Today in weird old children’s books! (Which I like to read while I’m sick, and I’ve had a cold all week.) The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner was the first book published in America to sell over one million copies! It’s the book that Jo March was reading in Little Women when someone discovers her reading and crying in a tree! Girls in *other* books are often reading it too!
The Wide, Wide World starts out in a tense, claustrophobic situation where 10 year old Ellen is hanging out with her mother who is obviously dying of consumption. (The dad is an indifferent and kind of scary figure – barely there.) The mom has to go overseas for her health so they plan to send Ellen to her aunt in the country. Ellen devotedly makes toast and tea for her mother and tries (unsuccessfully ) not to cry and to love Jesus best.
The crowning glory of this book is probably in these first few chapters when they finally stop crying and praying (and coughing) long enough to leave the house on a shopping trip to get Ellen a Bible. (The mom sells her treasured ring to be able to afford it!) Agonizingly long bible-choosing scene. The mom also buys her a truly wondrous mahogany writing-desk with a zillion little drawers and compartments & all the things to go in them brand new. Pencils! different note-papers! Ink and ink powder and a screw top jar for the ink! (Even some pounce!) Then, surprise, a work-basket equally well provisioned. I wonder if Warner was fantasizing about having the best possible writing desk, or didn’t quite know how to go about moving the plot forward and had to fill up the chapter and used her own gorgeous little desk as an example?!
Then an utterly terrifying journey with some strange family who are not very genteel. They mock her bonnet. Luckily on the river boat she meets a kind old gentleman on deck who finds her crying and comforts her by discussing Jesus at GREAT LENGTH and then sets her to read the text of some hymns. Yay, he even gives her the tiny hymnbook which he’s helpfully marked up with pointers and explanations! By the end of the journey as night falls I think she’s cuddled up in his arms?! He never even says what his name is. I picture him as a very whiskery man in a top hat with his pockets just STUFFED full of weird religious tracts.
Then a stressful stay at an inn. The travelling companion lady lets Ellen just fall asleep on the floor and goes down to dinner. But the nice servant girl conspires with the inn’s chambermaid and they make up a nice bed for her & bring her fancy dinner. Huzzah! (No one mentions Jesus. Just how polite and sweet Ellen is. )
The next day they brutally yeet Ellen and her trunk in the town square of Uhhhh I can’t remember. Townville. Clearly we are in upstate New York though. She gets to ride in an ox-cart to her aunt’s house and then terrifyingly the ox cart driver tells her to just walk in. The aunt had no idea she was coming. OK this is getting too long so I’ll just say: The aunt is a sharp and hard hearted person, the ox-cart driver Mr. Van Brunt ends up befriending her, there are like a zillionty great characters (ox-cart guy’s old mother, charismatic Swiss French lady who lives on top of the mountain, her feckless, tricky and wild granddaughter Nancy, Alice Humphreys the young lady who is the minister’s daughter. Alice adopts Ellen as her sister and talks to her constantly about Jesus so they are BFFs. Then we meet Alice’s brother John ***DUH DUh DUNNNNNNNN*** ***super dramatic entrance music*** who is studying to be a minister and who LOVES to tell Ellen how to behave and truly be good and who also encourages (as Alice does) her education, her questions about science, the refraction of light, etc. Meanwhile, she and Alice learn perfect French from the lady on the mountain. She goes with Alice and John to a house party at their friends’? cousins’? mansion, Ventnor. Then she goes home to alternate staying with Aunt Fortune (the mean one) and Alice.
I can’t help seeing some of this from Aunt Fortune’s point of view. She works her ass off and is a perfect housekeeper and has to take care of a useless religious nut who cries all the time and Ellen’s nice genteel sweetness is never for her but only for strangers who don’t do all their own work. Anyway, at some point Ellen has to take care of the Aunt and the house mostly by herself for a month even doing the super difficult churning. Aunt still terrible though for opening her letters from her mom and not letting her have them for days. (Even when her mom just DIED.) Oh yeah her dad is also lost at sea.
Let us fast forward through the scenes at Ventnor and also when she finally gets a completely perfect pony.
Suddenly things take a completely bizarre turn. Nancy brings a hidden letter to Ellen! It says her mother’s dying command is that Ellen should go to her maternal grandmother in Scotland who is super rich! Who no one has ever heard of because they were estranged! Whaaaaat! But Ellen wants to stay with John her “brother” (i.e. the youngest and hottest creepy jesus loving control freak in her life) But it is her duty to obey her parents! OMG!!!! She is packed off to Scotland immediately of course. Impossible to tell how old she is but by this time maybe 18 or so. Her creepy uncle in Edinbugh adopts her (How many times COULD a person be adopted, Ellen wondered to herself) and makes her drink wine (GASP) and doesn’t take Jesus seriously — all the Scottish relatives make fun of Yankees and the backwoods – forbid her jealously to talk about her “brother” – Well, you can guess what happens at the end.
A++ excellent totally bizarro book; clearly L.M. Montgomery did a serious Jesusectomy on it to get herself going. Despite my alienation from all the religious stuff I liked Ellen’s moral quandries as she tries to be nice to people and do her duty even when they are horrible, despite her fierce temper.
JUST FOUND OUT that there is a 53rd chapter that wasn’t published until the 1980s (thank you Feminist Press) I need this! They have this edition in the Main library downtown for in-library use only so I’m going to have to go on pilgrimage!! Very exciting. I mean, obviously it’s just like Susan marrying John her “brother” which was only hinted at coyly in chapter 52.