Back Sarah Orne Jewett, “The Passing of Sister Barsett”

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

“ ‘I guess your friends will stand by you,’ said Mrs. Crane.” Illustration by Canadian artist Henry Sandham (1842–1912) for Jewett’s story when it appeared in the May 1892 issue of Cosmopolitan.

Sarah Orne Jewett was born 170 years ago today, on September 3, 1849.

She died sixty years later in South Berwick, the Maine town she was born in. Although for many years she was occasionally dismissed as a regional writer, her novels and stories have endured precisely because the household and social circumstances are familiar to so many readers. “[Life’s] everyday aspects must bring out the best sort of writing,” she wrote to a friend. “My dear father used to say to me very often, ‘Tell things just as they are!’”

The literary scholar Josephine Donovan claims that Jewett “expressed a conscious rejection of the earlier tradition of women’s literature with its romantic ‘heroines’ and ‘sentimental histories.’” Indeed, Jewett’s most successful stories feature unmarried women living (and working) independently or elderly widows alone on their farms after the children have grown up and moved away.

“The Passing of Sister Barsett,” our Story of the Week selection, features three such women. Sarah Ellen, a nurse, arrives at the home of the widow Mercy Crane bearing news of the death of Sister Barsett, and the two survivors reveal what they really thought of their dearly departed neighbor. As Jewett once told an interviewer: “A dull little country village is just the place to find the real drama of life.”

Read “The Passing of Sister Barsett” by Sarah Orne Jewett

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