Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern

Date of Publication: 1855

Number of Pages: 272

Synopsis: “In 1852, Fanny Fern became the first woman regular newspaper columnist in the United States; by 1855 she was the most highly paid newspaper writer in the country, male or female. While she was capable of producing the tear-jerking prose popular in her time, she was most famous for her biting, satirical commentary on everything from the weather to marriage to a woman’s right to her own children. Ruth Hall, her first novel, is largely autobiographical and contains scathing portraits of her father, in-laws, and brother (the poet Nathaniel P. Willis) which earned her much criticism for her “unfeminine” attitude. The book concerns a young, happily married woman whose husband dies suddenly, leaving her with two children and no money. Neither set of parents is forthcoming with financial assistance and Ruth is left to fend for herself, which, after much trial, she does admirably, eventually establishing a name for herself as a writer. Hers is a female version of the American Dream, and Fanny Fern is careful to note exactly why that dream is more difficult for women to attain. She is just as careful not to let her heroine’s success and security lie in marriage – Ruth succeeds on her own, with her children, usually without the help of men. She is a wonderful character, and Fanny Fern’s prose sparkles with a delightful viciousness. Revenge can be sweet, and for Fanny Fern it was highly profitable as well: in its first few years Ruth Hall sold more than 70,000 copies.” ~From Amazon.com

Review: I was pleasantly surprised while reading this book. It’s of course sad that women still face many of the struggles depicted in this book, which was written 150 years ago. But the heroine, Ruth, faces her obstacles head-on admirably, and without complaint. Ruth is strong, courageous, and intelligent, much more so than her ill-fated husband, Harry. I’ve read many books from the nineteenth century in which the female heroines are portrayed as meek and inconsequential, never raising their voices against their injustices. Ruth does fit this picture when she’s married, never complaining about the abuses she suffers at the hands of her parents-in-law, not even after her father-in-law, a doctor, refuses to treat her daughter as she lay dying. But once Ruth is a poor widow, forced to provide for her two remaining daughters after her family refuses for help her, she fights against a society that is prejudiced against any woman trying to earn a living. She makes her voice heard, and eventually finds overwhelming success.

The story is made up of ninety short chapters. The chapters are sometimes less than a page long, being for the most part snatches of conversation that perfectly capture a year in a few sentences. There are characters who are introduced, who discuss the heroine or her many adversaries, and are never heard or seen again, having already served their purposes. Some may find this format choppy or confusing, but I felt that it fit the story very well. We are often seen through the eyes and conversations of others, so the author uses a technique that is very true to life.

Ruth reminded me often of Jane Eyre or Fanny Price. She is deeply religious, and God and prayer are a constant source of comfort and strength. This was perhaps my only complaint about the book. Many of the chapters ended with prayers and morals, and as a non-religious person, I found this tiring. Here is an example:

“The arrow shot at a venture may to thine eye fall aimless; but in the Book of Life shalt thou road many an answer to the wrestling prayer, heard in thy closet by God alone.” ~pg. 157

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of nineteenth century literature, especially Charlotte and Anne Bronte, and also to people interested in feminist literature. Although this book does not feature any liberated women by our modern standards, Ruth still stands as a wonderful example of a woman fighting for respect in a man’s world, something that all modern women can identify with.

Rating: 8/10 stars

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