For the 50 years after 1799, Tabitha Tenney of Exeter was the best-selling novelist in the country, though she wasn’t necessarily proud of that fact.
The story of her wildly popular novel, Female Quixotism, probably has its origins in her early life in Exeter. She was born in 1762, the daughter of Col. Samuel Gilman, a prominent Exeter citizen. Gilman served as an elder in the First Church in Exeter under Pastor Daniel Rogers.
Rogers’ daughter Martha was one year older than Tabitha, and Patty and Tabby, as they were known, were well-acquainted if not exactly friends.
Tabitha had five younger siblings, and she most likely put off marriage to help raise them following her father’s death. Patty, meanwhile, had a long, but unrequited, infatuation with the first preceptor of Phillips Exeter Academy, William Woodbridge. By 1788, both women were marriage eligible and motivated to find a husband.
Dr. Samuel Tenney, 10 years older than Patty and Tabby, had moved to Exeter from his home town of Newbury, Mass. He happened to be an eligible bachelor, too. Tenney had served as a surgeon in the American Revolution with George Washington, and he returned to Exeter with an eye toward politics and marriage.
Sense and Sensibility
Both Tabby and Patty vied for his affections, though they were unlike in many ways – a Sense and Sensibility duo. Patty was sensibility – romantic, dramatic, sensitive, and fanciful. Tabby was sense – practical, reserved and somber.
In her diary, Patty talks about both women being friendly with Dr. Tenney. On one occasion he jauntily escorted them both home from an evening out. When he flirted with Patty, she found similarities between his flirtation and scenes from popular, romantic novels she was reading.
She also did not view Tabby as her favorite friend. She called her “a person peculiarly disagreeable to me – not from any injury she ever did me, but there is a certain something in her manner with which I am ever difficulted.”
In the end, Dr. Tenney chose serious Tabitha to marry over the flighty Patty. The Tenneys then went to Washington in 1800 when he won election to Congress (he served three terms through 1806). Tabitha left nothing specific to shed light on her feelings for Patty.
However, her novel, which highlights the lives of two privileged girls and their approach to marriage, seems to examine the differences between herself and Patty.
The novel portrays the comedy and chaos that surround the attempts of its central character, Dorcas Sheldon, to find true love. Dorcas resembles Patty in many ways. An ardent reader of romances, she accepts as truth the plots in which lovers, often star-crossed, fall instantly in love, complete with flowery prose and over-the-top proclamations of devotion.
Dorcas bounces from one suitor to the next. Some, solid but unromantic, could not excite her imagination. Others, gallant and story-book handsome, only want her for her father’s fortune. Finally, Dorcas comes face to face with the perception that others have of her: she is highly regarded and loved for her generous spirit and good nature, but hopelessly naïve and childlike in her expectations for romance.
Though scholars have pointed out that the name Dorcas translates to Tabitha in Aramaic, the portrait of Dorcas matches Patty much more closely than Tabitha.
Tenney wrote two books in addition to the novel: a cookbook and The Pleasing New Instructor, or, An Introduction to the Speaker Consisting of Select Prose and Verse. The second book, a primer for young girls, includes a collection of essays and articles for young people on how to live their lives. With regard to reading, it instructs: “Let your reading be solid and select. Indiscriminate reading will divide and perplex the thoughts. Light and trifling reading, though it amuse, will relax and enervate the mind. It is our wish to direct your attention to a different, more extensive kind of reading.”
Do as I say...
Oddly, her wildly popular novel, which carries the full title Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon, is anything but the type of book she counseled young people to read. It is fictional, funny, diverting and satirical.
By the end of the book, Dorcas and her friend have traveled divergent paths. Dorcas’ best friend has married and settled with a solid man, yet their marriage has flaws and tension. Dorcas, herself, remains unmarried. She commits herself to spending the rest of her life reading fiction and wishing it fact. She cautions her friend against letting her children go down this path:
“If you should ever be blessed with daughters, let me urge you, by all the regard you must feel for their best interest and happiness, to copy in their education the plan pursued by your excellent mother. Withhold from their eye the pernicious volumes, which, while they convey false ideas of life and inspire illusory expectations, will tend to keep them ignorant of everything really worth knowing, and which, if they do not eventually render them miserable may at least prevent their becoming respectable. Suffer not their imaginations to be filled with ideas of happiness, particularly in the connubial state, which can never be realized. Describe life to them as it really is, and as you have yourself found it, chequered with good and evil.”
Tabitha Tenney, Authoress
In real life, both Tabby and Patty ended their days as single women living in Exeter. Patty never left and Tabby returned after her husband’s death in 1816. People respected Patty for her kindness, piety and her needlework. Tabitha, too, had a reputation for her needlework.
Her novel, meanwhile, left her with a complicated legacy. In her 1785 memoir A Few Reminiscincces of My Exeter Life, Elizabeth Dow Leonard recalls Tabitha Tenney because: “authoresses . . . did not grow as now thick as blackberries.
“I blush to say, with all my pride in the rich achievements of my native village, I never read Female Quixotism. Those who did read it pronounced it superlatively silly,” wrote Leonard.
In fact, Leonard reported that Tabitha Tenney tried to have the book taken out of print. She decided she didn't like it because it seemed to encourage frivolous reading rather than discourage it. She didn’t succeed, however.
Fred Lewis Pattee, a scholar in American literature, noted it was probably the most popular book in America for nearly 50 years. It went through five printings and was still in print in 1852. That's when Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, taking away the crown of best seller from Tabitha Tenney.
This story was updated in 2019.