Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, published in 1862 in Boston, was Rebecca Harding Davis’s second widely acknowledged work, and her first novel. Set in an Indiana mill town during the fall and winter of 1860, it depicts the suffering of the working poor at a time when industrialization was growing across America.
During the time Davis wrote, the society she lived in was divided into areas of activity that were considered appropriate for men, or for women. Women were expected to take care of home and family; men were expected to attend to the world of ideas, politics, and money. Writing books was considered to be a male activity, and women who wanted to be authors, like Davis, were expected to write “moral” fiction: fiction that educated, elevated, and promoted religious values.
However, some writers, such as Davis, preferred to present uncouth, sinful, or “low” characters, who were generally ordinary, poor, and flawed people. This realistic fiction was intended to be the opposite of popular nineteenth-century fiction, which presented strong heroes, beautiful heroines, and romantic plots. Davis managed to fit her depiction of unattractive, sinful, and flawed people within the social ideal that women write moral fiction by using her stories to examine social and religious issues—and to bring up moral questions. She writes at the beginning of the book:
“You want something . . . to lift you out of this crowded, tobacco-stained commonplace, to kindle and chafe and glow in you. I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it. Sometimes I think it has a new and awful significance that we do not see.”
Margret Howth was first published in six installments in the Atlantic Monthly beginning in October, 1861. At the request of her editor, James Fields, Davis rewrote the novel to make the ending happier. Although she was disappointed with the necessity of doing this to make the book more agreeable to the public, she had faith that Fields was probably right.
According to Jane Atteridge Rose in Rebecca Harding Davis, the book has been called “the earliest realistic depiction of an American woman as an individual and as ordinary.” Jean Fagan Yellin, in her afterword to the Feminist Press edition of the novel, wrote that “readers immediately recognized” the significance of the book, and that critics commented on Davis’s revealing “the fictional possibilities in people who had been presumed to be inarticulate, or whom economic or social oppression had submerged.”
Chapters I-II Summary
Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day opens as Margret Howth begins her new job working on the ledgers at Knowles & Company woolen mill, owned by Dr. Knowles. The job is dreary, lonely, and depressing; she works alone, in a dirty room high in the mill; on the floors below, workers slave in suffocating heat and deafening noise, amid the caustic fumes of dyes. She has taken the job to make money to take care of her impoverished parents; her father, a former schoolteacher, has gone blind and can no longer support the family. At the end of the day she returns to the family home, a formerly comfortable place that is now spare, since she and her mother have sold everything valuable in order to buy food.
Dr. Knowles, the owner of the mill, follows her. He has a grand scheme in mind, and he has been watching Margret to see how she will fit into it. He is also friends with her father, and spends time with him, arguing politics. Margret notices that the doctor is watching her, as he has watched her for her whole life, “with a kind of savage scorn,” but doesn’t know why he does so. His grand plan is to sell the mill and use the money to found a commune, where he will take ex-slaves, alcoholics, and all other downtrodden people, and teach them self-reliance and self-worth. All will live on an even footing with the others, and the community will be based on “perpetual celibacy, mutual trust, honour,” and individuals will “rise...
(The entire section is 1,637 words.)