From The Critic Vol. 22 No. 661 (Oct 20, 1894)

Men, Women and Books

Can it be that my contemptuous correspondent hails from Pembroke, U.S.A.? That hypothesis would afford a partial solution of his psychology. For if we may credit Miss Mary E. Wilkins's brilliant study of the peculiar people who inhabit that New England village, they are all made on this poet's pattern. They brood over their wrongs for a lifetime. If they have said a thing, they cannot take it back, though the happiness of their life be at stake. They are the slaves of their own wills: which adds a new complication to the already maddening free-will puzzle. They cannot go out of their groove; and a man will court a girl a quarter of a century without proposing unless something extraordinary happens to give him the idea. If, by chance, the girl is out on one occasion, that interrupts his groove altogether, and he never comes again. There is a world of minute observation in Miss Wilkins's study of these monotonous people, these slow, obdurate, granitic Puritans, who have the virtues of their sturdy stock as well as its defects. I know scarcely any other writer who gives so vivid a sense of life, whose vision is so microscopic and so true. Though no doubt Miss Wilkins uses her material artistically, striking as she does with equal hand the chords of humor and pathos, I find it no strain to believe in the actuality of her dramatis personæ. Everybody must know cases of long-standing sulks, though few of us may have acquaintance with a whole village thus infected. This monotony of mood is depressing to the reader of “Pembroke,” who would like to shake each of the characters in turn as they go about spoiling one another's lives. Miss Wilkins has hitherto been known as a writer of short stories; and this she continues to be in her first long novel, for, though they are welded together, the stories of all the various couples might have been told independently. The book is written with an admirable, even a dainty, literary touch, and fiction has few things finer than the scene where Deborah Thayer discovers her daughter's shame, or where her sickly boy, Ephraim, all his natural instincts starved by the stern Puritan régime, has the first and last enjoyment of his life in surreptitiously coasting down the slopes at midnight — a magnificent imprudence of which he dies on the morrow. Though her range seems limited, few Englishwomen are doing as durable work as Miss Wilkins. The ladies on her side of the Atlantic seem to be free from the tendency to ephemeral pamphlet-fiction, which is here characteristic of the “New Womanhood” of letters.