Shame the Devil is based upon the remarkable and true story of 19th century novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fanny Fern, also known as Sara Payson Willis (1811 – 1872). She was born in Portland Maine. Her father, Nathaniel Willis, owned a newspaper. Early on, she chose the pen name of Fanny Fern because it reminded her of her mother as she picked ferns.
She attended a boarding school in Hartford Connecticut where she was dubbed as one of te worst behaved but most beloved girls. In 1837 she married Charles Harrington Eldredge, a banker. Fanny bore him three daughters. Tragedy struck eight years later when her eldest daughter died of meningitis and her husband died of typhoid fever. Willis was left nearly destitute. With little help from either her father or her in-laws or her brother, she struggled to support herself and her two surviving daughters. Her father encouraged her to remarry as a means to solve their financial difficulties.
So in 1849, she married a merchant by the name of Samuel Farrington. Right from the start, they faced difficulties due to her husband’s intense jealousy. Two years later, she left him, creating a scandal and divorced him.
On her own and with two daughters to support, Fanny began to write in earnest, publishing articles. She sent samples of her work under her own name to her brother Nathaniel, who owned a magazine, but he refused them and said her writing was not marketable. She kept her identity hidden as her abusive ex-husband continued to make strife by spreading vicious rumours. But this didn’t stop Fanny. Her work was accepted by newspapers and journals in New York where she wrote a witty column that proved highly popular.
In the 1850’s a children’s novel she wrote sold 70,000 copies in its first year, quite an achievement for the times. James Parton, editor for the Home Journal, a magazine owned by Fanny’s brother, published her columns. But when her brother discovered this, he forbade Parton from publishing any more of Fern's work. In protest, Parton resigned.
Fanny’s first book, Fern Leaves (1853), was a best seller. It sold 46,000 copies in the first four months, and over 70,000 copies the first year. With her royalties, she bought a house in Brooklyn and lived comfortably well. She soon became the highest paid columnist in the U.S.
Fern wrote about her happy first marriage, the poverty she endured after he died and lack of help from male relatives, and her struggle to achieve financial independence as a journalist. She did not hesitate to write unflattering portrayals of those who had treated her uncharitably when she most needed help, including her father, her in-laws, her brother N.P. Willis, and two newspaper editors. When Fern's identity was revealed shortly after the novel's publication, some critics believed it scandalous that she had attacked her own relatives; they decried her lack of filial piety and her want of "womanly gentleness" in such characterizations.
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne praised her work. He said, “...enjoyed it a great deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her, and that is the only condition in which a woman ever writes anything worth reading."
Fanny died of cancer in 1872.
Author Debra Brenegan did an exceptional job writing this inspiring and engrossing biography. She not only writes with very vivid detail, but she did so in a way that truly made Fanny and her surroundings seem real. It is a poignant story of the struggles women faced to survive in a world where few opportunities existed.
This is a really, really great book.
Here is a brief sample of her sarcastic and sometimes vitriolic writing. This piece is entitled, I Can't.
APOLLO!—what a face! Doleful as a hearse; folded hands; hollow chest; whining voice; the very picture of cowardly irresolution. Spring to your feet, hold up your head, set your teeth together, draw that fine form of yours up to the height that God made it; draw an immense long breath, and look about you. What do you see? Why, all creation taking care of number one;—pushing ahead like the car of Juggernaut, over live victims. There it is; and you can't help it. Are you going to lie down and be crushed?
By all that is manly, no!—dash ahead! You have as good a right to mount the triumphal car as your neighbor. Snap your fingers at croakers. If you can't get round a stump, leap over it, high and dry. Have nerves of steel, a will of iron. Never mind sideaches, or heartaches, or headaches,—dig away without stopping to breathe, or to notice envy or malice. Set your target in the clouds, and aim at it. If your arrow falls short of the mark, what of that? Pick it up and go at it again. If you should never reach it, you will shoot higher than if you only aimed at a bush. Don't whine, if your friends fall off. At the first stroke of good luck, by Mammon! they will swarm around you like a hive of bees, till you are disgusted with human nature. "I can't!" O, pshaw! I throw my glove in your face, if I am a woman! You are a disgrace to corduroys. What! a man lack courage? A man want independence? A man to be discouraged at obstacles? A man afraid to face anything on earth, save his Maker? Why! I have the most unmitigated contempt for you, you little pusillanimous pussy-cat! There is nothing manly about you, except your whiskers.