From Farm to Fortune (1900) Spotlight
About the novel
The only nickel weekly series aimed at a female audience, Street & Smith's My Queen lasted less than a year. Its first thirty issues, all written by Lurana W. Sheldon under the pseudonym Grace Shirley, followed the adventures of the beautiful and talented Marion Marlowe, a country girl who left the family farm in Hickorytown, Connecticut, for a more rewarding life in New York City.
In the first thirteen numbers, published weekly from September 29 to December 22, 1900, Marion samples various occupations – singer, nurse, store detective, journalist, actress, factory inspector. A touch of romance threads through the narratives, with two recurring characters presented as having the greatest chance of winning her affections – wealthy Archie Ray, introduced in the first story, and handsome Reginald Brookes, a doctor who made her acquaintance in the third issue. Numbers 14-26, published from December 29, 1900, to March 23, 1901, initiated a new approach: Marion, along with several recurring characters from early issues -- her friend and sometime roommate Alma Allyn (formerly a journalist), Reginald Brookes, and Bert Jackson (another transplant from Hickoryville now enjoying success in the city) -- all join an acting troupe touring the country by rail. Each story title links Marion's name with a new location (e.g., "Marion Marlowe in Cleveland," "Marion Marlowe in Chicago"), highlighting her travels and taking the group as far west as Denver and Salt Lake City (with a quick detour to Washington, D.C., for President McKinley's inauguration). The final three Marion Marlowe tales resolve the issue of her romance, when she finally accepts one of her long-time suitors' proposals. The series continued for an additional seven issues with standalone stories attributed to Bertha M. Clay, a Street & Smith house name used for romances, and ended on June 8, 1901, with #37.
The first story, From Farm to Fortune; or, Only a Farmer's Daughter, introduces Marion Marlowe and her twin sister Dollie, along with Bert Jackson. Marion and Dollie believe there is little potential for them in the country – especially since Marion's father is determined to place Dollie in a loveless marriage with a neighboring farmer. The same night that Marion's sister disappears with a handsome boarder, Bert flees mistreatment at the Poor Farm to take his chances in New York City. Soon after, Marion journeys to the city hoping to find Dollie, but her naiveté almost causes disaster when an unscrupulous man bribes the cab driver to take her to the wrong address. She is rescued by Adele Grey (in actuality, Adele Ray), and, in searching for her sister, encounters Bert and also spots a poster advertising a hypnotist who bears a strong resemblance to the boarder. Accompanied by Bert and Archie Ray, a gentleman she met while looking for Dollie, Marion attends the performance and is able to rescue her sister.
- As in many dime novels, the protagonist is an idealized character, possessing admirable qualities that far exceed those of the average person. When she is first introduced, what character traits does Marion Marlowe display that establish that she is an exemplary figure? What additional qualities are stressed that make her stand out or contribute to her successful quest for her sister?
- Just as the hero or heroine of a dime novel early demonstrates fine qualities, many dime novel antagonists enter the story by showing their baser side. The first character so presented is Matt Jenkins. What are some of his flaws? Are any of these shown in characters introduced later in the story? Is there any difference between the actions or attitudes of antagonists associated with the city in comparison with those of the countryside? When you consider the actions of characters presented in a negative light and those viewed more positively, what moral or behavioral codes does the story endorse? (Are these attitudes still present in contemporary books or movies? If not, how have they changed?)
- In dime novels, a character's speech patterns are often intended to convey additional information about that person – education, ethnicity, class. How do Marion and Dollie's speech patterns differ from those of their parents (thus subtly implying they fit with a more educated or cosmopolitan society)? Which characters' dialogue other than Mr. and Mrs. Marlowe's is marked by grammatical errors or phonetic representations intended to convey accents, dialect, or vernacular pronunciations? Does that affect your perception of the character? If so, how?
- At the lodging house where Bert Jackson was staying, the proprietor tells Marion, "You can trust that kid for getting along. . . . Why he’s as bright as a New York [City] boy already." What type of knowledge is important for survival in the city – for Bert and Marion? What incidents show Marion's lack of familiarity with the city?
- Marion and her sister Dollie want more than marriage to a farmer. In From Farm to Fortune, what employment opportunities are shown for women? For men? (Note: many of the jobs will be referenced in passing, as with the female hotel clerk on page 16.) Which occupations seem restricted by gender in the story? By geographic location? In today's society, are there still differences in opportunities for men and women or for urban and rural residents?
- Marion's physical beauty is both an advantage and a disadvantage throughout the My Queen series. Additionally, in From Farm to Fortune, she dons Adele Gray's expensive outfit in place of her homespun dress, presenting a more polished façade in her forays about the city. In what ways does her appearance help her? What problems does it cause? How important is appearance today – either physical attractiveness or stylish clothing? (You may also want to look at an article like Allana Akhtar and Drake Baer's "11 scientific reasons why attractive people are more successful in life" from the online October 9, 2019, Business Insider for additional information.)
- Marion's parents' farm is in the countryside – an unidentified location in the first story, later established as Hickorytown, Connecticut. From the classic children's book Little House on the Prairie to canonical texts like Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1914) or My Ántonia (1918), Edna Ferber's So Big (1924), or O. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth (1924/25), most American tales of farm life seem to center on the Midwest rather than the East Coast. How do those stories differ from My Queen no. 1 in their depiction of prairie life or the portrayal of farmers and their families? Are there any similarities between the stories?
The end of the Gilded Age and beginning of the Progressive Era were marked in part by the rise of cities and a population shift from rural to urban, also reflected in From Farm to Fortune. New York City almost doubled in size between 1880 and 1900, while the percentage of people living in rural areas in the United States dropped by over 10%. "Migration and movement, mobility and motion characterized identity" wrote Thomas L. Schlereth in his history of the period, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915. Technological advances aided the growth of the city by creating new jobs, while developments in transportation facilitated travel to workplaces, stores, and recreational facilities. In 1897, the New York Times estimated that passenger transportation – in mass transit (streetcars) and rapid transit (elevated trains and later subways) – was increasing at the rate of 20,000,000 trips per year. In response to changing attitudes and increased opportunities, girls and women entered the workforce in greater numbers, earning income in occupations as varied as typewriters (secretaries), sales clerks, settlement workers, telegraph operators, entertainers, or physicians.
In the first story, Marion and her sister want more than marriage to a farmer, and in later stories both will find work in the city – Dollie as a secretary, Marion in various occupations.
- In small groups, investigate some of the types of employment available to women at the turn of the century. Choose one occupation that you think women in Marion's era would have enjoyed and one that they would have taken only because no other options were available. One online source from the era with helpful information is What Can a Woman Do (1884 and 1893 editions) -- especially the table of contents which offers a fast survey of careers profiled. Additionally, in 1887 and 1888, journalist Nellie Bly tried assorted occupations (some similar to Marion's) and wrote about them for the New York World; many of those columns can be found online at Nellie Bly Articles. Another source of information is "The New York Worker," chapter 3 in Annie M. MacLean's Wage-Earning Women (New York: Macmillan, 1910).
- Prepare a brief presentation on the two jobs for the rest of the class. Consider creative approaches – a newspaper article like one of Bly's, a letter to a friend or relative telling about the challenges and benefits of your job, or even a short dramatic skit with one or more group members posing as workers in the occupations you chose.
- The back pages of My Queen carried "Questions and Answers," an advice column ostensibly by Grace Shirley. Imagine that Marion had a cousin, 18-year-old Muriel Marlowe, who also lived on a farm and wanted to move to the city. Write a letter to Shirley from Muriel in which she explains why she wants to leave the farm, then create a response advocating for or against the move. Give specific reasons to support your answer.
- Alternatively, imagine the same scenario, but for Muriel's twin brother, Mark Marlowe, and write a letter and response. Have groups read their letters and responses, then discuss similarities and differences between their answers for Mark and Muriel.
Additional resources for activities, mostly about turn-of-the-century urbanization
This short film (93 seconds) shows sidewalk and street traffic in New York in May 1902 – a useful visual for the street scenes in "From Farm to Fortune" and other My Queen stories.
- Ferris, Lurana Sheldon. "Letter Sent to George French." Dime Novel Round-Up 11, June 1943, pp. 4-5.
Letter in response to a meeting with dime novel collector George French; Sheldon summarizes her career as a dime novelist and concludes with biographical information.
- [Green, H. L.] "Lurana W. Sheldon." The Free Thought Magazine 28, January 1900, pp. 41-44.
Biographical sketch of Lurana Sheldon with some emphasis on her personality and philosophy, also reflective of the ideology of the source publication.
- Johnson, Deidre. "Marion Marlowe in New York; or, Urban Images in Street & Smith's My Queen Dime Novel Series." Dime Novel Round-Up 60, 1991, pp. 64-71.
Surveys the depiction of the city in the first thirteen issues of My Queen, focusing on attitudes toward government, transportation, communication, and social class. Overall, the series says little about governmental structures or services except for law enforcement and some services for the poor. Transportation offers not only ready access to multiple areas of the city but also an indication of a character's familiarity with urban life: newcomers are often either perplexed or jeopardized when trying to navigate city streets. The major form of communication is newspapers, read by all classes and providing information on current events, possibilities for employment, and even the doings of friends and acquaintances. Finally, although Marion is initially struck by the contrast between those with means and those living in poverty and greatly in sympathy with the latter, over time the series presents the urban poor less sympathetically, highlighting more of their vices – though still preserving some compassion for their circumstances.
- Palmer, Ashley Elizabeth. "The Heart of Capitalism: Contested Visions of Labor Reform in Lurana Sheldon’s Department Store Novels." Legacy 24, 2017, pp. 106-28.
Originally serialized in Street & Smith's New York Weekly in 1900 and 1901, Sheldon's two dime novels about department store workers (For Gold or Soul? A Story of a Great Department Store and For Humanity's Sake: A Story of the Department Stores) both focus on reform and improving labor conditions for store clerks. Unlike many novels with similar settings, Sheldon's stories foreground the store clerks rather than the owners or consumers, not only highlighting their hazardous working conditions but also (in the second book) assigning them agency in effecting changes in their circumstances. Religion and the Social Gospel underpin some of the reform efforts in For Gold; in For Humanity's Sake, the workers unite to form a union. A longer version of this article, with a more detailed biography of Sheldon and additional information about her dime novels, can be found in the first chapter of Palmer's dissertation, "'I never once thought of them': retail workers in American department store fiction" (University of Texas at Austin, 2015).
- Shirley, Grace. (Lurana Sheldon.) My Queen. Nos. 1-30. New York: Street & Smith, 1900-01.
The full run of Marion Marlowe issues of My Queen. Two issues of particular interest for studying city life and highlighting some of the societal ills are Marion Marlowe's Noble Work; or, The Tragedy at the Hospital (no. 4, Oct. 20, 1900) and Marion Marlowe's Christmas Eve; or, The Treachery of a Factory Inspector (no. 13, Dec. 22, 1900). An example of Sheldon's presentation of women working in department stores can be found in Marion Marlowe's Skill; or, A Week as a Private Detective (no. 9, Nov. 24, 1900), where Marion takes a position as a store detective.