A New England Recluse

Albert Doyle

From Donahoe's Magazine Vol. XXXV No. 3 (March, 1896)

An old-fashioned farmhouse is her cloister, a desk her altar, and soulful thoughts are the offerings which she makes to the deities.

On a wide, elm-bordered street, but half a mile from the post office in Randolph, Massachusetts, lives Mary E. Wilkins, perhaps America's greatest writer of short stories. Here she has lived since her early girlhood, and here she has written those sweet tales which have charmed readers of all countries. The “rosary of her years” is a blessed one. Each bead tells of some joy given to the world, and speaks of pure messages breathed into an age which sorely needs them.

It is a joy to read her books. It is like taking a breath of fresh, pure country air, full of sweetness, and laden with odors of the wild grape, and of new-mown hay, and of violets. You read of blue skies, and green fields, and white fields, and honest, hard-working men, and hard-working, honest women, and country girls and boys, simple and lovable, like many whom we knew in the past. And that is the sad part of her stories. We cannot remember any of her characters now living with us, yet we know we have met them in the dead days, and we grieve that they are gone, and love the writer for bringing them back to us.

When I thought of preparing this sketch of Miss Wilkins and her home for Donahoe's Magazine, I received from her, in reply to a letter of mine, a note in which she said: —

“I really feel honored that Donahoe's, a distinctly Catholic magazine, should feel interested in a writer of different religious antecedents like myself. It makes me hope that my work may not have offended any of those religious faiths which should be held sacred in any soul where they exist, but has simply served the common cause of humanity, which implies all creeds.”

Have you ever seen the likeness of Roumania's beautiful queen, “Carmen Sylva?” It is of her picture that I thought when I first saw Miss Wilkins. The same firm, classical mouth, and the same eyes as “steadfast as the twins of Loeda.” She has blue eyes, and auburn hair, and a small, graceful figure. Her complexion is charming, and is said to be her one vanity. Her gowns are marvels of simplicity and good taste. She is all one imagines her to be from her books, and that is a great compliment to her.

The street upon which her home is located is one which is noted for its beauty. Its praises have often been printed. It passes through the village from north to south, and winds over the Blue Hills, Bostonward. To describe her home her own words will do, as written in that sweet, unsatisfactory story “A Symphony in Lavender.”

“The house is one of those square, white-painted, green-blinded edifices, which marked the wealth and importance of the dweller therein half a century or so ago. It has no beauty in itself, being boldly plain and glaring, like all of its kind; but the green waving boughs of the elms and the lilacs, and the undulating shadows they cast, toned it down and gave it an air of coolness, and quiet, and lovely reserve.”

There is a barn connected with the house, and a row of rambling out-buildings lends to its picturesqueness. A wide hay-field lies back of and beside the house, and in the barnyard is a cider press, and usually a row of shining milk cans, airing in the sun. A pretty black and white heifer stood in the yard while the photograph which accompanies this article was being taken. Opposite her house is an old school building. The scene has one flaw for a picture; for modern customs have deemed it necessary to illuminate the street with incandescent lights, and to run trolley cars in front of the door of this real old New England farmhouse.

The north side of the house is occupied by Miss Wilkins. She has a reception room and a library down stairs, and the furnishings and decorations of these rooms have many evidences of the simple yet artistic tastes that you would expect in her home. Warm colors predominate, and bright bits of bric-a-brac, comfortable couches and fauteuils, and a cheerful old-fashioned looking fireplace give an exceedingly hospitable appearance to the apartments. Here all of her stories are written, not in one particular room, for she has a desk in each of them, and writes in the room her fancy chooses. Her bookcases are well filled with all the better books of fiction and poetry. Her favorite writers of English prose are Dickens and Thackeray, and complete sets of the works of these writers are on her shelves.

Her writing is legible, and her language and punctuation are perfect; and as her stories are formulated from start to finish in her brain before they are put on paper, she never copies her manuscript, and it rarely demands correction. She has a odd little trick of abbreviating her conjunction “and” to “ad.” Her stories she writes on white letter paper with black ink; but for her personal correspondence she uses an unruled gray paper of note size, with her address in blue letters at the top of each sheet.

The first of her stories to receive critical attention was “Two Old Lovers,” which appeared after a number of fairy tales and dainty morsels of versification had been printed. It was followed by others in quick succession, each establishing with more firmness her literary prestige, which reached its greatest height in “Pembroke.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes was among the first to recognize her great ability. He sent for her to visit him at his home. James Russell Lowell read her stories and sent her kindly letters of praise. She visited both of them before they died, and received from these two world-famous littérateurs not only praise, but thanks, for having written such sweet and simple tales. Dr. Conan Doyle writes from across the water that “Pembroke” is one of the two novels in a century which have a psychological depth.

Miss Wilkins now has so many engagements to write, that she will accept no more. Instead of seeking publishers, editors seek her, and yet with all her fame and her increasing fortune she still preserves her sweet modesty and simplicity of manner. She flits about her house in wrappers of tasteful hue, aiding in the household duties of the good family with whom she lives. She takes a daily walk down the shaded streets of the town, and occasionally drives out in the old-fashioned family carriage. Frequently, too, she may be seen behind a pair of thoroughbreds in a stylish cart placed at her disposal by one of the opulent residents of the town, for Randolph is not so rural as some writers would have us think, and there is but very little provincialism shown in its houses or its stables.

In manner Miss Wilkins is not so reserved as she appears to strangers. It is her natural diffidence and non-obtrusiveness which give her the reputation of frigidity. She waits for her visitor to make the advances. She attends the social functions of the town, as well as all the literary receptions in Boston. She plays whist well, is a substitute memeber of a whist club, and attends the meetings frequently. She talks as well as she writes, and has a vast fund of anecdotes which she tells in a most interesting way.

She has a famous chafing dish, and from it she brings forth many delightful confections. Each Saturday evening she entertains a small circle of friends, and from her magic lamp she conjures a host of good things. She attempted at one time to count the different dishes which she prepared by means of her chafing dish, but they were too numerous to tally. These Saturday evenings of Miss Wilkins' are charming gatherings, and invitations to them are coveted by Randolphites. Music and card playing and bon mots enliven the early hours, and then the edibles, true Bohemian dishes, are brought forth. Delicious rarebits, mutton-chops, and salads are standard features of the feast, and broiled live lobsters, sent that evening from the city, are never omitted from the menu.

The majority of those who live near her and know her by sight, display the greatest astonishment as they speak of her fame. They do not seem to understand how the little dramas, full of situations, characters, and words so familiar to them, could have given the writer such a high place in the literary world. Every newspaper utterance in regard to her is greeted with the same words of surprise. Their astonishment knew no bounds when she wrote a two-thousand-dollar prize detective story, and they are amazed when they hear a stranger from distant parts inquire if Randolph is not the home of Mary E. Wilkins. It is only very recently that they commenced to point her out on the streets to visiting friends.

Miss Wilkins does not court notoriety. She is very retiring and modest, and says that an interviewer is a bête noir to her. She has always been averse to having anything of a personal or opinionative nature appear in print. She says that in regard to most subjects broached by interviewers, her opinions are not sufficiently formulated to allow of expression. Even close friends have been refused “personal talks” for publication. She does not think that letting the world know her idea of the new woman, or the name of her favorite flower, book, or hero, will make the world wiser. She is always hospitable to writers who call upon her, and in an impersonal way will give them every assistance.

Miss Wilkins' friends are all devoted to her. They call her familiarly by her first name — Mary. Her middle name was her mother's, “Eleanor.” Her modest charities make her much loved; and although to public charity she has made it a rule never to give pecuniary aid, she is always ready to assist by writing a salable story, or by giving photographs or autographs to be placed on sale.