The Scribbling Age

By Andre Norton


     When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his famous letter attacking those of his professional rivals who wore hoops and lace caps (they were Respectable Females and would never have appeared in public lacking either of those proven accessories of a lady’s toilet) he was in the perilous position of the fabled young Netherlander who dammed a rising sea with a thumb in the dyke wall. The life literary hither to had been the vocation and avocation of gentlemen. Gentlewomen were considered learned if they could read the Scriptures, write their names, and cast the household accounts.

      But now there was a growing class of readers “who knew not Joseph”, and had little desire to be introduced to him either. The same half year in which ”Mosses From an Old Manse” Earned Mr. Hawthorne one hundred and forty-four dollars, gave Miss Susan Warner the far more satisfying sum of forty-five hundred for “The Wide, Wide World”. Mr. Hawthorne might be a genius and was producing classics for the future, but Miss Warner could give the current reading public what they wanted – for the standards of the public, as strict and exacting as those of the professional critic who sneered at them, were not the same at all.

      In 1840 American fiction entered upon what might be termed the “Scribbling Age.” It was a period of vast commercial and geographical expansion, marked by the rise of a new leisure class, a class yet unknown in Europe, its power not based upon the ownership of land nor upon accident of birth, but upon its own money making abilities -- the American Middle Class. And it was to the taste of this class the “scribblers” consciously or unconsciously appealed. For the type of fiction they produced was sentimental, chaste, conservative -- to be associated with tradition, respect for the past, and pride in achievement.

      The small merchant who speculated with success sent his daughter to boarding school and his son to an academy as a matter of pride. Education was, in his estimation, one of the marks of gentle birth. Such a move was the proper exposition to the community that he was on the way up the social ladder. In turn his wife made her own assertions of position by hiring a maid or two and enjoying new leisure. She entered into a world which became more and more a strictly feminine domain. The home was her kingdom and the husband and father (far from being the boorish tyrant, the hearthside bully accepted and portrayed as usual in the English novel of the same period) existed for the purpose, supreme and lawful, of supplying his wife and fashionably large family with unthreatened financial security. The world of business was a strange and ungentle jungle into which the men vanished at regular intervals. It had its own language, customs and ethics, and it was no concern of any lady. (This was the theory -- in practice life was often different. But sentimental fiction is more largely occupied with correct theories of conduct and the desired standards, rather than with real facts.)

      The scarcity of women in a country still not too far removed from colonial and frontier status had already given American women an advantage over their English and European sisters in freedom of action and choice. And the new duel system of worlds made their position in their own even more important. A woman was a delicate flower, to be cherished. The generation who doted on the ultra-feminine novels was a generation who worked with the some grim zeal to preserve a wan pallor of completion their descendants now display, in acquiring a sun tan. Ladies -- perfect ladies -- were frail of health dazzling fair of face, pious and meek, fighting the sordid horrors of the world with their natural high nobility.

      Material wealth was swift in coming during the Forties and the Fifties and women adjusted to it quickly. What was unheard of luxury for the mother was accepted as a necessity by the daughter. There was an almost pathetic desire for “culture”, but what these women meant by that term was far different from the connotation the same word held across the Atlantic.

      This new feminine ruler of the household became easily a queen in a society founded upon the domestic circle of the home. And she had power which no lady of the nobility, no king’s mistress, had ever held. She was the supreme arbitrator in the arts, in social deportment, and domestic ethics and standards. Her Lares and Penates were twins and she saw that all her world worshiped openly at the shrine of Domesticity and “Culture.”

      And, since the hard working men who supplied the background for these powerful gods had little or no leisure or interest outside the counting houses or their own places of business, it developed that four fifths of the reading public were now women.

      They had for the first time their magazines, designed to fit their taste alone, monthlies, quarterlies, weeklies. In the Fifties Harper’s wryly states!

“Literature has gone in pursuit of the million, penetrated highways and hedges, pressed its way into cottages, factories, omnibuses and railroad cars, and become the most cosmopolitan thing of the century.”

      For this is the generation which supplied the mill girls of Lowell with libraries and fostered in them a desire to publish their own writings, which nurtured a whole new field in fiction -- slanting it toward the “lady.”

      More leisure, more money, and a confusion of culture with education, led in the 1850s to the biggest book buying boom America had ever seen. And when it ended with the financial crash of l857, there had been more best-sellers appear than in any other previous decade -- a few golden years for writers and publishers alike, a very fortuitous time in which to launch a literary career as the genteel females who had an instinctive knowledge of the tastes of their sex speedily discovered.

      And these magazines, books, short stories, serials, were not aimed at the literary minded caste of New England, but at the half-educated middle class. The works of Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau went a-begging, but there was no lack of readers for the serials in the New York Ledger, the Saturday Evening Post, and Godey’s Lady’s Book.

      Authorship of such serials in these magazines was an easy step to the post of best-seller. Mrs. Southworth and Mary Jane Holmes both achieved it in that fashion. And the attitude of the highly influential editor of Godey’s, Sarah Hale, had much to do with the emergence of women writers. Until her time a woman who dared to enter the masculine field of letters published her work anonymously or under initials, if she had not chosen a pseudonym. Mrs. Hale demanded that her contributors boldly sign their own names. It was now possible to be both a lady and an authoress in the eyes of the polite world.

      As Mrs. Kirkland in her contemporary review of Mrs. Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” triumphed:

“A woman may now enjoy the reputation of being clever without ceasing to be regarded as a woman. This is the glory of our age which should never be forgotten.”

      And the scribbling women did not intend that any of these new privileges or opportunities should remain unexplored in their bid for wider horizons.

      Naturally these magazines were highly moral. Bonner of the New York Ledger on his retirement from the publishing lists, recited what had been his credo for the most widely accepted periodical in the field.

“When I first bought the Ledger I pictured to myself an old lady in Westchester with three daughters aged about twenty, sixteen, and twelve. Of an evening they came home from a prayer meeting and not being sleepy, the mother takes up the Ledger and reads aloud to the girls. From the first day I got the Ledger to present time there has never appeared one line which the old lady in Westchester would not like to read to her daughters.”

      And Bonner knew what he was talking about. Five years after the Ledger was founded, in 1860, it had a circulation of 400,000, and this when the total population of the country was only 31,000,000. To be published in the ledger marked one as having arrived as a popular writer of fiction.

      But what type of fiction did that old lady in Westchester deem suitable amusement for her bevy of young lady daughters?

      Romance, safely de-sexed, innocuous adventures, and, of course, sentiment. That was an unbeatable combination for sales value.

      Editors had their own standards for judging manuscripts. The anonymous lady or gentleman responsible for the monthly appearance of a pure offering known as “The Lily” warned would-be contributors:

“When a new work is to be purchased let inquiry be, will it promote virtuous and useful knowledge, will it afford innocent pleasure, will it cheer the hour of sorrow, or console the heart in its moments of affliction?”

      Fiction had been long regarded as born on the wrong side of the blanket, but by 1835 there was a growing belief that even stories could do all the editor of The Lily demanded.

      And since women preferred fiction, their demand raised novels (much as they were still vocally abhorred) to permanent commercial superiority over all forms of literature. Novels were so rightly considered the property of females that the New York booksellers frankly used such ads as “To the ladies: Novels for winter evening amusement.”

      Plots and characterization were largely stereotyped. There was s complete set of characters on the side of the angels, who could be readily recognized at their first appearance on the scene and with whom the reader was at once familiar.

      The Heroine: frequently an orphan, often with a clouded birth hinting at the sinister. Her ambitions were thwarted by poverty and persecution but her native talents led her into the position of governess or ward in a patrician family. She is, of course, beautiful, deeply religious, very charitable, learned, and easily moved to tears upon occasions of either joy or sorrow.

      The Hero: the reformed rake of the late eighteenth century is still in some favor. But he must now share the stage with the pure-souled young man of blameless past, who may also be an orphan of questionable parentage. The only real demand made of either rake or paragon of all masculine virtues is to be financially solvent. He is sometimes allowed minor faults and is almost always more mature than his bride to be -- often being in his thirties when she is a girl in her teens. He may be a cynic or a misanthrope because of an early betrayal of trust, and his talents must always exceed those of the heroine’s.

      Minor good characters such as school girl friends of the heroine or boyhood chums of the hero may display such faults as jealousy, false pride, social ambition or indifference to the claims of religion -- from which errors they are naturally weaned by the fine example set by their noble companions.

      Mothers, if good, are the ideal protectors of the home and often saintly invalids -- if bad, shallow members of smart society with snobbish social aims.

      And there are generally present and ever ready with good advice an elderly patriarch or matriarch who believes in God’s justice and the innate goodness of mankind.

      On the debt side of the ledger stand another list of stock characters.

      The disillusioned and cynical belle, usually in quest of a husband, any husband, and who generally makes a poor marriage, ending in tragedy, after she has sufficiently bedeviled the heroine.

      The wife deserter who is a direct descendant of the earlier rake-seduced.

      The female fiend (often a sister or stepsister) whose principal aim is to gain the hero’s attention -- to which end she lies, inflicts mental torture on the heroine, sometimes going to the length of bodily harm -- conducting herself in the general pattern of Cinderella’s relatives by marriage. Included in the same class of fiends are the diabolical stepmothers or stepfathers who try to force their wards into distasteful marriages or covet the estates of the rightful heirs.

      The righteous characters’ are unusually kind, just, handsome, talented and charming. (Only the unrighteous among the women are over attractive in a sexual fashion.) They are permitted to be tolerant on minor questions of ethics or conduct and they possess some capacity for success in normal enterprise. For reasons of plot they are pushed close to the edge of disaster -- sometimes bringing calamity down upon themselves because of some stubborn adherence to a code of honor or a religious belief.

      And intermingled with the sentimentality and the melodrama are small outcrops of practical and realistic advice which the reader could apply to her own life with valuable results. One can learn by diligent perusal the proper treatment of aged parents, the correct behavior for a young lady left alone in a city, the benefits of proper business practices, and even the right conduct for an actress who wishes to avoid scandal while engaging in such a dubious calling.

      The emphasis shifts from the sensational action to the suffering of the characters in measured turns and there is a recognized use of pathetic or artistic descriptive interludes which have no purpose but to dress the scene -- without influencing the plot.

      But some of the older plot elements, beloved by the early nineteenth and late eighteenth century novelists, continue to linger on.

      The hard-hearted parents who force the heroine into a detested marriage, the long suffering wife abused by a tyrannical husband, the rake reformed by a pure heroine, all these had made their appearance long before, but they could still hold a reader’s attention.

      Novels had developed in England and the standards first set oversees, but when one compares the American light novel of 1850 through 1880 with those from Britain, one cannot but note difference in more than background alone -- in spite of the continuation of familiar characterization and creaking plots which had been used since Anne Radcliffe, Fanny Burney and Clara Reeves first won fame and fortune with their fashioning.

      One outstanding divergence is the attitude of the author toward parental meddling in the lives of their children. Where the English writer such as Rosa Carey, Charlotte Yonge, Ouida -- allows the parent to tyrannize over his or her offspring and apparently heartily agrees with the dire punishments meted out by vengeful Heavenly Powers upon any child bold enough to resent such bullying. The American novel by Southworth, Holmes or Cummins suggests the ill which ensues from such grinding parental control is sheer cruelty on the part of the older generation and has no base in justice. The only well known exception to this on our side of the ocean in the lamentable life of Elsie Dinsmore under the supervision of her intolerable father.

      Another change is the treatment of married life. The rebel wife is a theme which fascinated authoresses of this period. (Was it born of wishful thinking? It may be noted that the spinster writers were far harder on the rebels than those who had enjoyed the married state before they took to their pens.) But no American husband could play the bully with the apparent wholehearted approval of the writer who created him as he was allowed to do in say the novels of Miss Yonge. While none of the bestselling novelist were “advanced” or “new women”, they did dare to discuss openly and with sympathy the plight of the deserted wife, (Mrs. Southworth was one herself and knew the terrors of the situation.), the wife who was married for her money without any love entering into the bargain (Mrs. Holmes), the double standard of morals used by men to excuse their transgressions (Augusta Evans Wilson). And when they had strong opinions on such subjects they defended them firmly, without yielding ground when opposed.

      But almost all the problems dealt with were domestic, True to the over-riding interests of their day, a book to be a success must be bound by the limits of the family and the household. Since women had decided that fiction was now a proper medium for introducing culture to the immediate home circle, fiction must be, of course, improving to the reader. Realism when it meant, even in shadow fashion, “coarseness”, was to be excluded. If one read novels (still a suspect occupation in many circles) one must naturally be elevated by them.

      So the red blooded characterization and freedom of speech which had been given story telling by Fielding and Smollett were now taboo, and the proper heroine the poor orphan Cinderella, pious and learned as well as pure and beautiful, was granted long soliloquies intended to instruct and inform.

      Poetry did not appeal to all tastes, and the intellectualism of a text was too involved and heavy a diet for the majority of half-educated readers. But one could compromise with fiction -- if it elevated. By the middle Forties the novel had excluded the mechanics of business and politics -- worlds its readers shrank from entering -- and straight ethical and theological problems (social problems in the deeper sense were never mentioned) were handled with the extreme simplicity of a Sunday-school text.

      The stories were narrow in their treatment and background. But within those very narrow boundaries these novels did have their good points.

      Mrs. Gaskell with the penetration of a writer-critic said frankly:

“These American novels unconsciously reveal all the little household secrets, we see the meals as they are put on the table, we learn the dresses which those who sit down to them wear -- we hear their kindly family discourses, we enter into their home struggles and we rejoice when they gain the victory.”

      In other words, if a modern research worker wants an excellent picture of the domestic mind, manners, and customs of the period, let him turn to these light novels and he will learn how three-quarters of middle nineteenth century America lived.

      There were a few dissenting voices raised against the narrowness of this world behind the comfortable bulwarks erected by the moral tone of such novels. Fanny Kemble, during her residence in Lenox, complained that the silly prudery of American women took all the life out of novel writing.

      On the other hand the surge of new ideas in the Forties and Fifties provided details of fashionable fads and fancies which the authoresses used in abundance. Phrenology, hydropathy, health foods, mesmerism, spiritualism, temperance, Anti-slavery, “Brook Farm”, and the other seekings for a home grown utopia, all had their day of honor between hard covers. Some novels became out and out propaganda for one cause or another if the writer was completely carried away in sympathy with the new belief or cause. But the flood of what one critic termed “pious histories of precocious, flirtatious young girls” continued to dominate the field.

      1850 to l860 was a momentous time in literary history. For it witnessed the birth in the novelists’ heavens of five glowing stars -- five women who invaded a territory hitherto almost wholly male to become the first American Best-Sellers. Five in a single decade, it had never happened before, and it has seldom happened since.

      And who were these lady authoresses who knew exactly how to the give the public what it wanted most?

      Susan Warner, a shy, retiring neurotic, hidden away on an island in the Hudson, dogged by ill health and the specter of poverty. As Elizabeth Wetherall she wrote “The Wide, Wide World” and started the landslide.

      Maria Cummins, another recluse, even more cut off from the world by ill health and family circumstances, but who was able to paint a picture of the slums of Boston which will compete with the best of Dickens, painstaking in her descriptions, eager in her lovingly set forth details of the travel she could not enjoy in person.

      Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth who inked a pen that continued to scribble energetically for more than one generation of adoring readers. Who gave us the mysterious manor-house of the south, the family curse, shipwrecks, murders, and magnolia scented romances as fast as her often tired fingers could move across a page -- swift unending streams of despicable ends and noble heroes, President’s leeves and fashionable bells.

      Mrs. Mary Jane Holmes who took Cinderella’s cause for her basic plot and produced it regularly, complete with ugly sisters, wicked stepmother, romantic southern gentleman hero to sweep off the plain school ma’am for a good many profitable years.

      Augusta Evans Wilson -- five pounds of erudition to five ounces of action -- the champion of the learned maiden, the delight of seekers after culture. To be read only with the dictionary close at hand.

      These are Hawthorne’s scribbling women and they can be poured into no common mold -- they were individualists in life as well as in work. Two were happy and contented wives, one was a very unhappy grass widow, the remaining two spinsters. Four lived long lives, one died young. Three were breadwinner of large families, two wrote only for the satisfaction of creation.

      What did they have in common? An ability which has been tossed aside by some of our greatly esteemed modern novelists -- they could and did tell an interesting and absorbing story with a clearly defined plot. And the public welcomed their work, book after book, year after year. Did they deserve Hawthorne’s sweeping damnation of their labors?


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights -
Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.