Sarah Orne Jewett, a well known novelist and short story writer in her day, was born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849. At just a few weeks short of 60 years of age, she died there during the summer of 1909 after having suffered two strokes, the first of which paralyzed her. My only previous reading experience of one of Jewett’s works came from having read the novel, A Country Doctor (1884), a book largely based upon her observations and personal ambitions gained from having accompanied her father on his rounds as a young girl. It has been a number of years since I read that one, but I particularly remember being struck by the clarity of her writing.
Courtesy of The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” offering (the 108th story they have shared via email links), I read Jewett’s “Tom’s Husband” last night. I was vaguely aware that Jewett has been a favorite of feminist readers and critics for a long time, and this story is a good example of why that is. In addition to using themes like the one in this story, Jewett lived her life completely independently and had little concern for the social conventions of her day. She never married and there is some speculation that she was the lover of writer Annie Fields after that woman’s husband (editor of the Atlantic Monthly) died. The two lived together for several years after the death of James Fields.
“Tom’s Husband” is a 14-page short story that tells of a young couple seemingly so perfect for each other that they cannot wait to be married. Both, though, are a little disappointed by the realities of marriage and the “loss of eagerness that was felt in pursuit.” As they settle into the marriage, the pair realizes that each would be happier taking on the role that is only reluctantly being filled by the other. Mostly at the insistence of Mary, they strike a deal to reverse marital roles that creates one of the most unusual marriages of the nineteenth century (keep in mind that this story was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February of 1882).
The stories that The Library of America has been sending me for so long almost always make me want to read other work by the featured authors. This one is no exception.
If you want to take advantage of The Library of America’s free short stories, follow this link to sign up for the service: http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/