My edition of Ruth Hall has a generous selection of Fanny Fern’s newspaper columns, which are exactly the sort of thing her character Ruth Hall becomes famous for. I haven’t read many of them, but I did skim through them and read the ones that sounded interesting, and I thought I’d share an example. I found that her journalistic voice is very lively and entertaining and funny; this is the voice I liked best in the novel — the comic rather than the tragic parts.
This is an essay called “Male Criticism on Ladies Books”; it starts off with a quotation from the New York Times (given below) and then proceeds to comment on it:
“Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman’s thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation. We have no right to expect anything else in a woman’s book.” — N.Y. Times
Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickens, of Thackery, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? And if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends; who has divided his migratory life between boarding-houses, restaurants, and the outskirts of editorial sanctums; and who knows as much about reviewing a woman’s book, as I do about navigating a ship, or engineering an omnibus from the South Ferry, though Broadway, to Union Park. I think I see him writing that paragraph in a fit of spleen — of male spleen — in his small boarding-house upper chamber, by the cheerful light of a solitary candle, flickering alternately on cobwebbed walls, dusty wash-stand, begrimed bowl and pitcher, refuse cigar stumps, boot-jacks, old hats, buttonless coats, muddy trousers, and all the wretched accompaniments of solitary, selfish male existence, not to speak of his own puckered, unkissable face; perhaps, in addition, his boots hurt, his cravat-bow persists in slipping under his ear for want of a pin, and a wife to pin it (poor wretch!) or he has been refused by some pretty girl, as he deserved to be (narrow-minded old vinegar-cruet!) or snubbed by some lady authoress; or, more trying than all to the male constitution, has had a weak cup of coffee for that morning’s breakfast.
But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books. Whether the book which called forth the remark above quoted, was a good book or a bad one, I know not; I should be inclined to think the former from the dispraise of such a pen. Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers is a matter of history; and that gentlemen often write over feminine signatures would seem also to argue that feminine literature is, after all, in good odor with the reading public. Granted that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and above all, respectfully? or — what would be a much harder task for such critics — write a better book!
Take that, Mr. Critic! What a satisfying revenge, and how great to point out that criticism which can seem objective and detached and passionless is often motivated by emotion, sometimes ugly emotions like jealousy and anger. I love the way she twice puts a question mark after the word “criticism” to show her doubts that this sort of writing really qualifies.