I am a well-read person; I’ve read the classics. I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott when I was eight; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë at ten. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe my freshman year in high school, along with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was one of the first poetry collections I ever owned.
These great authors were all contemporaries of one another, yet at the time they lived and wrote, their stars dimmed next to that of another author, Fanny Fern.
So why is it that, until I picked up a copy of Shame the Devil, I had never even heard of Fanny Fern?
Growing up in the early to mid-1800s, young Sara Willis would much rather be barefoot in the garden than inside practicing the “womanly arts.” Her father loves her, but fears for her immortal soul because of her free spirit. He sends her to the school for young ladies run by Catharine Stowe, where Sara befriends not only the school mistress but her younger sister, Harriet, as well.
But school cannot tame Sara (thank goodness, in my mind). Fortunately, she falls in love with Charly, and her father no longer has to worry about her, as she is now a wife and under Charly’s thumb—the only real profession a young lady of that day and age was supposed to aspire to.
Then tragedy strikes, and Sara loses many of the people most dear to her, including Charly. What follows is hunger, near-homelessness, a struggle to raise two daughters, a second, abusive marriage, and a desperation rarely felt by men of the day.
But Sara has a talent: she is a gifted writer. Day after day, she tirelessly pens newspaper columns and drags her youngest daughter from newspaper office to newspaper office, peddling her words. And, slowly, Sara—who has now taken the pen name Fanny Fern—changes her life, and the lives of her children.
This story could almost sound like a fairy tale if not for two things: first, it is based on a true story. Author Debra Brenegan meticulously researched her characters, and while no one knows for certain exactly what took place during intimate dinners with friends like the Beecher sisters, or the exact words during lively conversations with Walt Whitman and other thinkers of the day, the armature of the story is accurate.
Second, despite the wealth Fanny acquires, she never allows her children—or herself—to forget the status (or lack thereof) women on their own hold in society. She pays regular visits to orphanages, and insane asylums for women, hoping her mere presence will prevent abuse of women whose only crime, whose only illness, is that their husbands decided they did not want them anymore. Through her words, she works tirelessly to improve the lot of women, black and white. Fanny is definitely not a fairy tale princess.
Brenegan’s prose is sparse and spot-on. There is little description of setting; one small attic Fanny lives in is described as having a broken pane of glass in its tiny window. Yet this is all the reader needs to envision the horror, the cold, the damp darkness of not only the room, but of Fanny’s mental state, if she allowed that cold darkness in. And there are times when exhaustion, hunger, and desperation almost take her to that dark space. But this woman has Fire with a capital “F”; Spirit with a capital “S”. She does not allow herself to descend into that place.
Yes, I am a well-read person who has enjoyed reading the classics for nearly fifty years. After finishing Brenegan’s fine book last evening, I immediately went to Amazon and downloaded copies of two of Fern’s looks, Ruth Hall and Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends, a book she wrote for children. When I have finished reading them, I will consider myself even a better-read person.
Shame the Devil is a book every woman writer who has ever received a rejection, every woman writer who has every almost given up her dream of writing, every woman writer period should read. Every woman who may have forgotten how a handful of women 150 years ago struggled to make things right for women today need to read this book and remember.
But don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not chick lit. Men, too, need to read this inspiring tale of a woman who would not take no for an answer. I am so tempted to purchase a copy and send it to VS Naipaul, who, last May, so famously stated that no woman was his “literary match.”
Mr. Naipaul, Fanny Fern was your literary match. And I am most grateful to Debra Brenegan for bringing her to life so beautifully.