Sarah Orne Jewett is known for her regional-style writing, focused around the southern coast of Maine. She was the
daughter of a doctor, and often accompanied him on calls. She had a love of nature and the natural world, and used her own local experiences and
relationships as models for her stories. She was born in South Berwick, Maine in 1849, and died in the same house in 1909. She was opposed to change in many
ways, and perhaps that is why so many of her writings feature the elderly and their struggles to survive.
Her books and stories would probably never be described as exciting or compelling. They are more quiet, slow-moving, deeply reflective, and extraordinarily detailed. Most of her writing is somber to melancholy, yet with a sweetness, poignancy, and often bittersweet and gentle humor. Her most colorful characters are elderly—those who have the great wisdom borne out of rural experience and hardship, often juxtaposed with more modern village or city people, who seem to lack the inborn sense of responsibility of caring for neighbors like country folk. And, as in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, with most of the stories there is a sense of invasion of modern attitudes, as the old values, along with the people who personify them, die off.
The delightful aspect of Jewett's writing is her indescribable talent for painting literary pictures—you can see the beauty of the hills and fields, hear the birds singing, smell the flowers and wild herbs and stately pine trees. You feel as if you are right there in the scenery, watching the action take place. Another amazing gift Jewett possesses is the ability to get to the heart of each of her characters—all their quirks and nuances, how they express themselves, and the deeper aspects of them, too—parts they keep hidden, but we, the readers, understand.
The less delightful aspect of her writing is due to her subject matter—poor, simple, rural folks, many very elderly, quaint, but sometimes emotionally draining and often intense. It is probably because she has recreated such an accurate portrait that we feel the struggles, the aging, the dying of friends. I have found that her works are much more pleasant read in short spurts—an hour here, an hour there with something refreshing done in between.
This volume contains ten stories, most quite short, and two a bit longer. They are drawn from five other collections, ranging from 1886 to 1895, and the last one was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1900.
A White Heron is about a quiet young girl, Sylvia, who comes to live with her grandmother out in the country. Here she is at peace and happy, and loves to bring in the stubborn cow, Mistress Moolly. One evening, she is accompanied by a young gentleman. She is uncomfortable until she reaches home. Her grandmother welcomes him, and they learn he is an ornithologist, and is looking for bird specimens—to stuff. He requests lodging, and tells Sylvia he will give her ten dollars if she can help him find the white heron. She becomes fascinated by this young man, but will she betray this exquisite bird to be killed?
The Dulham Ladies is poignantly comical about two spinster sisters, Miss Dobin, and Miss Lucinda Dobin, ladies of an old and distinguished family who uphold traditional values. One day they realize their hair is growing quite thin, so they make a journey to town to buy wigs.
Miss Tempy's Watchers is about two ladies of different economic backgrounds who come to stay the evening at the house of the just-deceased Miss Tempy. As they do their needlework in the warm and comfortable kitchen, they share some candid remarks.
Miss Peck's Promotion is one of the longer stories. It is about a seasoned farm woman who lives alone at the top of a hill. She is missing her brother's widow and the children since they moved out, and feeling rather lonely, then reprimanding herself for feeling so. But one day comes and emergency—she is needed in the village because the minister's wife, Mrs. Elbury, has passed away after childbirth. Miss Peck arrives, though she isn't that fond of the minister:
"Miss Peck's shrewd mind had already made sure that Mr. Elbury's loss was not so great as she had first sympathetically believed; she knew that his romantic, ease-loving self-absorbed, and self-admiring nature had been curbed and held in check by the literal and prosaic, faithful-in-little-things disposition of his dead wife. She was self-denying, he was self-indulgent; she was dutiful, while he was given to indolence—and the unfounded plea of ill-health made his only excuse."
But gradually, Miss Peck becomes very fond of him and stays much longer than
expected, though she longs for her farm. Many in the parish begin to assume they will marry. . .
The Courting of Sister Wisby is a tale told to a younger woman by an old lady as they collect herbs on a late August day.
The Town Poor tells a sad story of two poor sisters who lose their home and are forced by the town authorities to live in horrendous conditions. They receive two visitors that become ashamed of themselves for not doing more to help these poor ladies, and upon leaving them, are determined to change their situation.
The Passing of Sister Barsett is also poignantly comical when two women meet on the day of her passing, and share some honest feelings.
In Miss Esther's Guest, Esther has signed up at the church to share her home with a visitor from the city who needs a vacation. She describes exactly the kind of woman she wishes to have as a guest, and to her surprise, ends up with—a man! And though the church people snicker a bit, it all works out much better than expected!
The Guests of Mrs. Timms is about two ladies who are overjoyed to be visiting a lady whom they hold in high regard. But that soon changes.
And the final one, The Foreigner, the other longer story, is somewhat of a ghost tale told one stormy night in a house near the sea.
These little gems are sweet and gentle, slow, yet filled with human emotion. Sarah Orne Jewett really had a unique style of writing. I recommend reading her works.
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