“A Nondescript Monster”:
Fanny Fern in Transatlantic Print Culture
Mashael I. Alhammad
Fanny Fern (real name Sara Payson Willis Parton) was one of the most profitable American columnists and novelists of the mid-nineteenth century. Fern sustained her celebrity status largely through unauthorised reprints of her articles in American and British papers. Consequently, her public image was for the most part constructed through those reprinted articles, which were usually framed by speculations about her private life. This article examines the implications and limitations of Fern’s efforts to stabilise the dissemination of her public image in periodicals by using the relatively more stable form of the book. As a celebrity, she had limited control over the way she was publicly represented. As a woman in the public sphere, she was particularly vulnerable to slander and libel. The circulation of a spurious biography entitled The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern (1855), alongside her sanctioned autobiographical novel Ruth Hall, profited from her literary brand while simultaneously undermining it. Examining how these competing narratives about Fern’s private life – one fictionalised, one unauthorised – shaped her literary reputation at home and in England, this paper argues that textual representations as well as material market choices, including book bindings and advertising techniques, shaped authorship in the increasingly commercialised transatlantic literary market of the mid-century in ways that both benefited and imperilled the female writer.
Fanny Fern; copyright laws; celebrity culture; authorial misappropriation; transatlantic literary market
Date of Acceptance: 8 December 2021
Date of Publication: 17 December 2021
Double Blind Peer Reviewed
Alhammad, Mashael I. 2021. “‘A Nondescript Monster’: Fanny Fern in Transatlantic Print Culture.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 3.2: 173-188. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://doi.org/10.46911/OVWZ1342
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