Review: Tell it All, A Woman’s Life in Polygamy
Tell It All is the heartbreaking autobiography of Fanny Stenhouse. Her story begins with her as a young woman returning home to England, after spending some time in France, to discover that her family had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While investigating her family’s new-found faith, she became the object of one of the Elders’ affections. They were soon married and subsequently ‘counseled’ to serve a mission for the Church while in impoverished conditions. It was only after years of whispered rumours (and public denials by apostles) of polygamy being practiced among their American counterparts, that Joseph Smith’s polygamic ‘revelation’ was finally disclosed in England. Her adventures only truly began when she and her husband were later ‘counseled’ to emigrate to the ‘promised land’ of Utah, where she learned, first-hand, the detrimental effects of Brigham Young’s institutionalized polygamy.
This autobiography is extremely well-written and thoughtfully edited. Stenhouse is able to describe her own experiences with such detail that you can’t help but feel empathy for the atrocities that plagued her life. Throughout the book, she supplements her story by inserting letters written to her by her closest friend who goes through similar trials, though at different times. This second point of view allows the reader to have a richer understanding of the events and trials of early Mormon women in Utah, and helps illustrate that these experiences are not limited to the author, but are common in that time.
Fanny comes across as a critically-minded feminist woman (to use a modern description), and clearly expresses how even a strong woman can find herself rendered powerless against the male priesthood and her own cognitive dissidence toward Mormonism. She even describes the Rocky Mountains around the Salt Lake valley as being her prison walls, knowing full well that any attempt to leave the Mormon settlement would be utterly useless for a woman in her position. She includes descriptions of many early church events and rituals, including The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Hand Cart companies, temple sealing, and endowment ceremonies. Woven into her story are incredibly detailed character sketches of prominent church figures with whom she had dealings, including a scathing description of Brigham Young. She concludes the book by summarizing the various legal changes that had taken place in Utah between the time she left and the time of the book’s publication, as well as statistical information she had since researched.
There is no better way to understand what it was like to be a woman in the heart of polygamist Utah under the tyranny of Brigham Young, than to hear Fanny Stenhouse Tell It All.
Below are a few passages that I found to be representative of the writing, tone, and content of the book:
“How often—even while I still clung to Mormonism—did it appear strange to me that the ‘revelations’ of distinguished Saints should so frequently coincide with their own personal wishes, and come at such convenient times.” [p.93]
“Of one thing I am certain I was then indeed a miserable slave, with no one to stretch forth a kindly hand and strike away the fetters of my mental degradation and lead me forth into light and liberty.” [p.369]
“It is a cruel thing for a woman anywhere to know that her husband’s affections are divided, that she is not his only love, and that his heart is no longer all her. But far worse is the lot of the wife in Utah. She has to see and be present when the love-making is going on, when her husband is flirting and saying soft nonsense, or looking unutterable things at silly girls who are young enough to be her daughters ; —nay, her own daughters and her husband’s may actually be older than the damsel he is courting for his second wife ! Such an outrage upon the holiest feelings of womanhood would not for a moment be tolerated in any civilised community ; but among the Saints women are taught that this is but one part of that cross which we all have got to bear. … How sweetly did the men preach patience and submission to the will of Heaven. I wonder where their own patience and submission would have been had matters been reversed and their wives had been taught that it was their privilege and a religious duty to court, and flirt with and marry men younger and handsomer than their husbands.” [p.382-3]
“Age or plain looks are nothing with such men ; the girls are taught that they can exalt them to greater honor and happiness in heaven than young and untried men could, and that they ought to feel honored by receiving tender attentions from the chosen servants of the Lord. One wife, or even half-a-dozen, if they chance to have so many, of course will not stand in the way. The husband is the lord and master, and a woman’s wishes count for nought.” [p.383]
“And the wife has known all this, and has valued her husband’s attentions accordingly. And yet the poor deluded women persuade themselves that this system is right and in accordance with the revealed will of God; and they think that the evil—poor creatures!—is in their own hearts and that they deserve to suffer.” [p.384]
“It may appear strange that such absurdities should ever seriously have found a place in my mind ; but when one at starting accepts a system as true—however absurd that system may be—and learns to regard all that is connected with it as beyond the shadow of a doubt — after years of discipline, the mind is ready to receive almost anything that may be offered to it from the same source. In my own case, I was so convinced that, however reason might object, all that we were taught was true, that I was utterly without hope, and would have felt happy could I have believed that death was annihilation. Of earthly happiness I had given up all expectation.” [p.423]
“Surrounded by my children, living under the same roof with my husband, my heart was, nevertheless, filled with a sense of utter loneliness and desolation. There was no one in whom I could confide, to whom I might tell my sorrows, and from whose counsel or strength I might derive comfort I dared not even go and lay my griefs before God, for I had been led to believe that all my suffering was caused by an arbitrary decree which He willed to be enforced. How false a notion of that loving heavenly Father whose tender care is so manifestly shown in his gentle dealings with the weakest of His creatures !” [p.424]
“Why, I was compelled to drain the cup of degradation to its very dregs—the sanctity
of my home itself was invaded, and I felt ashamed to think that I—wife and mother as I was—was entertaining my husband’s affianced “wife” (!)—a child no older than my own eldest girl ; and before long she would be brought home in my presence and among my children! Oh, detestable and unnatural desecration of the sanctity of home! Oh brutalising and immoral burlesque upon religious faith! How could I ever have deluded myself into the idea that such a profanation of all that is good could by any possibility be right, that such an outrage upon decency and propriety, such a violation of the laws of reason and religion could be pleasing in the sight of an all-pure God ?” [p.440]
“Mormonism is full of deceptions. Men deceive their wives, and in return the wives deceive their husbands; and it is all for the sake of the kingdom of God.” [p.440]
“When a man has several wives, there is, of course, no necessity for him to stay with an unhappy or mopish one, as he can always find a more pleasant reception elsewhere. Men who can really believe that women are satisfied and happy under such a system must be entirely ignorant of human nature. And yet I have known many gentlemen from Utah who, when asked how the Mormon women submitted to Polygamy, have answered: “Oh, very well. They are perfectly happy, for they look upon it as a religious duty, and are satisfied and contented with it.”” [p.462]
“An utter disregard to the feelings or happiness of individuals is one of the distinguishing features of Mormonism.” 
“The Mormons, of all people, with their peculiar notions respecting the eternity of the marriage contract, should be careful whom they marry. But, to tell the truth, they are the most careless.” [p.549-50]
“There is living in Utah, to-day, a woman whom I know, who has been sealed “for all eternity” to no less than nine husbands; and if the divorces which she has obtained are, as Brother Brigham says, not worth the paper upon which they are written, she will be likely to have some trouble when she meets them all in another world. I know of several others who have been sealed to four, five, or six husbands ! One of Brigham’s own sisters was the wife of several husbands after this fashion. How all these matters can be set right it is difficult to determine, but somebody will have work to do.” [p.550]
“Whether Brigham [Young] was the deceiver or the deceived, I do not wish to say. Men who consider themselves inspired, and go on day by day uttering all sorts of nonsense and blasphemy, and giving impertinent and mischievous advice in the “name of the Lord,” at last become thoroughly impervious to reason, and daily and hourly deceive themselves. I hope, for his own sake, it was so with Brigham, for I would rather believe him a self-made fool than a downright knave ; and in many of his transactions—perhaps I ought almost to say all—it is clear to every one that he is either one or the other.” [p.560]
“In married life both husband and wife give way to each other in a thousand little things, of no consequence in themselves, but quite sufficient, without the presence of love, to sow the seeds of discord. But when love has fled, and the husband looks upon his wife—the companion of his youth, the mother of his children—not as the partner of his whole life and the sharer—of all his joys and sorrows, but as a person whose presence is a reproach to him and who is an inconvenience rather than otherwise—and when the wife regards her husband as one whom formerly she loved with true devotion, but who has cruelly broken her heart and trampled upon her feelings, and who is nothing to her now but a tyrant whose very presence is painful to her,—can there then be any forbearance, any of those gentle kindnesses, any of those loving forgivenesses, any of those mutual tendernesses and sweet confidences which constitute the charm of married life, and make it what the Apostle said it was—a type of the sacred union between Christ and His people in heaven.” [p.562-3]
“Those who have never been enslaved by a superstitious faith which mentally and bodily enthrals [sic.] its devotees, as Mormonism does, can form no idea of the joy, the happiness, which is experienced when, after years of spiritual servitude, the shackles are burst asunder and the slave is “free !” There is pleasure even in the thought itself that one is free—free to think and free to act, free to worship according to the dictates of one’s own conscience, and free to speak one’s own opinions and sentiments, without the constant fear that some spy is listening to every word and that the consequences may be far from pleasant !” [p.578]
“Some good Saints, I doubt not, do really believe to the contrary, but love thus divided is not worthy of the name.” [p.612]
“Never ; until new hearts and new natures are given to the women of Utah, and all that is womanly, and pure, and sacred, is crushed out from their souls, can one single woman be truly happy in Polygamy ! They may say so publicly, they may, for their religion’s sake, tell strangers that thus it is ; but listen to them when they are alone among themselves ; read, if you can, their hearts, and mark the bitterness which they try to stifle there ; nay, see upon their very features the handwriting which bears witness against their assertion that they are happy and which proclaims to the world the sorrow which they vainly try to hide !” [p.622]
Posted on 2011-10-23, in Book Reviews, History, Mormonism and tagged Book Review, Brigham Young, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ex-Mormon, ExMormon, Fanny Stenhouse, Goodreads, LDS, Mormon, Mormonism, Polygamy, Utah. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.