Ruth Hall

Ruth Hall

infobox Book |
name = Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Fanny Fern
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Roman à clef
publisher = Mason Brothers
release_date = 1854
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 400 (approx. 220 in recent editions)
isbn =
preceded_by = Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio
followed_by = Rose Clark

"Ruth Hall: a Domestic Tale of the Present Time" is a roman à clef by Fanny Fern (pen name of Sara Payson Willis), a popular 19th-century newspaper writer. Following on her meteoric rise to fame as a columnist, she signed a contract in February 1854 to write a full-length novel. She finished "Ruth Hall" within a few months, and it was first published in November 1854.

Plot summary

The novel is a fictionalised autobiography that can be divided into three phases: Ruth's happy marriage, impoverished widowhood, and rise to fame and financial independence as a newspaper columnist.


In the first chapter, young Ruth Ellet sits at her window on the night before her wedding, reflecting on her life so far. When her mother died long ago, she was sent away to boarding school, where she excelled at writing compositions. There is no love lost between Ruth and her father, who has plenty of money but begrudges her every penny; and although she adores her talented older brother, Hyacinth, he is a strange, cold-hearted creature who unfailingly returns some slight for his sister's overtures of affection. Ruth, therefore, pins all her hopes and fears on her impending marriage to Harry Hall.

She duly marries Harry. He is a good, loving man; and handsome and prosperous, too. At this stage, the only thorn in Ruth's side is Harry's parents; old Mrs. Hall is so bitterly jealous of her son's pretty new wife that she finds fault with her constantly, while both in-laws meddle continually in Ruth's life. When Harry moves to a farm five miles away, they follow him.

Ruth's first child, Daisy, brings joy to her parents for a few years, then suddenly dies of croup. Two more daughters, Katy and Nettie, are born; then, while Nettie is still an infant, Harry contracts typhoid fever and dies.


Ruth, left with very little money, applies to her relatives for help. The elder Halls and Ruth's father grudgingly provide her with a tiny income. She moves into a boarding house in a slum district, just up the road from a brothel, and searches unsuccessfully for employment as a schoolteacher or a seamstress. Her rich friends drop her, her relatives snub her, and only rarely does anyone offer help or encouragement. When Katy falls ill, Mrs. Hall persuades her to give up Katy to them – then treats the little girl harshly. Meanwhile, Ruth's funds continue to diminish, forcing her to move into a barren garret and live on bread and milk.

Ruth, nearly desperate, hits on the idea of writing for the newspapers. She composes several samples and sends them to her brother Hyacinth, who is an influential publisher. He sends the samples back, along with an insolent note telling her she has no talent.


Ruth perseveres, adopting the pen name 'Floy', and finally finds an editor, Mr. Lascom, who is willing to purchase her writings. Her columns are a hit; soon, she is publishing several pieces a week for Mr. Lascom and for another editor, Mr. Tibbets. Subscription lists burgeon and fan mail comes pouring in, but Ruth is still barely getting by because neither editor will give her more money for her contributions. Accordingly, when a publisher named Mr. Walters offers her twice her present rate of pay to work exclusively for his magazine, she accepts.

Mr. Walters becomes her best friend and advocate. Since she now has to write only one piece per week, Ruth has time to compile a book-length selection of her columns. This becomes a best-seller, making Ruth not only independent, but wealthy. She ransoms Katy and moves into a comfortable hotel with both her daughters. In the last scene, she visits her husband's grave and looks sadly at the space reserved for her at his side, then leaves the cemetery, thinking of the good things life might still have in store.

"Ruth Hall" characters and their historical antecedents

*Ruth Hall is Sarah Payson Willis, better known as Fanny Fern.
*Harry Hall is Fern's husband, Charles Harrington Eldredge, a handsome bank cashier with whom she lived happily until he died of typhoid fever.
*Hyacinth Ellet is Fern's brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis, [Baker, Thomas N. "Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame". New York, Oxford University Press, 2001: 170. ISBN 0-19-512073-6] a noted poet and publisher who told his sister that her columns were immoral and refused to publish or promote them, advising her to write for a religious paper instead.
*Mr. Ellet is Fern's father, Nathaniel Willis, a fiery Calvinist deacon and publisher of "The Youth's Companion" and other religious magazines.
*Daisy is Fern's first-born daughter, Mary, who died of brain fever in childhood. Katy and Nettie are her younger daughters, Grace and Ellen.
*Mr. and Mrs. Hall are Fern's in-laws, the Eldredges.
*Mr. Tibbetts, editor of "The Pilgrim", is William Moulton, editor of the "True Flag".


"Ruth Hall" was Fern's first novel; her previous writings were short newspaper editorials written in a brisk conversational style, usually under intense deadline pressure. This hasty, staccato style carries over into the novel, which is just over 200 pages long in comtemporary editions but contains forty separate chapters averaging two to three pages each.

The earlier chapters describing Ruth's marriage unfold as a series of vignettes presenting the heroine's life from various viewpoints. Ruth's good qualities can be inferred mostly from her mother-in-law's efforts to blacken her character; in one scene, for example, old Mrs. Hall, desperate to find some fault with her hated rival, goes through Ruth's home room by room, conducting a spiteful internal monolog as she seeks avidly for the minutest error in housekeeping. At this point, Fern stands at a little distance from her naive younger self, often breaking into the narrative to apostrophise about the ominous future closing in on youthful innocence.

Then Harry dies, leaving Ruth nearly penniless and saddled with two young children. Finding that her well-to-do relatives will give her only the most grudging pittance, Ruth sheds her illusions and resolves to make her own way in the world. This angry, defiant Ruth ceases to be the passive object of the narrator's pity and steps to the center of the action, a full-fledged protagonist.

Critical reception and influence

"Ruth Hall" received mostly good reviews, and sold well. However, Fern's unflattering portraits of her family and her first two editors soon got her into difficulties. William Moulton, editor of the "True Flag", recognised himself in the parsimonious Mr. Tibbetts and decided to retaliate. He put together a book called "The life and beauties of Fanny Fern" which consisted of his former star contributor's most satirical pieces, together with an essay that not only impugned her character, but revealed her true identity to the public. Fern was deeply wounded, and the novel became more controversial; critics began perceiving a want of filial piety in Fern's lampooning of her own family, in addition to a most unfeminine thirst for revenge. The scandal, however, did nothing to damp sales, which soon climbed to 70,000.

Despite his notorious comment about "damned scribbling women", Nathaniel Hawthorne admired the novel and in 1855 confided to his publisher:

In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors. I have since been reading "Ruth Hall"; and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only distinguished from male authors by a greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restrainst of decency, and come before the pubic stark naked, as it were—then their books are sure to possess character and value. Can you tell me anything about this Fanny Fern? If you meet her, I wish you would let her know how much I admire her. ("Letters to Ticknor", 1:78)

"Ruth Hall" has since become Fern's most enduring work. The novel's depiction of a Victorian-era woman who earns financial independence has made it a favorite with contemporary feminist literary scholars. In most domestic novels of this period, the heroine's quest ends with a happy marriage and the surrendering of all employment outside the home. In this case, however, the happy marriage is only a prologue; it is also a mixed blessing, bringing with it the sorrow of a child's death, along with a truly awful set of in-laws who must always be placated and appeased.

When her husband dies, Ruth finds out how little her domestic virtues are worth in the marketplace. No-one offers Ruth much charity: newspaper editors treat her unfairly; men at her boarding house try to prey on her; her brother won't publish her columns; her father urges her to give up her children, Katy and Nettie, so he won't have to support them; and her in-laws take in Katy because Ruth can't afford to feed her, then treat her with more than Calvinist harshness. Here, the consummation of the heroine's struggle is neither marriage nor death, but the moment when Ruth, having earned a small fortune with her first book, reclaims Katy and at long last tells her mother-in-law what she really thinks of her.



*Baker, Thomas Nelson. "Sentiment and celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the trials of literary fame." Oxford University Press, 1998.
*Fern, Fanny. "Ruth Hall and other writings" (Joyce W. Warren, editor/introduction). Rutgers, 1986.
*Temple, Gale. "A purchase on goodness: Fanny Fern, "Ruth Hall", and fraught individualism." "Studies in American Fiction", September 22, 2003.

External links

* [ Full text] of "Ruth Hall".
* [ "Ruth Hall" free downloads in PDF, PDB and LIT formats]
* [ A bibliography] of scholarly materials about Fanny Fern and "Ruth Hall"; compiled at the University of Minnesota.

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