Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sarah Orne Jewett - A Writer's Life by Elizabeth Silverthorne

41. Sarah Orne Jewett - A Writer's Life
by Elizabeth Silverthorne
nonfiction, 1993
finished, 7/31/10

This is an excellent biography of one of my favorite writers. The book, and its subject will appeal to my 'kindred spirits' - those who love the Anne of Green Gables books; Gladys Taber; Gene Stratton-Porter's, The Keeper of the Bees; the gentle sorts of books which celebrate the natural world, and often a world of the past. But it is also a book for those who love learning about writers and their literary connections. As I read along, I thought, my gosh this woman knew everyone who was writing at the time, and many became her close friends.
Sarah was fortunate to live at just the right time to come under the guidance of some of the most distinguished editors of the nineteenth century. These mentors, all noted writers themselves, included James Russell Lowell, William Dean Howells, James T. Fields, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Horace E. Scudder.
Both Scudder and Howells were editors of the Atlantic Monthly which published much of her work. Fields and his wife Annie lived in Boston.
Under the hospitable roof of 148 Charles Street in Boston, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, and William Makepeace Thackeray read from their works and occasionally did some writing. There they met other renowned travelers as well as famous natives such as Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edwin Booth, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent.
In the drawing room at 148 Charles Street - Sarah, left. Annie, right.

After the unexpected death of James Fields:
Annie Fields was devastated; she and her husband had truly been partners in life. After the prescribed mourning period for wearing black, Annie wore widow's lavender for the rest of her life in memory of her husband. But she would survive him by thirty-four years, and she was too dynamic a personality to sink into mourning.
Annie and Sarah had been friends before his death, and became closer afterwards. There is speculation about their personal relationship but Silverthorne doesn't focus on it. Whatever they were to one another:
Each encouraged the efforts of the other, and their time together was highly productive.
Sarah Orne Jewett was a woman who defies expectations and stereotypes. In three instances she surprises us. We often think of writers and readers as quiet folks who like to be indoors.
Sarah's love of the outdoors and of outdoor sports was as important to her as her love of books.
And though she was rooted in the past, and cared deeply about old times, she was part of the modern literary society of the day.

Finally, we may also assume that writers whose work is centered on a particular area mostly stay there. But not Sarah. She traveled widely during her lifetime. She visited Scandinavia, the British Isles, Europe, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica. She spent part of each year with Annie Fields in Boston. Still she had a great love of her home in South Berwick, Maine, and the area was at the center of her books.

The Sarah Orne Jewett home is maintained by Historic New England. From their website:
Writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) spent much of her life in this stately Georgian residence, owned by her family since 1819. Jewett drew on the house for inspiration for her novel Deephaven and often wrote at the desk in the upper hall overlooking the active town center. Jewett and her older sister Mary inherited the house in 1887. Decorating the house for their own use, the sisters expressed both a pride in their family's past and their own independent, sophisticated tastes. The result is an eclectic blend of eighteenth-century architecture, antiques, and old wallpapers with furnishings showing the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.

As well as telling the reader about Sarah Orne Jewett's life, Elizabeth Silverthorne focuses on individual writings; telling us the stories, quoting passages, and offering reviews from publications of the time. I found this to be one of the most interesting biographies I've ever read. The author captured her subject, Jewett's writing, her friends, and her times in a most readable and accessible way.

If you'd like to learn more about the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, there is a very complete website here.


  1. What a wonderful post! I too love to learn about writers as people. Often they are as interesing (or perhaps more so) than their published works. I'll have to find myself a copy of this biography. It sounds like a wonderful one. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Canadian Chickadee

  2. Canadian Chickadee, thank you so much. I'm so pleased it makes you want to buy the book. Have you read any SOJ?

  3. I just came across a copy of The Country of the Pointed Firs in a second hand book shop and snapped it up for my year of American reading. I can't wait to discover this wonderful sounding author, who I am certain I will love. Thank you for this inspiring post, Nan!

  4. Thank you for the lovely post! I have enjoyed reading Sarah Orne Jewett over the years! I shall dip back into one of her writings now that you have brought her to our minds again!

  5. I still remember opening The Country of the Pointed Firs for the first time. I was smelling the balsam fir that crunched under my feet right along with the narrator, and then the character of Mrs. Todd, and the visit to the island where her brother lived!
    Thanks so much for recommending this book!

  6. I must read this! Sarah Orne Jewett is one of my favorite authors. The Country of the Pointed Firs is my fave of her books. I think I'll see if I can get this and tuck it away for some winter reading. Thanks, Nan. You always share the best stuff.

  7. Sarah orne jewett has played a big part in my life. My Father was curator and my Mother President of Historic New England. In my twenties, I published a book on authors, painters, and photographers in SOJ'S circle who lived in southern Maine. Then, my husband and I designed our wedding invitation after a book cover and spent our honeymoon in the country of the pointed firs!

  8. Very interesting! I've never read this book about her, but I read, and enjoyed, her book Country of the Pointed Firs.

    You were wondering if I read Watership Down - I tried it once and didn't really like it. I probably need to give it another try as I know so many people love it. That picture of the bunny really brings it mind, doesn't it! :)

  9. I haven't read any of her books, Nan. Is there one you would recommend?

  10. This sounds like a book I will want to read.
    Have you read the works of another South Berwick author, Gladys Hasty Carroll?
    She mentions Sarah Orne Jewitt in one of her memoirs.

  11. Hello Nan!! You've chosen beautiful pictures to post. For me, it's kind of to learn a different world.

    By the way, would you mind if I ask you the model of your bread making machine? I'm still interested and would want to see if they have it in Bangkok. Thank you very much.

    Have a wonderful day in your lovely farm!!

  12. This is a biography that is going on my list! I haven't thought about Jewett in a long time, but used to use passage from her writing with my AP students. Thanks, Nan, for a great recommendation!

  13. Makes me think of Louisa May Alcott, whose true story was obscured for years by the biographer who wanted the world to see only what a Victorian lady would want them to see. An interesting PBS special uncovered many of Alcott's adventures. Would she have known Jewett?

  14. SOJ is one of my favorite authors too! I will check into this biography. Thanks for the fantastic review!

  15. Hi, Nan, no, I'm sorry, I haven't read anything by Sarah Orne Jewett -- but your post certainly makes me want to, and I'm sure I will soon!
    Thanks for all the info.
    Canadian Chickadee

  16. I just wandered in from booksnob and had to say how delightful I found your posting here about Silverthorne's biography of Sarah Orne Jewett. I will have to put it on my list. You have a wonderful blog.

  17. I love reading about the personal lives of the authors that I love. Such a lovely post.

  18. Oh Nan,
    I have taken some time to read your review which is so detailed and in-depth (such a gift) and I wanted to raise my hand as I am one of those kindred spirits. Thank you for doing such a great job of sharing. Love many of the authors you shard as well as the artists you mentioned...
    Life can get so busy, but you have caused me to pause...
    Thank you!

  19. Rachel, so happy you wanted to add it to your list. She really does capture the period and the locale she writes about.

    Linda, nice to meet a fellow fan of SOJ!

    Julie, that was just beautiful! She certainly does bring her Maine to life. You'll so enjoy this book.

    Karin, this is such a well-done biography. I'm certain you will enjoy it.

    Sarah, I can't believe it! I'm thrilled about all these connections in your life. Can I buy your book somewhere??? Thanks so very much for telling me all this.

    Island Sparrow, if you like her fiction, I'm quite sure you will love the biography. Let me know if you ever try WD again. :<)

    Niki, you know what - this biography would be a great first reading. The author tells so much about all Jewett's work. Her masterpiece is The Country of the Pointed Firs, but after reading the biography I want to read all her work!

    Morning's Minion, I think I looked at one of Carroll's books once, but really must go back for a more serious try. Thank you for suggesting her.

    Jessi, thank you! I enjoy your blog for the same reason. The bread machine is:

    Zojirushi model BBCC-X20

    Jenclair, you'll love this, I'm sure!

    Mary Lois, there is mention of her visiting the Concord home of Emerson when his mind was going, and becoming friends with his daughter Ellen. But nothing about Louisa. Nothing about a meeting in Susan Cheever's American Bloombury, either. And I looked in a book I have about Louisa and her father, called Eden's Outcasts but nothing there about Jewett, so it doesn't seem they were acquainted. Odd.

    Sherri, if you love the writer, you will love her story!

    Canadian Chickadee, as I told Niki above, it wouldn't be a bad idea to begin with the biography. I learned so much about her many, many stories and books.

    Life on the cutoff, thank you so much for coming by and leaving a note. Please come again, and I'll be over to see you, too!

    Jennifer, and this is such a special biography. I've never read one quite like it. Kindly, conversational, and full of interesting information about SOJ and her work. You'll love it.

    Joanne, I was quite sure you were fond of SOJ. :<) And I knew we were 'kindred spirits.'

  20. This book sounds fascinating. Does the book mention the friendship and mutual literary inspiration between Orne Jewett and Willa Cather?

  21. I have that book and love her writing. Thanks for a very informative blog on her!

  22. Vintage Reader, yes a bit. They didn't meet until the year before Jewett died. They formed an immediate friendship, and found they had a lot in common.

    Bonnie, I thought you might be one of those 'kindred spirits!'

  23. After reading your post, I borrowed a book of Ms. Jewett's short stories from the library. They are really great - her character development is fabulous. And her style reminds me of Gladys Bagg Tabor.


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