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Domestic Goddess Sarah Orne Jewett was born to an old New England family, replete with the types of characters that appear in her stories-- sea captains, independent women, and country doctors. Jewett's early life was very much like the one she sketches in her novel A Country Doctor; Jewett and Nan Prince share the characteristics of an independent childhood followed by an unconventional womanhood. (For more on Nan Prince, click here). Jewett was raised with tons of books in and around her home; she was virtually fed on words. It seems only natural that she should be drawn to write. Her mother was Caroline Frances and her father was Theodore Herman Jewett (23).
On Sept 3, 1902, both Sarah was in a serious a carriage wreck when their horse slipped on a loose rock and stumbled. This accident effectively ended Jewett's writing career. Both Sarah and her sister Rebecca were thrown from the carriage, but while Rebecca was relatively unhurt, Sarah suffered a concussion and some damage to the neck. Speculation is that perhaps she had a cracked vertebra, but it was never officially diagnosed. She had pain, dizzy spells, memory loss and lost the ability to concentrate for the seven years until she died, of unrelated causes (349-362).
Jewett's work has often been criticized as nothing more than "sketches," with very little plot and therefore, not worthy of much critical study. Jewett herself realized this about her work, writing to her editor,
This sort of criticism of Jewett's work, that it is not plot driven and therefore less than worthy, is one that many of the domestic women writers faced. Somehow because their stories were more about interior actions, or about the relationships and lives of women, rather than about wars and conquests, their work has been viewed as inferior. This is troublesome because in saying these things are inferior we say that the lives of women (our grandmothers, our old aunts, even ourselves today) are inferior. Anyone who has nursed a sick relative or waited for a "seagoing" lover to come home knows that these apparently docile pursuits are anything but dull, and anything but lifeless.
Jewett's work features the people she was most familiar with-- the inhabitants of Maine, of the everyday world of villages and ordinary people. Jewett's work was largely forgotten and/or scorned after her rather successful lifetime, one critic went to far as to call her "merely a New England old maid" (qtd. in the introduction to A Country Doctor ix). I personally think that there is more to be studied in the works that Jewett is not known for yet-- in A Country Doctor or in some of her lesser known short stories.
Just as Nan Prince in A Country Doctor chooses her career over her personal life, Jewett never married. She, like Willa Cather, had a long-time relationship with another woman (Annie Fields, widow of famous publisher James T. Fields, pictured left). The two shared what is commonly called a "Boston marriage." While Jewett felt strong attachments to women, there is no evidence to decide her sexual orientation, one way or the other. Victorian romantic love between people of the same sex was not the same as it is today-- perhaps Jewett did have what we today would consider homosexual relationship, but some scholars argue that speculation on her orientation distracts us from the truly important aspect of Jewett's work-- its beauty, its power to touch us with so-called domestic interior lives, its evocative nature imagery. Other scholars feel knowing the answer to her sexuality would open up the literature in more ways. But at this time, no one knows for sure. All I'm willing to argue is that her literary depictions of relationships between women are powerful, and the bonds are quite strong.
What more can we learn from her literature? At the turn of another century, perhaps there is a growing trend to answer this question.
If you're looking for online texts by Jewett, as well as other
fabulous info about themes that appear often in her work, and
more biographical info, go the the Sarah
Orne Jewett Text project. This is a great project by Professor
Terry Heller, of the Coe College Department of English.
Blanchard, Paula. Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.
Created July 14, 1998