Famous Authors (Women)

by E. F. Harkins

From Famous Authors (Women) (L. C. Page & Company, Boston: 1901)
Also From Little Pilgrimages Among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books

It is natural to suppose that any reader of current English literature would know Miss Wilkins, yet it is the much-admired author herself who tells this story of her introduction to a popular contemporary:

“It was before Mr. Crawford had publicly appeared as a reader, and just after he had read to a select coterie of Brooklyn people at the house of a well-known lady. A reception followed, and when I was introduced the hostess said, ‘Mr. Crawford, I wish to introduce Miss Wilkins.’

“Mr. Crawford gave me a coldly polite bow, and I would have passed on perfectly satisfied, but not so my hostess. She felt that Mr. Crawford ought to have recognized in me a fellow-author, and she quickly followed the first introduction with an impressive:

“‘Mr. Crawford, this is Miss Mary E. Wilkins.’

“Again the delightful novelist gave me a polite bow of recognition. My friend was sorely distressed. Not even now did the lion of the evening deign to recognize this poor little body, but my friend would not be repulsed, so she returned afresh to the assault, and in a still more impressive manner, she said:

“‘But, Mr. Crawford, this is Miss Mary E. Wilkins, the author of those charming stories of New England life.’

“Mr. Crawford, I felt quite sure, had never heard of poor me. I did not wonder at it. Why should he? Living so far away, and naturally enough absorbed in his own work, he probably had never seen a line I had written, but he was equal to the occasion, and if he did simulate I could forgive him, for he was very polite. He bowed and smiled most graciously, and shaking me by the hand, he expressed great pleasure at meeting me. How I have laughed over this incident. It may not seem funny to hear me relate it, but the time, the place, and his bewildered manner as he tried to make me believe he knew all about me, was most delicious comedy.”

The majority of the members of the reading public, either in this country or in England, would feel no need to simulate a knowledge of the author of “Pembroke.” Mr. Crawford is an extraordinarily busy man, and he has been gracefully forgiven, but we may well be asked to believe that the hostess of that occasion was astonished.

Miss Wilkins has had an admiring audience for the last eighteen years. It was early in the eighties that she first tried her pen seriously. She wrote a short story called “The Ghost Family” for the Boston Budget, a weekly survival of the days of Boston's literary renown; and the story won a prize of fifty dollars. We might go back further than the eighties; but the fact that she wrote poetry at the age of twelve is conventional. What bright child does not write poetry?

We shall rely on an old friend of Miss Wilkins, Mrs. Kate Upson Clark, for a few details:

“Her first literary attempts were almost entirely for children, but at the urgent solicitation of friends she soon began to take up a deeper kind of work, and sent her first story for older readers to Miss Mary L. Booth, then editor of Harper's Bazar. Miss Booth thought that such cramped and unformed handwriting promised little, and that she was the victim of some ambitious but “unavailable” child. With her usual conscientiousness, however, she looked the little piece carefully over. It was Miss Booth's habit when attracted by a story, to read it through three times, on different days, and in different moods, before accepting it. She paid this compliment to ‘Two Old Lovers,’ the contribution which Miss Wilkins had submitted to her. Two days later the ‘ambitious child’ received a handsome check for it. From this time forth Miss Booth befriended the young writer in every way, and Miss Wilkins, who is almost morbidly appreciative of kindness, and as true to her friends as one of her own inflexible New England characters, rewarded Miss Booth's thoughtfulness by giving to her as long as she lived, the first choice of her stories.” The date of the appearance of “Two Old Lovers” in Harper's Bazar is March 31, 1883.

But the tail of the sketch is moving faster than the head. The author of “Two Old Lovers” was born in Randolph, Mass., in 1862. Her father, a native of Salem, was a descendant of a conspicuous Puritan, Bray Wilkins. Her mother was a Holbrook of Holbrook, an old-established family of Massachusetts country folk. Mr. Wilkins was a carpenter of ancient style, that is to say, he was both designer and builder. When Mary was a little girl, however, he gave up his profession to keep store in Brattleboro, Vt. In the town where restless Mr. Kipling alighted for a while, the daughter of the Randolph carpenter passed her girlhood. Mr. J. E. Chamberlain, who collaborated with her in the writing of “The Long Arm” (the two thousand dollar newspaper prize detective story), remarks, “so far as local influences have affected her work, I fancy that those of Southern Vermont have preponderated.”

Mr. Chamberlain also is the authority for the statement that “Her creations are mainly drawn purely out of her imagination, and squared to Nature and reality by the exercise of a keen and omnivorous faculty of observation which has grown instinctive, and is as unconscious as it is accurate — like the minutely true eye-measurements with which the Japanese carpenters astonished us at the World's Fair. And for her nature-settings and decorations she depends rather on the sharp recollections of childhood than on more recent observations. She never had a bit of the spirit of the naturalist.”

All the same, there are glimpses of Randolph — of the Randolph of her childhood, in some of Miss Wilkins's stories. We read in “Jerome”:

“Three fields to the northward from the Edwards's house was a great rock ledge; on the southern side of it was a famous hiding-place for a boy on a windy spring day. There was a hollow in the rock for a space as tall as Jerome, and the ledge extended itself out beyond it like a sheltering granite wing to the westward. … At the side of the gentle hill at the left a pile of blooming peach trees looked as if they were moving down the slope to some imperious march music of the spring.”

That spot is in Randolph — within sight of the weather-beaten, two-story house in which the author was born. But Miss Wilkins is careful not to offend the towns-people by portraying the living. She has portrayed the dead, however. Barnabas, in “Pembroke,” was a Randolph character. As a rule, she draws from her imagination, as Mr. Chamberlain says.

In the ten years that Miss Wilkins lived in Brattleboro she experienced a world of sorrow. Her father died, and her mother, and her sister. Burdened with her grief, Mary returned to Randolph, and there, with friends, in a typical country house standing about half a mile from her birthplace, she has since lived. Where she will live the rest of her life rests largely with Dr. Charles Manning Freeman, of Metuchen, N. J.

The author chooses to be distant to all but her dear friends, or, rather, she has a shrinking nature, like the sensitive plant. “The ancient kitchen which is Miss Wilkins's sitting-room is not also her writing-room. Though it is nicely retired, and out of the noise of the exceedingly quiet household in which she has her home, its window commands a view of nothing but the side of the adjoining house, which affords but slight inspiration. She writes upstairs, in a room that looks off eastwardly over the street with its electric cars, and to the low coast hills and woods in the distance.”

Before she became addicted to the typewriter — which was only a few years ago — she was accustomed, when in the mood for work, to produce a thousand words a day in what she once herself described as an “unformed and childish” style of handwriting. To-day her pages are as prim as a professional secretary's. We have a page before us, and at the bottom of it is the decrepid signature. It gives character to the page, however — and what would not many an autograph hunter give for it! Now and then, when at the height of her fervor, Miss Wilkins will write three or four thousand words a day; and now and then a week will pass without winning a line from her. “Environment affects her strongly,” says Mrs. Clark. “She finds it difficult, sometimes impossible, to compose anything when away from home.”

“She is not,” Mr. Chamberlain says, “one of those fortunate ones who can say, ‘Go to! I will sleep from ten until six, and then be fresh for my work.’ Sleep with her has to be wooed with subtle arts, and will follow no program. Sometimes her work goes reluctantly, and sometimes she is mastered and possessed by it, and it leaves her nervously exhausted as well as désorientée regarding every-day affairs. After writing her Deerfield massacre story … she found it hard to make herself realize that she was not living in the time and place of the story: she really believed that the story — her story — was true.”

For with a strong imagination is combined in her an extremely sensitive nature. Her father was remarkable for his nervousness, it is said, and so was her maternal grandfather. And Mrs. Clark assures us that, “The difficulties against which she contends are largely physical. Though her constitution is apparently sound, she is small, being only five feet tall, and is very slight.” That was some years ago; to-day Miss Wilkins is plump of figure. “She possesses the sensitive organization which accompanies a large intellectual development in such a frame. Her transparent skin, her changing eyes, sometimes seeming blue, sometimes hazel, her heavy braids of golden hair, her delicately molded features, all proclaim a singularly high-strung and nervous temperament.”

Doubtless this has influenced her choice of residence. Randolph is off the main line of literature, and perhaps that is why she has resisted the allurements of Boston. We saw her at a reunion of the Daughters of Vermont in the “Hub,” once upon a time, and she acted, now haughtily, and again timidly, as if she would like to run home. Yet they say that with her chafing-dish — her only hobby — in hand, she is a prodigal hostess.

Phillips Brooks is reported to have said that “A Humble Romance” was the best short story he ever read. It certainly reveals Miss Wilkins in her strongest form. It is realism brought close to idealism. In its few pages are set forth simply yet artistically, in a manner characteristic of her most successful representation of rural life in New England, quaint humor and grave tragedy, melting pathos and tickling comedy, — in the background a touch of careless virtue, and in the foreground an example of rough but admirable honor. Not every critic will go as far as Phillips Brooks went, but the discriminating critic will admit that “A Humble Romance” is one of the author's perfect efforts. Perhaps to an admirer of the demure woman of Randolph that is saying as much as could be said. A few days ago she said that “Pembroke” was probably her best work. In England — where she is hardly less beloved than in this country — a similar opinion exists among the leading critics. And, by the way, Mr. Kipling is reported to have declared that her stories will survive his, and, at the same time, to have confessed that they touch him altogether too deeply!

But Miss Wilkins's pen does not deal exclusively with rural life. In 1893 she turned to the stage for an arena, and “Giles Corey, Yeoman,” a drama of the early Puritan days, was acted in Boston under the auspices of the Theatre of Arts and Letters. Two years afterward, in collaboration with the aforementioned Mr. Chamberlain, she wrote a detective story, “The Long Arm,” which won a prize of $2,000 offered by a newspaper syndicate. Her latest novel, “The Heart's Highway,” dealt effectively with a colonial theme, and her next novel — “A Portion of Labor” is the title of it, we believe — is said to have an industrial setting.

The reading public — whose interest in literature is not confined to books — had taken it for granted that Miss Wilkins would remain in single blessedness for life, but in October, 1900, was announced her engagement to Dr. Charles Manning Freeman, of Metuchen, N. J. Probably the author had never thought that she would live to be the central figure of a sensation, but she was, nevertheless; and the public soon began to ask, When will the marriage take place? The question remains unanswered, but we betray no real secret by remarking that the affair is in no danger of ending like the bride-to-be's well-known story, “Two Old Lovers.”