Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Deephaven by Sarah Orne Jewett

Visiting with elderly ladies in Maine
Deephaven is the debut novel of Sarah Orne Jewett, a Maine author whose works of realist literature are often set in the small coastal towns of her home state. Published in 1877, the novel is narrated by Helen Denis, about whom little is revealed other than that she is a Bostonian. Helen’s best friend Kate Lancaster informs her that Kate’s family has inherited a house in the small coastal town of Deephaven. Kate invites Helen to spend the summer with her there, and the two big-city ladies set off for an extended girls’ trip to this secluded village in coastal New England.

Jewett is best known for her 1896 novel The Country of the Pointed Firs, which is very similar in style and subject mater to Deephaven, but the books do have their marked differences. Both novels are low on plot and high on atmosphere. In both cases the narrator relates extensive stories from local inhabitants, but The Country of the Pointed Firs provides a greater sense of place, while Deephaven is definitely more about the people. Helen and Kate don’t use their seaside retreat to enjoy the pleasures of solitude. Surprisingly, they find an active social scene in Deephaven, with a steady stream of callers to their summer home. Their new social circle is comprised largely of elderly women who regale the two listeners with their life stories and homespun wisdom. Unlike The Country of the Pointed Firs, most of the “action” takes place in parlor rooms, so nature isn’t really an active element in the narrative. Many of the stories told here are neither as touching nor as compelling as those told in Jewett’s later novel. The first half of Deephaven gets a little tedious with its small-town genealogical histories, but the second half improves quite a bit when Jewett starts to delve deeper into the living conditions and social problems of rural life. As Helen and Kate become deeply involved in the Deephaven community, the reader sees how their philosophies of life are changed profoundly by the experience.

The close relationship between Helen and Kate invites speculation into whether or not the characters are lesbians. More than a few literary scholars have written on the subject, and some assert that the book is an early example of queer fiction. Jewett herself lived with a woman companion for the last two decades of her life. Perhaps Jewett was gay, and Deephaven is the expression of a longing for lifestyle freedom, or perhaps Helen and Kate are just an illustration of how friendships in the 19th century were stronger and more intimate than those in today’s America. Jewett’s writing is not overtly feminist, but one can’t help but notice that the cast is heavily stocked with independent women in the form of widows, spinsters, and self-sufficient bachelorettes.

One thing’s for sure, Jewett really loves old people, and especially elderly women. The bulk of the book is comprised of stories related by elderly female characters, plus a few old sailors and fishermen. Jewett is clearly enamored with her aged characters and crafts their tales with an obvious love of nostalgia and a harkening for the mythically virtuous life of bygone days. The town of Deephaven itself is an embodiment of this sentimental longing. As Kate puts it, “there is a simple dignity to a town like Deephaven, as if it tried to be loyal to its ancestors.”

Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs made we want to vacation in the fictional town of Dunnet, Maine. Deephaven did not produce the same effect. Despite the friendly folk, the town seems a depressing place, but at least it is realistically drawn and populated by complex and sympathetic characters. In many ways Deephaven feels like an inferior warm-up to The Country of the Pointed Firs, but it is still a quality work of regional realism.
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