Sally (Sarah) Sayward Barrell Keating Wood (1759-1855) was not only the first Maine novelist, but also the first American female gothic fiction writer. She wrote four novels, one collection of tales, and some unpublished works.
Sally Wood was born in York, Maine, on Oct. 1, 1759 to Sarah (Sayward) and Nathaniel Barrell. Raised in the home of her grandfather, Judge Jonathan Sayward, she had an aristocratic upbringing. She married Richard Keating, a clerk for her grandfather, in 1778. They had three children – Elizabeth, Sally, and Richard Jr. After her husband died in 1783 from a fever, she found writing to be therapeutic in her spare time.
Sally Wood, Novelist
She wrote all four of her novels in a short period between 1800 and 1804. The first novel: Julia, and the Illuminated Baron appeared in 1800; Dorval, or the Speculator in 1801; Amelia; or, the Influence of Virtue in 1802; and Ferdinand and Elmira: a Russian Story in 1804. Choosing anonymity, Wood authored three of them “By a Lady of Massachusetts” (as Maine still belonged to that state), but signed Dorval simply as “By a Lady.” Three of the novels were published in Portsmouth, N.H., while Dorval was printed in Baltimore, Maryland.
Her novels generally involved adventurous tales with gothic elements, seduction and the triumph of virtuous women over villainous men. For example, in Julia, the honorable heroine is kidnapped and taken to a ruined castle by a corrupt baron bent on seduction. But then her lover saves her.
Finding a New Theme
In 1804 Sally Keating published her last novel and also married Gen. Abiel Wood of Wiscassett, Maine. They resided there until his death in 1811. Sometime later she moved to Portland, Maine. Known there as Madam Wood, she wrote the first of a two-volume work called Tales of the Night. Published in Portland in 1827, she used the pseudonym “A Lady of Maine.” It encompasses two stories: “Storms and Sunshine; or the House on the Hill” and “The Hermitage, or Rise of Fortune.” Both tales are unlike her previous novels with their mostly European settings and virtuous heroines in gothic adventures. Instead both narratives are centered around undramatic lives in New England involving a family returning for an inheritance (“Sunshine”) and a woman married to an older man (“Hermitage”). She presumably destroyed the manuscript of the second volume, after reading the fictional works of Sir Walter Scott.
A short unpublished manuscript — War, the Parent of Domestic Calamity: A Tale of the Revolution — also exists based on letters about her youth and family traditions. A poem of hers is housed in the Old Gaol Museum in York, Maine.
Sally Wood spent the last years of her life in Kennebunk, Maine. She died there on Jan. 6, 1855.
Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.
Images: Old York Gaol by By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59423780. Barrell Homestead By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52361191.