Literary Notes

by Laurence Hutton

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 89 Issue 534 (November 1894)

Another writer of short stories who is a credit to her generation, to her sex, and to her country, is Miss Mary E. Wilkins, so essentially a short-story writer that her “Jane Field” is nothing more than a long short story, while her “Pembroke” is nothing less than three short stories in one. The simple fact that a romance is “to be continued in our next” does not make it a novel, and although it be extended to a hundred chapters, to a dozen parts, and to three volumes, a short story will be a short story still, pungent and concentrated even when it is not brief.

The great promise exhibited in Miss Wilkins's first effort at the expansion of a short story has been more than fulfilled in the trilogy of short stories which she now presents to her friendly public. Pembroke5 opens with a courting scene in New England, at about that historic period when Zekle crep' up quite unbeknown an' peeked in thru' the winder; and although the Huldy of this case is, unfortunately, not all alone, and although in the beginning of her career there was a disagreeable father nigh to hinder, Miss Wilkins's Barnabas Thayer and Charlotte Barnard suggest in many ways, sad though their story is, the familiar hero and heroine of Lowell's poem, and perhaps they are intended to be an elaboration of the characters upon whom the poet merely touches. “'Twas kin' o' kingdom come to look on sech a blessed cretur as Charlotte was, and none in the whole country couldn't quicker pitch a ton nor drov' a furrer straighter than could Barnabas himself, who was not only clear grit and human natur', but was, as well, six foot o' man, A. 1.”

While it is pleasant to think of “The Courtin'” as a prelude to Miss Wilkins's drama, and to fancy that we are following the careers of Huldah and Ezekiel in the three love-stories which run along, side by side, in “Pembroke,” the drama is much more than a sequel to the prologue, and is quite able to stand upon its own merits. It has all the qualities which were so conspicuous in “Jane Field” and in its author's many shorter tales; humor, pathos, homely devotion, Yankee contrariness and stubbornness, and, above all, the portrayal of that intensity of suppressed feeling which distinguishes the children of the Pilgrim Fathers even to the present day. It is hard to find in the whole range of modern fiction anything much more touching and tender than that early chapter in which Barnabas is seen all alone in the unfinished little cottage he is building for his promised wife, and when he thought how the very room, because she was to occupy it, seemed warm from floor to ceiling. “‘Her rocking-chair can set there,’ said Barnabas, aloud. The tears came into his eyes, he stepped forward, laid his smooth boyish cheek against a partition-wall of this new house, and kissed it. It was a fervent demonstration, not towards Charlotte alone, nor the joys to come to him within those walls, but to all life and love and nature, although he did not comprehend it. He half sobbed as he turned away, his thoughts seemed to dazzle his brain, and he could not feel his feet.”

The second pair of lovers in Pembroke are older, if not more experienced, than the first, and they, too, will appeal to all mankind by whom lovers are loved. There is something of Ezekiel in Richard as well as in Barnabas, and not a little of Huldah in Charlotte's Aunt Sylvia, who waited in her own sitting-room, and in patient maidenhood, eighteen years for her beau to up and kiss her. It will be remembered that Richard, on one famous occasion, had stood a spell on one foot first, then stood a spell on t'other, before he had the courage to sit by Sylvia's side on the hair-cloth sofa, his only demonstrative exhibition in fifty-two times eighteen Sunday evenings; and when we are told in Chapter II. that Richard had a fine tenor voice, and had sung in the choir ever since he was a boy, we can imagine how he used to make Old Hundred ring in Sylvia's ears and heart.

The history of the third pair of lovers — William and Rebecca — is the most tragic of all; and the story of their courting, delicately told by Miss Wilkins, leads them into deeper and muddier waters than Miss Wilkins has ever sounded before. To say why gals acts so or so, or don't, 'ould be presumin', even in fiction; and from these two we turn, all teary 'round the lashes, to the better, although long deferred, fates of their cousins and their aunts; all smily 'round the lips when we learn that Sylvia's journey towards the poor-house and Barney's painful walk to Charlotte's door are to end in their both being cried lawfully in meetin', on the last Sunday we pass in Pembroke.

5 Pembroke. A Novel. By Mary E. Wilkins. Author of “Jane Field,” “A Humble Romance,” “A New England Nun,” etc. Illustrated. 16mo, Cloth, Ornamental, $1 50. New York: Harper and Brothers.