In Deephaven, Sarah Orne Jewett presents two American identities in the hope that they could explain each to the other. Deephaven is a sleepy Maine village more akin to York and Wells than to the South Berwick in which the author grew up and lived for much of her life. The town is twelve miles from the railroad and is described as being more English than American, the result perhaps of Jewett’s having, in 1874, read and been much influenced by Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853).
Deephaven is a composite of thirteen sketches that Jewett revised considerably and wove into a novel. The narrative is supplied by two summer visitors from the city, Helen Denis and Kate Lancaster, each twenty-four years old. Katherine Brandon, Kate’s great-aunt, has died and left her house in Deephaven to Kate’s mother, who grants the two young ladies use of it for the summer. In the course of the summer, Kate and Helen come to know a considerable gallery of locals, whom Jewett presents in authentic detail. They range from two retired sea captains to a fisherman to the widow Patton to Mrs. Kew, an earth mother who lives in the lighthouse, to Miss Honora Carew, who expresses her gratitude that Deephaven has “no disagreeable foreign population,” to Olive Grant, the obligatory gossip who serves the author’s need to reveal many facts.
The result of this summer is that two disparate camps begin to know, understand, and sympathize with each other. Recent critics have also suggested that the book has to do with the sexual identities of Kate and Helen, who might be inferred to have sexual feelings for each other, much as Jewett is thought to have had for many of her female friends.
Many of the characters in Deephaven are grotesques when compared with people in mainstream society. In Deephaven, however, they have established their identities and are accepted on an equal basis with their less eccentric fellow citizens. The people in town have been raised around one another and accept one another, each according to his or her own singular identity.