Kirk's Reviews > Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time

Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern
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Mar 22, 09

bookshelves: currently-teaching
Read in March, 2009

A roman a clef by the nineteenth-century Erma Bombeck. "Fanny Fern" aka Sara Willis Parton (no relation to Dolly) was an acerbic columnist from 1851-1872 and at one point America's highest paid newspaper contributor. In retrospect, it's easy to see why her writing would prove popular: she is one of the few nineteenth-cen women whose style tended more toward the sarcastic than the pious, and she was all about calling dudes in cravats out on their hypocrises---especially her brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis, who if he'd been born 150 years later would've been Simon on The Real Housewives of New York. Ruth Hall is FF's barely fictionalized account of her rise to fame. It was controversial in its time because it was seen as ungracious for a lady to take revenge in print on the family that had shanked her and her kids after the death of her first husband. If you're reading formalistically, you're likely to be disappointed: for all the addy-tude, the chapters are short and often fringed in sentimental apostrophes and exclamation points. It is notable for being one of the few novels of the day not to submit to the marriage plot---something even Alcott in Little Womenz couldn't avoid. Yet the real interest here is the biographical background. Even in its day the book was a bestsmeller because folks were curious about who FF really was---and some schmuck she barbeques in the book outed her shortly after its publication, promptly doubling sales. Perhaps what's really interesting is the background FF leave out: her disastrous second marriage---forced on her by her family---is not part of Ruth's journey (although it is fictionalized in Fanny Ford, FF's second novel). FF left the louche and toiled into semi-poverty until she found her metier. The rest is history, and this book, for all its historical importance, sometimes errs on the side of bragging about it too much. There are interpolated fan letters that get mocked (a proto-Casey Kasem request that FF dedicate a column to a reader's dead dog Fido) and some protests-too-much blather about FF not pretending to be literature. So it's a mixed bag. Many in the class loved it ... way better than Moibus Dickus. But that's okay. It ain't like Melville needs us.
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