Mary E. Wilkins - Quaker Cousins

From The Critic Vol. 17 No. 515 (Jan 2, 1892)

By the Author of ‘Quaker Cousins’

[From an article in the December Bookman]

How it may be with others we know not, but we must confess to a feeling of reluctance in discussing personal matters relating to the writer of these tales. Not because we would not willingly know much about one who has given us a new and lasting pleasure, but rather because there is about these three little volumes a certain touch of a fine and delicate soul which turns curiosity away, a little shame-faced. The few words of preface to ‘A Humble Romance’ are spoken with such unassumed modesty, with such a retirement of the person behind the work, that we would accept that demure ‘M. E. W.’ gratefully, as all that is vouchsafed us. We know that Miss Wilkins is young, that she is New England descended, born, and bred, and further, that the few who have the privilege of being her friends recognize in her the mirror of the quiet humor, the pathos and the compassionate insight of her tales. It is told that Miss Austen used to hide the brilliant pages of ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ under a bit of blotting-paper. We could imagine that this little trick of the blotting-paper was Miss Wilkins's also, and we would not disturb the modest quiet which we feel sure enshrines the writer of ‘A Far-Away Melody’ and ‘A New England Nun.’

Miss Wilkins gives in her tales variety in sameness, character after character, fresh in its originality, yet still of one type. She draws many pictures of the American girl — not the rather attenuated, smart person which we may meet fresh any month in Mr. Howells's pages — not the brilliant, omnipotent belle of fashionable life, but the fair, delicate, nervous, independent flower of New England, the girl who ‘teaches school,’ works at dressmaking, or on the farm, whose slender form and pink and white complexion cover a resolute will and sensitive nerves. But it is in her pictures of middle-aged women that Miss Wilkins excels, and she has done what no other writer has ever dared to do in making them the heroines of her stories. Whoever heretofore brought tears to the eyes over the small trials, the little heroisms and silent sorrows of old maids and hardworked wives? There is an endless gallery of these curious portraits of aged maids and matrons, drawn with all the detail and clearness of Holbein's old women. And how delightful they are! — the ‘Old Arithmetician,’ who sits up all night working out the problem which has baffled minister and school-master, and whose tender heart is torn with remorse over her neglected household duties; the poor ‘Village Poetess,’ dying meekly, broken-hearted, with her despised verses in a tea-pot beside her. The gentle old Anne Millet, almost driven to unbelief by the loss of her cat — with what sympathy one reads of her mental struggles! What a breath of relief one draws when the cat is found, and we hear her lift up her voice in self-reproachful joy! ‘I've been an awful wicked woman. I ain't been to meetin', an' I've talked an' — Them squashes I threw away! It's been so warm, they ain't froze, an' I don't deserve it — I hadn't orter hev one of 'em; I hadn't orter hev anything. I'd orter offer up Willy. Lor' sakes! think of me saying what I did an' him down cellar.’ Then those two proud old sisters, who share one gala dress between them, hiding their poverty from their neighbors, yet incapable of lying, even when pressed by impudent curiosity — who does not rejoice when their vulgar enemy is brought to her knees over the ‘sizzlin'’ fire-crackers?

The men of the stories are, as they would themselves express it, ‘of less account’ than the women; and they are more sparsely scattered through the pages, as they are in reality fewer in number in a country suffering so much from male emigration as New England. But where they appear, they fill the space appointed them with true masculine vigor.

Here is a new view, a fresh, sweetly-scented field of fiction, as racy of the soil as are Tourgenieff's short tales of Russian life. The thread of the narratives, however simple, always leads to some climax full and complete, leaving the reader satisfied, often taken by surprise, so skilfully hidden is the hand of Fate which guides it. The curtain descends without apparent signal, and one sentence frequently reveals the inevitable — often beautiful — solution. This young writer, dealing with the commonplaces of life, sees the eternal harmony of goodness explaining and softening all — in the homely doings, the potato settings, the dish washings, the going to meetin'; and, amid all the ruthlessly exact details, there is a meaning which the divining eye of the poet sees. ‘Like all common things,’ says Miss Wilkins of ‘Christmas Jenny's’ candle, ‘it had and was its own poem.’ This might be the motto of all her writings, and her gift is that of Jean François Millet, to see the symbolism of homeliness, the sacred pathos of the daily toil of dutiful lives. When a writer is endowed with this power, it is not necessary to seek strange situations, monstrosities of character, or tortuous and complicated passions to excite emotion; and there is the comfortable sense of reserve power which might say more than it does. She rarely touches the ghastly or horrible. If she does, a vague detail, far reaching in its significance, is sufficient. Here is an instance: a charitable woman takes a pillow to a miserly sick old man and his wife, who live alone with a ruffianly underpaid farm-servant. She finds the house still and deserted; her growing terror is described when to her repeated calls no answer comes. ‘The silence seemed to beat against her ears. She went across the kitchen to the bedroom. Here and there she held back her dress. She reached the bedroom and looked in.’ No more is told, only how she sped homeward, arriving there half-fainting. ‘Now tell me about it,’ said Mrs. Ansel. ‘What did you see first? What was you going there for?’ ‘To carry the pillow,’ said Luella, pointing to it. ‘I can't talk about it, Maria.’ Mrs. Ansel went over to the lounge and took it up. ‘Mercy sakes! What's that on it?’ she cried in horror. ‘I s'pose — I — hit it against the wall somehow,’ Luella replied. ‘I can't talk about it, Maria.’ The horrible scene of the murder is somehow flashed upon us by that oblique stroke. Here is another swift and effectual touch. An honest young fellow has suddenly been dismissed from work by the foreman — no reason given. He stands with his handsome wife in the garden the same evening, and the foreman goes by. ‘She was standing close to her husband clinging to his arm when he got to the front of the house, just when he had his eyes fixed full on her. She even leaned her head against David's shoulder. She knew why she did it, though her husband did not; she knew also why his foreman had turned him off, and this was her method of stabbing him for it.’ In two lines, the key to the whole story.

Miss Wilkins paints the surroundings in her stories with much care and much felicity, and she knows how wisely to omit. She has the same careful eye for scenery as for moral niceties. The little vignettes of roadside and garden, field and sky, play their part in the picture as successfully as the ‘foreground’ in a fine etching. In ‘The Solitary,’ two figures, the big and surly misanthrope, and the half-starved, miserable carrier, stand out against a background of a snowy night. We see the snow-covered woods, the clearing sky before the oncoming of the bitter night, the hush of death as the frost deepens. ‘The snow creaked underfoot; the air was full of sparkles, there were noises like guns in the woods, for the trees were almost freezing. The moon was full, and seemed like the very fire of death, radiating cold instead of heat.’

We might be tempted to compare these tales with the short tales of Mrs. Gaskell, which deal with the class of small farmers and working people of Lancashire. It would only be to point out the differences between them. The sombre coloring, the tragic speed and force of such tales as ‘The Crooked Branch,’ ‘The Heart of John Middleton,’ or the ‘Sexton's Story,’ are not here. Miss Wilkins's stories would not be true pictures of New England life if they were. American life is not tragic or sombre. The great future before it — the great prosperity of the American nation — determines the national mood and makes it cheerful, in spite of individual sorrows. American literature reflects a serene sky, and there is in it none of that deep undercurrent of passionate feeling born of the memories of oppression and struggle, a long history of endurance of evil, and battles lost and won, which flows under our best gaiety and content. Miss Wilkins's tales have the freshness of youth about them, though their theme may often be sad. Their pathos has in it a gentle sweetness, not far removed from happiness and hope.