Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ruth Hall, Hero?

Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton) was originally published in 1855. It is the story of Ruth Ellet, a smart, pretty girl who lives in a stingy family. Ruth marries Harry Hall and the couple couldn't be happier except for the presence of Harry's parents.

Mrs. Hall never has a kind word to say and Dr. Hall, retired, is nothing but a curmudgeonly old man who wouldn't sacrifice a penny if it meant saving a child from starving. How they produced a kind, easy-going son like Harry I can't quite figure it out. When Ruth and Harry marry they live for a time with Mrs and Dr Hall until Harry's business gets off the ground. What a relief when Ruth and Harry finally buy a home of their own in the country!

Ruth and Harry have a child and everything seems so idyllic in spite of Harry's parents moving to a house just over the hill. Then tragedy strikes. Daisy gets what seems to be a cold. Dr. Hall tells Ruth that she worries too much, it is nothing. It turns out to be the croup and even as Daisy is on her deathbed Dr. Hall grumbles about being called out of his house so late at night. And when Daisy dies, of course it is all Ruth's fault.

Ruth and Harry sell their home and move back to town with the in-laws, like a bad penny, following behind. Time goes by and Ruth has two more children, Nettie and Katy. Then Harry dies! Ruth is devastated. Because of some business issues, Ruth is left without any money. None of the family--either the Halls or the Ellets--want to spend a dime helping Ruth and her children. Ruth sinks quickly into poverty and the heartless families blame her for it. Ruth has to allow Katy to be taken away by the Halls who treat the girl very badly. Ruth and Nettie are reduced to a bread and milk diet.

This section of the book went on and on until I thought I couldn't bear it anymore. And then, finally, Ruth decides she is going to earn a living writing. I was not convinced by the sudden change. Ruth, who had been almost constantly weeping and not entirely well, suddenly finds a backbone and the strength and energy not only to write but then to take her work around and suffer rejection after rejection before someone agrees to hire her for a paltry sum. Her articles become a great success. When she asks her employer for a small raise his response is, "just like a woman [...] give them the least foot-hold, and they will want the whole territory." And Ruth doesn't make a fuss.

She is working hard, writing for two newspapers, when in sweeps a knight in shining armor to rescue her. Mr. Walter pays Ruth enough money for her to live on, and becomes friend and financial advisor for the profits Ruth makes from a book of her articles. Their relationship is described as brother/sister, but I found it uncomfortably odd. Mr. Walter is not married and he takes the utmost interest in Ruth and the well being of her children. At times he treats Ruth rather like a child.

Ruth is supposed to be a heroic character. The book is based on Fanny Fern's own life and was rather a sensation when it came out. But I didn't find Ruth convincing. While she did find a way to earn a living she was only assertive when it cam to finding a job in the first place. After that, she pretty much accepted her situation until Mr. Walter came along and helped her out. The introduction to my edition asserts the book a classic but I have to disagree. It certainly has historical interest but beyond that I cannot say it has much to offer. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the book but I can't say that I loved it either. It falls into the so-so category for me.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Ruth Hall

Fanny Fern's 1855 novel Ruth Hall surprised me a little bit, partly in terms of its plot, but even more so in terms of how it is written. The plot has a fairly traditional structure to it -- a heroine happy but precarious, a heroine in trouble, a heroine in more trouble, a heroine in new kinds of trouble, a heroine saved -- although within the traditional structure are some innovations. The novel begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, which is a twist on the coming-of-age novel so popular at the time. Fanny Fern actively resists ending the novel with a marriage, in fact, as she could easily have had Ruth accept Mr. Walter's hand, but instead Ruth insists on staying single and supporting herself. Also innovative, of course, is the way that Ruth engineers her own salvation, instead of relying on a suitor or a family member to save her. The very point of the novel is her claim of independence and the success she has at insisting on it.

To me, the novel's style is most striking, though, particularly the short chapters and the juxtapositions of varied scenes and character sketches. The style is disjointed, with abrupt transitions from one character to another. Fern's newspaper writing must have influenced the development of this style, as the chapters are similar in length to the essays Fern published (my book has a sampling of these essays, although I haven't yet read them), the type of essay her character Ruth Hall became famous for.

This disjointedness works for me because of the way it offers a kaleidoscope view of the story, all the little pieces fitting together to create a sense of the society Ruth moved in. The style also fits with Fern's relative lack of interest in extensive detail or psychological depths; instead of long sections of text that delve into the details of a scene or the depths of a character's mind, we get a quick sketch of a conversation or a dramatic moment, and then we are on to the next one. Fern is very good with the telling detail and the revealing conversation that informs you of everything you need to know without belaboring the point. This is not to say that the characters have no depth or that the narrative isn't fleshed out, but what depth and complexity there is (and really Ruth is the only character that is coming to mind right now that has some psychological substance to her -- or am I missing something?) is created through quick flashes of insight.

The book has some odd moments. I couldn't quite figure out the point of the phrenology chapter, one of the longest chapters, in fact, except that Fern wanted to make a joke about phrenology, which seems like an odd thing to in the middle of a novel. And I didn't understand the characters' obsession with puns either. The fact that Hall's daughter Nettie likes puns makes sense, since this is possibly a way of indicating that she has inherited her mother's facility with language, but Mrs. Skiddy likes puns as well, and she's not exactly one of the sympathetic characters.

But I like the book's oddness; it seems to fit with its comic tone, and it does have some wonderful comic scenes, especially those describing just how horrid Ruth's family and her in-laws are. You could not possibly have a worse extended family than Ruth has -- they are people you can rely on to behave in as selfish and mercenary a manner possible. Even though these people cause much of Ruth's suffering, their ridiculousness is so unbelievable that they provide a kind of comic relief to all the gloom of Ruth's life.

In a way, Ruth's story is at odds with the rest of the book -- her story is about suffering, hard work, sacrifice, and triumph; it's very serious and sentimental stuff. The rest of the book, though, is about the humor and the folly of humanity, with Hyacinth and his narcissistic preening, Mr. and Mrs. Skiddy and their marital battles, and those letter writers who foolishly hope Ruth will write their school compositions for them. For me, all these disparate parts work together to create a lot of energy; in formal terms, the book is a bit of a mess, I suppose, but it's a fun mess.

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