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Friday, August 12, 2011

"Shame the Devil" ~ A beautiful biographical, feminist novel of Fanny Fern, contemprary of Alcott and Dickinson

Published by:  SUNY Press
Pages:  368
Available:  Amazon, Barnes & Noble (Through Author at her site listed below)

The Dame's Review :

What a rare and exceptional treasure it is to have a biographical, feminist novel these days.  This beautifully covered book is so well researched and written that it behooves one to tread carefully when assuming it can be reviewed with justice. 

Debra Brenegan leads us back to a time when women tripped what appeared to be the broad line of sensibility, as Miss Austen would say, only if they dared.  A time when women kept their own kind in check, when men expected the females in their lives to be concerned with things in particular, and when some appeared to overlook or to be blind to those women who stole across the barriers to proclaim a worthy presence of their own. 

The Fanny Fern of Ms Brenegan's biographical novel is a woman of this unusual making; that is, one who could bridge that broad line of sensibility, come forth as a wise woman, favored by men and women alike...sought out for conversation by both, and heralded as a social reformer, a writer and journalist of her times.  A formidable woman who had opinions she was emboldened to express because of the sufferings she experienced in her own life.

It was a bash to women of the Women's Movement in the 1960's and '70's that they were "ugly, unattractive, uptight and asexual sub-women"...explaining why they were interested in being equal to men and working for "women's rights" which were "not wanted or needed by married, and/or attractive women who had men to take care of them." In those days, this bashing was a form of fear, fighting against feminine uprisings and social change.

I found it interesting from that perspective, to consider how much worse it might have been in the 1800s, for Fanny Fern to withstand the social outcry against her, who may not have been seen as the most attractive of women. Yet, like a multitude of women who've risen to the surface with great minds, great spirits and great works for peace, freedoms, and the education of others,  Ms Fern's beauty was so radiant she drew thousands to her. She was a face and a place of mercy and understanding. 

With contemporaries such as Alcott, Hawthorne, Walden, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ms Fern's is a life and world filled with beautiful detail and imagery, as well as with literary importance and excitement.

Debra Brenegan is an author who is obviously in love with her subject and did her research with a detailed hand.   She is poetic in her delivery and fiery when she needs to be in defining her characters.  Though it's meant to be biographical, Ms Brenegan's book reads fully like a feminist novel, reminding me of my studies in women's literature and what a powerful impact it made towards the discovery of my "self" as a woman.

If there were one minor adjustment I'd make with "Shame the Devil," it would be that it sometimes became stilted when it read like a history book in parts.  This reflects the difficult transition one is asked to make when switching from a biographical study to a novel form, and some of the residual of that lingered.

I'm delighted to have this lovely little book on my personal library shelf.  I highly recommend it to all of my friends.  I recommend it to all who are interested in the exciting times of women of the American Civil War Era notably and finally having a voice in literature, journalism and in the politics of the times.

4 stars

Additional Information on "Shame The Devil":

“There may be married people who do not read the morning paper. Smith and I know them not … It is not too much to say the newspapers are one of our strongest points of sympathy; that it is our meat and drink to praise and abuse them together; that we often in our imagination edit a model newspaper, which shall have for its motto, `Speak the truth, and shame the devil.’” — Fanny Fern

Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the nineteenth century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman.

Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country’s first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a nineteenth-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans.

Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, “Speak the truth, and shame the devil.” Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America to life.

For more details and pictures, you can visit the author at her website: www.debrabrenegan.com 

*This review is in affliation with Pump Up Your Books Tours.

Have you read any good feminist literature in the recent past? Please share it with me!

Deborah/Your Bookish Dame

*I apologize for the white square on the title of this entry. Have no idea why it's there...and can't fix it!!  :[



Wow, what a wonderful review! Thanks Deb!

Jan Williams

I didn't find it stilted at all; rather I thought its history instruction to be one of its virtues. I was simply spellbound with how strongly I related to Fanny Fern's struggles as a woman, even now when we have supposedly "progressed." We have, but much too slowly. It was one of the best books I've read recently.


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