Fanny Herself (1917)

by Edna Ferber

Fanny Herself is Edna Ferber’s most autobiographical novel. Fanny Brandeis grows up Jewish in a small Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, as did her creator. Her family operates a general store, as the Ferbers did. Neither the fictional nor the real family were strictly observant Jews, but Ferber makes the Jewish heritage a source of strength for Fanny, as long as she doesn’t deny it.

Unlike Edna Ferber, Fanny Brandeis loses her father young. She helps her widowed mother and role model make a success of the family store. They sacrifice to send Fanny’s musically prodigious brother to study in Europe. Molly Brandeis is the epitome of Ferber’s strong women, as her daughter would grow up to be. Molly rescues the store from the brink of bankruptcy with smart merchandising and customer service. Fanny’s sales acumen is blossoming when Molly suddenly dies. Fanny, in her early 20s, sells the store and goes to Chicago to become a buyer in a large mail-order business.

in everything she does, Fanny succeeds, but she feels dull. A recurring theme is the danger of sacrificing her artistic side for her business side. It is only by indulging her creativity and giving in to the love of an unconventional man that Fanny finds her true self.

Written in an accessible style with well-drawn characters, Fanny Herself is an engrossing book. Its concerns seem modern nearly a century after it was written, even though contemporary women might not choose matrimony as a path to self-discovery—and Ferber herself did not.

An interesting sidelight is the depiction of a new type of business in early 20th-century America—the mail-order company—and of how it changed American retailing.


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