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This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Said gentleman-scholar has re-upped his donation, so keep pitching me, academics longing for freedom.

In the opening chapters of Susan Townsend Warner’s The Wide, Wide World—a runaway bestseller upon its 1850 publication—the following exchange takes place between our lachrymose young protagonist, Ellen Montgomery, and her dying mother (I’ve pared off a lot of excess verbiage; Hemingway Warner ain’t):

“Mamma, what does that mean, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me’?”

“It means just what it says. If you love anybody or anything better than Jesus Christ, you cannot be one of his children.”

“But then, Mamma,” said Ellen, raising her head, “how can I be one of his children? I do love you a great deal better: how can I help it, Mamma?”

“You cannot help it, I know, my dear,” said Mrs. Montgomery, with a sigh….“But yet I know that the Lord Jesus is far, far more worthy of your affection than I am; and if your heart were not hardened by sin, you would see him so.”

[…] “Mamma,” said Ellen, after a little, again raising her head, and looking her mother full in the face, as if willing to apply the severest test to this hard doctrine, and speaking with an indescribable expression, “do you love him better than you do me?”

[…] Mrs. Montgomery answered steadily, “I do, my daughter;” and, with a gush of tears, Ellen sank her head again upon her bosom. She had not more to say; her mouth was stopped for ever as to the right of the matter.

1Yes I know GAHHHHHHH. It is so, so tempting to simply end the essay right here, as it was to chuck the book clear across the room upon reading this passage. But in the latter case, I read it on a Nook (free Project Gutenberg epub, woooo), and I was at the time in Serious Research Mode for a currently-languishing historical romance set during the California Gold Rush, and it seemed important to read the same novels my heroine would likely have read. (Fun fact: Jo reads it in Little Women; Alcott mentions her crying as she does so, and it’s my headcanon that those were tears of rage.) So I persisted, through oceans of Ellen’s tears, through paper-thin villains who don’t love Jesus, through the eventual lesson that Ellen will only find happiness by deferring to God as personified by older men. I am really quite surprised I finished it, though my husband will attest that I yelled at the page regularly. Previous installments of this series have praised their subject, or at least found them interesting; I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone read this book. Ever.

Here’s a brief summary: Ellen and her doomed, sainted mother fall on hard times when her attorney father loses a suit (shades of Warner’s own life: she spent her youth living comfortably in Manhattan until her father was ruined in the Panic of 1837, after which she and her sister Anna supported the family with their writing). Forced to take a job in Europe, Mr. Montgomery takes his ailing wife with him but places his daughter in the care of Miss Fortune Emerson, an aunt who runs a farm in the New England countryside. Aunt Fortune is less than pleased to have a meek city girl on her hands, and Ellen’s life becomes defined by chores she’s clueless about and periodic bouts of weeping and/or praying. Eventually she becomes acquainted with Alice Humphreys, a minister’s daughter who takes Ellen under her wing, constantly reinforcing the theme of submission to God’s will—God being conveniently embodied in Alice’s father and brother, John Humphreys. When Alice dies (of course she dies), she insists that Ellen become the daughter of the house, and Ellen joyously does so, taking over domestic duties for the male Humphreys while John becomes her mentor and spiritual advisor. Once she moves to Scotland to live with distant relatives, the Lindsays, she’s so successfully absorbed his worldview that she can withstand their less-conservative Christianity (they drink wine, and think it’s silly of her to spend hours every day reading her Bible). The ending is oddly abrupt—it’s obvious that Warner intends Ellen to marry John (even though she refers to him as her brother ew ew ew), but she never makes it explicit. We’re assured that she perfects her submissiveness, however:

coverThe seed so early sown in little Ellen’s mind, and so carefully tended by sundry hands, grew in the course of time to all the fair structure and comely perfection it had bid fair to reach; storms and winds that had visited it did but cause the root to take deeper hold; and at the point of its young maturity it happily fell again into those hands that had of all been most successful in its culture.

So there we have it, America’s first bestseller. Sigh. The impulse to simply attribute the book’s having gone through fourteen editions in two years to “Americans have always been idiots, I mean do you know how many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey I sold? LITERALLY THOUSANDS” is nigh irresistible. But that’s sloppy analysis. Didactic Christianity and the reinforcement of the patriarchy pervaded much of the writing of the period—this book, however, was wildly successful, the Republic’s most popular novel until it was eclipsed  Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years later. I think it’s rightly forgotten, but something must have resonated with the readers of the day, so I’ll make the attempt to suss out what that is.

It’s all the more important not to simply jettison The Wide, Wide World because then, as now, fiction was largely read by women, and in fact Warner’s success and publishers’ subsequent scrambling for the next mega-bestseller ushered in a decade where sentimental novels by women writers dominated the landscape. And then, as now, fiction read or written by women is often considered frivolous at best, dangerous at worst. Nathaniel Hawthorne charmingly remarked in an 1855 letter to his publisher, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.” Because of this mainstream stance, female protagonists of novels almost never confess to reading them, and often dismiss them out of hand. Ellen is no exception, assuring John Humphreys “I knew you did not like [novels], and I have taken good care to keep out of the way of them.” A strange tension for readers, to say the least, to be taken to task by a heroine for the act you’re in the midst of.

But it’s that disconnect, I think, that holds the key to the book’s effectiveness. The Wide, Wide World is not a realist novel; it is rather aspirational, even escapist. Ellen, her mother, and Alice are too good to be true, and I’d argue that contemporary readers (who, again, were mostly white, middle-class women) thought this too, or at least felt it on an unconscious level. In these paragons of female virtue, women saw themselves reflected imperfectly, as they were Supposed to Be; through Ellen’s “fair structure and comely perfection,” they could vicariously experience feminine success of a kind. It must have been immensely satisfying.

Anna Andersen has realized 100% of her teensy income results from writing, so she can safely refer to herself as a freelance writer. Wed to a rural mail carrier who regularly helps turtles across the street, she reads books, cuddles cats, and pens Destiel fanfiction in her Kansas hometown.

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