Sarah Orne Jewett and Her Maine Home
Boston Sunday Herald
July 14, 1901.
Stories of Maine People.
Grand, Simple Lives Depicted by Sarah Orne Jewett.
Her Quaint Old Home in South Berwick, Where Her Many Plots Were Evolved and Given to the World -- Honored with a Degree by Bowdoin College.
When, at its recent commencement exercises, Bowdoin College conferred upon Miss Sarah Orne Jewett the degree of doctor of letters, it established a very interesting precedent. For no man's college has ever before thus honored a woman who writes.
Yet that Miss Jewett has abundantly earned the right to the distinction bestowed upon her by the Maine institution of learning is beyond dispute. She, more than any other man or woman who has ever written of the region we call "Down East," has made us understand the native nobility and the sterling character of Maine folk.
"When I was 15," she said to her visitor, in explanation of her life work of sympathetically interpreting the country people of her native state, "the first city boarders began to make their appearance near my home in South Berwick and the way they misconstrued the country people and made game of their peculiarities fired me with indignation. I determined to teach the world that country people were not the awkward, ignorant creatures those boarders seemed to think. I wished the world to know their grand, simple lives."
And it is just because Miss Jewett is one of the country folk as well as a cultured woman of the world that her stories of Maine people have that pungent odor of the pines all love. Bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, she can appreciate fully the thoughts and inner lives of her characters while looking upon them with eyes which, from seeing other things, have acquired a just sense of literary and moral values. As for the spirit of tender mercy and loving kindness that pervades Miss Jewett's work--that is part of the individual woman. She loves her kind, whether they are members of the Girls' Friendly Society of Trinity Church, Boston, or the neighbors and kin of the amiable Mrs. Todd, that delicious personage well known to all Miss Jewett's readers.
It is in Boston, at 148 Charles street, the hospitable and charming home of Mrs. James T. Fields, that Miss Jewett lives in winter, there fulfilling graciously the social duties of a well bred Boston woman. But in summer, when she is not with Mrs. Fields [Field] at Manchester-by-the-Sea, as she happens to be just at the present time, Miss Jewett is to be found in the Homestead, her place at South Berwick, one of the most beautiful old houses to be seen anywhere in New England.
"I was born here," said the chatelaine [chattelaine] herself to the visitor, "and I hope to die here, leaving the lilac bushes still green and all the chairs in their places.["]
["]Very good taste this would show, too--not changing any of the arrangements of the Homestead, in whose great rooms, filled with old mahogany and warmed by huge tile fireplaces it would be easy to forget that the gundalows, with their high peaked sails, like great birds' wings, do not yet sail down the river from the landing wharves in fleets of tens and twenties to Portsmouth with their loads of pine planks and boards to be exchanged for East India rum, tobacco, and molasses or for Russian iron, duck or cordage and such priceless old glass and silver and china as came from unknown ports and here peeps out wonderingly from deep dark shelves upon the 20th century cushions and pictures and bric-a-brac of the room.
"That flowered wall paper there," said one clever woman of Miss Jewett's acquaintance, "is of the type upon which Marie Antoinette might have set the seal of her approval when she fitted up the little Trianon." And in point of the fact the design for this paper may have come from the same brain as originated one of Marie Antoinette's. For the Homestead dates back into the early part of the 18th century and was an old house even before Miss Jewett's grandfather secured possession of it some seventy years ago. Much of the furniture speaks today of the taste and wealth of this seafaring ancestor.
The house stands close to the street, opposite what the South Berwickians call "the block," amid shrubbery and giant elms that lend to it a rich background of green. A cheery, generous hall, rich in beautifully hand-carved panels and cornices with a massive door at each end extends through the centre of the building.
Lying on either side are two large square rooms, while on one side a quaint, highly polished stairway with broad low steps leads by right-angled curves to the floor above, where there is another hall and six more rooms, with an immense garret pierced by pretty dormers extending over all. And in every room is the most fascinating old-fashioned mahogany furniture, high-backed chairs, spindle-legged escritoires, china cabinets full of rare treasures, carvings and corals and sea shells, quaint gilded mirrors and antique portraits with everywhere that trace of French elegance that makes the atmosphere one of rare charm.
The garden is big and old-fashioned, full of all manner of exquisite posies, and there is a stable, too, for Miss Jewett loves horses, and drives daily when she is in her country home. She is a capital oarswoman as well, and her boat knows every reach of the Piscataqua river and all its quiet sunlit coves. Her relish and capacity for pleasure and recreation is not a whit less deep and strong than those who know her books would have been led to suppose, and walking in the sweet-smelling pine woods which surround her home is another of her favorite recreations.
Miss Jewett has plenty of leisure time. She is not one of those who are "driven." She controls her work. In the morning she attends to her correspondence in the study--at once the most interesting and the least pretentious of the house's attractive rooms. Here, in the upper hall, with a wide window looking upon the tree-shaded village street, one sees at one side a desk strewn with papers, and on the other a case of books and a table.
It is a cosey nook, this "den" in which "Lucy Garron's Lovers"--written when the author was only 14--"Deephaven," "A Country Doctor," "A Marsh Island" and "The Country of the Pointed Firs" were prepared for the world. There is here no litter of the workshop, however, no piles of proofs, no heaps of reference books, nothing of that disorder which is supposed to mark the abode of the modern writer.
Yet here among the birds and branches 8000 or 10,000 words are frequently turned out in a day, and many a delightful magazine sketch, like "The Queen's Twin," composed in a sitting. When preparing a novel, Miss Jewett often, indeed, writes 400 words a day five days a week.
"But the busier I get the more time I make to read the Waverly novels," she observed, brightly. "And always, too, I read Stevenson and his Scotch children." For the works of Mary Wilkins, Miss Jewett has the greatest possible admiration, and of her own productions she confesses that she thinks "A Marsh Island" the best story, though she loves and must always love "A Country Doctor" above everything else she has written.
For this latter preference there is a deep personal reason. As is well known, Miss Jewett's father, Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, who was at one time a professor in the medical department of the college which has just honored itself and its gifted daughter by the bestowal of the degree noted, was the original of the doctor described. With him the writer, when a slip of a girl, used to drive from place to place, talking with the families of the country side while the good physician saw his patients.
On the road, she relates, she used to listen carefully to all this country doctor said of people and of nature, and this, she today believes, constituted the greater part of her training for authorship. Her father was her tutor, too, and her education was largely acquired by browsing at will among his books.
So although she had no "friends at court," the Atlantic Monthly accepted her first story before she was 20, all because the work was fresh and new and true, and full of atmosphere. It was her own excellent writing and her sincerity in telling her tale that first won for her the cordial appreciation which has since been so marked. Before her day no writer had depicted those various phases of country life which she treats without making a burlesque of the attempt. Miss Jewett first showed unmistakably that the country dialect and country habits hide some of the noblest hearts in the world.
In personal appearance Miss Jewett is tall and dignified, with a high-bred grace and courtesy of manner which charm all with whom she comes in contact. She has a bright, piquant face that lights up beautifully as she talks, and a low, pleasant voice, that most excellent thing in a woman. In conversation she is vivacious and interesting, selecting her words with a quick discrimination wh[i]ch shows her apprec[i]ation of the use and power of language.
Flashes of wit and humor, too, illumine what she says, and the tone of her mind is both helpful and suggestive.
The fact that James Russell Lowell said of her, in writing to some London publishers just before his death: "Nothing more pleasingly characteristic of rural life in New England has been written than that from the pen of Miss Sarah Orne Jewett," would of itself show that Bowdoin made no mistake in dubbing her a doctor of letters.
This essay appeared as well in the Daily Kennebec Journal (Saturday 31 August, 1901). There are three journalistic pieces at this site that make use of the same material. The original appears to be "Pleasant Day With Miss Jewett," which appeared in the Philadelphia Press in August 1895. Another piece based heavily upon that one appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin the following September. This essay shares a number of the same errors, "facts" and quotations with the probable original.
This text is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME. Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items you would like annotated, please contact the site manager.
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a cosey nook: "Jenny Garrow's Lovers" was published in January, 1868, when Jewett was 18. Jewett probably did not work on any of the listed works at the Jewett house described here, except, perhaps, The Country of the Pointed Firs. She and her family occupied the house next door, built for them by her grandfather, which later became the South Berwick Public Library. She and her sister, Mary, moved to the Jewett house after the death of their uncle, William Jewett, in 1887.
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400 words a day: In the "original" "Pleasant Day with Miss Jewett" this number is given as 2000 to 4000.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.