Mary E. Wilkins At Home

by Katharine Hill

From Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly Vol. L No. 3 (July, 1900)

It has been the common experience of all Randolph people, upon mentioning their home when among strangers, to hear some one exclaim: “Randolph! why, that is where Miss Wilkins lives.”

The reputation which Miss Wilkins enjoys here has proved an exception to the old proverb: “The prophet is never without honor save in his own country.” It is true, however, that, knowing Miss Wilkins as we do, and knowing also, in a measure, the life of which she writes, we cannot as fully appreciate her literary greatness as though we were strangers.

Through her writings the name of Randolph has become familiar to people on both sides of the Atlantic. Mary Wilkins was born in this town and lived here during her childhood. At the age of twelve she went with her parents to live in Brattleboro, Vermont. In that town in the Connecticut Valley, with the rounded summits of the Green Mountains rising on one side and the Connecticut River flowing on the other, the little New England maid grew to womanhood. After the death of her parents Miss Wilkins returned to Randolph, and she has lived here ever since.

Her writings describe faithfully the lives of humble, hard-working people — lives which we ordinarily consider uninteresting, but in which this sympathetic woman perceives a sacredness and beauty.

Although throughout these stories of New England life there is a certain sameness, there is never monotony. They are all based upon the workings of that indomitable New England will and unrelenting New England conscience; but the characters, incidents, and descriptions are so discriminatingly drawn that variety is never lacking.

Miss Wilkins began her literary career with poems for children in children's magazines. For two poems published in St. Nicholas she received fifteen dollars, and these few dollars, Miss Wilkins says, seemed more to her then than all the money she has since earned.

Her first story, “The Shadow Family,” was written for the Boston Sunday Budget, and won a prize of fifty dollars. “Two Old Lovers,” her first “grown-up” story, was published in Harper's Bazaar when Miss Mary Booth was editor. A firm friendship was soon established between this well-known literary woman and the young writer, and at Miss Booth's Saturday night receptions Miss Wilkins met many famous men and women.

“A Humble Romance,” which has been called the “best short story ever written,” was the first of her stories to be published in Harper's Magazine. Not long after “A Humble Romance” appeared in this country, a similar story was published in England by Mrs. Parr. The English writer was accused of plagiarism, and immediately wrote to Miss Wilkins proving that her story had been written before “A Humble Romance” was published, and was founded on fact. With the exception of “An Object of Love” and “On the Walpole Road,” Miss Wilkins's stories are not founded on fact.

Almost without exception she has made middle-aged women the heroines of these stories, and it is in her pictures of such women that she excels. There is a complete group of them drawn with such love and sympathy that we cannot but think they really live. Their petty trials and little sacrifices are at once humorous and pathetic. Who could forget the trials of poor Mrs. Carey in “Christmas Jenny,” when stubborn old Jonas Carey had his “tantrums”? One cold morning in winter Jonas made three trips to the pump for water, but on returning each time he lost his footing on an icy spot and fell, spilling the water. After falling for the third time he sat there, perfectly motionless, heeding neither the bitter, chilling wind nor his wife's tearful entreaties. The poor old woman sobbed and pleaded in vain. “It's just one of his tantrums,” she said, “but I don't know what I am goin' to do. Oh, dear me suz, I dunno what I am goin' to do with him sometimes. Oh, he's tipped all that water over, an' I'm afeard he'll freeze down. Oh, dear!”

With what sympathy one reads of the sorrow and anguish of gentle Ann Millet, who is driven almost to despair by the loss of her pet cat Willie. What a breath of relief one draws when at last the cat is found in the cellar, and Ann cries joyfully, but contritely: “Thar he was all the time, jest whar I put him; an' me a-blamin' of the Lord, an' puttin' of it on Him. 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 anythin'. I'd orter offer up Willie. Lor' sakes! Think of me a-sayin' what I did, an' him down cellar!”

One of the most touching of these short stories is that of the poor village poetess who dies broken-hearted, with the ashes of her unappreciated verses in a teapot beside her.

“A Tragedy from the Trivial” is the characteristic title of Miss Wilkins's newest New England tale, a work of infinite pathos in a grotesquely humorous setting. It is destined for the forthcoming Midsummer (August) number of Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly.

The step from the field of short-story writing to that of novel writing is never short and not seldom unsuccessful. This step Miss Wilkins has taken with triumphant success. “Jane Field,” her first novel, is not long, but it is one of the best which its author has written. Jane Field is a New England woman with a New England conscience. She is poor, and her daughter is dying for want of proper nourishment and the comforts of life. Before this mother, who is torn with pangs of love for her invalid daughter, two roads lie open: One leads through honesty, pain, and poverty to her daughter's death; the other leads through dishonesty and cheating to the restoration of her daughter's health. She chooses the latter way. Impersonating her dead sister, Esther Maxwell, Jane Field receives a legacy from the estate of the man who had years before rendered her poor. But the conscience of this woman could not long stand the heavy burden of sin, and finally her reason gave way. As we close the book we hear ring out that pitiful cry, the hinge upon which the story turns: “I ain't Esther Maxwell!”

“Pembroke” was the next novel, interesting and refreshing, and written in an admirable manner. A keen sense of humor, many sweetly pathetic scenes, and character studies which show a thoughtful and careful analysis of the stubborn and inflexible New England will, make this novel the strongest which Miss Wilkins has written. Will any one who has read “Pembroke” ever forget old Cephas Barnard, who obliged his family to live on meat one-half the time and on “garden greens” the other half, and who, when his patient wife said that she could not make sorrel pies, made them himself, making pie-crust out of flour and water? One of the sweetest characters in this story is Sylvia Crane, who patiently waited through years of disappointments for her lover to overcome his obdurate pride. Behind the whole story we feel the awful force and persistency of the New England will.

Very different from her other writings is “Giles Corey, Yeoman.” It is a drama of severely classical style, founded on fact and told with remarkable descriptive force. It is a tragedy, in prose, increasing in interest throughout its six acts. The scene is laid at Salem in 1692. We are at once transported into that historic old town and experience all the horrors of witchcraft.

In “Madelon” Miss Wilkins strikes a different note. We still have those quaint scenes and charming descriptions of village life, but foreign blood flows through the veins of the principal actors. A deep undercurrent of passionate feeling, the heritage of that foreign blood, dominates the whole story.

“Jerome, a Poor Man,” is the story of a battle with fate. It is powerful, yet tender, having as a background for those dainty little touches so characteristic of Miss Wilkins, a deep current of suppressed feeling. From boyhood Jerome had known the meaning of that cruel word — poverty. When he was but twelve years old his father suddenly disappeared, and the boy was left with the care of an invalid mother and a small sister — a heavy burden for his young shoulders. His life is a continual fight, with continual disappointments. There is also in this story the gentle maiden lady whom Miss Wilkins so often depicts. Camilla Merrit, with her dainty flower-face framed in soft curls, and breathing out the sweet fragrance of lavender whenever she stirred, is certainly the most beautiful and dainty of all Miss Wilkins's maiden ladies.

Miss Wilkins has been called a realist, but only in a measure can we call her such. One cannot but think of the realist as being cold and calculating, and we know that Miss Wilkins is far from this. If, in her intense love for humanity, she sometimes sets Nature aside, it is because in the practical temperament of those old New Englanders Nature did not hold the first place. They were the realists. Miss Wilkins is an idealist. How could the author of that pathetic little story, “A Patient Waiter,” be other than an idealist? But, wherever she may be classed in the ranks of literature, we know that she has done more than any other writer to preserve the New England dialect and hand it down to posterity. Others have done this work, but none so lovingly and well as Miss Wilkins. Her stories have a deep interest not only for the people of this country, but are eagerly read in Europe also.

As a result of fame, many demands are made upon Miss Wilkins's charity. Letters come from perfect strangers in all parts of the country asking for aid. Some of these are exceedingly amusing. One letter came from two sisters in the South who had been wealthy, but had lost their fortune, and, having heard that Miss Wilkins was a very kind-hearted woman, thought that she might help them. They said they had “ art embroidery, Maltese kittens, and lands in Texas for sale.” Another came from the West, requesting Miss Wilkins to read in a small Western town to aid in buying hot water baths for the Y. M. C. A.

To describe, or even to suggest, the charming and original personality of Mary Wilkins would require a pen as magically endowed as her own. The portrait accompanying these notes is considered a fairly good likeness by friends who are personally acquainted with Miss Wilkins. But then they have the delightful advantage of knowing the reality behind the counterfeit presentment. It is only by meeting our authoress in an un-literary way that one can become truly acquainted with her; for she is just the reverse of that species of writing people who save all their good things to put into books. Only the other day while discussing with a friend some disagreeable newspaper comments upon Admiral Dewey, she said:

“Well, it goes to prove that a pedestal is a dangerous perch for anything but an inanimate figure.”