Popular Fiction in the 19th Century

By Ellen Micheletti

What did people in the United States read back during the 19th century? Here’s a hint, it wasn’t the novels we studied when we took American literature. The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick were not really popular. To find books that were best sellers we have to read the books that literary historians call “domestic fiction.” Domestic fiction was novels written by women, for women, and for the most part, featuring a woman as the main character. They were not really romances. Most of the males in these books are cardboard figures who are just not interesting at all. There is not a Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester or Mr. Darcy in the bunch. Most of the emphasis is on the heroine and her trials and struggles. Yes, most of the books ended with a marriage and a happily ever after ending, but I would call them that era’s equivalent of today’s modern romance novels.

]]>Support our sponsors Most of these books had a stock plot. The heroine is usually a poor orphan or she comes from a bad home environment. Fairly early on in the book, she acquires a mentor, an elderly widow or a wealthy young woman who sees the potential in the young girl and takes her in hand. Most of these young women are eager to get as much education as they can and many of them are bookworms. They are very religious and even the most meek and submissive of them will dig in her heels and rebel if her religious practices are challenged. Sometime in the course of the story, the heroine meets a man who is often a relative of her mentor or a neighbor. Often he is a bit if a rake, or worse yet, an unbeliever, but by the end of the story, the heroine has reformed him through her sheer goodness, he is in love with her and they marry. The authors of the domestic novels took this stock plot and wrote many variations on it. I read several of these domestic novels and would like to share them with you.

Critics disagree on which was the first domestic novel, but one of the first to be a big seller was Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World. Miss Warner was the daughter of a wealthy and prominent New York lawyer who lost all his money. She wrote the book to keep the wolf from the door. The publisher’s mother read the manuscript, loved it, and convinced her son to publish the book. The Wide, Wide World told the story of Ellen Montgomery. She was a young girl forced to go live in the county with her aunt because of her mother’s poor health. The aunt, Miss Fortune Emerson is no mean or abusive, but she is gruff and undemonstrative and Ellen is very lonely. Ellen finds her mentor in a wealthy young woman named Alice Humphry. Alice takes Ellen under her guidance and tutors her. Alice has a brother, John Humphry, who also takes an interest in Ellen, and at the end of the book they are preparing to marry.

The Wide Wide World was one of the first books in the United States to sell in large numbers. Some historians give it the credit for beginning the concept of “bestseller”. It is mentioned in Little Women when Jo spends the afternoon reading and crying over it. To modern readers, however, it is not an appealing book. Ellen is a meek little thing who cries at the drop of a hat. She is submissive to the point of absurdity and only rebels when her aunt tries to limit her Bible reading. There are several deathbed scenes and lots and lots of preaching. There are some good descriptions of country life and practices, but hardly enough to redeem the book for a reader of today. Miss Warner wrote several other books but none of them were as popular as her first. She never made much money despite her sales because her family was in such dire straits financially that she often sold the copyrights for immediate cash and missed out on all the royalties that she could have gotten. Miss Warner collaborated with her sister, Anna, on some of her later books. Anna Warner, btw, is best known as the author of the classic hymn Jesus Loves Me.

After the success of The Wide, Wide World, the domestic novel continued its popularity. Maria Cummins wrote a popular one called The Lamplighter. In it, Gertie, the heroine is rescued from an abusive foster home by Truman Flint, a kindly lamplighter. After his death, she finds a new mentor in Miss Emily Graham, a well-to-do blind woman. Miss Emily gives Gertie a good education and she matures into a beautiful and accomplished woman. There is a fantastic scene where Gertie is trapped on a flaming steamboat and selflessly insists that others be rescued before her. In the end, Gertie is rescued, finds her long-lost father who marries Miss Emily, and then Gertie marries her childhood sweetheart and they all live happily ever after. This book and its popularity caused Nathaniel Hawthorne to write to his publisher complaining that his books were not selling because all that people wanted to read were books by “that damned lot of scribbling women”.

Hawthorne exempted Sarah Willis Parton from his complaint about scribbling women. He wrote that she “writes as though the devil were in her”. Difficult circumstances in her personal life forced Mrs. Parton to become a writer. Her first husband died young and her second marriage ended in a divorce. Her wealthy in-laws were not much help and when she went to her brother, an editor, for help with her writing, he told her to go make shirts. Mrs. Parton began to write a column for the newspapers and became very popular under her pen name, Fanny Fern. Her columns were funny and often satirical. Despite her success, the unfair treatment she had received from her family festered and in 1855 she wrote the roman a clef Ruth Hall. She portrayed her ex-husband, her in-laws, and especially her brother as deep-dyed villains. Readers, seeing a family feud aired in public, made the book a big seller. Mrs. Parton wrote one other book, but her talent was not for fiction and she returned to her newspaper column which she wrote till her death.

Of all the domestic novelists, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth is probably the easiest for modern readers. Yes, that was her real name, Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth. Her husband deserted her under circumstances that she never fully explained and she had to work to support her family. Teaching school did not bring in enough money, so Mrs. Southworth tried her hand at writing for the serial papers. These were newspapers that published stories, a chapter a week and these stories were later published as books. Mrs. Southworth’s novels were mostly gothic/adventure stories featuring daring heroines and non-stop action.

The Hidden Hand (make sure to check our DIK review of the book!) was one of her most popular works. It featured a feisty young orphan girl named Capitola who is introduced to the reader disguised as a boy. Capitola was beautiful, fearless and didn’t care anything about conventional female behavior. When the villain of the book, Black Donald, threatened her, she challenged him to a duel (she won). There are crumbling houses, secret passages, lost wills, mistaken identities, long-lost relatives, and I’m just getting started. This is a fast-paced book that I really enjoyed reading. It’s hard to say how many books Mrs. Southworth published because some of her older books were re-issued under different titles (sound familiar?), but most historians think she wrote about fifty novels. Some of her other titles include The Curse of Clifton, The Deserted Wife, and The Discarded Daughter. When I worked in the library in Owensboro, Kentucky we had a little old lady come to see us who told us that she had been named Capitola after the heroine in The Hidden Hand. We found someone who had an old copy of the book that they were willing to lend her. I wonder if in the future, librarians will be asked to find copies of Shanna to give to all the little old ladies who were named after that heroine?

Augusta Evans Wilson also wrote several novels. Her best known work was St. Elmo, one of the most popular of all of the novels published in the 19th century. I said earlier that most of the heroes of the domestic novels are not particularly memorable. Mrs. Wilson created a truly Byronic hero in St. Elmo Murray and perhaps that is why the book was so popular. It is certainly not fun to read. Mrs. Wilson was fond of stuffing her books with obscure quotes and literary and historical allusions, not to mention so many polysyllabic words that I spent a lot of time running to the dictionary when I read it. The characters talk in such a stilted manner that her books are an easy target for parody. The year after St. Elmo was published, another author, Charles Webb, wrote a satire on the book called St. Twel’mo in which he accused the author of teething on a dictionary.

The plot of St. Elmo revolves around, yes, a poor orphan girl named Edna Earl. Edna is beautiful and a paragon of goodness and learning. She is taken in by a rich widow named Mrs. Murray. While in the Murray house she encounters Mrs. Murray’s son St. Elmo. Here is the description of him:

“He was a tall athletic man, not exactly young…and, though not one white thread silvered his thick, waving brown hair, the heavy and habitual scowl on his high full brow had plowed deep furrows such as age claims for its monogram. His features were bold, but very regular; the piercing steel-gray eyes were unusually large, and beautifully shaded with long, heavy black lashes, but repelled by their cynical glare, and the finely formed mouth, which might have imparted a wonderful charm to the countenance, wore a chronic savage sneer, as if it only opened to utter jeers and curses.”

Now, who could resist that man? Not millions of readers. Plantations, steamboats, cigars and many little boys were named after St. Elmo Murray. Edna Earl, paragon as she was, resisted all of his allures and attempted seductions and not until he reformed (he became a minister) would she have anything to do with him.

So, here are some of the books that our great-grandmothers read. I’ve always thought that popular literature is an excellent guide to what people’s hopes and dreams were during a particular period of history. During the time these books were popular, the United States was beginning a period of extreme change as regards women’s roles in society. The first rumblings of the suffrage movement were beginning to stir, the Westward expansion had begun, and at a time when women were told that they were fragile, emotional, childlike creatures, their own experiences told them a different story. Their personal experiences could not help but affect their relationships with men, but at this time, marriage was still the only accepted role for a woman. I don’t know any domestic novels that don’t end with a marriage or a promise of marriage, and since marriage is a given, perhaps that is why the writers of these books did not develop their male characters to any great extent. The heroines of domestic novels spend vast amounts of time and energy struggling for autonomy, independence and a sense of self. Only when the heroine has done all that she set out to do and proven herself to herself and to others will she marry. I believe that the domestic novel spoke to the women of that time period and their yearnings to define themselves.

Heroines in romantic novels of today don’t have to go through quite the struggle that domestic novel heroines had to in order to find their place in society, Contemporary women characters are able to get an education, to live independently and to test their wings to a degree that would have been unheard of for the heroine of a domestic novel. Marriage is no longer a given for a woman, yet most women (and men for that matter) still long for love, commitment and that sense of being part of someone else. Romance novels speak to these needs, just as the domestic novels spoke to the needs of the women of that time for self-definement.

I don’t know of any contemporary romances that feature the teenage heroines of the domestic novelists. In most romances, the heroines are mature women who have careers, have an education and are established members of society. They usually don’t have to prove themselves to the world at large, but they still long for someone to love; not to validate themselves to society, but for their own sense of being complete.

Don’t miss Ellen’s Cheat Sheet article on early 20th century popular fiction

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer – you can email her via the link here Find links to all of Ellen’s Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants



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