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The life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world

Brady is a lecturer in the History and Literature program at Harvard University and is at work on her first book, a consideration of sentimental reading in the antebellum United States.

His written reactions to Warner's novel cover some fourteen pages and are as wide-ranging as they are long-winded. He took exception to Warner's unfavorable descriptions of the heroine Ellen Montgomery's Scottish relatives, for he himself was a "Scotchman"; referred by page and volume to one of his favorite scenes; confessed that he could not read the words describing the death of the beloved character Alice Humphreys for the tears that interrupted his sight; and jokingly described his frustrated matrimonial intentions for Alice, who is not only dead, but also, alas, fictional.

Before making these observations, Alice's Admirer introduced himself and his letter as follows: At any rate I cannot help expressing to you the great pleasure I have experienced in its perusal. Today, the novel that prompted this fan letter is primarily remembered as a bestseller of its time, a paradigmatic example of how astonishingly well sentimental novels sold and how fiercely the reading public embraced them in the nineteenth century.

The evidence for this claim is largely twofold. The larger public voted with their pocketbooks and turned The Wide, Wide World into a runaway bestseller.

In fact, at the time of its publication, its sales were unprecedented though they would be topped by Uncle Tom's Cabin just a couple of years later: Published reviews and sales figures certainly have their uses in outlining and starting to color in a picture of The The life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world, Wide World's pervasive popularity in the nineteenth century, but completing that picture requires paying attention to "more ordinary reader[s]" like Alice's Admirer, whom today we would simply call fans.

Thankfully, some of those fans wrote letters to Warner, and some of those letters survive. Warner's fan letters can tell us why readers like and unlike Alice's Admirer devoured The Wide, Wide World, why they formed deep emotional bonds with characters whom they knew to be fictional, and why they chose to bare their souls in letters to a writer whom they would never meet. They can tell us why particular readers felt so strongly about this novel and why, for the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world, their attachment to it endured over decades.

These letters can give us fresh perspective, then, on sentimental novels, ordinary readers, and fandom in the nineteenth century—and they do so by recording the varied ways that some ordinary readers and a sentimental author were brought together by loving The Wide, Wide World. By way of introduction, then, Warner's first novel is a hefty two-volume work that chronicles the tears, travails, and occasional triumphs of the girl heroine Ellen Montgomery.

It tells what was a conventional story for that time—a young girl faces a number of hardships, sometimes big but often woefully small, and learns slowly but surely to submit her will to that of God and his male representatives here on earth. Like the heroines of so many other sentimental novels, Ellen Montgomery is a prolific crier—on average, her tears flow about once every two-and-a-half pages all the way through a 570-page novel—and her readers were expected to cry along with her.

The Wide, Wide World

Some of them did. The more than sixty surviving fan letters written to Susan Warner and her younger sister Anna, who was also a writer, are quite soggy, rife with descriptions of tears, whimpers, and weeping. Anna, though never as popular or as skilled as Susan, authored many novels and hymns, including the still well-known hymn "Jesus Loves Me.

They span the second half of the nineteenth century, dating from 1851 to 1904. More than half of the dated letters were written in the 1850s and 1860s, with ten letters sent to Susan Warner in 1852 alone.

About a quarter of the letters were posted from outside the United States, including a few each from England and Ireland and single letters from Germany and Austria. The writers were mostly women of varying ages, although one-third of them were men. More specifically, these writers were teenage girls, sea-faring men, recently converted Christians, aspiring writers, and older women who read The Wide, Wide World in their youths, passed it on to their daughters, and were still hoping for a sequel decades later.

Of all the letters, the book discussed most often was Susan Warner's first novel: Though The Wide, Wide World is probably not familiar to many people today, the concerns and claims of these fan letters, rather remarkably, may the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world. While fans today are more likely to approach and engage authors through more twenty-first-century means than the now old-fashioned letter, the queries, preoccupations, and often unbridled enthusiasm of fans then and now share certain qualities.

Susan Warner

Warner's readers in the 1800s wanted to know whether and when a sequel to a favorite book was forthcoming, whether a particular novel was founded on facts, how to succeed in writing a novel, and if Warner would be so kind as to respond, preferably with an autograph or photograph.

Some readers quoted favorite lines back to Warner, with one reader going so far as to compose a full-length poem around a refrain in Warner's second novel, Queechy 1852. Many readers described how Warner's books kept a hold on them long after they put them down: For other readers, writing to Warner was an exercise in nostalgia, an opportunity to remember old times: However, the communities described or sometimes just posited in the letters are not always as tangible or straightforward as this the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world.

For instance, for every fireside scene of collective reading, there is a contrasting scene of a reader alone and absorbed entirely in his or her book: This fannish impulse to write to Warner derived, in part, from how readers imagined her. Her fans saw her as a confidant, a mother, a mentor, a minister, or some combination thereof; more basically, they imagined her as approachable and receptive.

That expectation differed sharply from the attitude toward earlier American authors—mostly genteel, anonymous, and male. Whether because sentimental novels prompted unique responses in readers or readers felt differently about women authors than about men, these fans clearly believed that a relationship with the author of their favorite novel was a possibility. Susan Warner's fan mail demonstrates that, for these readers, the experience of reading sentimental fiction—alone or otherwise—helped to build connections, however much those connections remained in readers' imaginations.

Their letters are the product of that sense of connection and a lasting testament to its existence and even its value. They therefore run counter to an enduring criticism of sentimental literature—that crying over the plight of fictional characters was inherently isolating, indulgent, and escapist, and that any sense of connection conjured from reading a sentimental novel was inauthentic and not to be believed or credited.

To be sure, there are reasons we might be skeptical of these letters and the particularly connective experience of reading they are so invested in. The grounds of connection here were largely imagined, and the reader-author bond was composed of an odd mix of anonymity and intimacy—a the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world calling himself Alice's Admirer and withholding his real name even as he poured out his heart to a woman he'd never met, for instance.

The life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world

There were also many readers not represented in this archive for whom the point of reading novels like The Wide, Wide World was surely escape and not connection.

For readers like Alice's Admirer who wanted the latter, though, Warner's novels and their own imaginations combined to provide it. These fans did not want to escape the wide, wide world but to connect to others in it, to feel like a part of something larger—and reading sentimental fiction allowed them to do that. Whether or not we credit that feeling or that sense of imagined connection, these fans did, and it changed or helped or pleased them in significant ways.

Their letters tell Warner, and us, how. This fan mail therefore not only gives us a glimpse into what reading The Wide, Wide World was like for a handful of readers in the nineteenth century, but also provides some highly specific, individualized answers the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world enduring questions—what do people read fiction for? What can reading novels do to and for us?

So far, I have been painting the Warner fan letters in broad strokes—by talking about their shared qualities and concerns, about readers' often anxious desire to get to know Warner on a more personal level, and about how they used her novels to connect to their own pasts. In many ways, though, it's difficult to step back and generalize about these letters or the readers who wrote them, as almost any generalization can be contradicted by another letter in the archive—indeed, the idiosyncrasies of these letters account for a great deal of the fun of reading them.

Another wrinkle comes in the archive itself: The readers who didn't write must also be considered: Because of the limitations of this sample, these letters can't convincingly support generalizations about the experience of reading sentimental novels like The Wide, Wide World in the nineteenth century. What they can do, though, is deepen our understanding of some of this novel's fans and their responses, not by telling us how everyone felt when reading The Wide, Wide World, but how particular individuals did.

To understand what these readers gained from reading The Wide, Wide World—and what they hoped to gain by writing fan letters—I'll turn to a few letters that offer particular insight into the passion and connective power associated with reading it in the nineteenth century. Courtesy of the Constitution Island Association, Inc.

Click on image to launch slideshow of entire letter. For many of Warner's fans, that passion and power were built on their belief in a form of personal connection to Warner herself and on the interest they took in the characters who came alive in her novel's pages.

While half-in-earnest requests to marry one of those characters were not the norm, many fans believed Warner's characters to be more than fictional and used their love for certain characters to bridge the gap that separated them from Warner herself.

Two letters from Cordelia Darrach written in April and June of 1852 make this clear. Darrach began her letter, as many fans do, with a somewhat stilted apology for her intrusion on Warner's time, identifying herself as a "humble the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world unknown stranger" and hoping that Warner wouldn't find her letter either "presumptuous or offensive.

Darrach went on to offer intimate details of her life: She also took time to heap praise on The Wide, Wide World. After describing at length how her entire family loves reading it—from Darrach's husband, "a grave man of fifty seven," to a twenty-year-old daughter normally "not very fond of reading"—Darrach got to the heart of the matter: The closing scene was very like that of Alice; and she too, died at midsummer, and at midnight!

Ah, dear lady, I have wept many, very many tears over your truthful delineations in that part of your work. Those "truthful delineations" made Warner "dear" to Darrach. The shared knowledge of death—one fictional, one real—fostered Darrach's strong sense of connection to this unknown author.

Darrach did test this connection: Warner must have complied with this request, as Darrach's second letter, dated June 16, 1852, offered profuse thanks for Warner's "very welcome and highly prized letter. For Darrach, the similarities between Warner's fictional characters and Darrach's real-life experiences proved a heady mix: This desire took a different form in the final paragraph of her letter where Darrach switched from the sacred to the profane.

While making clear that Warner, busy as she must be, was under no obligation to reply to her letter, Darrach also indicated her eagerness for "any crumbs of information you may vouchsafe to drop," including the very important detail of Warner's "being Mrs.

These letters nonetheless emerged from the paradoxical intimacy of that reading experience, and they showcase the conviction that Warner must be a kindred spirit, someone who fundamentally understood her readers. There was a form of trust extended in these letters, a trust that Warner would take such letters seriously and in the heartfelt spirit in which they were offered.

Of course, that trust was not without its anxieties: In this case at least, Warner made good on that trust and sense of connection by writing back. For many of these fans, the grounds of this trust and the community of readers and author it sustained were undoubtedly religious. Darrach, for instance, called The Wide, Wide World an "excellent publication which will, I trust, by the blessing of my Heavenly Father, help my children to conquer and subdue many of their evil tempers and infirmities, and may be the blessed instrument of bringing them to Christ …" Many other readers shared her conviction that The Wide, Wide World could help them do right: Joseph Molyneux Hunter, an Irish man, composed his fan letter to Warner over the summer of 1862 on sea voyages between Ireland and Canada.

He wrote nine years after he first read The Wide, Wide World to recount the lasting change that the novel worked in him. One evening I was going out to take a walk and while overhauling a drawer for something I wanted, I came upon a story book, as I supposed, and being very fond of novel reading I thought I had got a prize and forgetting my intended walk, shut myself up, and sat down to enjoy the book, but thanks be to God, the time was come when my poor mother's heart was to be gladdened and her prayers answered the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world one in whom her life, almost, was and is bound up.

The book was the 'Wide Wide World. I read to that line where he lifts his poor little arm and says 'Jesus. I fell on my knees and tears and prayers and strong crying to God for pardon and salvation testified of the nature of the effect produced; it was the being born again, the beginning of life everlasting. The scene Hunter described is "a very few lines" indeed; it occupies less than a full page in the most recent edition the life of women in the 19th century in susan warners the wide wide world The Wide, Wide World.

This "instantaneous" change prompted Hunter to both acknowledge the distance that separated him from Warner—"you know me not and I have never seen you"—and confess his feelings—"I love you very dearly and for years have been anxious to communicate with you. That connection may have been felt by Warner, too. Though little evidence exists of Warner's reactions to her fan letters, in a journal entry dated October 17, 1862, Warner described Hunter's missive as "a very remarkable letter—and one to give me great pleasure….

Blessed be the name of the Lord! Their religious faith was a defining feature of their lives and work: Susan's journals abound with religious references, the novels and Sunday-school books she wrote are consumed with the question of what it means to be a Christian, and alongside the Warner fan letters are grateful letters from West Point graduates who as cadets came to the Bible classes that the Warners led on Constitution Island. Not the mere vague wish to write a book that should do service to her Master: Warner's short comment on this letter shows that she believed—along with at least some of her readers—that she could serve as part of a circuit that connected readers of The Wide, Wide World to Christ.

Of all the forms of connection Warner experienced through writing her novel and reading her fan letters, it is this one, that of her readers to God, rather than between herself and individual readers, that appears to have given Warner the greatest satisfaction. Not all of Warner's fans were as fraught as Darrach or as earnest as Hunter, nor are all of them so complimentary or adulatory.

Even less friendly fans, though, didn't hesitate to claim connection with Warner.