The Maine thing

Reading Sarah Orne Jewett for the first time

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

What I’m reading

I’ve never been able to bear horror movies or anything remotely scary, really, but since 2020 and all that, I’ve lost even what tolerance I did have for violence, suspense or fear. By way of example, I just reread Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers - a book that’s been soothing grandmothers to sleep for 200 years - and could hardly bear to finish it because of the visceral dread I felt for its villain. (He’s an unpleasantly sweaty cleric scheming to become the bishop of a small cathedral town - the stakes and the tension are not exactly sky-high.)

So I was overjoyed this week to have a deeply satisfying literary experience that was also deeply soothing. I was reading one book, which set me on the trail of another, which I impulsively bought on Kindle, and before I knew it, I was hock-deep in the complete works of an author I knew I’d be delightedly reading for the rest of my life.

First book first. Penelope Fitzgerald was an excellent English novelist who wrote two of my favourite books, Human Voices and Offshore. (She also wrote The Bookshop, which was recently made into a film… I preferred the book, as I think bookish people are contractually obligated to say.)

When she could be coerced into it by patient editors, the famously difficult Fitzgerald wrote for the London Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. These essays are collected in A House of Air, which I reread every few years to work my way through the authors reviewed in it.

This week, I lighted on Fitzgerald’s review of Sarah Orne Jewett. I imagine Americans are probably familiar with Jewett, the Maine writer who lived 1849-1909, but I wasn’t. This was the line in Fitzgerald’s essay, referring to the novel The Country of the Pointed Firs, that made me download Jewett’s complete works immediately:

“This short novel is her masterpiece, no doubt about that, but it is difficult to discuss the plot because it can hardly be said to have one.”

Given my total intolerance for shocks at the moment, a novel in which nothing at all happens was perfect.

This newsletter is mostly about nature books, and I’d say The Country of the Pointed Firs qualifies. As a child, Jewett was frequently too ill for school but not ill enough to be in bed, and so her country doctor father brought her along on his visits. This meant she spent time learning the highways and byways of Maine’s rolling countryside, witnessing the faded glories of the coastal towns that were once thrumming seaports, and listening to the conversation of retired sea captains and local wise women. She also knew the creatures and plants of her world intimately, and intuited the interconnectedness of all things. This is all abundantly evident in her books, which are deeply rooted in the country she knew so well.

Plot-wise, The Country of the Pointed Firs is, as mentioned, pleasantly even-keeled. A unnamed writer goes to stay for the summer in the small coastal town of Dunnet Landing at the house of the beautifully drawn Mrs Todd: “landlady, herb-gatherer, and rustic philosopher”. Small episodes are recounted in loving detail: there is a family reunion. A visitor tells the story of a woman wronged in love who takes herself off to an island to live alone, and never sets foot on the mainland again. The formidable Mrs Todd rows the narrator across the bay to visit Mrs T’s mother, in one of those days of perfect peace and beauty that’s never forgotten. An old sea captain tells the narrator tall tales, although, notes wise woman Mrs Todd: “Some o’ them tales hangs together toler’ble well.” (By the way, I don’t usually love dialect rendered this way, but Jewett’s ear for the 19th-century coastal Maine accent is apparently so accurate that actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson used her work to perfect their dialogue for the film The Lighthouse.)

Jewett (above left, with her inseparable friend/partner and fellow writer Annie Fields) has a fine eye for a landscape:

“Through this piece of rough pasture ran a huge shape of stone like the great backbone of an enormous creature. At the end, near the woods, we could climb up on it and walk along to the highest point; there above the circle of pointed firs we could look down over all the island, and could see the ocean that circled this and a hundred other bits of island ground, the mainland shore and all the far horizons. It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothings topped the eye or hedged one in, - that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give.”

And her depiction of the way rural communities can operate at their best, as seen on an excursion with Mrs Blackett, Mrs Todd’s beloved island-dwelling mother, is enchanting:

“A look of delight came to the faces of those who recognised the plain, dear old figure beside me; one revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence.”

That chain of love and dependence extends to the plant kingdom, too, as does the fathomless wisdom of Mrs Todd, a herbalist/good witch who can assess the health of a tree as quickly as she can that of a person. On one expedition with the narrator, she notes with satisfaction that an old ash tree has perked up since she last saw it:

“‘Last time I was up this way that tree was kind of drooping and discouraged. Grown trees act that way sometimes, same’s folks; then they’ll put right to it and strike their roots off into new ground and start all over again with real good courage. Ash-trees is very likely to have poor spells; they ain’t got the resolution of other trees.’”

I hope this doesn’t sound folksy and saccharine. It isn’t. In a 1994 review, the New York Times called The Country of the Pointed Firs “this female version of Walden”, which, thanks to the ‘female’ qualifier, doesn’t now sound quite the compliment the writer might have intended. But it’s an indication of the quality of Jewett’s writing and the way she deeply inhabits the natural world.

And in fact, as in Walden, it’s a misnomer - all due respect to the formidable Miss Fitzgerald - to say it’s a book in which nothing happens. It’s actually full of deep loves and great griefs, adventures on the high seas and supernatural experiences. That most of these events happened safely in the past, and are recounted as curious tales rather than heart-pounding exploits, suits my mood. And that it’s brimming with heart and hope buoys me.

It was the perfect book at the perfect time. I wish you the same for your reading this week.

The Country of the Pointed Firs was book 40 for 2020. I’ve also been reading:

  1. Alex Holder, Open Up

  2. Sulari Gentill, A Testament of Character

  3. Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie

  4. Muriel Barbery, Gourmet Rhapsody

  5. Carol Baxter, The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller

  6. Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition

  7. Sarah Orne Jewett, Deephaven

Thanks again for reading! Feel free to hit reply to this email to have a chat (I always write back!), press the heart button if you liked this, or comment.

Also! Follow me on Instagram @hannahjameswords, on Twitter @hannahjamesword and check out my website at