Literary Folk — Their Ways and Their Work

From The Saturday Evening Post (January 18, 1902)

A Book by Miss Wilkins

By Lilian Bell

I began to read Mary Wilkins' novel, The Portion of Labor (Harper & Brothers), hoping from its unusual beginning for another of the clear-cut, decisive stories which we have learned to expect from her prolific pen. I laid the book down wondering what views she had held when she wrote it. I should like to talk with her about it. I should like to say: “Miss Wilkins, do you like your heroine, Ellen Brewster? Do you think she accomplished anything, or will there be a sequel telling what she really did after she married Robert Lloyd? I can imagine just how she, after becoming one of the gentry, would argue every night at dinner in her soft stubbornness, from her narrow labor view, against her husband's principles, while all the time accepting the luxuries his capital ideas purchased. Why did you draw so charming a sketch of boy and girl love only to throw over the reader at last and let her marry Robert?”

The book has left me floundering. To my mind it would appear as if Miss Wilkins herself had mercilessly blue-penciled her own free-born creations in order to fit anarchy into a Fifth Avenue setting. Mrs. Lloyd, one of the most unimportant characters in the book, is to me the most lovable. Cynthia Lennox started off bravely by being almost a villain, and a most captivating villain, but she tailed off into a selfish woman, with outward graces, but full of unexpected hardnesses which repelled me just when I was about to relent and like her.

As to the heroine, Ellen Brewster, when I discovered that if I were to live up to the exigencies of the occasion I must love this obviously and inevitably lovable young person, I gave myself up to the task of trying to love her with all the fervor at my disposal. But my love recoiled upon me. I found her gentle mulishness so irritating that midway in the story I gave it up and just let her succulent New England firmness rasp me. Her unblushing effrontery in trying to get another situation in Rowe after inciting the senseless and inhuman strike which caused thousands of innocent dependents to suffer, while she was comparatively sheltered from all ills, was so appalling to me that I was delighted when she got refusal after refusal.

Mrs. Zelotes Brewster, always holding her dress up in front and letting it trail in the back, is one of the few consistent characters in the book. She convinces. So does Fanny. So does poor patient Andrew. The others in the book leave me agape. Are they, or are they not? Where do they begin? Where do they end? It is like catching a glimpse of a procession in the middle of it. I hear the music and the tramping feet, but whither do they march? Who is reviewing them?

Now everybody knows that a woman of Mary Wilkins' decisive character knows what she believes. Everybody knows that she could have written a ripping novel on labor had she chosen. Why didn't she?

Mrs. Humphry Ward would have turned Robert Lloyd into a Socialist, and Robert and Ellen would have ceased to wobble and would have stood on firm ground waving their hands at the reader as the book closed, with the light of a steadfast purpose in their eyes.