The Critic - Four Stories

From The Critic Vol. 14 No. 361 (Nov 29, 1890)

The Lounger

When Mrs. Kendal sailed for England last spring, she expressed a desire for some typical American stories to read during the voyage, so a friend sent her Mary Wilkins's ‘Humble Romance, and Other Stories’ and Thomas Nelson Page's ‘In Ole Virginia.’ It is needless to say that this was an admirable selection. When Mrs. Kendal returned this fall she said there was barely enough of the books left to hold together; that not only had she read and enjoyed them, but that they had gone the rounds of her friends, who were wildly delighted with them and wanted to know if there were any more such in ‘the States.’

A lady who knows Miss Mary Wilkins very well has given me some interesting particulars concerning her which are rather a surprise to me. In the first place, I did not know that she was a young woman — that is, that she was under thirty, and I consider under thirty quite young for a writer who has made a reputation. She was born at Brattleboro, Vermont; and her parents, dying while she was very young, left her sufficient means for her support. She has boarded with friends for the greater part of her life, and their house at Randolph, Mass., is her home. On her mother's side she is connected with John Lothrop Motley, and her literary gift probably came from that side of the house. When Miss Wilkins was only sixteen years old, a lady calling upon her spoke of a prize of $50 offered by a Boston paper for a children's story. After the caller left, Miss Wilkins, though she had never written a line for print up to that time, said, ‘I believe I could write that story,’ ‘Why not try?’ answered her friends. ‘I will,’ she replied. She did so — and won the prize. It was not until some years after this that she again set herself to story-writing. This second manuscript was sent to Harper's Bazar, then edited by the late Mary L. Booth. Miss Booth opened the envelope, and after a hasty glance at the rather immature chirography said to herself, ‘I don't think I shall have to spend much time over that manuscript,’ and put it in her bag to take home. When she began to read it, she discovered what is known among editors as a ‘find.’ The story is one of the best in the volume of stories published by the Harpers. Miss Booth took the liveliest interest in the young girl, and gave her valuable aid and advice at a time when she most needed them. Harper's Magazine then began to publish her stories, and the firm soon brought them out in book form — with what success every one who is interested in literature knows.

I was surprised to learn that Miss Wilkins's stories are not ‘founded on fact,’ but are purely works of the imagination. I had supposed that she personally knew Old Lady Pingree, the Honest Soul, the Dragon, and all the rest of those typical New England characters. But no; she ‘makes them all up out of her own head,’ as the children say. Take ‘A Humble Romance,’ for instance — the story that gives its title to her book. Miss Wilkins used to look at the tin-peddlers' wagons as they passed along the dusty country road, and think how like little wandering houses they were; so she peopled one with real people, and spun a romance around them. She is surrounded by the types of character, she describes, but her stories of their lives are pure inventions.

Like Jane Austen, Miss Wilkins has the power of abstraction to a remarkable degree. She usually does her writing on a tablet on her knee, in a room where people are talking and laughing; but unlike the gentle Jane, she does not feel compelled to pull a piece of embroidery over her ‘unfeminine’ work when a caller glances in her direction. It is not regarded as a sin in these days for a woman to be caught writing, if she be not writing a political disquisition — not always even then! Miss Wilkins was in New York last winter on a visit, but it is not often that she comes to town. She is described as a small blonde, very bright and very agreeable, but exceedingly modest and loth to talk about herself or her work.