Sarah Josepha Hale on Beginning a Novel

Sarah Josepha HaleIf you enjoyed your Thanksgiving holiday, you can thank Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1877). Hale, the first woman magazine editor in the United States, petitioned Presidents for 17 years until Abraham Lincoln established the day in 1863. Hale believed in educating girls  (She later helped establish Vassar College) having obtained her education second-hand from her brother who taught her what he was learning at Dartmouth.

Widowed with five children, Hale wrote and worked to support her family. As editor of first the American Lady’s Book and then Godey’s Lady Book she was arbitrator of American fashion and letters for over 40 years. She believed that American publications should support American writers and  was responsible for introducing Hawthorne, Poe, Beecher, Irving and Ellet among many others to American readers. She also published cook books, manner books, a dictionary of quotations, Bible guides, Americana, and children’s poetry. Her best known work may be “Mary had a Little Lamb,” but as one of the first American woman novelists, it is her novel Northwood which deserves to be remembered as this was the first American novel to deal with the issue of slavery. And while she advocated for returning the slaves to Africa, the common abolitionist stance of the times, she also espoused the idea that slave masters were as degraded by slavery as the slaves. The following excerpt is from the introduction to Northwood and addresses the issue all novelists face – where to begin.

I Consider a good beginning of a novel as having a very important effect on its favorable reception with the public. It is especially necessary, if the author would secure the approbation of that large class of critical readers, who, perusing attentively only the first and last pages of a work, content themselves with just skimming (a very appropriate term) the remainder. How to please those restless readers who can find gratification only in constant excitement—who will not allow a writer one moment for description, nor hardly for narrative—who require spirited conversation on every page, and some important action before the close of every chapter, has cost me much study and not a little vexation. That I am anxious to obtain the approbation of the public, it would be folly to deny— worse than folly, it would be falsehood. But I wish to be indebted for success, not to an imitation of popular authors, or the dissemination of popular stories; but to the delineation of scenes faithful to nature, the exhibition of passions the heart must acknowledge, and the expression of sentiments which virtue will approve.

Knowing, however, that the dramatic manner of the author of “Waverly” is very popular in America, I hesitated long whether to begin in the same abrupt, conversational style, and actually penned a dialogue for that express purpose; but it did not appear in keeping with my plan. Mine is a relation of domestic events, a description of simple manners and retired scenes. I have no titled personages to show off, no warrior with stern brow and nodding plume to threaten or combat; no prophetic stroller, half human, half demon, to obey my call, and extricate my characters when all reasonable aid would fail—having, in short, only a farmer’s son for my hero, and a New England country village for his theatre of action, I concluded it the most prudent mode of procedure to begin with the beginning of his history. Those, therefore, who fancy everything noble and amiable is confined to the great and distinguished, may spare themselves the trouble of reading this humble record; and those who prefer to be saluted with an exclamation or inquiry, and hurry through half a volume of dialogue before making out whether the speakers are magistrates or madmen, whether they deserve a statue or a halter, let them turn immediately to chapter the fifth, and peruse it before reading another syllable in this. They may then return, if they please, and take up the story thus.

Do you think she’s right? Where should a novel begin?

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One Response to Sarah Josepha Hale on Beginning a Novel

  1. I think every story has its own beginning – and one of the problems (which until reading this I’d not realised had been a problem for a long while) is that most readers are impatient and want action, action, action – because for them the alternative to reading is TV or video games. I believe this is in large part due to our ‘consumer based society’ – we are born and raised to ‘consume’ – and so we ‘consume’ books as we do food and clothes and the latest gadgets – never stopping to consider what it is that we’re consuming until it’s already consumed.

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