Miss Wilkins At Home

by Margaret Hamilton Welch

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXXIII No. 4 (January 27, 1900)

Somewhat over a dozen years ago there began to creep into magazines and other periodicals short stories of New England village life, not strikingly remarkable at first, perhaps, but showing to the critical reader a strong and growing skill in presenting the rural types of the region with which they exclusively dealt. With each succeeding story this skill developed and appreciation grew, until soon the general reading public became aware that in the little village of Randolph, Massachusetts, there had risen a new and shining star in the firmament of fiction, and the name of the star was Mary Eleanor Wilkins.

Randolph bears being drawn out into the “white light” with becoming modesty. Conscious of its nearness to Boston, which is only a Sheridan's ride away, it can accept placidly the rôle of birthplace and present home of a famous author. With true New England stolidity, the station-agent directs the traveller seeking Miss Wilkins, “Up the hill, and turn to the right.” Once turned, the passer-by helps him on civilly, but without enthusiasm, by the advice “to follow the street out to the fork, keep to the right, and the house is opposite the second turn-out of the trolley track.” The glibness of the directions indicates frequent repetition, and the inquirer walks on through the wide, pleasant avenue, noting the cheerfully attractive residences on either side, confident that one will soon resolve itself into the home he seeks. Sure enough, after a five minutes' walk, somewhat back from the roadway, and directly in front of “turn-out” number two, the house is found — a square, many-windowed, country structure, painted white, with green blinds. From the gate a straight flower-edged path leads to the little porch; it is not more than half traversed before observation of the house ceases and other surroundings are forgotten, for the door opens, and out through it steps, with smiling welcome, a graceful, delicate-featured, blue-eyed woman — the lady of his quest.

Of special appropriateness is any account in Harper's Bazar of Miss Wilkins and her work, for it was in its columns that her first pay story saw the light. Before that there had been recognition and encouragement in two or three places; but to Miss Mary L. Booth, then editor of the Bazar, was first submitted the initial attempt of the author to offer a story for sale. It is history now how Miss Booth, influenced by the immature handwriting of the copy, at first put aside the manuscript, thinking some child had written it. Later, glancing it over, her attention was arrested, and she read it through. Impressed, but not quite convinced, she subjected the story to her test for all manuscripts that attracted her: she read it at three different times, and in as many moods. The little tale, “Two Old Lovers,” came triumphantly through the ordeal, and Miss Booth accepted it, and made the young author radiantly happy with a check for twenty-five dollars.

Three collections of short stories, with a fourth in press, four novels, one play, and a collection of juvenile stories make up the list of Miss Wilkins's published work since this Bazar introduction. Her stories have been translated into French, Italian, and German — at the moment Pembroke is running as a serial in the Revue de Paris; and Jerome, her latest important novel, is being dramatized for early production on the American stage.

Public choice of her short stories differs from her own. It is not “Silence,” which she prefers, but “The Revolt of Mother,” that is most popular with the world at large. With women this is a universal favorite — why, its author does not know, “unless,” she explains, with a twinkle in her eye that is her father's humor asserting itself, “so many women want to revolt.” But men like the story too. Only the other day Governor Roosevelt, addressing a gathering of mothers at Albany, advised them to read it, as it contained a valuable moral lesson.

Of her novels Jerome has obtained the widest reading.

Brattleboro, Vermont, Miss Wilkins says seems more her native place than Randolph. She left Randolph when very young, and lived at Brattleboro through her childhood and girlhood, returning to Massachusetts on the death of her father, a few years ago. The family circle, counting but four at its largest, is now solely represented by Miss Wilkins. Her mother has long been dead; and as no sister was ever hers, the death, since the loss of her father, of her only brother leaves her alone so far as immediate family is concerned. This deprivation of close ties is mitigated by the happy conditions in which she lives. She shares the home of a life-long friend, Miss Mary Wales, the relations between the two being rarely complementary and sympathetic.

Though by no means a recluse, Miss Wilkins is not much of a traveller, and, save for occasional brief visits to friends, most of the year is passed at Randolph. Here are her workshop and her hearth-stone; here she receives visitors, who seek her out from all parts of the world, and here she is the idol of loving neighbors and friends.

In the low cozy rooms, book-strewn, and housing many interesting trophies and tributes of successful authorship, is dispensed a gracious hospitality. If the guest will linger he may be regaled with some chafing-dish confection, for in this cooking Miss Wilkins delights, and with ardor she pursues its development. It is whispered among her friends, indeed, that more than she prizes a fresh plot does she value a new receipt; certainly at her rites as priestess of the alcohol shrine she makes a fair picture, and to watch her in this rôle “composing” an original creation is to see her in one of her most interested and interesting moments. For the benefit of other devotees of the chafing-dish the formula for her latest improvisation is appended. “It sounds impossible,” says its author, “but it tastes delicious”:

Fry two small slices of salt pork with a little onion in some butter. After a minute or two, take out the pork and stir in flour and a little milk for a sauce. Chop the head parts of a pint of clams and add them with their liquor, the juice of half a lemon, paprika, and a good dash of Worcestershire sauce. When it is a smooth, hot cream it is ready to be served.

To attempt a description of Miss Wilkins's personal appearance is as difficult as to photograph her correctly. She belongs, physically, to that class of blond women whose type is represented wholly in the coloring of hair and eyes and complexion. The camera produces Miss Wilkins's delicate regular features, but it fails to light them with the gold of hair, the blue of eye, and the delicate bloom of skin that are hers. In conversation she has a straightforward, simple manner that has a touch of mannishness in its directness, while at the same time her femininity is one of her most prominent characteristics. She is absolutely without affectation in speaking of her work. She does not belittle it, but talks of it with a frank simplicity that is misleading, and sometimes entraps her listener into the temporary belief that there is nothing so wonderful about it, after all; that this modest unspoiled woman has not had her name flung broadcast over two continents in honored recognition of the gift of genius.

This misleading quality of her conversational reference to her work, for example, is apparent when she replies to that stock question of the author's interviewer, “Do you have a regular time to write?”

“Yes; but I never write in it,” Miss Wilkins answers, so promptly and almost carelessly as to give to her listener a first impression that putting together these stories, in which a large part of the world delights, is her least concern. Afterward one knows better.

“I say,” she continues, “that I will write a thousand words a day, but I rarely do so. Usually I let the days pass till my time is up, and then I write hard from morning till night. I have composed seven thousand words a day, type-writing them myself as I go; but a day of work like that tires me greatly, and I am idle for several succeeding days, recovering from it. I do not dictate — have never even tried it — because I am sure it would be impossible for me. I use the type-writer from the start, rushing ahead when in the throes of composition, without pausing to correct any errors either of the machine or of grammar or style. This rough copy I carefully revise before sending it away for a second fair type-written copy. I use two machines, and keep two novels going, one on each, at the same time. It rests me to change from one story to another, or perhaps I should say that sometimes I am in the mood for one more than for the other, and I work at the one which suits me best at the moment.

“Moods? Yes, I have them, as I suppose any worker in any field must have in relation to his work. There come days when I cannot write at all; then I wait. At other times I write with an effort, and accordingly accomplish much less.

“I like my work, yes; and I have, too, in performing it, a sense of duty because it is my work and I can do it. Fame and money are acceptable to me, but if I had plenty of each I would still write. Not that I put a moral purpose in my books, except the underlying one of fidelity to my art, but because, as I have already said, this is my talent, the thing that I can do, and I must do it.”

Although Miss Wilkins has passed her life in two New England villages, and may thus presumably have studied carefully the New England village men and women that pass in crowded procession through her books, yet it is rarely that she transfers to her pages a real personage.

“Some of my characters,” she says, “are taken from life, though never while they are living. All in my books who are real are dead. Barney in Pembroke was drawn from life, only the real Barney was very much worse than I made him. He never went back to his sweetheart, and was a wreck in consequence.”

For the most part, however, Miss Wilkins depicts types rather than individuals. They are composite personages whose characteristics are perhaps often suggested by some individuals she has met. Occasionally her skill in making her characters do the things that individuals of the type they represent would do in similar environment is remarkably confirmed. After her story The Conquest of Humility appeared, in which one of the characters satisfied his conscience by sitting on the church steps during the service, his pride preventing him from entering, Miss Wilkins received a letter from a stranger in a Connecticut village, telling of a man in the town who had done exactly that thing. This gift of showing human nature, and particularly New England human nature, actually and naturally, is Miss Wilkins's large claim to genius, as every one knows. Her touch is sure and unerring, her style simple but marvellously graphic. She can sketch a character and tell a life history in half a dozen lines. Here is one of these gems — the paragraph describing Mrs. Penn in “The Revolt of Mother”:

“She was a small woman, short and straight-waisted like a child, in her brown cotton gown. Her forehead was mild and benevolent between the smooth curves of gray hair; there were meek downward lines about her nose and mouth; but her eyes, fixed upon the old man, looked as if the meekness had been the result of her own will, never of the will of another.”

Her recent book, The Jamesons, Miss Wilkins calls a study, claiming that an author may publish a study as well as an artist. The work could easily have been amplified and the sketch filled in with many additional strokes. The idea came to her that to the oft-presented picture of country folk in the city there was a companion one of city folk in the country. The Jamesons is merely an outline drawing of one of them. Some of her critics have taken the story as an evidence of a departure on her part from the particular field in which she has been successful; it has even been called in some reviews an ironical study of the modern reforming woman; but Miss Wilkins disclaims all this. Before The Jamesons, it had been apparent that its author was enlarging her art-gallery to depict broader and more complicated scenes than the mosaics she had wrought with consummate skill. It is still with simple country folks that she delights to deal, though the story of Jerome glows with a richer coloring than any which had preceded it. Apropos of this story, it is interesting to note that in the dramatization of it, already referred to, the title rôle will be taken by Walter E. Perkins, whose portrayal of the barber theosophist in the farce “My Friend from India” is easily recalled. Mr. Perkins is to play Jerome from boyhood up — a task at which he rather hesitated at first; but Miss Wilkins, who has read the play and talked with Mr. Perkins, is very much delighted with it all, and confident that the rôle will be finely presented.

The new novel at which she is hard at work is a strictly modern one, the scene laid in the shoe-factory of a large city. Miss Wilkins says of it: “I do not try to solve the labor problem. I simply present it. The story seems to me to promise well. I like it myself. It is rather realistic, but not grimly so, its pathos being cheerful rather than tragic. I may call it ‘Ellen,’ though I wanted the title to be ‘The Unit of Destiny’; but nobody seems to understand what I mean by that, so perhaps I shall give it up. I do not know when it will be finished, for I will not limit myself with it, as I have often done with my stories.”

As has been said, her favorite story among her own is “Silence.” This she considers the best, although some of her most intimate editorial friends disagree with her, and give to “A Tree of Knowledge” the palm of superiority. What appeals to her in “Silence” is its dramatic element. She likes dramatic things, and is eager to put that force into her stories. Her nature is intense, though her manner is quiet, and it is her intensity that gets away from the point of her pen almost unconsciously. In a way, Miss Wilkins has scarcely the confidence in her work that should belong to an author of her success. It is her habit to read a novel upon which she is at work, chapter by chapter, to a little circle of intimate friends, and their judgment she eagerly welcomes. Outside of this she does not seek much criticism. She declares herself afraid of it, dreading lest she should attempt to conform to suggestions, not, of course, small suggestions, but to the substance of criticism, and thus cripple herself. She has undaunted faith in herself, coupled with what may be called a merciless modesty. “I have tremendous confidence,” she says, “in my ability to do, but I never think I do it. I believe I can write the great American novel, but I never shall believe that I have. I always think I can, but I never think I do. If I could write a book like Lorna Doone, or Anna Karenina, or Quo Vadis, or the story of Gasta Burling by that new Swedish writer, I should be happy. All of these stories have tremendously impressed me, and I am divided, after reading them, between an uplifted courage to attempt to equal them and a sense of powerlessness to accomplish it. I hope, though, and know,” Miss Wilkins finished, a flash of strong purpose in her eyes, “that I have not done my best.”

Those who have watched her work, and enjoyed it from the beginning on and up, feel sure that this is true.