Male Criticism on Ladies Books

My edition of Ruth Hall has a generous selection of Fanny Fern’s newspaper columns, which are exactly the sort of thing her character Ruth Hall becomes famous for.  I haven’t read many of them, but I did skim through them and read the ones that sounded interesting, and I thought I’d share an example.  I found that her journalistic voice is very lively and entertaining and funny; this is the voice I liked best in the novel — the comic rather than the tragic parts.

This is an essay called “Male Criticism on Ladies Books”; it starts off with a quotation from the New York Times (given below) and then proceeds to comment on it:

“Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman’s thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation.  We have no right to expect anything else in a woman’s book.” — N.Y. Times

Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants and children are the staple?  Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickens, of Thackery, of Bulwer and a host of others?  Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics?  Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage?  And if it could be so recognized, would it find readers?  When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends; who has divided his migratory life between boarding-houses, restaurants, and the outskirts of editorial sanctums; and who knows as much about reviewing a woman’s book, as I do about navigating a ship, or engineering an omnibus from the South Ferry, though Broadway, to Union Park.  I think I see him writing that paragraph in a fit of spleen — of male spleen — in his small boarding-house upper chamber, by the cheerful light of a solitary candle, flickering alternately on cobwebbed walls, dusty wash-stand, begrimed bowl and pitcher, refuse cigar stumps, boot-jacks, old hats, buttonless coats, muddy trousers, and all the wretched accompaniments of solitary, selfish male existence, not to speak of his own puckered, unkissable face; perhaps, in addition, his boots hurt, his cravat-bow persists in slipping under his ear for want of a pin, and a wife to pin it (poor wretch!) or he has been refused by some pretty girl, as he deserved to be (narrow-minded old vinegar-cruet!) or snubbed by some lady authoress; or, more trying than all to the male constitution, has had a weak cup of coffee for that morning’s breakfast.

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books.  Whether the book which called forth the remark above quoted, was a good book or a bad one, I know not; I should be inclined to think the former from the dispraise of such a pen.  Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers is a matter of history; and that gentlemen often write over feminine signatures would seem also to argue that feminine literature is, after all, in good odor with the reading public.  Granted that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them?  Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and above all, respectfully? or — what would be a much harder task for such critics — write a better book!

Take that, Mr. Critic!  What a satisfying revenge, and how great to point out that criticism which can seem objective and detached and passionless is often motivated by emotion, sometimes ugly emotions like jealousy and anger.  I love the way she twice puts a question mark after the word “criticism” to show her doubts that this sort of writing really qualifies.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Male Criticism on Ladies Books

  1. This is excellent, thanks for posting it. The end of the last paragraph, from the “puckered, inkissable face” on is really good. “Narrow-minded old vinegar cruet”! “Snubbed by some lady authoress”!


  2. What that male critic may also not understand is that until recently, courtship and family relations were a matter of financial security for women, just as much as work outside the home was for men. Though it was sometimes sweetened by romance, it was truly serious business, perhaps even more serious than men’s work because there were so few options and choices were often irrevocable. One mistake and a woman was fallen forever and had very little hope of a decent life. With stakes that high it’s no wonder it occupied women’s attention, both for herself and for her children.


  3. I’m so glad you posted this! It’s great to hear Fanny Fern’s voice and no wonder she ended up such a favourite for the nation. Loved her riposte to those sneering male critics!


  4. What a marvellous column! Thanks for sharing it. Fern’s imagining of the “critic” in his boarding house room reminds me a bit of the fictional bits woven into Virginia Woolf’s essays that I like so well.


  5. Thanks for sharing that column–I was wondering what her journalistic writing was like. And she is very right that it isn’t just women writing about ‘women’s issues’. I guess when a man wrote about them they held more weight? I admire her–she certainly seems to have been able to hold her own in a male dominated field–and do it successfully!


  6. My copy of the book has some of Fern’s columns too though I have not read any of them and wasn’t going to but now I think I might look them over. Her voice certainly sounds more forceful to me here than in Ruth Hall. Somehow I can’t imagine Ruth writing anything like that 🙂


  7. Thanks for sharing this! It was delightfully entertaining to read, what a sharp pen she wrote with. 🙂


  8. Har! This was great and she had some courage too! I love the way she slammed him by pointing out that he must be too awful to get a woman. It really did sound like he was quite petulant–probably because he wasn’t getting any!


  9. Amateur Reader — isn’t it? I wasn’t planning on reading the essays, but I’m glad I at least took a quick look. They are well worth it.

    Sylvia — oh, you are so right. In what sense is marriage and family small if that is your whole life? Not to mention the fact that it affects everyone, male and female.

    Litlove — the essays do add another dimension to my understanding of Fern — she was pretty direct in the novel but even more so in the essays, in a way that’s very entertaining and satisfying.

    Kate — oh, you’re right! Both writers do the very serious but with a light, humorous fictionalized tone thing well.

    Danielle — yeah, when a man writes about domestic matters, it’s simply not seen as a domestic novel — it’s seen as dealing with serious, weighty themes. But with a woman writer, it’s another thing entirely!

    Stefanie — you’re right, it’s a little hard to see Ruth writing like this, except she does have a little, tiny bit of a rebellious streak in her — enough to keep her going with her writing at least.

    Melanie — isn’t it entertaining! I was so pleased to find that out.

    Chartroose — she certainly does her best to rid him of his arrogance, doesn’t she? Very satisfying.


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