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


Rebecca H. said...

I agree that the book has its flaws -- Ruth's actions do seem a little unconvincing at times and her success, once she begins writing, is awfully easy. But I enjoyed it anyway -- for me, there is a category of books that aren't masterpieces of form or writing but are interesting and fun because of the ideas they play around with or they energy they have. I think a lot of 18C and 19C novels fall into this category -- odd and strange but interesting.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting take. When I taught this novel in a sentimental lit course last year, it was by far the favorite novel. Students found its tone and appeal the most modern of the works we read. Strangely enough, Nathaniel Hawthorne liked the book and claimed that Fern was an exception to his "damned mob of scribbling women" comment. He said that she wrote as if she had the devil in her, which was, I guess, a sort of compliment.