Ruth Hall (British, 1854) is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a “continuous story” rather than a novel. It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity. At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship. Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself. Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women’s writing and economics. The “domestic tale” is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a livable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.
Although Fern’s marriage of writing and economy stood out as noteworthy what seemed most interesting for me was the thread of medicine and its connection to women’s writing. Like Madame Bovary in Flaubert’s classic tale, Hall is thrown with marriage into a world governed, to some degree, by medical discourse. “The doctor,” Hall’s father-in-law is, like Charles Bovary, a mediocre physician. His feeble attempts to govern the Hall home lead to his son and daughter eventually relocating, escaping the doctor’s negligence and “Mis. Hall’s” jealousy and frugality.
Moving away from the doctor’s home does not, however, put an end to the Hall’s interaction with the medical world. In fact, her exposure increases when Daisy, Halls’s first daughter, becomes deathly ill and eventually dies when “the doctor” is reluctant to attend to her. The death of Harry, Hall’s husband, brings another episode that is framed by the medical field. Again, traditional medicine fails and leaves Hall with overwhelming, nearly insurmountable, feelings of loss.
Hall is forced to strike out on her own after these two failures of traditional medicine leave her and her living daughters starving. She takes up residence at a boarding house governed by Mrs. Waters where she is thrown into a different kind of medical discourse. Waters proclaims herself to be a “physician — none the less for being female.” Her room is lined with “boxes of brown-bread-looking pills” and bottles with “labels that would have puzzled the most erudite M.D. who ever received a diploma.” Waters is quick to wait on Hall in her poverty-stricken sicknesses but Hall refuses her services; “if there was anything Ruth was afraid of, it was Mrs. Waters’s style of woman.” Afraid of Waters’s brand of medicine Hall goes on suffering until she meets one of Waters’s other borders, Mr. Bond.
Bond is, like Waters, a dabbler in medicine. Hall hears the whir-whir-whir coming from his room and is curious about its origin until he offers to heal her sick daughter with “homeopathy,” with which he “always treats” himself and has a “happy supply” always with him. He has had the “pleasure of relieving others in emergencies.” Bond has an air of “goodness and sincerity” that influences Hall to accept his help where she would not consider Waters’s offers. Hall goes on to admire Bond as her “senior” who is so much like what she would want her own father to be.
Bond’s medicine is the only medicine in the novel that actually cures its patient. Developing a relationship with him leads Hall to renew her trust in people and encourages her to reach out to Mr. Walter, a publisher who recognizes her writing talent and makes her an offer in a more humane position with good pay.
Walter is not blind to Hall’s talents yet he, too, must submerge her into medical discourse before he will proceed with his plans to increase her fame and fortune. Upon meeting Hall he asks, “Have you ever submitted your head to a phrenological examination?” She admits that she has no faith in this “science,” to which Walter laughs and hires a professor to do an in-depth analysis of the shape of Hall’s head. The chapter in which the professor conducts this analysis is the longest chapter of the book. Fern goes into great detail about the characteristics that phrenology reveals about Hall’s character: ultimately, she is a genius.
Feeling affirmed and confident, Walter undertakes raising Hall up from her drudgery. Upon meeting her youngest daughter, who is much like Hall, Walter insists that she, too, should have her head examined.
The movement from traditional medicine (which is portrayed as quackery at its worst) to the outrageous branch of “female” medicine, to phrenology struck me as interesting. Hall is so dredged in medical discourse that I found it problematic that phrenology — of all medical branches — is finally the outlet through which the truth is made evident. It is, in fact, the tool that reveals the value of female authorship. It is, too, the backbone of this “domestic tale.”