Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1886)

A woman writer returns to Maine in search of isolation.   She stays in a New England fishing village where she gets to know some of the local characters … and that’s about it really.  The Country of the Pointed Firs offers nothing resembling a plot, but Sarah Orne Jewett wasn’t interested in plots; she was interested in characterization and in describing a dying way of life, both of which she does beautifully.

The small self-sufficient fishing community depends upon close relationships between its members.    At first it might seem that Jewett idealises the way of life (Mrs Todd’s mother is just a little too good to be true), but there’s a lot of darkness in the stories too.  Captain Littlepage believes he’s visited a city between this world and the next, Poor Joanna becomes a recluse to atone for what she believes to be an unforgivable sin, and in ‘A Long Shore’ the narrator visits a grieving fisherman.    Even her landlady, jolly Mrs Todd, harbours a broken heart because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved.

Jewett was born in 1849 and published her first story when she was 19.  The Country of the Pointed First made her reputation.   From 1881 she lived with another writer, Annie Fields, in a Boston Marriage.

From a feminist perspective, The Country of the Pointed Firs is interesting for its attention to the voices of women and the details of their lives.  Jewett is one of those writers who attracts that kind of coy, “Yes, we know she lived for most of her life with another woman in a Boston marriage, but we can’t possibly know if they had a sexual relationship, so we can’t possibly speculate about her sexual orientation” comment from critics.  However, I like to think that we can reasonably claim her for the team.   The narrator is striking for her assertion of her identity as a writer and refusal to define herself in relation to men.   She is mainly interested in other women and has total faith in their capabilities and while she’s sympathetic to men, she’s not in any way awed by them.

A nice read for an afternoon.

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