Saturday, November 10, 2007

Two by Sarah Orne Jewett

I read two works by Sarah Orne Jewett (click through for background on her life), Deephaven and A Country Doctor. Deephaven was a lovely and easy read; there's no real plot as it covers two independent young ladies (Kate and Elly) who spend the summer on their own in the coastal town of Deephaven. Once upon a time, Deephaven had been a successful port town,but the embargo of 1807 hampered its industry so when the young women are there, it is a sleepy and culturally alien environment. (Note: I had never heard of the Embargo of 1807 so picking up such a tidbit was one reason why I valued this particular read.) By the time our two young ladies visit during the summer, the town is quite elderly but warm and welcoming to the young ladies. Each somewhat eccentric character is carefully described, adding charm. Because the book consists solely of such sketches, you come to know the town and its endearing inhabitants. Deephaven is Jewett's earliest published work, but not unsatisfying by any means. Read in the midst of a protracted transition between summer and autumn, I could entirely lose myself in the idea of an older New England August holiday.

Thus primed, I looked forward to reading A Country Doctor. It surprised me. was gentle and dreamy, entirely in keeping with the season of summer; DeephavenA Country Doctor opens in late November with an ill and weary mother traveling by foot with her baby to reach shelter with her family. At least initially, it seems that we're reading a melodrama. But we are drawn into the same gentle world in which the heroine, Nan Prince, comes to live -- a safe world with guardian Doctor Leslie and his housekeeper Marilla. Nan grows to understand and accept her own strengths and identity under their care. By the time, Nan has met the well-to-do and proud relatives of her father, she is well prepared to fend off criticism of her choice to follow a medical career and refuse a man she intuitively recognizes as a poor life-partner. The point Jewett makes is that Nan's identity as a person should not be determined by financial circumstances nor by social expectations, but solely on her own ideas, strengths and talents. I cannot now find the reference but I do recall reading somewhere that Sarah Orne Jewett based the coming-of-age story of A Country Doctor on her own upbringing. She was not herself an orphan, but her father was a medical professional who strongly influenced Jewett's preparation for adulthood.

Actually I think there are three thematic elements to the text -- fostering independence and self-awareness in childhood, finding one's vocation in life, and expanding beyond those limits thrust on one by social attitudes. Jewett has a gift for rendering distinctive voices and capturing ordinary conversations between her characters. Even in these two works, one remembers the characterization rather than the plots. For that alone, Jewett deserves recognition in American literature. If she is unpopular today, it is likely due to the remoteness of the type of life that she portrays. There is a plain practicality about 19th century New England that may feel unfamiliar to modern readers. Unlike many nineteenth century writers, Jewett avoids a certain sentimentality that plagues the likes of Louisa May Alcott and similar writers.

My familiarity with Sarah Orne Jewett dates back some 30 years and a survey course in American Literature. I liked her short stories upon initial introduction and it was nice to find that I liked some of her lengthier pieces as well.

1 comment:

Geranium Cat said...

I like the sound of these books, you've really made me want to read them. They will be interesting to compare with English works about the same period.