The Wide, Wide WorldFebruary 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