Miss Mary E. Wilkins's Stories

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 85 Issue 510 (November 1892)

Of natural realism, pure and simple, there is no better example than has been furnished by Miss Wilkins's work. Nothing in the history of literature stands so entirely by itself as the career of this demure New England maiden, whose portrait is given in this number, with the concluding chapters of her first novel, “Jane Field.”

Sometimes our attention is arrested by the work of a mere child, and we are attracted by its freshness, quaintness, and originality. We do not call it precocious, for it does not seem to us like what her elders are in the habit of doing. We are inclined to say that her elders have got too far away from her in their progression rather than that she has anticipated them. If we do not meddle with the child, suggesting models or insisting upon conformity to well-established rules of literary composition, she will perhaps still listen to the gentle spirit that whispers in her ear and go on writing these wonderful things. These are the genuine unfoldings of genius.

This is really the story of Miss Wilkins's beginnings in literature, if we may call that literature which has no likeness to anything else that is so denominated, which is the spontaneous expression of a quality simply human and natural, but nevertheless distinctly personal, not to be defined except by saying what it is not. It is an exceptional quality in Miss Wilkins's case; it is so in all cases, but especially it seems so in hers because we are permitted to see it without any adulteration or sophistication. From the circumstances of her life she had the good fortune to be without tutors or advisers until her own peculiar culture had become a habit. She was also fortunate in that her early contributions fell into the hands of Miss Mary L. Booth, the first editor of Harper's Bazar, who did not tell her to write like other people, but who saw the value of her singular gift, and kept her in the living lines she was following.

Miss Wilkins's method is as peculiar as her work. She does not transfer the material of every-day life, as observed by her, to her stories. These tales come to her as a series of pictures that flow from fancy's own inward suggestions, as ballads took shape before there was poetry in any other form. Because of their genuine human reality these sketches have humor, and that sympathetic touch which makes her pictures of life seem so like Millet's paintings.

To one who submits to her leading in this way Nature gives her own graces. Miss Wilkins's genius has given birth to an art all its own. In her later work the excellence of this art is apparent, and especially in the novel just concluded. But there has been no surrender of that personal quality which characterized her earliest tales, nor is there any mixture of conventional patterns with those of her free fancy. Long may she sit at her loom, our Lady of Shalott, and weave this rare rich tapestry, ever remembering

  “A curse is on her if she stay
    To look down to Camelot.”