The Wide, Wide World

February 14, 2008

The Wide, Wide World was written by Susan Warner and published in 1850 under the name Elizabeth Wetherell. It was an enormous success, and probably America’s first bestseller — it was as popular in the second half of the 19th century as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, and was published two years before it. It was also one of the first books intended for girls rather than children. I guess it’s sort of similar to the works of Charlotte Yonge, who was writing around the same time.

For all these reasons I’ve been intending to read it for a long time, but there are so many things I want to read, and so I didn’t get around the The Wide, Wide World until the fact that Elsie Dinsmore reads it in Elsie’s Girlhood made me feel like I had to.

Well, it took me a while, but it was no hardship. It’s actually a pretty good book, and I’ surprised it isn’t still considered a classic. It’s overtly religious nearly to the extent that the Elsie books are, but I think religion is dealt with much more sensitively in The Wide, Wide World. Possibly this is because Warner was a much better writer than Martha Finley. Everything is dealt with more sensitively. Characters stay in character. There is interest outside of religion in The Wide, Wide World, and sometimes, when children are playing games, you actually get the sense that they’re having fun, as opposed to just being told that they are. And I kept having moments where I’d look up from the page and think to myself, “Yeah. That seems like something a person would do.” Much as I love old girls’ books, I don’t have many moments like that while reading them.

Ellen Montgomery, the heroine, is eight or nine when the story opens (much as in Elsie Dinsmore, which probably would not have been written if The Wide, Wide World hadn’t been written first — I had a whole running list in my head, while I was reading, of books that wouldn’t have been written if this hadn’t been written first). She lives in New York City with her parents, but her father hardly counts — he’s not a bad person, just not a particularly affectionate one, and although he and his wife get along fine, he and Ellen barely seem to know each other. Ellen is completely wrapped up in her mother, who is an invalid. Mrs. Montgomery is very religious, but Ellen isn’t — she can’t imagine loving God better than she loves her mother. So when her father decides to take her mother abroad for her health and leave Ellen behind, she takes it pretty hard — they both do.

Mrs. Montgomery knows that going abroad won’t help her — she’s going to die anyway. And the doctor kind of knows it too, so I’m not sure why they need to send her abroad at all. Anyway, Mrs. Montgomery is one of those earnest Christians you find in 19th century fiction whose only unhappiness about dying is that not all those she loves are as earnestly Christian as herself. Well, okay, she doesn’t seem that worried about the state of her husband’s soul, but she’s awfully concerned about Ellen’s, and she does all she can to make Ellen a Christian before they part.

Ellen is sent to stay with her Aunt Fortune Emerson, who has a farm near a small town called Thirlwall. Aunt Fortune is kind of a bitch, and also a workaholic. And she’s completely intolerant of Ellen’s feelings and takes pleasure in making her mad. She’s sort of like all the other spinsters in girls’ fiction who have orphans come to live with them — Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, Aunt Polly in Pollyanna, the elder of the two aunts in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, etc. — except that she really is humorless and kind of mean, and she never lets up. Aunt Fortune never goes all soft and admits that she’s really fond of Ellen. She does eventually admit that Ellen is an obedient child and a hard worker, and she trusts Ellen to take care of the house when she gets sick, but as soon as she gets well again she starts bossing and faultfinding again. There’s a particularly fun bit where Aunt Fortune is, like, chuckling to herself over having come up with the idea of teaching Ellen to spin yarn and therefore further curtailing her free time. I sort of couldn’t help liking Aunt Fortune.

Luckily for Ellen, there are a number of people around who are much nicer to her. Mr. Van Brunt, who manages her aunt’s farm, is Ellen’s first friend, and he’s a great help to her, since he’s not afraid to stand up to Aunt Fortune. He makes sure she doesn’t work too hard, and that she has a bit of fun every once in a while. I didn’t think it was quite consistent with Ellen’s gradual religious awakening, the way she’s always getting Mr. Van Brunt to fight her battles for her, and it doesn’t help her cause with Aunt Fortune much either. Aunt Fortune and Mr. Van Brunt eventually get married, and while Ellen is upset because she’s fonder of Mr. Van Brunt than she is of her aunt, it seems to work out pretty well for them both.

Ellen’s most important friend is Alice Humphreys, a young woman whose father is the minister of a nearby village called Carra-carra. Alice is another sweet, earnest Christian, but also seems to be a fun person to talk to, and when Aunt Fortune won’t let Ellen go to school, Alice gives her lessons. Alice also has a brother, John, who is away at college much of the time, but who soon becomes at least as important to Ellen as Alice is. He’s almost really domineering, but not quite — I mean, he tells Ellen how to live her life, and expects to be unquestioningly obeyed, but he never seems like a tyrant the way Elsie Dinsmore’s father does. I think it might be because Ellen gets to choose. John Humphreys is the person in charge of her life because she wants him to be, and there are people who have a better right to be in control of her than he does, but she doesn’t love them as much.

Eventually Ellen’s mother dies, and Aunt Fortune, who has a habit of opening Ellen’s letters and not giving them to her until forced to by Alice or Mr. Van Brunt, doesn’t tell her. But apparently she does tell other people, because Ellen hears about it from a woman who lives in the neighborhood. That was the one moment where I just couldn’t like Aunt Fortune. Also, the boat on which Mr. Mongomery planned to return to America never arrives, so Ellen’s officially an orphan — not that that changes things much. From then on, Ellen spends much of her time living with the Humphreys, who have half adopted her. Alice and John call her “sister”, and although Mr. Humphreys is not demonstrative, she comes to realize that he loves her as a daughter.

Eventually Alice gets sick, and before she happily goes off to Heaven, she has Mr. Van Brunt — who has married Aunt Fortune by this time — promise to let Ellen move in with the Humphreys permanently so that she can take Alice’s place. So Alice dies, and Ellen knows she can’t really take her place, but she also knows that Mr. Humphreys and John are happier because she’s there. They go on for a while this way — all gravely happy and very fond of each other, and Ellen pretty much worshipping John — until one day Ellen’s friend Nancy brings Ellen some letters (addressed to Ellen) that she’s found among Aunt Fortune’s stuff.

There’s a letter from Ellen’s mother, written just before she died, that Fortune has never seen fit to give to Ellen. But more importantly, for the plot, anyway, there is a letter from Ellen’s father, saying that Ellen should be sent to live with her grandmother and uncle in Scotland. Aunt Fortune apparently decided that the money Mr. Montgomery sent to pay for Ellen’s passage should go towards paying back some money she once lent to him instead. John is attending to family business in England, so she can’t ask his advice, and everyone else tells her that she must do what her parents had wanted her to do, even though the letters are three years old. She would much rather stay with the Humphreys, but she must go, and so some friends take her with them on their trip abroad, and drop her off outside Edinburgh.

Her grandmother and uncle, the Lindsays, are very happy to have her, and Mr. Lindsay, who has lost his wife and child, insists that Ellen call him “father.” Ellen soon comes to love them, but she really misses John, and the Lindsays, while very kind to her, are proud and strict and have no sympathy with her Christian scruples. Mrs. Lindsay makes a prolonged effort to deprive Ellen of her hour in the morning for private prayer, but Mr. Lindsay, who dotes on Ellen, finds some private time for her later in the day. They’re also really upset to hear that there’s someone outside of their family whom she calls “brother,” and at one point Mr. Lindsay takes away the copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress that John annotated for her and won’t give it back, which makes him seem very petty.

Then John shows up! He’s about to sail for America, and he’d been unable to get Ellen’s address before. And once Mr. Lindsay has met him, it’s very hard for him to dislike John. And while Mr. Lindsay won’t let Ellen go home with him, he does allow her to correspond with John, and John promises that when Ellen is of age, she can come back to America and live with him and his father again. And then the narrator tells us that eventually she does return home — presumably she and John get married, although it doesn’t say — and the book is over.

John is about ten years older than Ellen, and she thinks of him as a brother, so there’s a bit of that pedophilic/incestuous thing that’s so prominent in the Elsie books, but here it’s not so creepy — it’s just a mid 19th century thing, and anyway, the book leaves off when Ellen is about fifteen, so there’s time for their relationship to change, and we’re free to imagine that happening in an uncreepy way.

I didn’t love The Wide, Wide World, but — well, I guess I respect it. I may not ever read it again, but it is no surprise to me that it was a massive bestseller. It is very dated now, and far more religious that mainstream novels nowadays, but I can’t fault it for being of its time, and I think it is very well-written and pretty intelligent. All in all, a nice surprise


  1. just found your blog because you read the Grace Harlowe series and I was doing a search. Looks like a fun blog, and I’ll stick around for awhile.

  2. Nice to have you here.

    So, are you a fan of the Grace Harlowe books? I’m rereading them for my thesis right now, and they continually surprise me because they’re, like, the cheapest, most formulaic kind of girls’ fiction and yet there’s so much going on.

  3. There’s a lot of bad formula in Grace Harlowe, but I’m occasionally surprised how much better some of the twists are than more famous series, such as the original Nancy Drew.

    One example: In Junior Year in High School, evil Eleanor rips up the principal Miss Thompson’s speech. Grace figures it out, and loses the favor of Miss Thompson by not squealing on Eleanor. It seems like a bad move for Grace.

    But it turns out to be a surprising lever she uses against Eleanor when Eleanor steals Anne’s costume in the class play.

    And don’t get me started about the underlying lesbian attraction the evil math teacher Miss Leece has towards prize student Miriam Nesbit in the “Plebe Year”!!

    Just downloaded “Wide, Wide World” and have started on it.

  4. For the past couple of years I’ve been nursing a strong dislike for the Nancy Drew books, which, as well as being as formulaic as anything out there, are practically all that scholars writing on girls’ series talk about.

    For me, Grace Harlowe is far more interesting. I think Josephine Chase was thinking a lot more about character than plot, and so you get plots that reflect the characters, and people’s relationships actually change and grow, which is something you’ll rarely find in a Stratemeyer series.

    It’s just so unusual for stuff that happens in one book to actually matter in the next.

  5. Josephine Chase’s characters’ relationships do change and grow. That’s a good point, and maybe that should be a criterion for differentiating the quality of writing from one series versus another, e.g., Nancy Drew v. Grace Harlowe.

    Admittedly the transitions in Chase’s book are formulaic, maybe, but they are transitions. I think it’s the Sophomore book where evil Julia Crosby falls through the ice, Grace saves her, and that’s all it takes to turn evil Julia into Saint Julia. A similar formula happens with evil Miriam being saved from a mugging by Grace, and Good Miriam comes about.

    But you’re right. Then the “changed” character adopts the new persona for the next books in the series. As far as I can remember, that doesn’t happen in a big name series like Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys.

    Quick comment on Wide, Wide World: I just started it. I’m not a religious person, so take it with a grain of salt. In the first fifty pages or so, I was intrigued about the conversation between mother and Ellen where the mother tells the Ellen that she (the mother) loves Jesus more than she loves Ellen.

    The book obviously seems to be a Biblical morality tale, so a conversation like that might not be surprising in those kinds of books. But in other children’s books I’ve read, say “Bobbsey Twins,” that kind of conversation would never take place. Even on my modern ears, boy that’s an edgy thing to say to your child.

  6. BTW, are you aware of any other series by Josephine Chase? That’s what I was googling for when I came upon your blog.

  7. Oh, it’s all very formulaic — doesn’t it usually take exactly two years for Grace to reform each “bad” character? But what I like is that they don’t forget that they were bad, and they don’t just move on — they all join Grace’s group of friends and have their own personalitys. I love that although Emma Dean wasn’t really one of Grace’s best friends at Overton, they grow closer when they both go back there to work.

    As far as I know, this doesn’t happen on the same scale in any other series, but it does happen a little bit in the Ruth Fielding books.

    I don’t know of any other series by Josephine Chase. Have you read all the Grace Harlowe books? I’ve only read through Golden Summer — I’m saving the rest for a treat sometime.

    The Wide, Wide World is very big on religion, yeah, but it’s not just a Biblical morality tale. That moment seems kind of harsh, but it’s sort of integral to Ellen’s becoming detached from her mother. Ellen’s mother is supposed to be pretty much a perfect Christian. I think the whole loving Jesus better than anyone thing was preached more than practiced, but it was sort of necessary for Mrs. Montgomery to say it.

    Compare Elsie Dinsmore: Elsie, age approximately 9, tells her father that she loves Jesus better than him, much to his chagrin. She wants her father to prefer Jesus to her. So, yeah, it’s a pretty harsh thing to say, but it’s not entirely unheard of.

  8. I read a few of the Grace Harlowe’s beyond Golden Summer, mainly the WWI books, when she goes off to war. They’re interesting because of the historical references, but otherwise they didn’t appeal to me.

    The high school books are the best stories for me. Grace, her high school friends, and her town seemed to interact so well. For example there was never a place like the Omnibus in later books, where the oddest things could happen, depending on who was the villain at that time. David’s odd airplane ride—you could tell Josephine Chase never saw an airplane take off, or the Black Monks of Asia, or a mad Napoleon threatening Grace.

    The college series never seemed to have the same quality that the high school series had. Elfreda was a female rewrite of Hippy, I felt. The villains didn’t bring much of anything new.

    I couldn’t pierce the Overland Riders series much at all.

    I’m having trouble staying interested in Wide World, but I’ll plug along. I just finished the unintentionally creepy part where the man on the ship keeps stalking Ellen to convert her. I know “stalking” isn’t used in the book, but that’s what it seems like to me. It’s a scene that wouldn’t show up in a contemporary children’s book, that’s for sure.

  9. I’m not sure if I have a strong preference, but I think I might like the college books a little better. I love that the girls are actually serious about having careers. I also prefer Elfreda to Hippy.

    Wide, Wide World is a little hard to get through — after all, it was published in 1850 and it’s about the religious awakening of a prepubescent girl, of course it’s hard to get through. Also, I may have failed to accurately assess how creepy it was because I’ve gotten used to Elsie Dinsmore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: