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"A True Daughter of New England." *

Annie Russell Marble,

Dial 51:1 (November 1911), pp. 337-9.


 


            Recalling her parents, Miss Jewett emphasized three qualities which prevailed in the atmosphere of her early home: "wit, wisdom, and sweetness." These traits were transfused into her own personality, which has been so fully and tenderly revealed by her friend, Mrs. James T. Fields, in the volume of letters which are edited with fine taste and judgment. The graciousness and "sweet dignity" which characterized Miss Jewett are found also in this revealment of her life through her letters to various friends in America and England. By far the larger number were written to Mrs. Fields, and the occasional words of the editor are full of understanding and affection, as well as a true appreciation of the literary worth of one of New England's most charming and sincere story-tellers.

            From the days of her childhood the "white mile-stone days" when she rode with her father in his doctor's chaise and learned to love nature and humanity to the end of her productive years, Miss Jewett was impelled by one great purpose: "to make life a little easier for others." She accomplished this service in her neighborly relations, and also in her work as writer. She sympathized deeply with the domestic joys and trials of her fellow-villagers, and carried the same tenderly responsive heart into all places where she went. Toward the people whom she chose as models for her vital characters, many of whom lived near her home, she always kept the attitude of mind of a neighbor and friend; never did she assume a touch of the patronizing or curious visitor to the country. She rejoiced to be a part of the life which she depicted, and one of her early ambitions was to bring city and country people into more intimate and sympathetic relations. Mrs. Fields writes:

                "Her métier was to lay open, for other eyes to see, those qualities in human nature which ennoble their possessors, high or low, rich or poor; those floods of sympathy to be unsealed in the most unpromising and dusty natures by the touch of a divining spirit. Finding herself in some dim way the owner of this sacred touchstone, what wonder that she loved her work and believed in it?"
            In spite of her native dignity and a certain remoteness of manner, Miss Jewett entered into every phase of life with keen senses. She delighted to drive, to row, to picnic, and to coast on one memorable occasion on a borrowed sled down the village hillside with such success that her nephew was proud of her reputation among his boy-friends, for "she went down side-saddle over the hill  just like the rest of the boys." She loved nature with the trustfulness of a child. Like Thoreau, she personified the pines and considered them her noble friends. The scenic beauty of her stories, from "Marsh Rosemary," "White Heron," and "The Country Doctor," to "Deephaven" and "The Country of the Pointed Firs," was inspired by her walks and drives within a short distance of her Berwick home, and such tales reflected her loving comradeship with trees and flowers and birds. The letters contain many exquisite nature-pictures, often warmed by tender sentiment. A few examples may be given.
                "Hepaticas are like some people, very dismal blue, with cold hands and faces. . . . I believe there is nothing dearer than a trig little company of anemones in a pasture, all growing close together as if they kept each other warm, and wanted the whole sun to themselves, beside. They had no business to wear their summer frocks so early in the year." . .  . "But, oh! I have found such a corner of this world, under a spruce tree, where I sit for hours together, and neither thought nor good books can keep me from watching a little golden bee, that seems to live quite alone, and to be laying up honey against cold weather. He may have been idle and now feels belated, and goes and comes from his little hole in the ground close by my knee, so that I can put my hand over his front door and shut him out, -- but I promise you and him that I never will. He took me for a boulder the first day we met; but after he flew round and round he understood things, and knows now that I come and go as other boulders do, by glacial action, and can do him no harm. A very handsome little bee, and often to be thought of by me, come winter."
            Although Miss Jewett localized her backgrounds and characters, and thereby gained in vitality and genuineness, she carried her keen observation and clever descriptive pen upon trips abroad, and wrote delightful impressions of Whitby and Nassau, of the lilies and nightingales of France, and the romantic associations of Haworth and the Brontë vicarage. One of the rare experiences of her foreign visits was her acquaintance with Tennyson, whom she revered. "He seemed like a king in captivity, one of the kings of old, of divine rights and sacred seclusions. None of the greats gifts I have ever had out of loving and being with you seems to me so great as having seen Tennyson," so she wrote to Mrs. Fields.

            These letters give a partial record of Miss Jewett's literary likings and indulgences. They show wide range of subjects, and "heavy doses," so that one appreciates her fear that she "has been overeating with her head." Her impressions of books are keen and critical, including comments on anatomy and politics as well as distinctive literature. In preparation for her "History of the Normans," and her historical novel "The Tory Lover," she covered much ground in history. Thackeray and Carlyle were favorites with her, and to Dorothy Wordsworth she gives merited praise, both for literary skill in "A Tour in Scotland" and also for her stimulating influence upon her poet-brother and upon Coleridge. Miss Jewett acknowledges a debt to Mrs. Stowe's "Pearl of Orr's Island," as an early incentive to her own simple New England stories. Although in her later work there was greater variety of structure and characters, yet she maintained her chosen type of fiction and gave life to what Mr. Kipling calls "the lovely New England landscape and the genuine New England nature." She always defended the art of realism.

                "People talk about dwelling upon trivialities and commonplaces in life, but a master writer gives everything weight, and makes you feel the distinction and importance of it, and count it upon the right or the wrong side of a life's account. That is one reason why writing about simple country people takes my time and thought."

Again, in 1907, she wrote to Mr. Woodberry words of sane, sweet philosophy about her work and a writer's supreme efforts.

                "What a joyful time it is to be close to the end of a long piece of work, and sad too, -- like coming into harbour at the end of a voyage. The more one has cared to put one's very best into a thing the surer he is to think that it falls far short of the 'sky he meant.' But it is certain that everything is in such a work that we have put in. The sense of failure that weighs the artist down is often nothing but a sense of fatigue. I always think that the trees look tired in autumn when their fruit has dropped, but I shall remember as long as I remember anything a small seedling apple-tree that stood by a wall in a high wild pasture at the White Hills, -- standing proudly over its first crop of yellow apples all fallen into a little almost hollow of the soft turf below. I could look over its head, and it would have been a heart of stone that did not beat fast with sympathy. There was Success! but up there against the sky the wistfulness of later crops was yet to come."
In passages like this, the reader finds reflections of the love of nature and mankind, the poise and resourcefulness and the bravery and faith of Miss Jewett as woman and author. Although her health was often poor, she never intruded a complaint, and her letters, like her stories, are always hopeful and refreshing. Even after the accident which cramped her later years of activity, she wrote with patience and often with humor. "Though I feel like a dissected map with a few pieces gone, the rest of me seems to be put together right!"  Bowdoin College honored itself when it conferred upon Miss Jewett the degree of Litt.D., and she delighted "to be the single sister of so many brothers at Bowdoin." The beautiful memorial window to her father at this college was one of her dreams come true. Writing to her friend, Mrs. Whitman, its designer, she expressed the key-note of her noble spirit and her life of service.

                "But how the days fly by, as if one were riding the horse of Fate and could only look this way and that, as one rides and flies across the world. Oh, if we did not look back and try to change the lost days! if we can only keep our faces towards the light and remember that whatever happens or has happened, we must hold fast to hope! I never forget the great window. I long for you to feel a new strength and peace every day as you work at it, -- a new love and longing. The light from heaven must already shine through it into your heart."

            *LETTERS OF SARAH ORNE JEWETT.  Edited by Annie Fields.  With portrait.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Co.


Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
Assistant: Linda Heller
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