Wood, S(ally) S(ayward) B(arrell) K(eating)

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WOOD, S(ally) S(ayward) B(arrell) K(eating)

Born 1 October 1759, York, Maine; died 6 January 1855, Kennebunk, Maine

Wrote under: Madam Wood, Sally Keating

Daughter of Nathaniel and Sarah Sayward Barrell; married Richard Keating, 1778 (died 1783); Abiel Wood, 1804 (died 1811); children: two daughters, one son

The first of 11 children, S. S. B. K. Wood (commonly referred to as Madam Wood) was born into a colonial New England family while her father was serving with General James Wolfe, British leader of the attack on Quebec. Her mother was the daughter of Judge Jonathan Sayward, with whom Wood lived until she was eighteen. During the American Revolution, Judge Sayward was a Loyalist, and much of his conservatism is evident in Wood's work.

Her first husband was a clerk in her grandfather's office. Judge Sayward gave them a house as a wedding present, and they settled into the cultivated social life that had surrounded her childhood. Two daughters and a son were born before Keating died suddenly in 1783. Wood turned to writing, not from any pressing financial need, but because it "soothed many melancholy, and sweetened many bitter hours." Her work was well received, and she gained a considerable literary reputation. She stopped writing when she married General Abiel Wood in 1804. "Madam Wood," as she was then known, took up writing again, after his death in 1811.

Following in the path of such early American novelists as Sarah Wentworth Morton, Susannah H. Rowson, and Hannah Webster Foster, Wood occupies an important niche in the development of American fiction, although her work does not mark a radical break from the traditions imported from England. In accordance with her 18th-century upbringing, she was serious, moralistic, and sentimental. Her stories generally follow a Cinderella pattern centering on a virtuous young woman who either is, or is reputed to be, a poor orphan but who after severe trial is rewarded with a wealthy marriage. Virtue, for Wood, is more than chastity; it is linked to intelligence and education with a strong infusion of patience and submission. Her heroines redeem, reform, or blunt the evil of the world by the example of their behavior, and if they are passive in suffering vicissitudes, they are strong in the face of vice.

Like many other 18th-century novelists, Wood uses rambling narrative interspersed periodically with side stories giving the history and background of various minor characters. These digressions relate to the main line through some plot complication, but they also serve as moral examples; most are object lessons in the dangers of falling from virtue. They serve to build suspense, vary the texture, and add scope to the central story.

Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800) is perhaps her best-known work. Certainly it is the most complex, and Julia's progress from nameless orphan to respectably pedigreed wife and mother involves a set of characters (all related by blood) in a series of gothic adventures. The baron of the title is a member of the Illuminati, a secret society that shocked Wood; she presents him as an atheist, anarchist, and mystic who announces proudly, "I am to myself a God, and to myself accountable…. If anyone stands in my way, I put him out of it, with as little concern as I would kick a dog." The setting is France, but the characters are clearly recognizable as Americans in their actions and values.

Amelia or, The Influence of Virtue (1802) states her most constant theme. The gentle heroine, married to a rake, prefers death to divorce and meekly bears the taunts of her husband's mistress and rears his illegitimate children without complaint. She is rewarded in the end with a repentant husband, adoring children, and a respectable position in society. As in all her works, Wood does not plumb psychological depths, and the solution is simplistic, but the action is rapid, and her gift for creating melodramatic moments holds the reader's attention.

Ferdinand and Elmira (1804) is an adventure tale, again with intertwined lives of a single family, in a Russian setting that gives an exotic flavor to a moral tale. As it opens, Elmira is a captive in a mysterious castle, and the explanation of this circumstance leads to another mystery. This pattern (of one mystery following the solution of another) is consistent throughout, and the resultant suspense is the primary means of moving the action forward. The ending resolves all, pairs the heroine and hero, rewards the good, and permits the villains an extravagant repentance. Wood's focus is on the morality of the simple life as opposed to the corruption of courts; and, despite her Loyalist grandfather, the tale is clearly antiroyalist in tone.

Wood is one of the first writers to embody distinctly American ideals. She does not admire aristocratic idleness; indeed, one of her heroes is praised for his ambition to go into trade, and her young lovers rarely end with titles of nobility. She reflects strongly the responsibilities of freedom so uppermost in the consciousness of the young nation. Typical of her time in sentimental morality and her view of woman's place in society, her work nevertheless reveals an inquiring and imaginative mind searching for new horizons.

Other Works:

Dorval; or, The Speculator (1801). Tales of the Night (1827).


Gould, W., in Collections and Proceedings of the Maine Historical Society (1890). Dunnack, H. E. The Maine Book (1920). Freibert, L. M. and B. A. White, eds., Hidden Hands: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1790-1870 (1985). Petter, H., The Early American Novel (1971). Sayward, C. A. The Sayward Family (1890). Spencer, W. D. Maine Immortals (1932). Sprague, R. S., ed., A Handful of Spice: Essays in Maine (1968).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Studies in American Fiction (Spring 1988).