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A Marsh Island

Sarah Orne Jewett

This text duplicates the first printing,
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1885

Chapters 8-10
Chapters 11-14
Chapters 1-3
Chapters 15-18
Chapters 4-7
Chapters 19-23

Atlantic Monthly Serialization of A Marsh Island.


Copyright © 2001-17 by Terry Heller

Salt marsh at low tide, near Wells, Maine.
September 2002



     A Marsh Island has not fared well among Jewett's works. Critics have given it almost no attention at all. Except for Margaret Roman in Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender, most of the few people who have reported reading it have seen it as one of Jewett's lesser works. Below are two typical evaluations of the novel.

     As I have prepared this work for the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project, I have found much to like about it.  I have wondered whether previous readers have made too much of the love story and too little of the story of the artist finding himself, which seems obviously to be a version of Jewett's own entering into her vocation from a privileged social position.

    Below are two well-expressed and typical evaluations, presented in order to help point the question posed by the reception of this novel so far.  Has it deserved its obscurity?


The following people did important work on preparing, editing and annotating this text.
    Linda Heller, Gabe Heller, Jay Searls, and the members of the Fall 2000 Seminar on Jewett at Coe College: Lonni Evans,  Laura Heugel, Liane Kido, Thomas Metzler, Claire Smith, Lisa Thorpe.

Reviews of A Marsh Island

from "De Temporibus et Moribus." Vassar Miscellany, Volume XIV, Number 9, (1 June 1885)

    The last chapters of"A Marsh Island" are printed in the June Atlantic. It has been a pleasant and readable story, but I fancy that critics will be disappointed in it, after the expectations raised by "A Country Doctor." That book showed so marked a superiority over " Deephaven", and Miss Jewett's short stories, that we surely had a right to look for something unusually good in " A Marsh Island." In style, the new book shows some gain -- an added ease in description, a more skilful treatment of dialect, and an independence in the choice of details which brings out more clearly than ever Miss Jewell's strong individuality. But this gain is growth rather than artistic development, and it is not accompanied by any improvement in the matter of the story.
    Miss Jewett always writes with a purpose. In "A Country Doctor", she set herself the task of answering Miss Phelps and Mr. Howells, the authors of "Dr. Zay " and  "Dr. Breen's Practice", by showing another and, as she believed, a fairer view of the question at issue, -- whether or not women could make successful doctors. Mr Howells, who always chooses to picture weakness rather than strength, and who has never yet given an encouraging answer to any social problem, selected for his typical  female physician" (no wonder that they do not succeed while we call them that) a dependent, irresolute woman, who began the practice of her profession with no appreciation of the difficulties before her, and yielded to the very first obstacle in her path. Mr. Howells was undoubtedly fair, having given Dr. Breen such a character, in making her fail as a physician. The unfairness, if there was any, lay in presenting her as a type. Miss Phelps gave her heroine a stronger character, but relented, as she always does when the question of love conies in, and let Dr. Zay marry, and give up her profession. Then Miss Jewett brought her " Country Doctor" on the scene, and showed another side of the question. She, undoubtedly had the truest idea of the matter. The only women,  -- or men,  -- who ought to become doctors are those who enter their profession, not from a, mistaken estimate of their capacity, not because they must do something to support themselves, not even from a, sincere desire to be of use in the world, but because they were born with a special fitness and an irresistible love for it.
     Mr. Howells's and Miss Phelps's stories were interesting and fair views of the question in its application to certain types, but they gave the impression that Dr. Breen and Dr. Zay failed because they were women, while the fact is that the qualities in them which prevented their success as physicians were not by any means exclusively feminine. As an answer to the question, -- which had to do not with probability but with possibility, -- Miss Jewell's book was fairer. The literary merits of the book were great, also. The leading characters were strongly drawn, the details of circumstance, action, and scenery were well managed, and "A Country Doctor" was a delightful book. Miss Jewett's first novel placed her high in the ranks of contemporary novelists. "A Marsh Island " sustains the reputation which she gained then, but does not heighten it.
    The plot of " A Marsh Island " is almost as simple as that of"A Country Doctor." A young artist, wandering into the country in search of "material" for his sketches, is detained by accident in a farm-house on the Marsh Island. He nearly falls in love with Doris Owen, the farmer's beautiful daughter. She already has a lover in Dan Lester, a young man of the neighborhood, whom she has always vaguely expected to marry; but Dick Dale's culture and trained artistic mind, coming to her like a revelation from another world, almost win away her affection. In time, however, she returns to her old lover, and is perfectly content to spend her life as a country housekeeper, bringing around herself the new beauties which Dick Dale has revealed to her, instead of leaving her home in search of them. The artist leaves the farm-house, hardly knowing whether or not he is a disappointed lover, and carrying with him a, new vigor of purpose which bears fruit in finer work as an artist, and stronger life as a man. This is the story. The whole interest lies in the development of the few leading characters, and in the exquisite descriptions of striking scenes, or narrations of delightful bits of conversation in Marsh Island dialect. Miss Jewett has the good sense to
confine herself to those branches of writing for which she has natural talent; and so far as form goes the book is exceptionally pleasant reading. But, after all, what merits has the book aside from this charm of style? If an author writes merely to please, we are content if he succeeds in pleasing us. But, when we detect, as any critic must in Miss Jewett's books, an intention to do something more than that, we have a right to submit our author to a severer criticism; to ask what is the object of the book, and whether it is successful. I confess to finding some difficulty in defining the exact purpose of "A Marsh Island." Perhaps Miss Jewett meant, more than any thing else, to show that a woman of high ideals, of natural refinement, and of mental strength can be perfectly happy as the wife of a country farmer, who is her inferior in every one of these particulars. I hope I am not unfair in assigning this as the main purpose of " A Marsh Island", for in that case my whole estimate of the book is unfair. Granted that this was Miss Jewett's chief thought, the book fails to prove it true. If Dan Lester had been a trifle less boorish, a bit nearer Doris's level; if he had had the natural qualities which make refinement possible, we could imagine Doris loving him and being happy as his wife. But Lester has almost nothing to recommend him; he loses his temper like an irascible small boy; he is childish in his treatment of his rival, and selfish in his love for Doris. The contrast with Dick Dale shows him in a most unfavorable light. We find much to praise in the young artist, and almost nothing to blame, except his want of energy; and he is cured even of that by his contact with Doris Owen. They certainly come very near falling in love with each other, and we are hardly prepared to find it so Platonic a friendship as it appears in the last pages of the story. When he comes back from the Island, Dick Dale tells his friend, Bradish, that he wishes he had fallen in love with the farmer's daughter; and I think most readers will wish that he had not only fallen in love with her but won her. There was something too fine in Doris Owen for her to give herself up to the kind of life which her mother had lived. No matter with how much love and hope she might enter upon it, her future as Dan Lester's wife could hardly be as happy as Miss Jewett promises. The deeper and richer side of her nature, which had found sympathy in Dick Dale, was perfectly incomprehensible to Dan Lester. It was not Lester's want of education which made him incomparably his wife's inferior; if it had been, there would be some hope that she might in time have raised him to her level. It was rather an absolute lack of all those finer inborn qualities which rendered Doris admirable, and which made even the uncultured old farmer, her father, worthy of both love and respect. Whether or not Miss Jewett wrote with the purpose which I attribute to her, she is mistaken in her theory; the conclusion can not logically come from the premises. However, let me not be too severe on "A Marsh Island." The book has some strong characters and several fine passages. Martha Owen and Temperance Kipp are well-drawn, and the old farmer, Doris's father, is excellent. The description of the ride to Westmarket, in one of the last chapters, shows as fine work as Miss Jewett has ever done. And if her views of life are not always practical, her theories are interesting ; and among the gloomy pictures of life and characters which many novelists represent, Miss Jewett's idealism is sometimes really refreshing.

     New Orleans Daily Times Picayune (October 4, 1885), p. 9.

     A MARSH ISLAND. By Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. New Orleans: J. C. Eyrica, 292 pp., cloth, $1.25.

     Readers who were delighted with "A Country Doctor," by Miss Jewett will be glad to find this newest story by the same author, in such handsome dress as the Riverside Press has given it.

     from "Recent Fiction," The Independent 37 (Sept. 17, 1885), p. 12.

     Miss Jewett's A Marsh Island is a stronger and more finished story than "A Country Doctor." Perhaps the chief charm of it is its serene atmosphere, the delightful descriptions of foregrounds and backgrounds, of cloud and water and meadowland, in which the pleasant little pastoral drama is played. This is quiet enough, we admit; but hardly less interesting (unless on has come direct from the gas and glitter of Ouida, for example) because the reader will take naps between chapters. We quote an illustration of Miss Jewett's happy style of dealing with a bit of description. It merely describes what a young man lying in his bed, wakeful, gathered, half-unconsciously, as impressions of the night; but it might be far more commonplace in other hands.

     "Later that evening, Dick Dale lay in bed, listening again to the crickets, which kept up a ceaseless chirping about the house, and to the sober exclamations of the lonely sea-bird, in the lowland not far away. The window was wide open, within reach of his hand, and once or twice he raised himself on his elbow to look [up] at the stars, which were gleaming and twinkling in a white host, whose armies seemed to cover the sky. The willows reached out their huge branches, and made a small cloud of dense darkness, and the damp sea air was flavored with their fragrance and that of the newly-mown marshes. There were no sounds except those made by the faintly chirping creatures, which seemed to have been stationed by the rural neighborhood as a kind of night watchman, to cry[,] 'All's well,' and mark the time. The great loon was the minute hand, while the crickets told the seconds with incessant diligence. As for the hours, they seemed so much longer than usual, that, whether a wind or a falling star announced their close, it would be impossible to determine."

     This is the poetry of quiet Nature, felt and expressed with equal truth and simplicity.

     The Literary World 16 (May 30, 1885) pp. 191-2.


     MISS JEWETT shows her wisdom as well as her skill in confining herself, as a novelist, to a tract of country with which she is perfectly familiar, and to a class of people whom she knows by heart. This reliance upon personal observation and experience gives to her books a landscape which is realistic and a character which is literal and vivid. Miss Jewett bids fair to be the prose romancist, as Whittier is the poet, of Essex County, Massachusetts. The charm of this her latest story is in the fidelity with which it paints the New England prospect to the eye, at a point where the hills and the sea blend in a borderland of marches and dunes, and in the effectiveness with which she humanizes the scene with well-known but fast disappearing types of character. Some novels offer nothing to the eye and everything to the ear; others little to the ear and everything to the eye; this book addresses both senses, occupying the sight with long stretches of lowlands, where creeks wind in and out flushed with the flowing tides, at the same time that it pleases the hearing with the quaint and homely talk of the kitchen and the mowing-field.

     Nothing could be simpler than the motive of this story; hardly anything could be finer than the art with which it is handled. There is a farm-house on the Marsh Island. There is a farmer's daughter, Doris. There is a lover, Dan Lester, who has not yet spoken his mind. And while he halts and hesitates, a roving artist appears at the door, a young man from the city. A sprained ankle makes him a prisoner at the farm. Dale, the artist, surrenders to the spell which Doris casts over all around her; Lester, the former lover, is soured with jealousy; and for a time it seems as if the Marsh Island might witness a tragedy of hearts if not of lives. Like this is the background against which the figures stand:

     Westward from the farm, beyond an expanse of almost level country, a low range of hills made a near horizon. They were gray in the drought, and bare like a piece of moorland, save where the fences barred them, or a stunted tree stood up against the sky, leaning away from the winter storms toward a more sheltered and fertile inland region. The windward side of the Marsh Island itself was swept clean by the sea winds; it was only on the southern and western slopes that the farmer's crops, his fruit-trees, and his well-stocked garden found encouragement to grow. Eastward, on the bleak downs, a great flock of sheep nibbled and strayed about all day, and blinked their eyes at the sun. . . . The salt-hay making was over at last. The marshes were dotted as far as eye could see by the round haystacks with their deftly pointed tops. These gave a great brilliance of color to the landscape, being unfaded yet by the rain and snow that would dull their yellow tints later in the year. September weather came early, even before its appointed season, and there was a constant suggestion of autumn before the summer was fairly spent. The delicate fragrance of the everlasting-flowers was plainly noticeable in the dry days that followed each other steadily. The summer was ripe early this year, and the fruits reddened, and the flowers all went to seed, and the days grew shorter in kindly fashion, being so pleasant that one could not resent the hurrying twilight, or now and then the acknowledged loss of a few minutes of daylight. From the top of the island hill a great fading countryside [country-side] spread itself wide and fair, and seaward the sails looked strangely white against the deepened blue of the ocean.
     Could the scene of this story be more picturesque if it were laid in Holland?

     While Doris waits for Lester and for Dale, as if the first one who asked her might get her, the daily work of the farm goes picturesquely on around her; the mother is up at five to get the early breakfast at six for her father and the farm hands who are off to the marshes before seven; the peaches ripen and redden on the trees; the faithful Temperance comes and goes on her errands; the heavily harnessed horses fare afield; the white-winged ships float silently in the distance; the gulls dip and soar; the doughnuts in the kitchen are rolled and cut and fried; the tall clock ticks away; the tired and hungry men come home to their suppers and their well-earned repose; Sunday rests give opportunity for relished gossip; there are visits to the near town; the artist visitor paints and the jealous lover storms; the farm-hands have their quiet jokes and the neighbors their conjectures and suspicions; until at last the true lover's patience can bear no more, and sudden tidings that he has shipped for the Banks bring Doris up by a round turn, and the little drama, just escaping the line of tragedy, plays itself out to a pleasant ending.

     It is a sweet and fragrant tale; honest and frank; full of a sylvan loveliness, a rustic freshness, that present the best side of New England to the very life; pure, refined, and wholesome, with the colors of an afternoon in July by the sea, where the blue of the sea and the whitish gray of the beaches and the green of the meadows and the brown of the marsh grass make up an exquisite harmony, and the plain old-fashioned dialect of Farmer Owen, his family, and his men-folks recalls the almost patriarchal times which have faded so rapidly into the past since the War.

     Miss Jewett knows her forte, and works accordingly. She takes a small canvas, selects a modest theme, plies her brush with truthfulness and pains, and produces as a result a picture which, though not a great one, is an excellent one, and delights the spectator by its purity, refinement, and fidelity to nature and life.

    from "The Bookshelf," The Cottage Hearth 11 (July 1885) 224.

     A reviewer's task, if thoroughly done, is not always a pleasant one. There are books where vast numbers of pages have to drearily [be] traversed by the critic, who wanders to and fro like a traveller on the desert, seeking for a high spring of clear, living water. It is therefore, with a sincere sense of personal gratitude that the writer has taken up Miss Jewett's last novel, and found it as delightfully refreshing as the shade of one of the old apple-trees she loves to write about, on an August day. As a piece of literary work, the "Marsh Island" is decidedly in advance of any previous book the author has given us. The plot, though not unique, does not lose its interest for a moment; nor can the conclusion of the story be anticipated with any certainty until the last chapter is reached. The description of the old farm in the midst of dreary stretches of saltmarsh - one of the most impossible landscapes to handle with vigor or pathos, one would suppose - is charmingly natural and vivid. We can see the ponderous scow, leaving the whitened patch of grass where it has lain all the spring, and floating slowly down the reek; or hear the "rustle of the unburdened bough" as, released from the hand of the apple-gatherer, it springs back to its place. Doris is full of shy, pretty ways, with little pathetic touches that are both womanly and winning. What could be more touching than her surprise at the sight of the tennis-ground, now deserted by the city-folk; actual "land," just used on purpose for play! While at the same time she approaches the closed house and, with a strange longing, timidly peers into the dark interior through the heart-shaped opening in the shutters. The whole book, one said to the writer, is an exquisite water-color, with no heavy daubs of fiery tint nor depths of black; just fair, sweet, transparent colors, laid on with the daintiest of brushes. When deeper reflections are ventured upon, they are always true, as well as graceful. Though the artist left Doris behind, and felt the loss in his life, "he was dimly conscious that for each revelation of truth or beauty, Heaven demands tribute and better service than before." That is a bit of real gospel; a little sermon, as delicately preached as ever lady spoke. And of such dainty and forceful utterance, the book is full.

     from "Editor's Literary Record" Harper's new monthly magazine 71 (Aug. 1885) 477-8.

     There is a combination of the art of the poet, the painter, and the story-teller in Sarah Orne Jewett's A Marsh Island. It is at once an idyl, a romance, and a cabinet of exquisite genre word-pictures. A painter who is young, rich, gifted, and a society favorite, but withal thoroughly clean-hearted and unspoiled, is carried by his vagrant art to one of those rural oases so common on the sea-coast counties of Massachusetts, where the rolling ground of the mainland fades into the level marsh-land of the tide-waters. Here, at intervals of luxurious idleness through a languorous sunny day, he reproduces upon his canvas the scenery around him, captivated with its rich glintings of color and its quaint and quiet and secluded beauties, until evening overtakes him. The day's work or play over, he lingers half dreamily and half impatiently, waiting for the lad who had engaged to carry his traps back to the distant town, but lingers fruitlessly, till at length he sees the sun is sinking in the west, and he is left seemingly the sole tenant of the country. As he has a "game" foot, and it has become too late for him to find his way back to his hostelry, he bestirs himself to find a shelter for the night, and plods on jocundly, but a little wearily, until he descries in the distance a farm-house nestled amongst tall trees, in the neighborhood of a great red barn that bespeaks the thrift of its owner, and encompassed by a farm that rises from the surrounding marshes like a high and fruitful island. Pleasantest of all to the wayfarer, at that moment, a straight plume of smoke is going up from one of the chimneys of the hospitable-looking dwelling, most supper-like in its suggestions, and he makes for it as a haven where he shall find rest and the creature comforts his inner man is now loudly calling for. Nor were his hopes and expectations disappointed. He is cordially received and hospitably entertained. The house and its belongings gratify his æsthetic taste, while its owners minister to his necessities. It is a happy, a wholesome, and a plentiful home, equally removed from fashion and from rudeness, dignified in its simple freedom, in the frank independence of its primitive manners, in the capable management of its mistress, and in the self-respect, the quiet dignity, and the fine urbanity of its master, and beautified by the presence of a daughter whose loveliness attracted, and whose stately grace and womanly purity held in check, the admiring stranger. He soon becomes a favorite with the old people, ingratiates himself in their confidence, is permitted to stay on indefinitely, sets up his studio in one of the commodious out-buildings, and begins a rural idyl that is told with felicitous warmth and earnestness in this charming story. How the gracious and beautiful farmer's daughter, strong in her maiden innocence, and the handsome young artist, sensitively alive to beauty, are brought closer together by companionship and comradeship; how they mutually influence and regard each other; and whether they indulge in young love's dream, or whether it has already been indulged in to the disappointment of the one or the other, we shall not now reveal. Is it not all written in the delightful prose poem that awaits and will richly reward our readers' perusal?

     from William Morton Payne, "Recent Fiction," The Dial 6 (Sept. 1885) 123.

     There are few things more characteristic of New England scenery than the salt marshes of the coast. It is to these that Miss Jewett takes us in her new novel, which has just been rescued from the dismembering grasp of the "Atlantic Monthly," as the "marsh island" which she describes has itself been rescued from the Atlantic Ocean. It is unnecessary to say that "A Marsh Island" is a simple and exquisite story of, for the most part, the life of country people, and that it is, in a high sense, an artistic production. Miss Jewett has little invention, but she has a rare delicacy of touch, and the American fiction of to-day shows no more beautiful sign than that which is given by her stories and sketches.

     Miss Murfree has given us, in "Down the Ravine," a story which is chiefly intended for juvenile readers, but "children of a larger growth" will probably find it no less interesting for its style and dialect, if not for the narrative itself. It is the story of a Tennessee country boy, whose chief desire is to become the owner of a mule. After various reverses, his object is attained, and the story ends happily for all concerned, excepting the bad boy of the tale, who, in his eagerness to outwit others, finds himself completely outwitted. There is a good deal of clever study, both of character and of scenery, in this little volume, and Tennessee is so little known to literature that such glimpses of its life as Miss Murfree gives us are very welcome.

     Atlantic Monthly 56 (October 1885), 560-1. by Horace Scudder

     In Miss Jewett we have a writer who might, if personal comparisons were not idle as well as odious, be regarded in the light of Miss Howard's career. It were scarcely more than a accidental ground of comparison, however, which should be taken, were we to note their contemporaneousness, their agreement in nativity, and their common literary pursuit. We prefer to consider Miss Jewett without references to others, and even without much reference to her own previous work. Such a book as A March Island1 may very properly ask to be looked at in a gallery by itself. Its charm is so pervasive, and so independent of the strict argument of the story, that those who enjoy it most are not especially impelled to discuss it. It does not invite criticism and more than it deprecate close scrutiny. What was the charm that Richard Dale found in the marsh island itself, where he was so willing a prisoner? simply that which springs from a landscape, broad, unaccented, lying under a summer day, breathing the fragrance of grass and wild roses. The people about him were farmer folk, scarcely racy even, the very heroine herself moves through the scenes unadorned by any caprices or fluttering ribbons of coquetry. The sketches which he brought away were studies in this quiet nature; they were figurative of A Marsh Island itself, which is an episode in water-color.

     It seems to us that Miss Jewett owes her success, which is indubitable, to her wise timidity. She realizes the limitations of her power, and knows that what she can do within the range of her graceful gift is worth far more than any ambitious struggle outside of it would be. So long as she can make us feel the cool breeze blowing over the marshes, and suggest those long, even lines of landscape, and bring up to our imagination the swing of the scythe, the passage of the hay boat, the homely work of the kitchen, why should she weary us, quieted by these scenes, with the turbid life which another, more passionate novelist might with equal truth discover in the same range of human activity and suffering? We are grateful to her for the shade of such a book as this, and accept it as one of the gifts which Nature herself brings to the tired dweller in cities. We are not uninterested in the quavers of Mr. Dale's vacillating mind, and we recognize the lover in Dan Lester, but after all it is not these figures by themselves upon which our attention is fixed; they but form a part of that succession of interiors and out-door scenes with pass before the eye in the pages in this book. Flemish pictures we were about to call them, but the refinement which belongs to Miss Jewett's work forbids such a characterization. We return to our own figure: they are water-color sketches, resting for their value not upon dramatic qualities or strong color, but upon their translucency, their pure tone, their singleness of effect.

    from Literary World 16 (May 30, 1885), 191-2.

     As partially reprinted in Sarah Orne Jewett: A Reference Guide

     Jewett is wise in restricting herself to the characters and settings she knows best. In A Marsh Island "nothing could be simpler than the motive of this story; hardly anything could be finer than the art with which it is handled. . . . It is a sweet and fragrant tale; honest and frank; full of a sylvan loveliness, a rustic freshness, that present the best side of New England. . . ." Jewett paints a modest picture but an excellent one which delights through its "purity, refinement, and fidelity to nature and life."

     Overland Monthly 5 (June 1885) 662-3.

     Last of all come in by far the best two novels of the summer: Within the Capes and A Marsh Island. Both of these books are of the sort that makes it seem so easy a thing to tell a simple, straight-forward story and make it life-like and interesting that it is unaccountable people should strain and fail so. Within the Capes is conventional enough in its outline: a young sailor, returning to his native Quaker village and there falling in love; more sea-voyaging, shipwreck, lone island, rescue, murder trial, and halcyon ending. Yet these conventional outlines are filled in with the freshest and most winning of detail and manner; nothing is strained, nothing crude, not a false note touched. The style is almost quaintly simple: the writer has helped his own imagination in rendering it so by making it the autobiographical narrative of Tom Granger, told in his old age, in the third person, with occasional quaint lapses, as though unconsciously, into the first, so as to reveal Captain Granger himself as the narrator yet without having to explain that he is. Thus the gentle simplicity of speech of a good old Quaker seafarer is attained, the usual drawbacks of the autobiographical form. Tom Granger is a very fine fellow, and the reader becomes aware of it without getting any unpleasant impression that Granger himself thinks so. The Quaker village is charmingly lifelike, and its people are no lay figures, but living and worthy men and women - except the rival lover, who is rather conventional. The time is 1812 and a few years thereafter, and the old-fashioned flavor of the story is appropriate, not only to the supposed venerable years of the narrator, but to the period. This is the sort of story that the "summer novel" should be: it is light, and by no means a great novel; but it is a very pretty, pleasant, and gentlemanly one, and we hope to see others from the same hand.

     In even a higher degree, Miss Jewett's new story has the grace of restraint, perfect simplicity and directness, and the best of breeding in matter and manner. But this comment and most other such that could be made, are merely repeating what every one knows already of Miss Jewett's invariable traits as a writer. Her style may be called well-nigh perfect. This particular story is perhaps less delightful than "A Country Doctor," yet that is more because the subject is less notably happy than anything else. There is not much story, but one does not want much story, in Miss Jewett's books; they are transcripts of bits of life, not regularly constructed novels with plot and machinery. The very fields, and sea, and farming folk are in them. They do not pretend to go as deeply into human nature, nor to be as minutely or vividly true to it as some novels; but in its own way the characterization is perfect. They are like a painter's outdoor studies. Wonderfully uniform they are, too: in this latest one, neither falling away from the mark of previous achievement, nor improving upon it, is visible. In work so perfect in its own way, perhaps nothing of the sort is to be expected. The idly is Miss Jewett's line, and tragedies and dramas and the like are not to be sought among her quiet and fragrant fields.

    From The Critic 4 (8 August 1885) 64.

     Miss Jewett's A Marsh Island

     MISS JEWETT'S new book is in many ways very pleasant reading. It is a great advance upon A Country Doctor, and exhibits at their best the fine literary traits that have made for Miss Jewett the enviable reputation of one who can interest the public in simple things. Nothing could be better of the kind than the bits of landscape scattered through the book. Inimitable is the description of the marshes, 'looking as if the land had been raveled out into the sea,' and of the tide, 'holding itself bravely for a time: it had grasped the land nobly; all that great weight and power were come in and had prevailed; it shone up at the sky, and laughed in the sun's face; then changed its mind, and began to creep away again; it would rise no more that morning, but at night the world should wonder!' So keen and bright and true are these pen-sketches, that if they had been left as landscape painting they would have seemed not only exquisite but spirited. The effort to mingle with them, however, something of a story of life and human nature, has resulted in a drowsy effect upon the reader, which reminds one of Lucretia Mott's saying on entering a room where her husband and brother were together: 'Ah! I thought thee must both be here; it was so quiet!' It is impossible to feel excited, very hard to feel even decently interested, as regards the characters of the story. The mise en scène is perfect, but the people are dull. That is, they are not even really dull; they simply do not exist for us. The good housewife does not touch our hearts, even as a frier of doughnuts; Doris is entirely inanimate; and the artist is as quiet as if he knew professionally that he ought to sit still while his portrait was being painted. But it is pleasanter to praise, and for the scenery and settings of the incidents no one could have anything but praise. It is, indeed, because they are so fine that one looks for something more important to happen in them than the eating of apples or the making of a pie.

    Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World & Her Work. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

She was not at all sure at first what the characters were going to do, but after a while told Whittier with some surprise that it promised to be "a 'blooming' love story." She soon realized that she was uncomfortable with what she had gotten herself into, "I know I could write a better story without a lover in it!" she lamented to Annie, and like all her similar attempts, this "love" story never warms beyond friendship. (164)

     Such as it is, the plot turns on the question of whether the daughter, Doris, will succumb to Dale's big-city charms or prove true to Dan Lester, a local blacksmith she has known since childhood who has never gotten around to proposing marriage. The lack of ardor on everyone's part is, in the end, ludicrous: poor Doris actually feels "dumb before her inevitable fate" when she first thinks Dan is about to propose. We are constantly aware of an unspoken third possibility for Doris, that of remaining independent and free . . . . [Unlike Nan Prince and Sylvia] Doris is an ordinary girl, strong and intelligent but with no definite talent. She and her father are good friends, and there is an implied, might-have-been scenario of Doris remaining on the farm, helping both parents, and eventually inheriting it herself. But Jewett, clearly writing against the grain but determined to write a conventional romance about a "normal" girl, ignores her heroine's half-articulated longing for independence and her identification with the crows, who "were masters of the air, and could fly, while men could not." (165)

     Jewett's fictional "Sussex" may in fact be a town in which a girl like Doris could be happy, but we are not given any description of the town itself, only of the farm some miles away. Because we are given no idea of the ways in which Doris's life with Dan will be interesting and fulfilling, and because her sudden resolution to marry lacks emotional plausibility, the novel fails even as a potboiler romance. No writing of Jewett's is an utter failure, however, and the descriptions of the marsh and farm life, and the characterizations of the senior Owens and their helper, Tempy, are up to her usual mark. (166)


Images the 1885 Edition of A Marsh Island

Weber & Weber's description in A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Sarah Orne Jewett
indicates that these images are from the first edition.


Title Page

Courtesy of the University of Iowa Library

Chapters 8-10
Chapters 11-14
Chapters 1-3
Chapters 15-18
Chapters 4-7
Chapters 19-23

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