Sarah Orne Jewett House

Breaking the Mold

 

At a young age, Sarah Orne Jewett imagined herself living a life less ordinary. From her diary entries, to her penchant for doodling her signature, one senses a strong identity present.

“My monogram with “O” in Trouble”

Sarah Orne Jewett drew this doodle at the front of her diary on what would be a title page of a book, September 7, 1867, at the age of eighteen.

Confessions of a House-Breaker

“This confession differs from that of most criminals who are classed under the same head; for whereas house-breakers usually break into houses, I broke out.”

–Sarah Orne Jewett (“Confessions of a House-Breaker,” 1883)

This opening to a dream-like morning encounter with nature seems to mirror Jewett’s own journey.

In diary entries from her teenage years, Sarah expressed an aversion to marriage. This feeling seems to have been both curious to her, as on her feelings about cousin Helen Gilman’s marriage, “I hate to have her married, though I can give no definite reason,” (September 21, 1867)* and known in some deep part of herself: a week later, after the wedding, she wrote, “after Helen Williams Gilman was no more, they went up and congratulated her.” (September 29, 1867)*

At the same time, Jewett experienced romantic feelings towards girlfriends, from momentary rushes over sharing a bed to intense infatuations with exchanges of rings, to falling in love.

Intimate female friendships that bordered on amorousness were not unusual in the nineteenth century. Young women were encouraged in these so-called “romantic friendships,” to ready them for marriage in a culture that otherwise ill-prepared them.

Yet, Jewett makes no mention of attraction to men or to envisioning becoming herself a bride. Instead, there is a defiant childlike quality in her writing, as if she perhaps seeks an escape from what looms ahead.

It was not uncommon for a woman to remain single in the Victorian era—Sarah’s sister Mary did not wed. For women of the time, marriage was directly connected to economic well-being. If one did not need to marry to avoid becoming a financial burden on their family, many times the safer choice was to not to; marriage in the nineteenth century (and before) was a gamble. A married woman quite literally lost her legal identity. In this, she lost the ability to regain her freedom if the union was a disaster.

For Jewett, the drive for independence seems to have gone beyond spinsterhood; she was determined to have a writing career, persevering through several rejections before being published. She suffered through two depressions in her early twenties. When she gained momentum as a writer, publishing her first novel, Deephaven, at the age of twenty-eight, the depression seems to have lifted.

Success as a writer meant freedom.

As a writer, Jewett over and over again created strong female protagonists who broke out of barriers, literally and figuratively.

When Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields fell in love, they formed a relationship that was mutually nurturing and caring, and one in which Sarah Orne Jewett—S.O.J.—could keep her identity.

* MS Am 1743.26, Item 3, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Queer Perspective

Among Jewett’s greatest strengths as a writer are the depictions of her female characters and the bonds of friendship between women. Sarah Orne Jewett fell in love with several women in her life, finally finding the relationship she sought with Annie Fields. In a few works, Jewett seems to be portraying lesbian love. Another work has been put forth in academia as the first gay American novel.

Deephaven

When Jewett published the first sketches for “Deephaven”, she was in love with a young woman, Kate DiCosta Birckhead of Newport, Rhode Island. The sketches that became “Deephaven” center on two young friends, Kate Lancaster and Helen Denis. The character of Kate Lancaster is believed to be inspired by Kate Di Costa Birckhead. In the novel, the character Kate, “laughingly proposed one evening, as we sat talking by the fire and were particularly contented, that we should copy the Ladies of Llangollen, and remove ourselves from society and its distractions.” (“Deephaven”, Part 13). The Ladies of Llangollen were two young upper-class Irish women who, in order to escape being pressured into conventional marriages, ran away together to Llangollen and lived together essentially as a couple.

Martha's Lady

First published in 1897 and collected in “The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories” in 1899, “Martha’s Lady” tells the story of a servant who loves so transcendently a young woman she knows only for a short time one summer, that she devotes her life to this love. Martha’s yearning, looking in the mirror and wishing she saw the face of Helena, the woman she loves, reminds the contemporary reader of Jewett’s letters to Annie, one in particular, “Kiss the mirror and play it was [me]!”* Another contemporary view of the story proposes a jealous third party, in the character of Martha’s female employer. *MS Am 1743 (157), Houghton Library, Harvard University

Martha's Lady excerpt

“Who do you think is coming this very night at half-past six? We must have everything as nice as we can; I must see Hannah at once. Do you remember my cousin Helena who has lived abroad so long? Miss Helena Vernon–the Honorable Mrs. Dysart, she is now.”   “Yes, I remember her,” answered Martha, turning a little pale. “I knew that she was in this country, and I had written to ask her to come for a long visit,” continued Miss Harriet… We must have tea a little later.”   “Yes, Miss Harriet,” said Martha. She wondered that she could speak as usual, there was such a ringing in her ears. “I shall have time to pick some fresh strawberries; Miss Helena is so fond of our strawberries.”   “Why, I had forgotten,” said Miss Pyne, a little puzzled by something quite unusual in Martha’s face. “

A Marsh Island

A lesser known Jewett work, “A Marsh Island” (1885), was written directly after Jewett’s successful “A Country Doctor” (1884). The story develops as a romantic triangle between city artist Dick Dale, rural woman Doris Owens, and yokel Dan Lester. The blossoming romance of Dick and Doris turns platonic, however, and Doris marries boorish Dan Lester, while Dick Dale returns to the city, where he tells his male companion, “It really was a lovely old place. I used to wish for you with all my heart.” The novel also has undertones of an impulse to freedom, as if some part of Doris (or her author) were fighting an inner calling for her to remain unmarried. As Lester waits to speak with serious intention, “[Doris] would have been thankful to find a way of escape.” (Chapter XV, “A Marsh Island”). Dr. Don James Brown, Assistant Professor of 19th-Century American Literature at the University of Tulsa, asserts that “A Marsh Island” is the first American gay novel.  

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