The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner (Facebook group reading challenge)


I read this partly for a reading group challenge and partly as research into the history of the North Eastern United States: I have definitely *not* taken to reading Victorian religious novels!  In fact, I was really quite uncomfortable about the thought of reading anything in this genre, especially given the current issues in the United States and Australia.  However, sections of it really weren’t bad.  OK, they were soppy, but certainly not so sick-making as to be unreadable, as some sentimental Victorian books are.  There were some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and life in a farming community in mid-19th century America.  And a lot of talk about food!  But … the religious stuff killed it.

I can live with basic preachy bits, the type you get in Little Women or Heidi, but not this sort of thing.  OK, some of it was just melodramatic stuff, like the heroine’s dreadful dilemma when the uncle to whom she owed obedience insisted on her committing the terrible sin of drinking a glass of wine.  But some of it was very, very disturbing.  Telling a little girl that, if she doesn’t love the Lord enough, her family and friends will die, to punish her for loving them more than she loves the Lord.  Even worse was when another young child died, and, instead of trying to comfort his bereaved family, several of the main characters celebrated because he’d converted from Catholicism to Evangelicalism on his deathbed.

Then there was the control freakery, which always goes hand-in-glove with religion in books like this, and usually also seems to involve grown men kissing little girls on the lips. I didn’t actually dislike the main character, and I felt genuinely sorry for her in that she was often with people who failed to respect her intellect, but the “happy ending” left me cold because her future husband was the most horrendous preachy control freak, always telling her what to do and what to think.  The only hope is that she changed her mind before exchanging any legally-binding vows!

Oh well.  Let’s just say that I won’t be rushing to read anything else in this genre!

Our heroine is Ellen Montgomery, a little girl growing up in New York City, circa 1850.  No exact dates are given, but that was when the book was published.  So it’d be after the Second Great Awakening, although before the Know Nothings.  Ellen’s dad, a misogynistic control freak, has lost all his money (although he can still afford to employ several servants), and is obliged to take a job which involves travelling to France.  Ellen’s mum, who is seriously ill (details of illness not given, but probably consumption/TB), is travelling with him, as going to France may save her life (did the author think the whole of France was in the Alps?).  Ellen is dispatched to the countryside to live with her paternal aunt and grandma, whom she’s never met.  The reader may wonder why she’s never met them.  She does too.

She’s escorted there by some unpleasant acquaintances, but is befriended on the ship by a creepy old man who keeps wanting to kiss her and gives her the lecture about loved ones being killed as punishment.  She thinks this is wonderful.

She doesn’t get on with the aunt.  At first I thought the aunt was all right, apart from the fact that she wouldn’t send Ellen to school, but it later turns out that she actually is a nasty piece of work.  But, at this point, we learn that she didn’t like her brother, Ellen’s dad (I don’t blame her), and he’d forgotten to tell her that he was dumping Ellen on her, never mind ask if it’d be OK, so I think she could be forgiven for being a bit narky.  Ellen tries to study at home, and is befriended by an older girl called Alice Humphreys.

The descriptions of the countryside, and Ellen and Alice’s exploration of it, are genuinely lovely.  They get caught in bad weather and both get ill afterwards, but that’s par for the course for everyone from Jane Austen to Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  There are lots of descriptions of food, quite reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy.  Some fairly minor incidents and issues are described in quite a lot of detail, such as the difficulties of eating a potato with a fork that’s only got two prongs!  And, impressively, Ellen is very particular about the importance of leaving the kettle to boil before making tea.  Everyone should know that tea has to be made with boiling water 😉 .  In particular, there’s a really nice section about an “apple bee”, when all the neighbours come round at harvest time to help with paring the apples and chopping the pork, and have a party afterwards.

The deathbed conversion scene is just after that.  Never mind trying to comfort the bereaved parents: they were all too busy congratulating themselves on having brainwashed the kid into converting.  The poor parents.  And .. ugh, just the whole thing.  If an adult or an older child wants to convert to or from a religion, then obviously that is entirely up to them, and good luck to them if it works for them.  But this …. it’s bad enough parents or teachers trying to brainwash kids with religion, without strangers doing it.  And the total disrespect for other faiths and denominations!  Ugh. It’s likely that the parents of the child who died came to the US to escape the Irish Potato Famine.  There are recorded cases of so-called charitable organisations in Ireland offering food to desperate, starving people if they agreed to change their religion.  Ugh.  Ugh, ugh, ugh!

OK, enough of this, before I end up writing an essay about the Boxer Rebellion!

There are, to be fair, a lot of characters who are genuinely kind, and aren’t trying to brainwash anyone.  There’s the man who assists Ellen when she’s trying to do some shopping on her own, because her mum is too ill to leave the house.  There’s the maid who makes sure that she gets plenty to eat, when the people she’s travelling with aren’t interested.  And there are several neighbours near her aunt’s farm.  And, later, when the action moves to Scotland, there’s a nice housekeeper.

As time goes on, Ellen gets to know the neighbours better.  There’s a house party over Christmas and New Year, which she’s invited to, and which is described in detail.  OK, Ellen gets very stressed when the other kids play guessing games on a Sunday, and nearly bursts into tears on numerous occasions, but it’s generally quite nice!   The fly in the ointment is Alice’s preachy brother, John, who lectures Ellen about how weak she is and how she needs to resist sin, and, although he’s a grown man and she’s only about eleven, keeps kissing her on the lips.  Ellen thinks he’s great.  The reader is presumably meant to agree.  His one good point is that he recognises that she is a very intelligent young person and that her studies are important – but he wants to mould her opinions, not help her to develop her own.

Then Ellen’s mum dies, but her aunt doesn’t tell her: she finds out when she overhears two of the neighbours talking about it.  I did go bang off the aunt at this point – fair enough, this is pretty bad stuff!  It gets worse later on.  The aunt is definitely a baddie.  And Ellen’s dad’s ship is lost on its way back to America.  Ellen isn’t too bothered about her dad dying, because he was horrible.  He was horrible, but it’s interesting that she isn’t criticised for lack of filial respect or obedience or whatever.  And the aunt marries one of the nice neighbours.

More lovely descriptions of farm life – butter churning and so on, like something of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s but more detailed.  But it’s spoilt by control freak John telling Ellen that she’s not allowed to read story books and her drawing is crap.  But she thinks he’s wonderful, and only wants to be with him and Alice.  But then Alice gets ill – I assume with consumption/TB, from what it says about red cheeks – and dies. Think … well, I was going to say Helen Burns or Beth March, but neither of them went around lecturing younger girls about hellfire and damnation, so maybe not.  But it’s that general “too good for this sinful world” thing.  Ellen for some bizarre reason moves in with Alice’s dad, to keep house for him … despite the fact that she’s only in her early teens.  She works really hard, but creepy John just lectures her about not spending enough time reading the Bible.  Not a word of thanks.  Thankfully, he then has to go away on business, to England, although he leaves a load of orders about what Ellen is and isn’t allowed to read.

Next up, it transpires that Ellen has a maternal grandmother, uncle and aunts living in Scotland.  There an awful lot of long-lost relations here!  Her mum fell out with them when they opposed her marriage. And they want her to go and live with them.  Well, they did three years earlier, but the nasty (paternal) aunt stole both the letter and the money that’d been sent to pay for Ellen’s passage across the Atlantic.  Ellen doesn’t want to go, because it’ll mean being parted from creepy John and his dad, but she has to go because it was what her late parents wanted  (this is covered in the stolen letters).  It’s not quite clear why it was OK for her mum to go against her parents’ wishes, but never mind.

Random observation.  At one point, there’s a mention of the room being “redd up”.  I thought the author must have read this expression in Jane Eyre and liked it, but Google informs me that what, thanks to Charlotte Bronte, I’d always thought was an old Yorkshire term (I’m a Lancastrian: I do not claim to be an expert in Yorkshire dialect!!)) was originally a Scottish term, which became popular in Pennsylvania and is still commonly used in the Pittsburgh area.  Well, I never knew that!

The Scottish relations initially seem to be very nice.  Hooray!  Although they don’t seem to know the difference between England and Britain, which is rather odd.  Her uncle shows her round Edinburgh, and hopes to teach Ellen her Scottish history.  She already knows quite a bit.  She’s remarkably interested in Mary Queen of Scots, and is apparently unconcerned that Mary did not dramatically convert on her deathbed (well, her scaffold) or indeed anywhere else.  However, she is concerned about James IV having worn an iron belt as penance for his sins.  She informs her uncle that this is not the way to obtain forgiveness for one’s sins.  It is unclear how this is supposed to be relevant to the Battle of Flodden Field.

Ellen’s knowledge of history is actually rather impressive.  It all gets a bit Make America Great here, but a lot of 19th century books are quite nationalistic, and, anyway, it’s a very welcome change from hellfire and damnation.  George Washington was apparently perfect in every way. Hanging spies was fine, as long as it was George Washington who ordered it.  Robert the Bruce was not perfect.  Nelson ran off with Lady Hamilton.  Ellen originally thought that Nelson was perfect, but creepy John made her see otherwise.  Heaven forfend that she should have an opinion of her own.

Then, disaster strikes!  The seemingly nice uncle pours Ellen a glass of wine. But creepy John is a temperance advocate!  “That glass of wine looked to Ellen like an enemy marching up to attack her.”  The uncle makes her drink it.  Oh no, not another control freak!  He also gets Ellen to call him “Father”.  This is terrible!  Now that she’s called him “Father”, she will have to obey his every word, even if he makes her drink wine every day!  She has nightmares in which creepy John dresses up as a medieval king of Scotland and smashes her wine glass with his silver scabbard.  That says it all, really.  She isn’t advocating temperance for the very valid reasons that many people did, such as the hope that it would reduce domestic violence.  She’s just been made to feel that she’s got to follow creepy John’s every edict.

She also has a long chat with a Swiss tutor about Austrian history (as you do).  He tells her how wonderful Andreas Hofer was.  Once creepy John and his dad are off the scene, people actually seem to be OK with Catholics.  The Swiss tutor seems like a nice guy, and respects Ellen’s learning without trying to tell her what to think, but sadly he doesn’t feature very much.

Things settle down, but she’s uncomfortable because the rich Scottish relations treat her like a plaything and aren’t interested in what she thinks about anything.  I did feel quite sorry for her – they’re very controlling.  OK, they don’t understand why she’d rather read the Bible than go to parties, but that’s her.  They’re also very possessive: they don’t want her even to talk about her friends in America.  Of course, she’s desperately missing creepy John, whom she refers to as her “brother”.  Eventually, he turns up, and says that it’d taken him ages to get her address.  There’s a lot of talk about how eventually they’ll be together for ever.  Presumably this means that they’ll get married – at which point one hopes that they will stop referring to each other as brother and sister.  This is meant to be a happy ending.

Len Maynard, in one of the Chalet School books – I think it’s Joey & Co in Tyrol – is horrified when someone thinks that Len could be short for Ellen (it’s actually short for Helena), because she associates the name Ellen with The Wide, Wide World, which she thinks is sickening.  Len is pretty preachy herself, so that says a lot.  But Jo March in Little Women actually cries over the book.  Seriously, Jo?  Maybe she was actually crying at the thought of poor Ellen being tied to creepy John for the rest of her life!  The only hope is that they probably won’t be able to marry until Ellen comes of age, because the controlling relatives don’t want her to go back to America.  So, hey, maybe she’ll see sense and send him packing?  Nah.  It’s not going to happen, is it?  Poor Ellen.  Doomed to live out the rest of her life as a surrendered wife.

Cut out the religion and the control freakery, and parts of it wouldn’t have been bad. As it was – ugh.  I admit that I was pre-disposed against this book because I’m very uncomfortable about what is going on at the moment with the attitude of “religious lobbies” towards issues such as science teaching in schools, and, in particular, LGBT rights, but I just did not like it.  People like creepy John aren’t concerned with trying to be good people and lead good lives.  They’re concerned about control.  And he establishes control over Ellen when he’s a grown man and she’s a vulnerable child, and the poor girl is condemned to live under that control for the rest of her life.  Bleurgh!!

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