December 23, 2011

"Ruthless Hall" and the "chronicler of Idlewild"

Mason Brothers knew they had a good thing in Fanny Fern when they asked her to write a novel to publish. When she started writing it, they knew it would be controversial — and also knew they could capitalize on that controversy. Still, even the Mason Brothers might have been surprised at just how successful Ruth Hall became.

Advertisements released before the book's publication predicted the book was "destined to make a sensation." Sure enough, within days of its release in December 1854, critics realized the book was mean-spirited ("Ruthless Hall," Grace Greenwood called her) and, more importantly, that it was autobiographical. Of course, the real problem was that one of the villains in the book, Hyacinth Ellet, was apparently based on "the chronicler of Idlewild," the very popular writer Nathaniel Parker Willis.

On December 23, 1854, the Mason Brothers began advertising that the author never claimed it was autobiography and that critics were looking for trouble. They never denied that it was Willis (it was, after all) but it wasn't their fault that critics recognized an unflattering portrait of that famous writer. The ads inevitably drew more attention to the controversy, and sales of the book skyrocketed, adding up to some 70,000 copies sold.

But the Mason Brothers could not have anticipated William U. Moulton, the former employer of Fanny Fern (and soon to become husband of author and poet Louise Chandler). His embittered response ended the controversy once and for all. More on that in just a few days.


  1. What a cool blog! I'm a big fan of Fanny Fern, ever since I discovered her, due to author Debra Brenegan's fabulous historical fiction accounting of Fanny's life. It's called "Shame the Devil." Ruth Hall is now#4 on my to read list!

  2. Debra Brenegan has written a guest post for this blog on Fanny Fern. It will be a sort of second part to this post. Come back on December 30 and let us know what you think!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed Debra Brenegan's "Shame the Devil" about Fanny Fern. It is liberating to know that women have dealth with the same issues thoughout time as we do today; ie., abuse of all kinds, financial issues, etc. Well done Ms. Brenegan. Ruth Hall is on my "to read" list.