Title: Ruth Hall
Author: Fanny Fern
Publisher: Penguin Classics
All the world knew it was quite unnecessary for a pretty woman to be smart
Fanny Fern (1811-1872 ) was one of the most well-known women writers in America. As a journalist she had the distinction of being the first woman to write a signed weekly column at a major publication and one of the most highly paid writers, male or female, in America. Although her family was literary and well-to-do her success came in spite of them.
Ruth Hall is a loosely based autobiographical account of Fern’s struggles as a widow and single woman with children trying to find her way in a society that has no place for women on their own. Though she remarried, her husband was violent and she left him, scandalizing her family. Through the trials and hardships of Ruth, who is similarly widowed with two children and left helpless by in-laws and family alike we understand the helplessness of women who have no male relatives for protection, financial help and shelter.
Ruth’s husband Harry adored her and their marriage was happy, except for the dislike his parents had toward her. Strict and stern in their religious beliefs, they lived their lives by denying themselves any pleasure. To them Ruth was blasphemous in her openly loving behavior toward her husband and daughter. She was full of flights of fancy and far too emotional and definitely not good enough for their son, which they had no trouble saying to her face, to Harry and to any friend or neighbor. Even Ruth’s grief at the deaths of her daughter and Harry was disregarded as an exaggerated display in order to elicit sympathy.
What characterizes this novel is the unbelievable behavior of Ruth’s in-laws, her father and Hyacinth, her brother toward her situation as a widow. Though they are all able to help financially, they refuse. By the time Harry dies they have had two more children leaving Ruth with three options: remarry, give up her children or go away. Even her brother rebuffs financial help in her name when a friend of Harry’s approaches him at the funeral with a financial offer for Ruth put together by Harry’s friends. Knowing the code of ethics puts the responsibility for Ruth on him and his father he refuses; not because they are going to help her, but to preserve the family’s reputation.
Harry’s parents do not believe Ruth can care for the girls and are anxious to get their hands on them. Ruth lives in squalor in an attic room where there is not enough food for the three of them. As heartbreaking as it is she relents and allows Katy, the oldest, to stay with her grandparents until she can find the money to get her back. Poor Katy suffers abuse and continual denigrating of her mother.
An attempt to teach is a failure. The last option is writing, which Ruth had some success at as a school girl. She sends a few samples to Hyacinth, who has become an editor at a magazine, certain he will help her. After all she is not asking for money, but to work. His reaction is to once again stand in her way with a response that will haunt him later: “I have looked over the pieces you sent me, Ruth. It is very evident that writing never can be your forte; you have no talent that way…I would advise you to seek some unobtrusive employment.” Like so many with a dream that is demeaned and thwarted, the response emboldens her and sets her on fire!
If this sounds like a melodrama, it is. From one small magazine to another she goes with her youngest daughter in tow, only to be rejected again and again until finally she finds two editors who will pay paltry sums for 8 articles a week between them. Mind-numbing and backbreaking work yet this is for experience, because the amount is too small to get Katy back. She keeps writing; sometimes because there is no money for a candle, she writes by the light of the moon.
But finally, the public begins to recognize the words of “Floy,” her pseudonym and her reputation soars. She takes all of the articles she wrote for the two magazines and publishes them in book form to enormous success. She is noticed by the publisher of one of the most popular magazines in the country and offered an exclusive deal. This publisher, Mr. Walter, comes to the rescue like an angel at a train wreck who miraculously saves passengers from certain death, but in this case he is an angel with a contract to write not 8 articles a week, but only one, with a payment so large she can quit the other magazines, get back her daughter and move into the home of her dreams.
While it is easy to see this novel as overly exaggerated and melodramatic it does underscore the vulnerable position women, who through no fault of their own, are alone. Even women with means, like Ruth, have no guarantee they will be cared for/can care for themselves. Throughout the book her family is unfeeling to her pain and dire straits as if she is at fault her for her situation. Her in-laws, her father and her brother all want to protect their assets, instead of helping her. They expect, with complete lack of emotion, that she should give her children away, that it would be better for them and easier for her to find her way.
That she defied tradition and convention and made a success of herself without their help comes back to humiliate them. At the very end of the story Fern writes scathing scenes of confrontations they each have from friends and business acquaintances calling them out over turning their back on their daughter, their sister, their daughter-in-law. I only wish Ruth could have known this!
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