Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century

When I was researching Napoleon in America character James Many, I came across an amusing piece of satire in the March 9, 1852 edition of the Richmond, Virginia Daily Dispatch. It appeared on the same page as the description of Many’s Mardi Gras funeral, under the headline: “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony.” Though no byline was given, further digging revealed that the author was Sara Payson Willis, writing under the pen name of Fanny Fern. I had stumbled onto the work of the first female newspaper columnist in the United States, and one of the most highly paid authors in mid-19th century America. Before I talk about Sara, here’s the article that caught my attention – and there’s even a mention of Napoleon.

Aunt Hetty on Matrimony

“The Discord,” 1865. A marriage dispute over who wears the pants.

“The Discord,” 1865. A marriage dispute over who wears the pants.

‘Now, girls,’ said Aunt Hetty, ‘put down your embroidery and worsted work; do something sensible, and stop building air-castles, and talking of lovers and honey-moons. It makes me sick; it is perfectly antimonial. Love is a farce; matrimony is a humbug; husbands are domestic Napoleons, Neroes, Alexanders,—sighing for other hearts to conquer, after they are sure of yours. The honey-moon is as short-lived as a lucifer-match; after that you may wear your wedding-dress at breakfast, and your night-cap to meeting, and your husband wouldn’t know it. You may pick up your own pocket-handkerchief, help yourself to a chair, and split your gown across the back reaching over the table to get a piece of butter, while he is laying in his breakfast as if it was the last meal he should eat in this world. When he gets through he will aid your digestion,—while you are sipping your first cup of coffee,—by inquiring what you’ll have for dinner; whether the cold lamb was all ate yesterday; if the charcoal is all out, and what you gave for the last green tea you bought. Then he gets up from the table, lights his cigar with the last evenings paper, that you have not had a chance to read; gives two or three whiffs of smoke,—which are sure to give you a headache for the afternoon,—and, just as his coat-tail is vanishing through the door, apologizes for not doing ‘that errand’ for you yesterday,—thinks it doubtful if he can to-day,—‘so pressed with business.’ Hear of him at eleven o’clock, taking an ice-cream with some ladies at a confectioner’s, while you are at home new-lining his coat-sleeves. Children by the ears all day; can’t get out to take the air; feel as crazy as a fly in a drum. Husband comes home at night; nods a ‘How d’ye do, Fan?’ boxes Charley’s ears; stands little Fanny in the corner; sits down in the easiest chair in the warmest nook; puts his feet up over the grate, shutting out all the fire, while the baby’s little pug nose grows blue with the cold; reads the newspaper all to himself; solaces his inner man with a cup of tea, and, just as you are laboring under the hallucination that he will ask you to take a mouthful of fresh air with him, he puts on his dressing-gown and slippers, and begins to reckon up the family expenses; after which he lies down on the sofa, and you keep time with your needle, while he sleeps till nine o’clock. Next morning, ask him to leave you a ‘little money,’ he looks at you as if to be sure that you are in your right mind, draws a sigh long enough and strong enough to inflate a pair of bellows, and asks you ‘what you want with it, and if a half-a-dollar won’t do?’ Gracious king! as if those little shoes, and stockings, and petticoats could be had for half-a-dollar! O, girls! set your affections on cats, poodles, parrots or lap-dogs; but let matrimony alone. It’s the hardest way on earth of getting a living. You never know when your work is done. Think of carrying eight or nine children through the measles, chicken-pox, rash, mumps, and scarlet fever,—some of them twice over. It makes my head ache to think of it. O, you may scrimp and save, and twist and turn, and dig and delve, and economize and die; and your husband will marry again, and take what you have saved to dress his second wife with; and she’ll take your portrait for a fire-board!

‘But, what’s the use of talking? I’ll warrant every one of you’ll try it the first chance you get; for, somehow, there’s a sort of bewitchment about it. I wish one half the world were not fools, and the other half idiots.’ (1)

Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern)

Sara Payson Parton (Fanny Fern), around 1866

Sara Payson Parton (Fanny Fern), around 1866

Sara Payson Willis was born on July 9, 1811 in Portland, Maine. Her father was newspaper owner and Calvinist Nathaniel Willis. As a girl, Sara proofread and wrote articles for Willis’s religious papers, the Boston Recorder and The Youth’s Companion. She married at the age of 26. After her husband died, leaving her with no money and two young daughters (her first child had died of meningitis), she remarried, at her father’s insistence. This proved to be a “terrible mistake.” (2) Her new husband was insanely jealous of her interest in anything outside the home, and Sara did not love him. Two years later, she left him. As this was the mid-19th century, when women were expected to put up with unpleasant marriages, this left her estranged from her family, a victim of slander, and without funds.

After reluctantly relinquishing her elder daughter to her first husband’s parents, Sara turned to writing to support herself and her youngest child. In 1851, she succeeded in selling an article called “The Model Husband” (a satire about men’s shortcomings) to the Boston newspaper Olive Branch. Other articles followed, under the pseudonym of Fanny Fern, chosen in part because of Sara’s notoriety. Newspapers and periodicals across the United States and England began printing Fanny Fern’s humorous, irreverent articles.

In 1853, she published her first book: Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, a collection of articles, including “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony.” The book is a mix of humour, satire, sentimentality, melodrama and sermon, dealing for the most part with relations among men, women and children.

In “A Talk About Babies,” Fanny Fern responded to the phrase: “Baby carts on narrow sidewalks are awful bores, especially to a hurried business man.”

Are they? Suppose you, and a certain pair of blue eyes, that you would give half your patrimony to win, were joint proprietors of that baby! I shouldn’t dare to stand very near you, and call it a ‘nuisance.’ It’s all very well for bachelors to turn up their single-blessed noses at these little dimpled Cupids; but just wait till their time comes! See them the minute their name is written ‘Papa,’ pull up their dickies, and strut off down the street, as if the Commonwealth owed them a pension! (3)

In “The Best of Men Have Their Failings,” Fanny wrote:

I’ve always warped to the opinion that good men were as safe as homeopathic pills. … You don’t suppose they ever lift their beavers to a long purse, and turn their backs to a thread-bare coat? You don’t suppose they ever bestow a charity to have it trumpeted in the newspapers? … You don’t suppose they ever put doubtful-looking bank bills in the contribution box? You don’t suppose they ever pay their minister’s salary in consumptive hens and damaged turkeys?” (4)

She even addressed the wife of Napoleon III (the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis) in “To the Empress Eugenia.”

It is my female opinion, that those ‘two thousand franc’ pocket handkerchiefs will be pretty well tear-stained before you get through with them. You ambitious little monkey! You played your card to perfection. I like you for that, because I like to see everything thoroughly done, if it is only courting; but if you don’t get tired to death of that old roué, my name is not Fanny. He bears about as much resemblance to his ‘uncle,’ as Tom Thumb does to the Colossus of Rhodes. He is an effeminate, weak-minded, vacillating, contemptible apology for a man; —never has done anything worthy the name of Napoleon, that I ever heard of. Keep him under your thumb, you beautiful little witch, or your pretty head may pay the forfeit, —who knows? (5)

At a time when women were expected to confine themselves to home and family, and cultivate virtues such as piety and submissiveness (the so-called cult of domesticity), Fanny’s sharp pen held refreshing appeal for a largely female audience. Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio became a bestseller, with over 70,000 copies sold in the first year.

In 1852, Fanny Fern replied to a reader who praised her humour:

You labor under the hallucination that I felt merry when I wrote all that nonsense! Not a bit of it; it’s a way I have when I can’t find a razor handy to cut my throat. (6)

Though Fanny’s best pieces are the humorous ones, a fair amount of Fern Leaves consists of tear-jerkers or morality tales that endorse a sentimental view of domestic life and religion. For example, “An Infidel Mother” cautions:

Suppose death come. You fold away the little, useless robes; you turn with a filling eye from toys and books and paths those little feet have trod; you feel ever the shadowy clasp of a little hand in yours… O, where can you go for comfort then, if you believe not that the ‘good Shepherd’ folds your lamb to his loving breast? (7)

And in “How Husbands May Rule,” Fanny concluded – without irony, this time – “there are some husbands worth all the sacrifices a loving heart can make!” (8)

Three years after Sara’s first essay was published, she was hired to write one essay a week for the New York Ledger for the unprecedented sum of $100 per column. By 1855, “Fanny Fern” was the highest-paid columnist in the United States and a national celebrity.

In 1856, Sara got married for a third time, to James Parton, who was 11 years her junior. They remained together until her death from cancer on October 10, 1872. Sara Payson Willis Parton is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. She wrote a number of books, the best known of which is the fictional autobiography Ruth Hall (1854). You can read Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio and Fanny Fern’s other works for free on the Internet Archive.

You might also enjoy:

Royal Wedding? Humbug!

Charles & Delia Stewart: An Ill-Assorted Match

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American Sister-in-Law

Dorothea Lieven, a Diplomat in Skirts

Louisa Adams, First Foreign-Born First Lady

Joseph Hopkinson, Joseph Bonaparte’s Great Friend (see the section on Emily Hopkinson’s wit)

Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century (includes Fanny Fern’s thoughts thereon)

Exercise for Women in the early 19th Century

Some 19th-Century Money-Saving Tips

Some 19th-Century Packing Tips

Valentine’s Day in Early 19th-Century America

Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?

The Josephine Delusion: A Woman who thought she was Napoleon’s Wife

  1. Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis), Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio (Auburn and Buffalo, 1853), pp. 377-379.
  2. Joyce W. Warren, Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman (New Brunswick, 1992), p. 83.
  3. Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio, p. 89.
  4. Ibid., p. 399.
  5. Ibid., p. 386.
  6. Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman, p. 100.
  7. Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio, p. 195.
  8. Ibid., p. 119.

8 commments on “Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century”

  • Bob Fletcher says:

    As with all of your entertaining, informative, articles, this one entertains and stimulates the mind in your evocative style. Thank you once more.
    The only question I must ask, for when comes the next novel, the world wonders…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Bob. I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles. As for the sequel to Napoleon in America, I’m working on it now – hope to have it out by early 2017.

  • Beverly Short says:

    I enjoyed reading this article on Marriage in the 19th Century. It could have been written for today’s world.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Beverly. It’s interesting how much of Fanny Fern’s writing still holds up well today. Some things don’t change as much as we think they do.

  • Maggie says:

    Certainly she was in sharp contrast to the Cult of womanhood, so often the norm if the day,

  • Blair Carroll says:

    I’ve been looking for more information on the cartoon, “The Discord”. Could you share where you found it and the name of the artist?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That’s a great cartoon, isn’t it? I found it on the Library of Congress website. I don’t know who the artist is.

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Love is a farce; matrimony is a humbug; husbands are domestic Napoleons, Neroes, Alexanders,—sighing for other hearts to conquer, after they are sure of yours.

Sara Payson Willis (Fanny Fern)