Ruth Hall, from Ruth Hall
“Publication day came at last. There was the book. Ruth’s book! Oh, how few of its readers, if it were fortunate enough to find readers, would know how much of her own heart’s history was there laid bare.”
Bridget Jones, from Bridget Jones Diary
“Hurray for the singletons!”
These best-selling novels by American women were also popular in England. In fact, when E.D.E.N. Southworth was in London from 1859 to 1862, she discovered that Capitola Black, the sassy heroine of The Hidden Hand, was all the rage in fashion. Women wore Capitola hats, suits, and boots.
So who are these 19 th century chick lit writer babes? Most were middle-class white women (though there was also a strong contingent of black women writing slave narratives). Some were from very well-to-do families and wrote more as a hobby; others supported themselves (and their children) by writing.
I’ve included bios of several 19 th century chick lit writers, but my list is far from comprehensive. I’m focusing mostly on women who wrote in the genre of domestic fiction, because it most closely resembles chick lit. So while revolutionary-minded gals like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton completely rock, they weren’t specifically involved in this genre, so they’re not included here. Of course, in the karma of feminism, all the different ways of empowering women—whether through the pen or through the ballot box—connect.
As for books, I focused on the ones I’ve read myself, and the ones that are currently in print and easier to find online or at bookstores (lots of academic presses have given these best-selling books new life, after they fell into obscurity and were out of print for decades). I’ll keep adding as I read more, and as more books are rescued from their out-of-print status. (Go straight to books)
I¹ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite resource books on 19th century domestic fiction. Also, I included some of my other favorites from various disciplines. As I discover more, I¹ll keep adding. If you have a suggestion, feel free to drop me a line. (Go straight to secondary sources)
Catharine Maria Sedgwick
1789 – 1867
Catharine Maria Sedgwick was a bright and voracious reader at a young age. Born into a prominent Massachusetts family, she was educated mostly at home, and exposed early on to literature and culture. Her father, prominent politician Theodore Sedgwick, used to read Shakespeare to the family, and he always encouraged a young Catharine to explore what she loved to read and write.
Sadly, her mother suffered bouts of mental illness, and the two seemed to have had a strained relationship, but the Sedgwick family was a close-knit one in general. In fact, after her mother and father died, Sedgwick lived with two of her brothers. By choosing to remain single, Sedgwick defied the conventions of the day. However, her life was anything by lonely—she remained close to her siblings throughout her lifetime, and was long a hot name in literary circles.
Sedgwick is a great starting point for 19 th century chick lit because she actually predates the big boom in women’s domestic fiction. Her first novel, A New England Tale, was published in 1822. She would go on to write four more novels within the next 10 years, including Hope Leslie (1827), a historical novel that is perhaps her most popular. Sedgwick led the charge to include more strong female characters in novels, versus the novels of the previous generation, which are full of seduction plots that tell the tales of young girls duped by bad men. Sedgwick’s female characters are independent and intelligent—and duped by no one. Hope Leslie, the heroine of the novel of the same name, even makes daring rescues of Indian maidens. In many ways, Sedgwick used her literary clout to set the stage for the next generation of female novelists—who built on the free-spirited and strong female characters she created.
1819 - 1885
We might think of Susan Warner as the 19 th century version of Helen Fielding in that she almost singularly ushered in a brand new genre, which found immediate mass appeal with young women. But the comparison, though completely legit, ends there. Born in 1819 into relative wealth and privilege to Henry Whiting Warner (a lawyer) and Anna Bartlett, Warner had the best education money could buy. Until she was 19 years old, she studied languages, music, math and history, attended art gallery openings, wore fancy dresses and engaged in intellectual repartee with the best and brightest. Her sister, Anna, eight years her junior, also joined her on the fashionable streets of New York City.
But the panic of 1837 brought financial devastation to her family. Bad real estate investments, lawsuits and land disputes forced the Henry Warner and his daughters (their mother had since died) to move from their fashionable townhouse to an old and decidedly unglamorous farmhouse on Constitution Island. The Warner sisters lost their good social standing—and along with that, hopes of marrying well—and the scope of their lives became much smaller.
That’s when they joined the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church. Susan Warner, especially, became caught up in the notion of making meaning out of life by serving God—it was a way out of her social humiliation, and it provided a dignity she was lacking. As their financial situation got worse, Warner was prompted to start writing The Wide, Wide World—a tale of desperation turned to dignity that mirrored her own situation. Published in 1850, it became an immediate bestseller, though unfortunately all of the profits—as well as the profits from the books she would write after—went toward paying the family’s debts. The Warner sisters continued to live in the home, writing and teaching bible school. Their father died in 1875, and Susan Warner died in 1885; neither she nor Anna ever married.
Maria Susanna Cummins
1827 - 1866
Though not much is known about Maria Susanna Cummins’ life, we do know she was born into a wealthy, well-bred New England family. Her father, David Cummins—a lawyer and a judge—married Cummins’ mother after being twice widowed. He brought four children to the marriage, and he and his third wife had four more (including Maria), making for a real-life Brady Bunch situation (actually very common in those days when rates for both infant mortality and women dying in childbirth or shortly thereafter were very high).
Cummins adored her father, who doted on her education, sending her to the prominent girls school at the time, run by Mrs. Charles Sedgwick. Mrs. Sedgwick’s husband, Charles, just happened to be the brother of Catharine Maria Sedgwick—one of the beloved female novelists of the day. At the Sedgwick’s home, Cummins met Catharine and attended her literary salons, stirring her passion for writing.
After returning home, she published The Lamplighter in 1854 at the age of 27. It was a runaway success, though unlike Warner, Cummins’ motivation for writing wasn’t money. She desired to make a contribution to society. She essentially reframed the story of The Wide, Wide World, moved it to an urban setting ( Boston) and created a lighter, less harsh version of Ellen as the main character. She never married, and continued to write, publishing three more novels after The Lamplighter (none as successful). Cummins died in 1866 after suffering from a vague stomach condition for two years. She was only 39 years old.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
1811 – 1896
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut into a family of clergymen—including a father and seven brothers who were ministers—Harriet Beecher learned early on how to hold her own in an intellectual debate. She attended her sister Catharine’s seminary school in Hartford at age 13, and after graduation, moved with the family to Cincinnati where she taught school with Catharine. Their father, Lyman Beecher, headed up Cincinnati’s famous Lane Theological Seminary, and Harriet wound up marrying Calvin Stowe, a theology professor there. She had three children while living in Cincinnati, and began to grow restless and depressed with household duties and the limitations of her world. So she began to write, publishing stories and sketches in Godey’s Lady’s Book (the pre-eminent women’s magazine at the time).
Her time in Cincinnati was also crucial for another reason: just across the Ohio River from Kentucky—a slave state— Cincinnati was a hotbed for the underground railroad. Stowe became acquainted with fugitive slaves, and after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, she became an outspoken abolitionist. After moving again with the family, this time to Brunswick, Maine—and having three more children—Stowe’s sister encouraged her to write an anti-slavery book. What started as a series of sketches published in the National Era soon took on a life of its own, and the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began to take shape. The novel was first serialized, and then published in book form in 1851—when it sold 10,000 copies in the first few days.
It’s no exaggeration to say the book whipped the North into a frenzy—mothers, fathers, sons and daughters huddled together to read the tale of the evils of slavery. Modern readers are always disconcerted with the racial stereotypes prevalent in the book—Stowe was an outspoken abolitionist to be sure, but that didn’t mean she didn’t hold some racial prejudice, given the time period. But Stowe brilliantly accomplished her main goal: to appeal to white mothers and demonstrate that slavery destroys the sanctity of the family—and since the family was at the heart of antebellum America, this was quite a crucial blow. Though there were many other factors that led to the start of the Civil War, no publication did more to increase the power of the abolitionist movement in America than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stowe continued to write books—including local color and slice of life sketches—but Uncle Tom’s Cabin would remain her biggest literary accomplishment.
1819 - 1899
E.D.E.N. Southworth was born Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte in Washington, D.C. in 1819 to Charles Le Compte Nevitte (a merchant) and Susannah Wailes. When they married, her mother was only 15; her father was 45. Young Emma suffered from eye inflammation and vision troubles for much of her childhood, isolating her and making her feel in the dark. Her father died when Southworth was four, and her mother remarried Joshua Henshaw. The two of them opened a school, where Southworth first discovered her love of reading and writing; after graduating at 16, she became a schoolteacher.
At 21, she married Frederick Hamilton Southworth and moved to Wisconsin; she never told exactly what happened between the two of them, but it was not a happy marriage, and she came back to D.C. alone a few years later, already having one child and pregnant with another. She was broke, and had to figure out a way to support herself and her two young children, so she returned to teaching and began publishing stories in newspapers. She wrote her first novel, Retribution, in 1849; it was serialized in the newspaper National Era and then published in book form. Writing proved to be Southworth’s salvation. In 1956, New York Ledger publisher Robert Bonner sought her out and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse; she actually wrote exclusively for the Ledger for 30 years, and it was there that The Hidden Hand—the wildly engaging tale of spunky and precocious Capitola Black and her adventures—first appeared in 1859. Southworth never got rich off of her writing, but it did allow her to support herself for almost her entire adult life.
Her estranged husband died sometime in the 1860s (it’s unclear whether she supported him financially or not). Though she had ups and downs, Southworth was always the life of the party, and she developed a wide circle of literary and intellectual friends in D.C.—a society she greatly enjoyed until her death in 1899.
Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern)
1811 – 1872
Reading like a “true life” narrative from the pages of a women’s magazine, Sara Payson Willis Eldredge Farrington Parton had a life filled with drama at every turn. With a mouthful of a name like that, you know she’s got a story to tell. Parton, who wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern, was born in 1811 in Portland, Maine, but her family moved to Boston when she was still a baby. Her father, a strict Calvinist deacon (think John Lithgow in Footloose), tried desperately to tame the feisty, free-spirited Sara. Though never close to her father or brother, Nathaniel, Parton did feel a particular affinity for her mother, who encouraged her young daughter to think for herself.
In 1837, she married Charles Eldredge, had three daughters, and seemed to have it all. But she experienced a string of tragic deaths beginning in 1844. By 1846, Parton’s younger sister, Ellen; her mother; her daughter, Mary; and her husband were all dead. Because her husband had been involved in a lawsuit shortly before he died, legal bills and creditors collecting on debts left her and her children destitute. Her in-laws and her father reluctantly helped her, but ultimately, she married again for convenience’s sake to Samuel Farrington. It was an awful marriage, full of jealousy on Farrington’s part, and in 1851, she did the unthinkable: she left him. Her family was scandalized, but Parton was determined to persevere. She began publishing newspaper columns under the name Fanny Fern, eventually becoming the first regular, paid female columnist in the United States.
She also wrote novels, most notably Ruth Hall—based on her own life—in 1854. Though a spiteful ex-editor exposed her identity and she was criticized for portraying her brother negatively in the book, Parton remained undaunted. She remarried again (Farrington had sought a divorce), this time happily to James Parton. After she moved to New York, she began writing for Robert Bonner’s The New York Ledger. He paid her $100/column—making her the highest paid newspaper writer, male or female, in the country. She continued to publish her Ledger columns regularly for 16 years. Her last column appeared two days before her death from cancer in 1876.
Harriet Ann Jacobs
1813 – 1897
Born in 1813 as a slave in North Carolina, Harriet Ann Jacobs didn’t know she was a slave until the age of six, when her mother died and she was sent to live with her mistress. Her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a well-respected and free black woman who lived in the neighborhood, did everything she could to shield Jacobs from the harsh realities of slavery. But her master, Dr. James Norcum, began making sexual advances at Jacobs in her early teen years. To protect herself from this sexual predator and have some control over her body, she decided to enter into a sexual alliance with a white man—a neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. Her son Joseph was born in 1829; Louisa followed in 1833.
At 21, Jacobs took a stand, refusing to have sex with Dr. Norcum, who sent her to work on his plantation and threatened her children. She decided to run away—knowing that the doctor would sell her children to Sawyer, who had agreed to keep them safe (they went to live with her grandmother).
To escape, Jacobs stowed away in her grandmother’s attic—essentially just a crawlspace with just enough room for one person—for seven years. She lived in constant fear until in 1842, when she saw her chance and escaped north. There, she found work at the household of Nathaniel Willis (Sara Willis Parton’s brother) and was reunited with her children.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the Norcums came north to look for her; finally, Mrs. Willis purchased Jacobs’ freedom for her. Jacobs studied the conventions of domestic novels, and began framing her story to appeal to white women—mothers especially. To find a publisher, she had to have a white woman “vouch” her for and write an introduction—which Lydia Maria Child agreed to do. After Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861, she moved back to the south and worked in the anti-slavery movement. After the Civil War, she moved back north and spent her remaining years with her daughter.
Hope Leslie (1827) Catharine Maria Sedgwick
The story of Hope Leslie and Magawisca—two young, independent-minded women, one white and one Indian—this book was a precursor to much of the domestic fiction to come. I love it, though, because women are at the center of the action: Hope and Magawisca get to be brave and heroic, and do the things usually only the boys get to do (like fighting for justice and rescuing prisoners). The book is historical fiction; by setting it in the 17 th century, Sedgwick gets to go back and set the record straight regarding women’s role in American history.
The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner
After little Ellen Montgomery is orphaned, she’s sent to live with her cruel old aunt. The story revolves mostly around her coming to terms with her own anger, learning to control her emotions, and falling in love. Truth be told, it can be a tedious read in places (lots of fits of weeping and submission), but it’s a great place to start if you really want to “get” 19 th century chick lit, and how these women made meaning out of domestic duties.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
An epic story about a heroic slave, an angelic girl, and a black family that risks everything when slavery threatens to separate them. It’s fast-paced and adventurous in places, and a little trite in others. But it’s classic 19 th century abolitionist literature, and well worth a read. Though Stowe was a staunch abolitionist, it’s still full of racial stereotypes, but the book was originally aimed at white, middle class mothers, to educate them about the evils of slavery.
The Lamplighter (1854) by Maria Susanna Cummins
It’s easy to fall in love with main character Gertrude Flint: She’s smart, hard-working, loyal, sassy when needed, and utterly romantic. Like Ellen, she was orphaned as a young girl and struggles to come to terms with her emotions and make her way in the world. She develops close friendships, and falls in love with her childhood sweetheart. It’s definitely one of my favorite 19 th century domestic novels.
Ruth Hall (1854) by Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern)
Ruth Hall is one tough cookie. She marries young, and has a lot of obstacles to overcome, including the death of her husband and one of her children. (Parton modeled the story after her own life.) After her in-laws and her own brother refuse to help her, she decides to start writing. Her newspaper columns turn into a book, and she finds fame and a loyal fan base. This is a must-read if you want to understand how influential women writers were in the 19 th century.
The Hidden Hand (1859) by E.D.E.N. Southworth
Capitola Black—an orphan, of course—is a smart-talking, sassy, witty, and daring girl. She’s saved from a life on the streets (where she has to dress like a boy to find work and be safe) from a rich and crotchety guy who she calls “Old Hurricane.” He becomes her guardian and takes her to live in his gothic mansion. But Cap just refuses to act like a “girl”: She challenges a rake to a duel, outwits all the criminals, and just generally has fun adventures. It’s thoroughly entertaining!
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs
Linda Brent—who’s really Harriet Jacobs—was born into slavery. Her narrative tells the story of how she came to discover she was a slave, the difficult choices she endured to protect her honor, and the amazing sacrifices she made to protect her children from an evil master. The slave-narrative genre was pretty much dominated by male writers, like Frederick Douglass. But this is a great example of a female narrative, and how a black woman used the conventions of the domestic novel genre to attract an audience of white women.
Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-70, by Nina Baym (University of Illinois Press, 1993)
Baym is an academic, but this is highly readable. It’s a great resource if you’re interested in reading more about the background of domestic fiction.
Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, by Jane Tompkins (Oxford University Press, 1985)
Tompkins totally rocks because she was one of the first academics to look seriously at women’s fiction, and the way these writers basically used their novels to rearrange the world from a women’s point of view. She’s got a really interesting take on power and The Wide, Wide World.
Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America, by Mary Kelley (Oxford University Press, 1984)
Godey’s Lady’s Book
This is a fascinating read, especially if you want to learn more about the ways women moved between the public and private spheres. Kelley examines why history (and the literary canon) has basically disregarded these women writers, who were so amazingly popular and well-regarded during the 19 th century, and she tries to set the record straight.
Godey’s was one of the most popular women’s magazines of the 19 th century. It was half fiction/poetry and half fashion and engravings. Getting your hands on an actual page of Godey’s would require extensive time at a library, but thanks to the Web, you can get a taste of what it was like. I found this site, hosted by the University of Rochester: http://www.history.rochester.edu/godeys/
500 Great Books By Women: A Reader’s Guide by Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen and Holly Smith (Penguin, 1994)
A great resource if you’re looking to discover some new authors. I love this book because it’s basically one big catalog of books by women, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry, from around the world, organized by subject.