Read, Harriette Fanning

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READ, Harriette Fanning

Born circa 1820s; Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; died death date unknown

Harriette Fanning Read was born to a family whose Irish ancestors came to the U.S. during the time of Cromwell's government in England. Both parents wanted their daughter to be a "literary woman." Read's father, a publisher and bookseller, died when she was very young. After attending school briefly in Boston, she went with her mother to Washington, D.C., where they joined the household of an uncle, Colonel Fanning. Because of his career, they moved from one military post to another for a time, then returned to the Washington area, where they resided until Fanning's death.

In 1847, Read published Dramatic Poems (dated 1848), a collection of three plays, Medea, Erminia, and The New World. In 1848, Read made her acting debut at the Boston Theater. Her novel, The Haunted Student: A Romance of the Fourteenth Century, appeared in 1860. By 1865 Read was living in New York City.

Medea stands out as the least typical and most interesting of Read's three romantic tragedies, all written in blank verse and modeled after Shakespeare's poetic diction and five-act structure. Perhaps because the classical myth imposes a simplicity of plot and unified tone, Medea has a powerful, elemental quality that usually avoids the declamatory bombast and sentimental clichés marring Erminia and The New World.

Read follows Euripides' version of the Greek myth, frequently quoting from his Medea, but she rearranges the story to emphasize the themes of blind passionate love and defiant individual freedom. The author's choice of this particular Greek myth suggests an awareness of women's frustrations over their limited roles in 19th-century American society. When Medea's younger brother asks, "When shall I be a man?" we are reminded that the play raises questions about how we define man, woman, father, and mother in a society ruled by Creons and Jasons, who leave little choice between passive submission and extreme action in response to their inflexible and arbitrary dictates. As a prototype of what a talented, strong, and independent woman can do in a male-dominated society, Medea offers little hope besides self-destructive defiance.

Erminia: A Tale of Florence enacts a brittle, banal tragedy of love and intrigue. After rousing family and friends to revenge her honor after she is jilted by her fiancé, Erminia regrets her action when it is too late to save her lover from execution, and she dies of remorse and love for him. Like Medea, Erminia squanders her love on a man of power and ambition but little moral integrity.

The New World takes place in Haiti against a background of native resentment of Spanish colonial exploitation. Two lovers, the Spanish noble Guevara, and Alana, the daughter of the local chief, commit suicide to cheat the island's corrupt Spanish governor of his planned marriage with Alana.

The Haunted Student is a romantic novel with a gothic setting, complete with chivalrous knights and corrupt priests, convents and castles, and secret passages, dungeons, and torture chambers. But love rather than brooding darkness and evil forms the center of the story, set in 14th-century Germany during the struggle between the feudal nobility and the emerging free cities of the Hanseatic League. The beautiful Countess Ludmila plans to "haunt" her betrothed, Albert of Rabenstein, in order to win his love and secure him from the influence of his mentor, Father Cyrillus, who intends to make Albert a monk so that his father, the Baron of Rabenstein, will have no heir.

The characters rather than the elaborate plot provide unity and interest, particularly Ludmila and Father Cyrillus. Ludmila's energetic impulsiveness wins our affection, and her imaginative intelligence, outspokenness, and refusal to wait passively upon events win our respect. The complex Father Cyrillus, a good man corrupted by a justified desire for revenge, confounds our impulse to wholly like or dislike him, a tension increased because Read withholds his motives for revenge until late in the novel.

Ludmila's stubborn insistence upon doing whatever she believes is necessary and right exemplifies the novel's main theme of individual freedom: while her actions illustrate the theme, the methods may vary and woman's strength, intelligence, and courage equal that of a man in achieving a desired goal.

The Haunted Student is a competently written and pleasantly readable example of the romantic novel, but Read's powerful tragedy Medea stands out as her greatest achievement.


Watts, E. S., The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 (1977).

Reference works:

American Female Poets (1853). Critical Dictionary of English and American Authors Living and Deceased (1900).