- "Remarkable and Winning":A Hundred Years of American Heroines
"First take a young and not-too-pretty child about ten years old," wrote a historian of the mid-nineteenth century American domestic novel. "Make sure the child is, or shortly to be, an orphan. . . . Now put the child under the care of a shrewish aunt, who resents being obliged to take care of her dead brother's brat" (Cowie 416). The author, who was writing some 40 years before recent feminist efforts to rehabilitate the sentimental novel,1 goes on to summarize the plot of so many of the sagas penned by such women's authors as Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, Jane Augusta Evans Wilson, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Ann Sophia Stephens, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mrs. H. B. Goodwin, "Marion Harland," E. P. Roe and others writing between 1850 and 1872. They were not writing for the young—though Susan Warner, and to a lesser extent Maria Cummins, were to become classed as writers for girls—but they undoubtedly were much read by them, and exerted a potent influence on the stories that future generations were to write for girls.
The plot formula was to change in later decades when the religious element disappeared, as did the heroine herself, though even in her more robust twentieth-century manifestations she is still recognizably a chip off the old block. A typical mid-century heroine such as those beloved by Warner, Cummins, and Evans Wilson, begins by being unhappy, undernourished and underprivileged. She is considered insignificant, homely even, by the casual observer though the perceptive, as readers are assumed to be, realize that real beauty lies there, especially when they look into her wonderful eyes. These eyes make the red hair and the freckles of heroines such as Anne of Green Gables of no account. She has to endure unkind comments on her clothes, her rustic manners, bad behavior—and indeed her impulsiveness is always getting her into trouble, though she is misunderstood as well. The reader of course, and those with wisdom like Adam Ladd in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), find her "remarkable" and "winning."
But Rebecca is a late example of the genre; in the earlier version the [End Page 7] heroine has to learn to subdue her pride and to read her Bible (we may think that she is remarkably good already, but the author is not going to let her off the hook), and to this end she is sent a guardian angel. Perhaps it is a devoted black servant (see Elsie Dinsmore passim), or a young lady, the repository of all Christian virtues, including humility. She may or may not be blind (Gerty in Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter  has a blind lady as her guide and mentor) but she is doomed to die of tuberculosis, and she prays and weeps over the heroine and wrestles with her naughty pride. She dies at sunset, without a struggle, and the tears, which have been flowing freely, now become torrential. The mid-century romance was a bath of tears; heroines wept copiously at every crisis (though their eyes were never swollen and their noses never ran). Susan Warner, herself a powerful weeper, produced the greatest volume of tears—indeed Van Wyck Brooks called The Wide, Wide World "a swamp of lachrymosity"—but Cummins the noisiest weeping. Gerty "always cried aloud—not sobbing, as many children do, but uttering a succession of piercing shrieks, until she sometimes quite exhausted her strength." Other staple characters are an eccentric (Barkis-like) teamster (Gerty has a lamplighter-symbolism here) and a wealthy (Cheeryble-like) merchant, and if the book is continued into its heroine's adolescence we meet "a proud, handsome, Rochester-like man aged about thirty who has travelled and sinned (very vaguely) in the Orient. . . . If it weren't for Queen Victoria he would try to seduce her, but as it is he is reduced to proposing marriage. To his astonishment she refuses" (Cowie 416). Several years now elapse during which the heroine endures many trials and performs as many pious acts, and Mr. Rochester undergoes purgation in far-off lands, coming back...