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Jewett, Sarah Orne (1849-1909)  
 
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Sarah Orne Jewett is a major figure in the literature of female romantic friendship, the precursor of modern lesbian literature.

For the most part, fortune was kind to Jewett. Born on September 3, 1849, into a prosperous and stable family in South Berwick, Maine, she was the second of three daughters of Theodore H. Jewett, a country physician, and Caroline F. Perry.

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She adored her father, who guided her through the family's large library and frequently allowed her to accompany him on his rounds throughout the coastal countryside because ill health made regular attendance at school difficult for her. In the course of these rambles, Jewett acquired the habits of empathy and observation that would serve her so well as a writer of sketches and narratives of New England village life.

Jewett demonstrated an early inclination toward writing; she published her first story in 1868 when she was just eighteen, and she enjoyed a long and productive career. Championed by such influential editors as William Dean Howells and Horace Scudder, Jewett's work was regularly featured in The Atlantic Monthly and shrewdly marketed by the publisher Houghton Mifflin for three and a half decades.

She produced fifteen novels or collections for adults as well as several works for children and carved out a comfortable niche for herself in the competitive literary marketplace of post-Civil War America. Claiming to have no talent for plot, Jewett perfected the art of the short story as a nondramatic exploration of what she called the "romance" of "every-day life."

Women were consistently the focus of Jewett's imaginative energies, from her portrait of young female friendship in Deephaven (1877) and her study of a talented girl's search for vocation in A Country Doctor (1884) to the tale of an elderly woman's fantasy friendship with Queen Victoria featured in The Queen's Twin and Other Stories (1899).

Clearly, however, the highlight of Jewett's career was The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a delicate yet tightly crafted narrative of a summer visit to a small town on the coast of Maine. The narrator is a writer who comes to Dunnet Landing in search of solitude but instead finds herself drawn deeply into the life of the town and into a friendship with her landlady, the herbalist Almira Todd.

In its loving attention to the details of women's lives and its lack of self-consciousness in exploring powerful bonds between women, Pointed Firs ranks as a classic not just of American regionalism but of the proto-lesbian literature that emerged out of what historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has described as "the female world of love and ritual," a pre-Freudian world in which women's romantic friendships were objects chiefly of veneration rather than suspicion.

Annie Adams Fields was a primary feature in Jewett's personal experience of that world since the two women maintained a "" from early in the 1880s until Jewett's death. The widow of Boston publisher James T. Fields, the gracious, vivacious Annie provided Jewett with companionship and emotional support and introduced her to a galaxy of literary and cultural stars that included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Christina Rossetti.

An indefatigable traveler and dazzling hostess, Annie was also fifteen years older than Jewett and likely served as the model for the older women who so frequently guide younger women in Jewett's fiction.

Jewett's letters to Fields (compiled by Fields and published after Jewett's death) suggest that the relationship was marked by intense feelings as well as shifting moods and roles. She alternately expresses daughterly dependence, playful childishness, and physical longing: "I shall be with you tomorrow, your dear birthday. . . .I am tired of writing things. I want now to paint things, and drive things, and kiss things."

Jewett's limpid prose style often evokes comparisons to her predecessor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, though compassion and a keen sense of social comedy make her New England look considerably less gloomy than his.

From the standpoint of gay and lesbian literary history, however, Jewett's most important connection is to novelist Willa Cather (1873-1947), whom Jewett met and mentored in the last year of her life. In letters from this period (also published by Fields), she advised the future Pulitzer Prize winner first to abandon journalism and devote herself full time to writing fiction and secondly to give up the "masquerade" of male narrators, which Cather was then deploying as a means of disguising her affection for women.

For Jewett, whose sexual and literary identities were formed against the backdrop of culturally sanctioned romantic friendships, such disguises were unnecessary and distracting. In her world, a woman could write openly of her love for another woman, could, as she suggested to Cather in response to one of her stories, "even care enough to wish to take [a beloved endangered woman] away from such a life, by some means or other."

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