Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman

by Joyce W. Warren. Rutgers, $29.95. According to folk tradition, “A minister’s son and a deacon’s daughter seldom act any better than they oughtta.” Sara Willis (1811-1872) was the daughter of a rigidly pious Calvinist deacon to whose demands for timid conformity and prayerful repentence she paid so little attention that she was shipped off to boarding school to be reformed. She was not reformed, but Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary gave her what was probably the best education available in the country to a young woman of the 1820s. Endowed with exceptional intelligence, beauty, and an irreverent satiric wit, Sara was expected to marry and settle into domesticity. She did that, but her husband died young and left her with two small children, no money, and senior relatives who were distinctly stingy. Sewing—a conventional resource for distressed gentlewomen—meant slow starvation. Sara used her skill with words to work her way into journalism and eventually to the position of a columnist widely read and very highly paid. She called herself Fanny Fern, a name that suggests delicate fronds and Victorian sugar-water. The fern she actually had in mind, however, was the tough, tartly aromatic little shrub called sweet fern, which thrives in poor soil and can be a real ankle-mauler. She might better have called herself Barbara Bramble, for her topics were the conventionally unmentionable. She discussed prison reform, venereal disease, prostitution, divorce, and, above all, the necessity for a woman to have and control her own money. She could be highly amusing on these unlikely subjects, but her underlying thrust was always serious and almost always antiestablishment. She was, naturally, denounced as unfeminine and probably immoral. Such charges made no more impression than the deacon had, for Fanny continued on her iconoclastic and increasingly profitable way to the end of her life. She still reads well and often pertinently, giving her biographer plenty of stimulating material to quote. Ms. Warren uses such material well, and skillfully follows Fanny’s whole surprising career. The author’s only defect is that endemic to academic biographers—a tendency to explain the obvious.