Thursday, March 5, 2020

Fanny Herself by Edna Ferber

Wisconsin working woman
Edna Ferber was one of America’s most popular novelists of the early 20th century. Today she is best remembered by the successful film adaptations of her novels Cimarron, Show Boat, and Giant. Prior to those big hits, Ferber began her writing career as a teenager in Appleton, Wisconsin, and her Midwestern upbringing is reflected in some of her earlier works. Her 1917 novel Fanny Herself is a semi-autobiographical story set in the fictional town of Winnebago, Wisconsin, population 10,000, a thinly disguised surrogate for Appleton. I grew up not far from there myself, so I was curious to see how this distinguished author portrayed her Wisconsin hometown.

The Fanny of the title is Fanny Brandeis, who begins the novel at age thirteen. Her parents are shopkeepers who run Brandeis’ Bazaar, an emporium of the type that used to be called a five-and-dime store. The early chapters of the book largely focus on Fanny’s mother Molly Brandeis. When her husband dies, Mrs. Brandeis takes over the store and proves herself quite a capable businesswoman. The example she sets as a strong, independent businesswoman has a profound influence on young Fanny, who inherits some of her mother’s business sense, confidence, and tenacity. When Fanny’s younger brother Theodore is recognized as a violin prodigy, Fanny’s mother sacrifices much to send the boy to an expensive music school in Munich. This leaves few resources left to invest in Fanny’s education, thus limiting her future prospects. Fanny resigns herself to remaining in Winnebago and assisting her mother in the family store.

The story of the Brandeis family is universal to small-town life, at least in the Midwest. There is nothing specifically Wisconsin about the book other than a two-page description of working conditions in the paper mills of the Fox River Valley that is reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle but without the meat. One thing atypical about the Brandeis family, for northeastern Wisconsin, is that they are Jewish. Their Jewish identity does factor into the story, but it is of secondary importance to Fanny’s identity as a woman in a male-dominated society. This is primarily a feminist novel that champions Fanny as a strong independent woman who won’t be confined to a stereotypical gender role and doesn’t let the men in her life push her around. By the novel’s halfway point, Fanny is in Chicago carving out a career in the world of big business.

The farther Fanny gets from Wisconsin, however, the more annoying the book becomes. The early chapters of the novel might qualify as regional realism, like something Theodore Dreiser or Wisconsin’s own Zona Gale might have written. There is a pandering potboiler feel to this novel, however, that becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. Ferber occasionally breaks the “fourth wall” by addressing the reader directly, a strategy that undermines the realism, but not as badly as the overly clever dialogue which barely resembles actual human speech. Fanny and her various love interests speak to each other like characters out of Hollywood movies, trading rapid-fire witticisms that sound pretentious and contrived. Fanny is an expert beyond belief at any task she undertakes, and Ferber never allows her to show any faults, weaknesses, or insecurities. Even more frustrating are the romantic subplots. This purports to be a novel about an independent woman, yet her favored beau is the world’s biggest mansplainer who constantly lectures her on how she should live her life. With a forced and corny ending that is a far cry from the book’s promising start, Fanny Herself ultimately devolves into disappointing hokum.
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