Sarah Orne Jewett
( Originally Published 1901 )
ONCE upon a time some critic found a resemblance between Miss Jewett and one of the old Flemish painters found a resemblance between her stories and the groups of Jan van Eyck or Roger van der Weyden. He was a discerning critic, for her stories and the old masters' pictures are alike in many respects. They have a reality that is quite photographic, and yet they suggest a strong imagination. Their purity is remarkable, and yet their atmosphere is very earthly.
Better still, however, it seems to us, it would be to say that there is a strong re-semblance between Miss Jewett and Jean Francois Millet. They both have dignified the meek and the lowly ; they both have exhibited the tenderest sympathy with the plain sons of Adam and Eve that live far from the madding crowd ; they both have done this noble and ennobling work enthusiastically yet unaffectedly, modestly but, ah ! how artistically. They that take pleasure in The Angelus," will take pleasure also in " Deephaven." Millet, too, knew his characters intimately ; he had struggled and suffered like them. From such painful strenuousness Miss Jewett fortunately has been able to keep aloof, for Barbizon is not like South Berwick, and the French peasants would say that the countryfolk of Maine lived royally. But we have heard it said that Miss Jewett is like her books, and that in ten minutes she unconsciously tells you how she writes them.
Kate Sanborn once essayed a description of her friend and contemporary, in which she observed : " I feel a certain shrinking from attempting a personal sketch of this gifted woman, whom we all love for her absolutely perfect pictures of New England life." Anyone who essays the description must feel as Kate Sanborn felt, and yet, in such a case, a sketch poorly or inadequately done is better than no sketch at all. The lesson will be present, if not the eloquence. The old Flemish painters made portraits of themselves, but as yet, we hardly need say, Miss Jewett has given us no sketch of herself.
Sarah Orne Jewett was born at South Berwick, Maine, on September 3, 1849. Her father was Dr. Theodore Herman Jewett, a physician of no small renown ; her mother was the daughter of Dr. Perry of Exeter, another physician well-known in central New England during the middle of the last century. The house in which she was born is still standing, although it was built far back in the eighteenth century, and it still excites the author's warmest affection. "I was born here," she said, as she stood in its panelled hall a few years ago, " and I hope to die here, leaving the lilac bushes still green and growing, and all the chairs in their places."
You will meet glimpses of Miss Jewett's father in "A Country Doctor," but the nearest and clearest glimpse is in his daughter's personal sketch of him :
My father had inherited from his father an amazing knowledge of human nature, and from his mother's French ancestry that peculiarly French trait called gaieté de coeur. Through all the heavy responsibilities and anxieties of his busy professional life, this kept him young at heart and cheerful. His visits to his patients were often made delightful and refreshing to them by his kind heart, and the charm of his personality. I knew many of the patients whom he used to visit in lonely inland farms or on the sea-coast in York and Wells. I used to follow him about silently, like an undemanding little dog, con-tent to follow at his heels. I had no consciousness of watching or listening, or indeed of any special interest in the country interiors. In fact, when the time came that my own world of imagination was more real to me than any other, I was sometimes perplexed at my father's directing my attention to certain points of interest in the characters or surroundings of our acquaintances. I cannot help believing that he recognized, long before I did myself, in what direction the current of purpose in my life was setting. Now as I write my sketches of country life, I remember again and again the wise things he said, and the sights he made me see. He was impatient only with affectation and insincerity."
Miss Jewett was a delicate child, and, consequently, was encouraged by her father to spend much of her time outdoors ; and outdoors she formed her extraordinarily intimate acquaintance with nature and with the inhabitants of the Agamenticus region. She played even more eagerly than did the other children of the town, but when she went to school she readily outstripped her classmates. It is said that at the academy she found verse easy and prose difficult, but such conditions are not unusual. Youth takes naturally to rhymes and to games.
Once someone inquired of the author of " A Country Doctor " when the literary bent took possession of her. " I can scarcely say anything about that," she answered, " for I began to write so early. But my first serious encouragement was the acceptance of a short story by The Atlantic Monthly when I was between nineteen and twenty years old." That story was " Mr. Bruce," published in December, 1869.
We believe that Miss Jewett was about fourteen when she wrote " Lucy Garron's Lovers." Between that age and the age when she was welcomed to The Atlantic Monthly she published little sketches in Young Folks and in The Riverside. Her first great popular success was " Deep-haven," which appeared in 1877.
"Popular success" however, hardly expresses the reception of " Deephaven." " Artistic success " might be a fitter expression. The fact is, Miss Jewett's works are not popular, as Miss Johnston's, say, are popular. James Russell Lowell used the right words when, shortly before his death, e wrote to the London publishers of the New England author's books: " I am very glad to hear that Miss Jewett's delightful stories are to be reprinted in England. Nothing more pleasingly characteristic of rural life in New England has been written, and they have long been valued by the judicious here."
The same might be said to-day — " they have long been valued by the judicious here." No writer has a more devoted, more admiring public than the Bostonian. For we may call her a Bostonian, notwithstanding her loyalty to Berwick, or Bar-wick, as the natives say. During the last quarter of a century she has been the almost inseparable companion of Mrs. James T. Fields, who loves Boston no less than the judicious " Bostonians love and respect her. Back in 1882 the serene and noble Whittier addressed a sonnet to them as they set sail for Europe — a sonnet interesting to quote :
Outbound your bark awaits you. Were I one Whose prayer availeth much, my wish would be
Whittier was accustomed to attend Friends' meetings in Berwick, and it was in the old town that he, typical of the old New England literary traditions, and Miss Jewett, the type of the newer, made each other's acquaintance ! The sweet poet was greatly pleased by " Deephaven," and he heartily interested himself in its writers progress until he died.
Miss Jewett divides her time between Boston, Berwick and Manchester-by-the-Sea — the same Manchester that prompted Dr. Holmes to write " Beverly-by-the-Depot." The larger part of her literary work is done in the old Maine settlement, to whose name, by the way, no South was prefixed originally. Plain Berwick it was known as in the lively, picturesque days, when bronze-faced sailors rolled barrels of rum up and boxes of tobacco and stranger wares down the north Atlantic wharves. From one who visited her in Maine a few years ago we gather this description of the Jewett homestead :
" It seems as if one had no right to say so much about a house which is a home. And yet New England has few like this, and it is a part of her brave history. There are few such broad, high halls, arched and panelled ; few such wide stairways with carved and polished railings, few such quaint gilded mirrors and antique portraits and last century bedsteads with white canopies... Behind the house is a big old-fashioned garden, and every room is sweet with posies. There is a stable, too, for Miss Jewett loves her horses, and drives almost daily over the green hills ... of the beautiful coast of Maine. She is an oars-woman as well, and her boat knows every reach of the river and all its quiet sunlit groves. . . Miss Jewett's " den" is the most delightful I have ever seen. It is in the upper hall, with a window looking down upon a tree-shaded village street. A desk strewn with papers is on one side, and on the other a case of books and a table. Pictures, flowers and books are everywhere. The room set apart for the library is one of the four great square ones downstairs. But the books overflow it. They lie upon the sofas, and have shelves in the bedrooms. It is the house of a woman who studies, Scott, particularly. . . " The busier I get," she said, " the more time I make to read the Waverley novels."
Mention of the " den " brings us up to Miss Jewett's method of working. She has moods she does not make writing a set daily task, with so many pages to be done at a certain hour, as a Haverstraw laborer would have so many bricks. We have heard it said that sometimes her day's work amounts to eight or ten thousand words. That indeed would be a prodigious effort. Marion Crawford is one of the swiftest writers we ever heard of, and his ordinary limit is six thousand words a day. Possibly the truth about Miss Jewett's industry has been exaggerated. More reasonable is the statement that while engaged on a novel she pens from two to four thousand words a day. Between books she enjoys periods of physical recreation and literary construction.
Of your own books, which do you like best ? " Miss Jewett was once asked.
" They're a pretty large family now," and she smiled. " There are always pertisonal reasons, you know, and associations that may influence one's judgment. I don't think I have a favorite. In some ways I like ' A Country Doctor' best, and yet I believe ' A Marsh Island' is a better story."
Her latest work, " A Tory Lover," was concluded in The Atlantic Monthly last 55 sometimes dined with my grandfather ami talked of their voyages and bargains at the Barbadoes and Havana. And so I came to know directly a good deal about a fashion of life which is now almost entirely a thing of the past in New England."
" Art, you know," she said to the same man, as they sat discussing her Yankee and Irish-American sketches, " always be-gins with a recognition of the grotesque and unusual in life — the mere superficial aspects of character and habit. All literature in the beginning is in relation to the lower forms of pictorial art— it views life from the pictorial side almost exclusively. As August, two months after Bowdoin College had bestowed upon her the degree of Doctor of Letters.
" I have only written," she said to a literary brother a few years ago, " about what I knew and felt. In giving any idea of the influences which have shaped my literary life, I must go back to the surroundings of my childhood, and to those friends who first taught me to observe and to know the deep pleasures of simple things, and to be interested in simple and humble lives. I was born in an old colonial house in South Berwick, which was built about 1750. My grandfather had been a sea-captain, but retired early and engaged more or less in the flourishing shipping trade of that time. This business in all its branches, art goes higher it recognizes facts, and then the pathetic in the ludicrous. The distinction of modern literature is the evocation of sympathy.... Plato said : ' The best thing that can be done for the people of a state is to make them acquainted with each other ' ; and that is what I conceive to be the business of a story writer."
Miss Jewett is rather tall and perfectly dignified, but her dignity is warmed by her uncommon graciousness and by the charming brightness of her face. As her father had, surely she also has this true French gaieté de coeur. It should by this time be hardly necessary to say that flashes of wit and wisdom characterize her conversation, and that, in short, she is one of the rarest ornaments of the most cultured circle of Boston society.