Sarah Orne Jewett House: Female American Novelist in Southern Maine

I took advantage of a sunny Saturday in March, and visited my fifth out of thirty-seven  Historic New England homes – still so many to visit!

I had zero knowledge of Sarah Orne Jewett prior to my visit – I usually try to read up a little bit on the home beforhand, but ran out of time on this one. However after the visit and seeing what a progressive feminist she was for her time, I couldn’t help but wonder why or how I hadn’t learned about her before!

Historical Highlights

  • Sarah Orne Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine on September 3, 1849 in the home that today is the Sarah Orne Jewett house. Sarah’s paternal grandfather, a successful ship merchant, purchased the house (which was built in 1774) in the 1820’s. Sarah’s parents, Theodore & Caroline, moved into the home with  Sarah’s older sister, Mary, and both Sarah & the youngest daughter, Caroline were born there. Once baby Caroline was born, a Greek revival home (now the Visitor’s Center!) was built for Sarah’s family just next door.
  • Sarah’s father, Theodore, and her grandfather, also Theodore, were great influences on her life. They were a well off family, but both of these men exposed Sarah to the “real world” much more than other wealthy adolescent girls would have been at that time. Not only did she get a proper education at nearby Berwick Academy, but she would also accompany her father, a busy local doctor, on house calls and therefore saw first hand how “normal” people lived, their struggles and their joys. It is thought that this broadened view of the world, outside the realm of hosting teas and dinners, is what made her stories relatable to the masses.
  • Sarah was an avid reader as an adolescent, spending lots of time in her grandfathers library, and soon enough she was writing herself. She published her first story, “Jenny Garrow’s Lover,” under a pen name in 1868, and the following year, at the age of twenty, she published her first story, “Mr. Bruce,” in the Atlantic Monthly, a highly regarded literary magazine in Boston. This sparked a relationship with the magazines publisher, James Thomas Fields, who became a close friend and encouraged her to continue to write. And she did, becoming one of Maine’s prominent regional writers. Her most popular works include Deephaven (1877), A Country Doctor (1884) and A White Heron (1886), and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).  She was recognized at the time as a feminist writer, for her “rich account of women’s lives and voices”.
  • Sarah never married. After the sudden death of her publisher friend James Thomas Fields, she called on his newly widowed wife, Anne Adams Fields, to offer condolences. Anne and Sarah were inseparable after that, living together & splitting their time between Boston & South Berwick, Maine. While there is nothing to state outright that they were a couple, they were accepted as such in Boston society and were known to have a “Boston marriage”. There are excerpts at the home from letters between the two, and they are so sweet – obviously written between two people who were very much in love.
  • After the death of Sarah’s grandparents, Sarah and her sisters moved back into the 1774 Georgian style home, which they redecorated to what you see today, in the arts & crafts style that was popular at that time.
  • In 1902, Sarah suffered a severe concussion during a carriage ride which ultimately ended her writing career. Anne, with the help of Sarah’s sisters, took care of her and made renovations and adjustments to the home in order to help make Sarah comfortable. In 1909, Sarah died in the home she was born in, as was always her wish.
  • Sarah’s family continued to live in the home until the 1930’s, and also maintained the Greek Revival home next door (which was used for some time as the South Berwick library). The two homes were bequeathed to Historic New England (at that time called the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1931.

Favorite Spots

Writing Nook

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Located in the main hallway on the second floor, Sarah’s writing nook was flooded with light, and gave her a perfect view of the hustle & bustle of downtown South Berwick, but also a view of the gorgeous staircase, stained glass window, and a glimpse into her backyard garden oasis. This is the actual desk that she would have written at!

Also – how  cool/creepy is the translucent likeness of Sarah sitting at her desk? The photo from which this was copied is sitting right on the desk, which was neat to see!

Sarah’s Bedroom

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As you’ll see further down, Sarah’s bedroom is very different from her sister Mary’s bedroom. To me it’s more cozy, and gives a more intimate view of who Sarah really was. The mantel is covered with some of her favorite things – photos of her sister and parents, a few photos of Anne, riding crops as she loved horses, and more. She had a separate entrance so that she could come and go as she pleased, and after her carriage accident they installed a state of the art bathroom for her.

Entryway & Staircase

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The entryway & staircase at this house are truly gorgeous. The bold, floral wallpaper is something that Sarah & Mary chose, and is a true reflection of the arts & crafts era. The exquisitely intricate trim work that frames not only the entryway, but also the staircase seems to be never-ending. The newel post at the bottom is so unique – I’ve never seen anything like it! It was difficult to photograph, but appeared to be almost hollowed out with floating spires around it. And, of course, the stained glass at the top of the staircase was made by a close friend of Sarah’s, so she could enjoy her favorite flower year round.

(And – while I understand that it is completely necessary – and yes, my photos are so dark from this home!- can I just make a suggestion to  at least get a prettier lamp for these gorgeous historic homes?! Or, a less conspicuous one?! I keep seeing the same ones….and they just look so awful. Yes, light is needed…..but could we please get a better lamp?? I’m available to help pick one out, if needed :0)

Mary’s Bedroom

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There were two things that I really loved about this room: the wallpaper, and the bed. There is a small area next to the mantel which shows the original wallpaper that Mary selected, and as it’s tucked around a corner, shows just how vibrant the colors would have been. And the bed was just gorgeous!

Dining Room

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Again, the wallpaper got me here. I can only imagine how much more vibrant the cobalt blue would have been originally, and when it was brand new. The pass-thru from the dining room to the front parlor was lined with two glass cabinets, similar to a butler’s pantry, which was very pretty as well!

Eye Spy

  • Original, first run copies of Sarah’s novels are in the front parlor – I was amazed at how teeny tiny the books were! While we couldn’t touch them without gloves (which we did not have) I was dying to see just how small the type inside would have been. I can’t imagine trying to read those tiny words by candlelight at night!
  • The “wave” trim work that goes up the stairs was also something I had never seen before, a possible ode to her seafaring grandfather and their proximity to the ocean!
  • Take a peek at the butterfly teacups in her grandfather’s bedroom, which were painted by a dear friend of Sarah’s!
  • The wallpaper in Sarah’s bedroom looks oddly close to her monogram – something that I don’t think is a coincidence at all!
  • Outside Sarah’s bedroom is a frame that showcases a piece of original wallpaper that decorated that hallway, which had large cameo prints of George Washington!

Visiting Tips

  • Make a day trip out of this one, and while you’re at it, visit The Hamilton House right down the street! Unfortunately during my visit it was not open, so I’ll be making another trip, but there is so much to do in this area. Two words: beach & lobster!
  • When I visited there was plenty of on street parking, but I can imagine as the spring & summer pick up it may be a bit tougher to find a street spot.
  • Spend some time in the Visitor Center (this is where you check in for a tour anyway). They had a great art display from a local high school, who made art inspired by their visit to the home!

Top Photos

Below are some of my favorite shots of the Sarah Orne Jewett home but I’ll be sharing more on our Facebook & Instagram pages! Enjoy!

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