June 28, 2011

Guest post: Fanny Fern’s “The Model Husband”

Sketch of Fern by her daughter.
From collection of Smith College.
Fanny Fern's first published article was "The Model Husband," published June 28, 1851 in the Olive Branch, and it appears to be a light-hearted sketch of the typical nineteenth-century woman’s ideal spouse. Her inversion of gender roles drives the comic innuendo, with her model husband dutifully taking over baby feedings through the night and even into the dreaded wee hours of the morning "while Mrs. Smith curls her hair." Fern’s details of the irksome tasks of childcare would have rung true with most young mothers at the time. The model husband cheerfully absorbs the annoyances and inconveniences normally saddled upon women of the era, down to "the soft molasses ginger bread that is rubbed into his hair, coat, and vest during these happy conjugal seasons." The humor also derives from Fern's sense of what women really wanted from a husband: time to curl their hair and "receive the congratulations of the parish gossips."

Yet Fern craftily hides a deeper need that she would more explicitly demand in her later works, especially Ruth Hall, published four years later. In it, Fern sketches a profile of her model husband as ideal publisher. Significantly, his greatest virtue is respect of her economic autonomy by paying her a fair wage and not interfering with her writing or her relationships with her readers. What women wanted more than time to curl their hair and gossip is signaled in the first sentence of "The Model Husband": “His pocket-book is never empty when his wife calls for money.” In 1851, Fern was writing for the Olive Branch under a paltry wage and stringent editorial constraints compared to those of her later position under Robert Bonner of the New York Ledger. Thus she did not feel at liberty to dilate upon men’s economic domination of women in the public sphere until landing her position with Bonner years later. Her depiction of women’s wants in a man in this early column, therefore, tend to feed directly into the sexist stereotype of women as self-indulgent creatures with no desire to produce outside of the domestic sphere.

Although "The Model Husband" appears radical for the time, it only vaguely hints at the bold revolutionary battle Fern would wage in Ruth Hall for women’s right to become professionals in an otherwise male-dominated public market. In Ruth Hall, her concern is to revise the publisher’s business ethic to allow room for well-paid professional female authors. Such a pioneering ideological stand would have been instantly censored in the Olive Branch. Yet Fern does manage in "The Model Husband" to subvert the dominant ideology of the Cult of True Womanhood, especially according to Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy (1846). Specifically, she inverts True Womanhood’s demand that women submissively self-sacrifice out of duty to their families by instead indulging middle class women’s forbidden urges—all of which are harmless and perfectly reasonable—that their conventional roles systematically deny.

In crafting "The Model Husband," Fern thus expresses her complaints about the inadequacy of typical accepted male roles in the positive light of female fantasy rather than the polemic condemnations and diatribes she would frequently vent in her later Ledger columns. In Ruth Hall, she would savage former stingy and abusive employers like so many bad ex-husbands. The dark underside of "The Model Husband" is that Fern herself endured perhaps the worst marital nightmare imaginable. During her brief torturous second marriage, her husband Samuel Farrington chronically raped her, driving her to seek shelter in a hotel. Ironically, Fern had originally gravitated to him to assuage her financial needs since he was a model husband whose "pocket-book is never empty." The seeming panacea of the wealthy husband freely sharing his cash with his wife came at a great cost to Fern personally, and she would finally tell the full story of this aborted marriage in her second novel, Rose Clark. Thus her tone in "The Model Husband" remains genial if only to mask the lion she would unleash in her later works.

*David Dowling teaches in the English Department of the University of Iowa. He is the author of several books on 19th century writers, including Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today (University of Iowa Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Literary Partnerships and the Marketplace: Writers and Mentors in Nineteenth-Century America (to be released Fall 2011, Louisiana State University Press).

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