Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern: Unearthing a forgotten literary feud of the 1850s

Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern: Unearthing a forgotten literary feud of the 1850s

Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. Anonymous. New York: H. Long and Brother, 1855.

Condition: Cover very worn, pages water-stained. Inside front cover bears a small sticker reading “B. Dawson, Bookseller & Stationer, Montreal”.

Acquired: Sometime in the mid-1980s, from a thrift shop in Ottawa, for maybe $0.75

Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern cover

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A little poking around on the Internet reveals a whole saga of veiled identities and poisoned pens behind this battered little book.

Fanny Fern (1811-1872), whose real name was Sara Willis Parton, was the first female newspaper columnist in the US. By the 1850s, she was also the nation’s highest-paid columnist, and had released several bestselling collections of her work: mostly satirical social commentaries, sometimes sentimental little stories.

But the road to fame and fortune had not been easy for Fanny! She had been widowed, and she and her children had lived in poverty. When she finally achieved success, Fanny got her own back by writing a roman-a-clef which contained unflattering, thinly-veiled portraits of the people who had done her wrong in her earlier days: her father, who was tight-fisted with his financial support after her first husband’s death; her brother, who ran a magazine but would not publish her writing, dismissing it as being of “only local interest”; the penny-pinching editor of the newspaper that published her early work; etc. The novel was called Ruth Hall, and was another bestseller.

Which brings us to Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern. At first glance, this looks like another compilation of columns, some with commentaries, and with a short biography of Fanny at the beginning. But something’s not right here. What’s up with the distinctly snarky tone of the bio and commentary? And why is this title never mentioned in Fanny Fern bibliographies?

Answer: Because Fanny had nothing to do with it. It turns out that the anonymous writer/editor behind Life and Beauties was one William Moulton – Fanny’s former editor, who recognized his caricature in Ruth Hall and was mightily displeased. So the book is both an attempt to cash in on Fanny’s reputation, and a hatchet job designed to undermine it.

Moulton’s writing is a triumph of vicious sarcasm; he tears strips out of Fanny without ever dropping a tone of unctuous flattery. (His chapter about her childhood is titled “Genius in Pantalettes.”) Here, he takes a swipe at Ruth Hall in his introduction to Fanny’s mock-horrified take on women in journalism:

All About Satan page 1

All About Satan page 2

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The “Swisshelm baby” mentioned in the column was the daughter, born in 1852, of Jane Grey Swisshelm, the first female newspaper editor in the US. Swisshelm temporarily resigned when the baby was born, but as Fanny predicts, she was back to “sitting up in the editorial chair, as pert as a piper” a few months later.

Indeed, overall, Fanny gets the last laugh. The sassy, opinionated, ironical rants in this book, gleefully selected by Moulton with the aim of making her appear vulgar and unladylike, sound like the work of someone who’d shine as a 21st-century social commentator. If Fanny were around today, her posts on The Awl, or Jezebel.com, would be going viral. And where would Moulton be? Anonymously trolling her in the comments section, no doubt.

Life and Beauties is available as a free e-book: http://books.google.com/books?id=-09XAAAAYAAJ

About Nadia Halim

Nadia Halim is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at York University, an editor and writer, and a compulsive book collector.