aka Elizabeth Wetherell
Many critics have cited that the women writers of the nineteenth century held captive their audience, much to the chagrin of the men competing for those same readers. However, history has done its work, and the trick is on many of the women who labored for both fame and sustenance. We know and regard the Melvilles, Hawthornes, and Emersons, yet women such as Susan Bogert Warner (1819-1885) have all but faded from the literary thoughts and minds of twentieth-century America.
Warner wrote the first "bestseller" in America's history. The Wide, Wide World (1850), written in hope of relieving her family's financial woes, accumulated thirteen U.S. editions in the first two years it was published, and was continuously published for eighty years in 106 editions. In England, authorized and unauthorized editions found great success as well, and The Wide, Wide World was soon translated into at least seven other languages.
While The Wide, Wide Worldwas Warner's most successful novel, she wrote at least twenty-nine other books for children and adults, as well as theological writings and several works in collaboration with her sister, Anna. Since her childhood, Warner enjoyed "talking stories" as entertainment for her and Anna (1827-1915). However, weaving tales did not become a profession until her father's poor business dealings and the failing of his law practice drove the family into financial hardship, and eventually, bankruptcy. Warner's mother died soon after Anna's birth, and a paternal aunt joined the family to keep house and help raise her brother's two daughters. It was at the urging of this aunt that Warner decided to put her pen to financial use.
Warner was born into a successful and wealthy family who provided her with "classic" Victorian training for a young girl. She received lessons in French, Italian, singing, dancing, piano, history, theology, and mathematics. Her early life through her teens was spent living in spacious townhouses with beautiful gardens at fashionable addresses in New York City. When her father's practice failed and he suffered financial losses in the Panic of 1837, the family was forced to move to their summer cottage on Constitution Island permanently. The family's comfortable standard of living slowly diminished until the late 1840's when they were forced to declare bankruptcy and sell many of their remaining "luxury" items, including Warner's beloved piano. Providing fuel, food and clothing became week-to-week worries. Out of these desperate straits, The Wide, Wide World was conceived.
Doubting that her first novel would succeed, she chose to publish it under the pseudonym, Elizabeth Wetherell. Many publishing houses rejected the manuscript before Putnam accepted it because of his mother's insistence that The Wide, Wide World "must [be made] available for [their] fellow men." His mother also determined that "Providence would take care of this book" and very quickly her words were proven true. Warner, however, did not receive many royalties because she was forced to sell a large portion of them over to Putnam in her dire need of immediate cash. The need for money never seemed to end (largely due to the fact that what she did make went to her father's debts) and she never ceased writing in order to mend this situation.