write, fulfill their ambitions, travel, visit -- all the while "drawing support and comfort from loving relationships in which neither partner competed with the other, begrudged her success, or assumed a dominant role."

Jewett wrote about things -- and people -- "just as they are," as she put it, and her observant eye perceived a knowable, orderly world that was vanishing even as she watched. America was on the move. Jewett's quasi-mythical vision of eastern Maine as the country of the pointed firs was threatened by commercial development.

Even as the landscape changed, Jewett probed the constancy of the hearts of human beings. Learning "to have sympathy and patience and enthusiasm for those we live with" could keep the suspicious and fault-finding barbarians at the gate. Compassion, connection and friendship, for Jewett, were the only defenses "against the darker forces outside the village bounds," Ms. Blanchard writes.

"Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work" is a biography of interest to Jewett scholars as well as to readers interested in the changing status and role of women in America in the second half of the 19th century. Like Jewett's own sketches, this biography strikes an elegiac tone: reading about the author's life makes us long for the last golden quarter of the 19th century, when peace, like sunset, settled over such imaginary places as Dunnet and Green Island.

Dr. Kaplan is associate professor of English and associate academic dean at Goucher College.

Title: "Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work"

Author: Paula Blanchard

Publisher: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Length, price: 397 pages, $27.50

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