From the Notebook: All About Lovers

In the fall I read many wonderful texts from American Lit (circa 1820 – 1860), especially some great things by feminist writers of the time. To celebrate the coming of Valentine’s Day, here is Fanny Fern’s hilarious satire of lovers and love.

Fanny FernFor a little bit of background, Fanny Fern was the pen-name of Sarah Willis Parton, a woman writing in the 1850s onward. Sarah began her writing career because her second marriage was a bust (the first made her a widow, she left the second, presumably because he was abusive), and neither her family nor her in-laws wanted to support her or her children. (To be fair, it wasn’t their fault that she couldn’t keep a husband… and… I’m being completely sarcastic.) Unable to support her girls, she sent her eldest to live with family, and began writing.

Sarah’s best work comes out in the short narrative, often in her articles written for local newspapers. She had a huge following, both men and women, and had a healthy dose of critics who thought she was much too assertive and aggressive of a writer to be a true woman. She had a great sense of humor about it all, as exampled in one of her articles where she describes going to the theatre only to watch a more glamorous woman be pointed out as “that writer, Fanny Fern.”

Sarah wrote both sentimentally and sarcastically, (read Ruth Hall for a great example of both), but I’m providing a sample of one of her more satirical works. The following article advises young women to test their young men with little annoyances, just to see how they might fare in marriage.

All About Lovers

Nothing like the old-fashioned long “engagements,” say we. Then you have a chance to find out something about a young man before marriage. Now-a-days matrimony follows so close upon the heels of “an offer,” that it is no wonder our young people have a deal of sad thinking to do afterward. There are a thousand little things in daily intercourse of my duration, which are constantly resolving themselves into test of character; slight they may be, but very significant.

Some forlorn old lady must have an escort home of a cold evening; she walks slow, and tells the same story many times: see how your lover comports himself under this. He is asked to read aloud in some home circle, some book he has already perused in private, or some one in which he is not at all interested: watch him then. Notice, also, if he invariably takes the most comfortable chair in the room, “never thinking” to offer it to a person who may enter till he or she is already seated. Invite him to carve for you at the table. Give him a letter to drop in the post-office, and find out if it ever leaves that grave–his pocket. Open and read his favorite favorite newspaper before he gets a chance to do so. Mislay his cigar-case. Lose his cane. Sit accidentally on his new beaver [hat]. Praise another man’s coat or cravat. Differ from him in a favorite opinion. Put a spoonful of gravy on his meat instead of his potatoes.

Ah, you may laugh! But just try him in these ways, and see how he will wear; for it is not the great things of life over which we mortals stumble. A rock we walk around; a mountain we cross: it is the unobserved, unexpected, unlooked-for little sticks and pebbles which cause us to halt on life’s journey.

New York Ledger July 30, 1859

When I first read this list of annoyances, I couldn’t help but laugh, but Fanny Fern is completely right. For all her satire, she gives excellent advice for anyone in a relationship or about to start a new one. We “stumbling mortals” never seem to pay attention to the little things, but I know it’s the build-up of the little things that make me just explode sometimes. So to those of you reading this blog, if the significant person in your life starts to really annoy you, take a second look. They might be doing it on purpose.

4 thoughts on “From the Notebook: All About Lovers

  1. Excellent post! Except that I’m not sure Sarah is really being satirical in this excerpt because it’s so spot-on. It’s the little niggling things that can drive you crazy (the wrong way) about someone else.

    Your suggestion that people might follow Sarah’s advice on purpose is intriguing, but it seems to me most 21st-century Americans lack the subtlety to do this. More likely, they might do these things to signal that the relationship is ending, not strengthening. Unlike the majority of people 150 years ago, people today tend to treat their relationships as being as disposable as so many other elements of modern life. Starter marriages are almost as common as starter homes.

    Still and all, I loved reading this! Maybe someday I’ll find someone on whom I can try Sarah’s methodolgy, or who will try it on me. Think how much fun it will be if and when we both pass the tests and get to our HEA!

    Like

  2. Excellent post! Except that I’m not sure Sarah is really being satirical in this excerpt because it’s so spot-on. It’s the little niggling things that can drive you crazy (the wrong way) about someone else.

    Your suggestion that people might follow Sarah’s advice on purpose is intriguing, but it seems to me most 21st-century Americans lack the subtlety to do this. More likely, they might do these things to signal that the relationship is ending, not strengthening. Unlike the majority of people 150 years ago, people today tend to treat their relationships as being as disposable as so many other elements of modern life. Starter marriages are almost as common as starter homes.

    Still and all, I loved reading this! Maybe someday I’ll find someone on whom I can try Sarah’s methodolgy, or who will try it on me. Think how much fun it will be if and when we both pass the tests and get to our HEA!

    Like

  3. Bill,

    Good point! I think you may be right, as unfortunate as it is, about the starter marriages and the starter homes. It’s something that really bothers me since I take my relationships (family, friends, co-workers, etc) seriously.

    And while it may not be satire because it is so true today, I think it was when first written. Keep in mind that Fanny Fern was shocking and satirical especially when you compare her to other women writers at the time, who emphasized the sentimentality of love.

    Good luck to you and yours, though, with the tests!

    Like

  4. Bill,

    Good point! I think you may be right, as unfortunate as it is, about the starter marriages and the starter homes. It's something that really bothers me since I take my relationships (family, friends, co-workers, etc) seriously.

    And while it may not be satire because it is so true today, I think it was when first written. Keep in mind that Fanny Fern was shocking and satirical especially when you compare her to other women writers at the time, who emphasized the sentimentality of love.

    Good luck to you and yours, though, with the tests!

    Like

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