Tom Jenson's Reviews > Tell It All a Woman's Life in Polygamy

Tell It All a Woman's Life in Polygamy by Fanny Stenhouse
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Aug 12, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: lds-all, biographies, favorites, lds-biographies, lds-experiencial, lds-polygamy

"Tell It All" is the heartbreaking autobiography of Fanny Stenhouse. Her story begins with her as a young woman returning home to England, after spending some time in France, to discover that her family had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While investigating her family’s new-found faith, she became the object of one of the Elders’ affections. They were soon married and subsequently ‘counseled’ to serve a mission for the Church while in impoverished conditions. It was only after years of whispered rumours (and public denials by apostles) of polygamy being practiced among their American counterparts, that Joseph Smith’s polygamic ‘revelation’ was finally disclosed in England. Her adventures only truly began when she and her husband were later ‘counseled’ to emigrate to the 'promised land' of Utah, where she learned, first-hand, the detrimental effects of Brigham Young's institutionalized polygamy.

This autobiography is extremely well-written and thoughtfully edited. Stenhouse is able to describe her own experiences with such detail that you can't help but feel empathy for the atrocities that plagued her life. Throughout the book, she supplements her story by inserting letters written to her by her closest friend who goes through similar trials, though at different times. This second point of view allows the reader to have a richer understanding of the events and trials of early Mormon women in Utah, and helps illustrate that these experiences are not limited to the author, but are common in that time.

Fanny comes across as a critically-minded feminist woman (to use a modern description), and clearly expresses how even a strong woman can find herself rendered powerless against the male priesthood and her own cognitive dissidence toward Mormonism. She even describes the Rocky Mountains around the Salt Lake valley as being her prison walls, knowing full well that any attempt to leave the Mormon settlement would be utterly useless for a woman in her position. She includes descriptions of many early church events and rituals, including The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Hand Cart companies, temple sealing, and endowment ceremonies. Woven into her story are incredibly detailed character sketches of prominent church figures with whom she had dealings, including a scathing description of Brigham Young. She concludes the book by summarizing the various legal changes that had taken place in Utah between the time she left and the time of the book’s publication, as well as statistical information she had since researched.

There is no better way to understand what it was like to be a woman in the heart of polygamist Utah under the tyranny of Brigham Young, than to hear Fanny Stenhouse Tell It All.

Below are a few passages that I found to be representative of the writing, tone, and content of the book:

“Of one thing I am certain I was then indeed a miserable slave, with no one to stretch forth a kindly hand and strike away the fetters of my mental degradation and lead me forth into light and liberty.” [p.369]

"It is a cruel thing for a woman anywhere to know that her husband's affections are divided, that she is not his only love, and that his heart is no longer all her. But far worse is the lot of the wife in Utah. She has to see and be present when the love-making is going on, when her husband is flirting and saying soft nonsense, or looking unutterable things at silly girls who are young enough to be her daughters ; —nay, her own daughters and her husband's may actually be older than the damsel he is courting for his second wife ! Such an outrage upon the holiest feelings of womanhood would not for a moment be tolerated in any civilised community ; but among the Saints women are taught that this is but one part of that cross which we all have got to bear. … How sweetly did the men preach patience and submission to the will of Heaven. I wonder where their own patience and submission would have been had matters been reversed and their wives had been taught that it was their privilege and a religious duty to court, and flirt with and marry men younger and handsomer than their husbands.” [p.382-3]

“The husband is the lord and master, and a woman's wishes count for nought.” [p.383]

“... yet the poor deluded women persuade themselves that this system is right and in accordance with the revealed will of God; and they think that the evil—poor creatures!—is in their own hearts and that they deserve to suffer.” [p.384]

“It may appear strange that such absurdities should ever seriously have found a place in my mind ; but when one at starting accepts a system as true—however absurd that system may be—and learns to regard all that is connected with it as beyond the shadow of a doubt — after years of discipline, the mind is ready to receive almost anything that may be offered to it from the same source. In my own case, I was so convinced that, however reason might object, all that we were taught was true, that I was utterly without hope, and would have felt happy could I have believed that death was annihilation. Of earthly happiness I had given up all expectation.” [p.423]

“Surrounded by my children, living under the same roof with my husband, my heart was, nevertheless, filled with a sense of utter loneliness and desolation. There was no one in whom I could confide, to whom I might tell my sorrows, and from whose counsel or strength I might derive comfort I dared not even go and lay my griefs before God, for I had been led to believe that all my suffering was caused by an arbitrary decree which He willed to be enforced. How false a notion of that loving heavenly Father whose tender care is so manifestly shown in his gentle dealings with the weakest of His creatures !” [p.424]

“Why, I was compelled to drain the cup of degradation to its very dregs—the sanctity
 of my home itself was invaded, and I felt ashamed to think that I—wife and mother as I was—was entertaining my husband’s affianced “wife” (!)—a child no older than my own eldest girl ; and before long she would be brought home in my presence and among my children! Oh, detestable and unnatural desecration of the sanctity of home! Oh brutalising and immoral burlesque upon religious faith! How could I ever have deluded myself into the idea that such a profanation of all that is good could by any possibility be right, that such an outrage upon decency and propriety, such a violation of the laws of reason and religion could be pleasing in the sight of an all-pure God ?” [p.440]

“Whether Brigham was the deceiver or the deceived, I do not wish to say. Men who consider themselves inspired, and go on day by day uttering all sorts of nonsense and blasphemy, and giving impertinent and mischievous advice in the "name of the Lord," at last become thoroughly impervious to reason, and daily and hourly deceive themselves. I hope, for his own sake, it was so with Brigham, for I would rather believe him a self-made fool than a downright knave ; and in many of his transactions—perhaps I ought almost to say all—it is clear to every one that he is either one or the other.” [p.560]

“Those who have never been enslaved by a superstitious faith which mentally and bodily enthrals [sic.] its devotees, as Mormonism does, can form no idea of the joy, the happiness, which is experienced when, after years of spiritual servitude, the shackles are burst asunder and the slave is "free !" [p.578]

“Never ; until new hearts and new natures are given to the women of Utah, and all that is womanly, and pure, and sacred, is crushed out from their souls, can one single woman be truly happy in Polygamy ! They may say so publicly, they may, for their religion's sake, tell strangers that thus it is ; but listen to them when they are alone among themselves ; read, if you can, their hearts, and mark the bitterness which they try to stifle there ; nay, see upon their very features the handwriting which bears witness against their assertion that they are happy and which proclaims to the world the sorrow which they vainly try to hide !” [p.622]

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Reading Progress

August 12, 2011 – Shelved
August 29, 2011 – Shelved as: lds-all
September 6, 2011 – Started Reading
September 11, 2011 –
page 155
September 21, 2011 –
page 330
September 28, 2011 –
page 450
October 1, 2011 –
page 500
October 8, 2011 –
page 628
October 8, 2011 – Finished Reading
March 14, 2012 – Shelved as: biographies
March 14, 2012 – Shelved as: favorites
October 23, 2012 – Shelved as: lds-biographies
October 23, 2012 – Shelved as: lds-experiencial
October 23, 2012 – Shelved as: lds-polygamy

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