Libbey, Laura Jean
LIBBEY, Laura Jean
Daughter of Thomas H. and Elizabeth Nelson Libbey; married Van M. Stilwell, 1898
Laura Jean Libbey was one of this country's most prolific writers of fiction, publishing some 80 volumes in her 30-year career as a popular novelist. Her fiction provided a formula for female escape literature which persists even into the present. Yet despite her productivity and popularity, Libbey's current reputation is negligible and her biography obscure. Most of her novels were printed serially in newspapers, magazines, and the weekly "story papers," and then reprinted in cheap paperbound editions. Few libraries kept these inexpensive copies of her once bestselling books.
The obscurity of her biography is partly owing to Libbey's own sense that her private life was not the public's business. We do know she lived most of her life in Brooklyn, although as an adult she traveled continually in order to promote her books. On most of these journeys, the author was accompanied by her mother, a strict, domineering woman who governed Libbey's life and forbade her daughter to marry. Libbey disobeyed this command only after her mother's death in 1898. True to the heroines in her fiction, the popular novelist gave up her career upon marriage to a respectable husband. Only after nearly a decade of retirement could she be coaxed to work again.
Libbey was a leading practitioner of the so-called working girl novel. These books about young, female proletarian protagonists netted the author over $50,000 a year, hardly a working-class income by any standard. All of the novels preached the same simple and not very original message: A young girl who remains virtuous (i.e., virginal) can ultimately expect to secure not only a husband and happiness, but a fortune too.
Not one of the novels can be singled out from the Libbey canon since each, invariably, tells the same story, shares the same plot, preaches the same moral, and portrays the same heroes, heroines, villains, and villainesses. The books all include compulsory scenes depicting the harshness of city life, thus echoing a standard theme in much popular fiction of the last decade of the 19th century. Named little Leafy, pretty Guelda, or poor Faynie, the heroine attempts to make her way alone in the cruel city. After having been cast out of her idyllic rural home, often by a wicked stepmother or selfish foster parent, she finds she now must support herself and frequently must support indigent siblings as well. In a backhanded and almost ludicrously sentimentalized fashion, this formulaic plot attests to a changing pattern in the American labor force after the Civil War, when women were finding employment in increasing numbers, frequently in lowpaying factory jobs.
But Libbey's novels do not focus much on the actual working conditions endured by the female protagonists. Instead, the heroine's energies are devoted to fending off often hostile masculine attentions. Only after a series of victimizations is the heroine finally rescued by the hero, a character both virtuous and prosperous. Their marriage presages happiness ever after and an end to both the threat of assault and the daily grind of a factory job. Although men are always the aggressors in these novels and the heroine's moral character is never even questioned, it is interesting to note that the heroine alone is responsible for maintaining her virtue.
The message of Libbey's novels is a conservative one, and certainly one running counter to ideas endorsed by a growing number of feminists in late-19th-century America; but the credo she preached is of interest to the social historian. What Horatio Alger did for American working-class men, Libbey did for female readers: Alger's heroes worked hard, took advantage of every opportunity, and against all odds realized the American dream. Libbey's heroines worked hard too. But the 19th-century business world held few opportunities for women. So real success for Libbey's heroines came through successful marriage. Her socially conservative fables, however we might object to them, spoke to millions of working-class women who needed a fantasy of their own to take them away from the real grime of the sweatshops, the bookbinderies, and the cotton mills.
This is a representative list of Libbey's novels, many of which are not even listed in the Library of Congress catalogues: A Fatal Wooing (1883). All for Love of a Fair Face; or, A Broken Betrothal (1885). Madolin Rivers; or, The Little Beauty of Red Oak Seminary: A Love Story (1885). A Forbidden Marriage; or, In Love with a Handsome Spendthrift (1888). Miss Middleton's Lover; or, Parted on Their Bridal Tour (1888). Leonie Locke: The Romance of a Beautiful New York Working Girl (1889). Willful Gaynell; or, The Little Beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills (1890). Little Leafy, the Cloak-maker's Beautiful Daughter: A Romantic Story of a Lovely Working Girl in the City of New York (1891). A Master Workman's Oath; or, Coralie the Unfortunate: A Love Story Portraying the Life, Romance, and Strange Fate of a Beautiful New York Working Girl (1892). Only a Mechanic's Daughter: A Charming Story of Love and Passion (1892). Parted at the Altar (1893). A Handsome Engineer's Flirtation; or, How He Won the Hearts of Girls (circa 1900). WasShe Sweetheart or Wife (circa 1900). Wooden Wives: Is It a Story for Philandering Husbands? (1923).
Several of Laura Jean Libbey's letters and travel journals are in the Bonner Collection of the New York Public Library.
Denning, M., Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1987). Noel, M., Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly (1954). Papashvily, H. W., All the Happy Endings (1956). Stein, L., Lives to Remember (1974).
NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
American Mercury (Sept. 1931). American Studies (Spring 1983). Historical Society of Michigan Chronicle (4th quarter 1975). MFS (Autumn 1977).
—CATHY N. DAVIDSON