September 6, 2011

Fern: a nice time telling stories

Sketch of Fern by her daughter.
From collection of Smith College.
After the success of her book Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, Fanny Fern (whose real name was Sarah Payson Willis) was in high demand. Within months of her first book, on September 6, 1853, she signed a contract with publishers Derby and Miller for two more. One was a sequel to her Fern Leaves, the second was a children's book, Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends. Fern, the mother of two surviving children and one who died in infancy, addressed young readers directly in her preface:

Aunt Fanny has written you some stories, which she hopes will please and divert you. She would rather have come to you, and told them, that she might have seen your bright faces; but as that could not be, she sends her little book instead. Perhaps you will sometime come and see her, and then won't we have a nice time telling stories?

In obtaining her copyright, Fern had to reveal her true identity to her publisher. Legally, she was still Mrs. Samuel Farrington; later in the month, she learned he finally filed for divorce after having left him two years earlier. It is speculated that what finally made him act after so long was his learning that he was not entitled to Fern's royalties.

One of the stories in the book features a character named "Floy" — the fictional pseudonym she used in her semi-autobiographical Ruth Hall, which she published the next year. As is true of most of her work, even Fern's children's book had some elements of her autobiography within it. The book concludes with a short sketch, "Children in 1853," which features a woman about to rent rooms from a willing landlord — until he learns his potential tenant had children. He gruffly says he never takes children, to which Fern muses, "Now, I'd like to know if that man was born grown up?" She imagines some day creating a colony only for children and when people like the landlord come looking for a place to live she would respond, "Never take grownup folks here, sir!"

Fern — or, rather, "Aunt Fanny" — concludes with her thoughts on children, including these recommendations:

I believe in great round apples and big slices of good plain gingerbread for children.
I believe in making their clothes loose enough to enable them to eat it all, and jump round in when they get through.
I believe in not giving away their little property, such as dolls, kites, balls, hoops, and the like, without their leave.
I believe in not promising them a ride, and then forgetting all about it.
I believe in not teasing them for amusement, and then punishing them for being "troublesome."

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