Scandal of scandals! Maggie Blaine runs a boarding house located on the Blaineton, New Jersey town square. The opening of Saint Maggie finds our heroine hoping that a new addition to her household will change some attitudes.
"I was so delighted when the Presiding Elder came to me and asked if my boarding house could find a room for the new minister. At last, I thought, perhaps the people of Blaineton will afford me and my establishment some respect."
But why on earth would the town look down its nose at Maggie to begin with? After all, she is a church-going woman with a big heart. Sadly, those facts do not negate the poor reputation boarding houses had in nineteenth-century America. The reason for this is manifold.
For one, cities were becoming places of opportunity for both immigrants and for Americans from rural areas and small towns. Boarding houses proliferated because they offered the newly-arrived with affordable housing. Perhaps boarding houses began to be closely associated with the rough and tumble of urban life.
And then there’s this: scholars have noted that these accommodations confused nineteenth-century concepts of “home.” Ideally “home” was supposed to be a woman’s sphere, a calm, spiritual haven from the hustle, evil, and temptation of the male working-for-pay world. So, if room and board were given in exchange for money, the arrangement was automatically suspect. Any woman who defied the ethereal ideals of womanhood to run a business in her home may have called up images of a madam and her bawdy house. Similarly, unrelated people living under one roof certainly were not kin, and who knew what went on among strangers in a boarding house?
The viewpoint above, as it is with most things, was not universal. Attitudes about boarding houses could be mixed. In Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, Jo March leaves her small town to live in New York City with her mother’s friend, Mrs. Kirke, who runs a large boarding house. In suggesting the idea to her mother, Jo seeks to ease Marmee’s mind by telling her that Mrs. Kirke’s family has their own quarters that are “separate from the rest” of the residents (Alcott, Kindle ebook file, 2017, Ch. 32, location 4523, par. 5), meaning she would not be exposed to the wrong elements. When Jo arrives in New York, she is welcomed by Mrs. Kirke in a way that is “so kindly I felt at home at once, even in that big house full of strangers” (Ch. 33, location 4564, par. 5). To a young woman from a small town, interacting with strangers must have been an intimidating prospect. To have a friendly face, particularly in the form of the landlady, helped make an awkward situation less so. Better yet, Mrs. Kirke informs Jo that there “are some pleasant people in the house if you feel sociable” (par. 7). So far, the boarding house stereotype is not holding up.
But when Jo finally takes a meal at the “big” table, she is less than impressed with the other inhabitants: “There was the usual assortment of young men absorbed in themselves, young couples absorbed in each other, married ladies in their babies, and old gentlemen in politics” (location 4606, par. 3). It seems she is saying that the tenants were interested in nothing but those people and things in their immediate circle. So, while Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house is by no means a den of iniquity, Jo does experience it as a place lacking the warmth and close relationships of a home. She only finds friendship with a few select people, one of whom is Professor Bhaer, the man she eventually marries.
In Saint Maggie, Maggie and her husband John take refuge with his aunt Letty Blaine after they are disowned for eloping by their business-rival families. After John dies, Letty gives permission for Maggie to take in boarders to help ends meet and later wills the house to her. Maggie continues to run the establishment after Letty dies. Rather than being sympathetic to the young widow’s plight, however, the town looks askance her activity. Maggie is scandalous because she eloped, because she has been disowned by her family, and because she operates a boarding house on the town square and thereby defiles the respectability of the town center.
But Maggie doggedly works challenges the nineteenth-century boarding house stereotype. She treats those renting her rooms as family. In fact, she goes so far as to see old Jim O’Reilly, an indigent Irish immigrant, as a grandfather figure. The younger men she perceives as nephews or brothers, and she treats mid-life Chester Carson as a close friend or uncle. Maggie then hires a black woman, Emily Johnson, to help her with the cooking, which would have been acceptable to the town gate-keepers had Maggie not taken Emily and husband Nate in after their home is burned to the ground. She invites the couple to live, free of charge, upstairs in the “new wing” of the house. It galls the town opinion-makers that Maggie treats Emily is more like a sister than an employee. Her determination to create a welcoming home is illustrated in the way she rebukes daughter Frankie for grumbling about the way their home is perceived.
…Frankie continued to pout. “I don’t know why he [the new minister] has to stay here. No one seems to like our place, anyway.”
Maggie had to remind herself that her daughter was not yet an adult. She took a deep breath and prayed for patience. “What others think of us also is of no real importance.” How she wished that were true! “We live as we do because it is right. Our boarders have nowhere else to go and have become our friends. I believe everyone is deserving of respect. As for Mr. Madison, the other rooming houses are full, so he too has nowhere else to go. I for one am pleased that our Presiding Elder has confidence that we will provide Mr. Madison with a pleasant and comfortable chamber.”
Throughout the first novel Maggie defies the stereotype laid on her by the town. She is a business woman whose heart is so big that she would find it impossible to evict a tenant who fell behind in the rent. She keeps the building and its furnishings spotless, serves the best meals she can afford, and treats the boarders and others under her roof as family. Her boarding house therefore is a home. But because it exists in a liminal space (a place of transition), it is suspect to those who do not or will not see what her love is creating.
Next week we’ll look at what it took to keep a boarding house in 1860 America running smoothly. Time for chapped hands and a sore back!
Image: CC0 Public Domain