From The Bookman Vol. XXIV (September, 1906)
In spite of being by no means first upon the ground, Miss Wilkins (beginning with A Humble Romance in 1887) has succeeded in extracting from her chosen field upwards of a dozen volumes, dealing with local life and character as spontaneously as if no predecessor had ever ventured upon the soil of New England. And notwithstanding her illustrious forbears, A Humble Romance won instant recognition for its sure touch and unmistakable personal note.
Using a restricted canvas, a small scale, Miss Wilkins immediately showed a perspective, an atmosphere, compared to which the snap-shots of our many brilliant young writers appear like the thin, accurate outlines drawn by a savage or a clever child. It is the absence of all journalistic taint which gives her work its quality. Her scope may be limited, but within it she knows. Depth beyond depth is open to her. Her mental processes lie at the farthest possible remove from impressionism. It is conceivable that before unfamiliar sights or people the picture reflected upon her retina might lack force and distinction. It is out of infinite comprehension, out of a wealth of information, that she selects a poverty-stricken cottage, a gaunt old woman, a cat! With unerring elimination she seizes the telling detail. In each minute study (and a score of pages suffice for the majority of them) you are put in full possession of any facts necessary for understanding the past of every character; and this is done so imperceptibly that you are unaware of being “posted,” of anything beyond the gentle, uninterrupted forward movement. The stories moreover are never inter-dependent. Each stands quite alone. If all were lost but A New England Nun no explanation, no sidelights, would be required to make clear this crystalline little tale. Louisa Ellis is engaged to a young villager of her own class, but her unconsciously celibate temperament slowly chills him. She is an inverted Galatea. With the outward semblance of a living woman, on the approach of love (although in a highly restrained form) she turns to marble. Relieved at her lover's defection, she goes happily back to her immaculate housewifery, … . “prayerfully numbering her days like an uncloistered nun.”
Equally complete, A Village Singer ends with a turn of inimitable humour. Deposed from the choir for singing out of tune, and literally dying of the blow, Candace Whitcomb makes her peace with heaven, forgives her enemies, even calls upon her successor to sing a hymn.
Candace lay and listened. Her face had a holy and radiant expression. When Alma stopped singing it did not disappear, but she looked up and spoke, and it was a secondary glimpse of the old shape of a forest tree through the smoke and flame of the transfiguring fire the instant before it falls. … . “You flatted a little on — soul,” said Candace.
To read about Miss Wilkins's old women gives all the satisfaction of watching remarkably disagreeable weather from a post of comfort and safety. A deaf spinster (in An Object of Love) is turned from piety to atheism by the disappearance of her cat. The gentle young minister is at his wits' end how to cope with such a situation. … “It seemed to him bordering upon sacrilege to treat this trouble of Anne Millet's like a genuine affliction, though, on the other hand, that treatment was what her state of mind seemed to require.”
Willy, the missing pet, is found in his own cellar, Anne's deaf ears having failed to register his mewings.
The next meeting night Anne was in her place. The minister saw her, rejoicing. After meeting he hurried out of his desk to speak to her. … . “I'm so happy to see you are feeling better.” “The cat has come back,” said Anne.
In the census of a Mary Wilkins village the proportion of inhabitants would approximate sixty women upwards of seventy years old, five old men, fifteen middle-aged women, eight middle-aged men, seven girls, three eligible bachelors, two children. Of these, forty old women would be intolerable, ten merely difficult, and ten victims to the rest. Three old men out of five could be set down as narrow, detestable tyrants, two (weak brothers) show amiability. The middle-aged men and women are in good training to succeed their elders. Young girls represent every degree of voluntary and enforced repression. Of the young men, mark two as thoroughly developed mules, well-meaning, honourable, but as “set” as their fathers before them. The third may be a reasonable creature, who consents to defer the wedding for ten years till his betrothed can buy a silk dress or pay off her father's mortgage. Failing to be of heroic stuff, number three usually breaks down and marries a girl from another village. The life is as narrow as that of a Kaffir in his kraal. In one place only do two men fall out over politics. These descendants of a race bred to religious dispute, to thought, inherit an acuteness, an eternal mental activity, which is now steadily turned upon their own and their neighbours' small affairs. Their very virtues seem to make them only the drier and harder. Each feels and suffers intensely, walled up inside his or her own personality. When they break loose it is like a geyser of ice-water. Cold storage has robbed their passions of all genial warmth. The throbbing of their own hearts rends and tears them. Their precise, inelastic language is inexpressive of emotion. Yet they are sensitive, not inarticulate peasants more like dumb animals than sentient human beings.
Their rare, prolonged courtships, scanty families, depressed young people, are entirely remote from the joys and sorrows, the devil-may-care attitude of ordinary poor communities. They are strikingly like the Scotch, in a land without Scotch whiskey! The love affairs suggest pale Arctic blossoms, pitifully testifying to the renewing power of nature, to her constant struggle to claim her due, to accomplish her work amid frozen, rock-bound surroundings, where a brief summer barely snatches a moment's respite from storm and hardship. The descriptions give scene and figures without a superfluous word. Every event is well prepared, but without emphasis, and characterisation of people abounds in passages of rare discrimination.
She was a small woman and quite young, with a bright alertness about her which had almost the effect of prettiness. It was to her what greenness and crispness are to a plant.
That bit is unsurpassed in directness, as is this, of an old man hunting a lost girl:
He had a natural scent for glory, but he was like an animal reared at a distance from his native prey, and had little opportunity to exercise it.
Her analogy is swift and sure; with the eye of a realist she uses the symbolism of a romantic. In these small glimpses she shows her grasp upon the foundation of her characters, but she seldom openly dissects. Giving you their actual presence, their lives, how they live them, she merely indicates the underlying mental processes, seldom dragging them out into the light of day. You bring away a paradoxical suspicion that owing to the religious repression of centuries these people often inherit the sense of repression without the sense of religion. Then, thanks to generations of chaste living, the women have evolved a purely celibate temperament. This frequently tramples over an eligible suitor, a comfortable establishment. In many instances it turns to a dogged, senseless fidelity to an unwilling object. In the case of many who actually go so far as to marry, the woman seems shortly to revert to an acrid virginity, rendering her fiercely intolerant towards the love affairs of young people. The naked virtues of this community, truth, honesty, decency, self-reliance, endurance, cleanliness, thrift, make the story of their lives a wholesome tonic — taken in small doses. As a prophylactic, in connection with a course of French novels, the effect is beneficial. Taken too lavishly, without corrective, it might easily foster an appetite for fiction that is “high” in a sense more often applied to game than to literature. Whereas the French entirely accept every manifestation of nature, merely asking “What shall we do about this?” these New Englanders seem to have no general problem. Their attitude is the inheritance of a special race. The stranger will seldom say, “How like people!” But almost invariably — “How like these people!”
If the stories are special to an extraordinary degree, they also show a distinction of workmanship a clearness, delicacy and sureness, which places them far beyond the “Rogers Groups” to which they have been rather stupidly compared. Curiously enough, being so very definite as to character and place, they have absolutely no date. Although reading them in mass would be depressing, the best of them are so complete as to give a sense of permanence. There is nothing to grow obsolete. The simple narrative with its unpretentious style, the perfect analogy, the clear outlines and cool grey tints — what is there here to fade?
If out of all her work two slender volumes were to be compiled of the best, so chosen as to avoid monotony, without question those volumes would be as interesting a hundred years hence as they are to-day, not only for themselves, but as records of a society bearing a sure sign of decadence, the utter domination of the young by the old.
Jane Field, Miss Wilkins's first novel, is a striking example of this trait. Throughout, the mother holds the central place. Jane's stern affection for her daughter, the violence done her conscience, her inability to reap the reward of her crime, this is the main theme. The story is beautifully told, without undue elaboration. The handful of characters stand out quite clear. Green River has the same proportion of people as her other villages. In the church —
the mass of them were middle-aged and elderly women, … a sprinkling of solemn old men, a few bright-ribboned girls, … and in the background a settee or two of smart young fellows.
Lois Field might stand for the typical Mary Wilkins girl, harking back to Hawthorne, but with more of Priscilla than of Hilda.
“I've seen young girls go down,” said Mrs. Green. “It seems sometimes as if there wan't nothin' more to them than flowers, and they fade away in a day.”
Amanda Pratt is really delightfully done — the gentle old maid who cuts a piece out of her good stocking and darns it, to match the hole in its fellow — who leaves her cat ten saucersful of milk, one for each day of her absence, trusting pussy to be as self-denying as she herself would have been. All this is told so simply that you are never asked to stop and admire.
The sober courtship of Lois and Francis Arms is delicately frigid. Surely no story-teller has chronicled so many austere wooings! Yet the chronicle is neither conventional nor superficial. You feel that just so would these young Puritans approach one another. You share their surprise that the voice of nature should ever speak to them. You almost wish that delicacy did not forbid Miss Wilkins from further revelations, and at the same time feel thankful for her reserve. The same sensitiveness which permits her to understand prevents her from revealing.
It is curious that while Barney Thayer's flowered waistcoat and Charlotte Barnard's neckerchief suggest a remote period for the novel of Pembroke, the story itself might equally well be of yesterday. Barney courts Charlotte with the full consent of both their families, barring Charlotte's father, Cephas, whose opposition is general, not particular, merely a phase of his concentrated opposition to everything.
One evening, near the time set for their wedding, Cephas inveighs Barney into a political discussion. They have “words.” They quarrel and Cephas orders Barney from the house.
Barney adores Charlotte, likewise he is too mulish to change his mind, once his ideas have been started in any direction, even about a woman. Not only through fidelity, but through obstinacy, he could not waver; moreover, in his queer way he has even a flash of physical passion for Charlotte. He is well off; she is poor. She and all concerned give him right in his quarrel with Cephas, yet he refuses to marry her. In his anger he has sworn not to marry the daughter of such a one as Cephas Barnard; and, like a balking horse, with fires built under it, blows raining down on it, rewards held out to it, he is agonisingly immovable. It is the hysteria, the orgy, the riot of self-repression — a nature that can only be expressed by absence of expression! He lives in growing anguish, inside the coffin-like existence he has made himself. As its sides contract, his living body grows more cramped within his self-imposed bonds. A pretty village coquette makes love to him, but he feels no wish to respond. This main theme is sustained by several lesser ones. Let us run over the characters: Cephas Barnard, crank and tyrant. His wife, a colourless, inefficient creature. Charlotte, fine, but abnormally steadfast and painfully inexpressive. Mrs. Thayer, obdurate, hard, suffering inwardly, but unflinching in turning a son and a daughter from her house and whipping a delicate child from sternest sense of duty, a task-mistress to her wavering, affectionate old husband. Rebecca Thayer, a defiant girl, driven into joyless misdoing by her mother's hardness. So much for the Thayers! Then the Berrys: Mr. Berry, tyrant, cheat and miser. He dominates a colourless wife and son. Rose, the coquette, might have been a gay, delightful creature — out of Pembroke! As it is, she merely seems a bit of thistledown, blown hither and thither, finally attaching herself to a mediocre lot. She is pretty, with the bloom so often recorded in these annals. Pointed elbows and thin arms show through a muslin dress. She has dilating pupils, sharp, delicate features, radiant with ephemeral bloom; she pants easily, sways in the wind. You foresee her in a few years, withered and ugly.
Then there is the loving old maid, Sylvia, who clings to her obstinate suitor, though he meanly abandons her because her door was once accidentally closed to his weekly visit. The story moves briskly to its end. Crippled with rheumatism, Barney finally consents to marry Charlotte, who has tarnished her reputation by nursing him.
Think what a proportion of unkind, intolerable people! That such qualities as principle, generosity and certain forms of self-sacrifice underly their hardness only makes them more exasperating. But the point is that Miss Wilkins induces you to believe that all these things happened. It seems strange, but you are convinced, and through all their hatefulness the author still cares for her people; yet her affection never so colours them as to render them tolerable to the reader. The whole condition is so alien that you read with interest, with admiration for her admirable story-telling. And the next time you pass through a neat white New England hamlet, you remember that these low-roofed, tidy cottages are inhabited by an alien race, whose heart-beats are different, whose methods of life and thought are so detached from the ordinary pulse of the world as they water their flowers and mix their eternal sweet-cakes, that the ordinary events of humanity — a courtship, a birth, a merry-making — almost strike a false note, as something inappropriate. Death alone seems the perfectly natural blossom of these well-tended gardens.
Madelon, perhaps, has more ordinary life and passion. Not that the author changes, but she happens to deal with people in whose veins other fluid moves than Anglo-Saxon and water. Madelon Hauteville, with her French-Indian ancestry, is a very different creature from the typical New England girl: at the same time, New England affiliations have so impressed that wild blood that Madelon is swayed by conscience as well as passion.
The story is full of unwonted violence. Burr Gordon flirts with Madelon, but seriously courts the parson's daughter, Dorothy Fair. Lot Gordon also courts Madelon. As he is middle-aged, consumptive and ironical, she naturally prefers Burr. Madelon lives with a tribe of half-wild brothers, trappers and hunters; the whole family are viewed somewhat askance by the villagers. Untamed, disturbing creatures, nevertheless owing to a useful accomplishment they are tolerated. Every Hauteville is a born musician.
Pleasure has not been banished from this village: there are dances, and enough young people to make such entertainments lively. At one of these parties, Burr so plainly shows his hand about Dorothy that Madelon, meeting him in the dark on a lonely path, stabs him. Unfortunately he and Lot have the same gait and general air; as her victim drops, Madelon sees that she has struck the wrong man. Burr joins them, and is found near Lot; suspicion falls on him, particularly as he would profit by Lot's death.
Madelon vainly tries to give herself up to justice. There is a conspiracy of silence between the two men, and Burr goes to jail with a fair chance of hanging, but Lot suddenly proclaims himself the criminal, having tried to commit suicide. The price of his telling this untruth and saving Burr is Madelon's promise of marriage.
From this situation the plot works out to a happy end; thereby losing force, since Madelon seems more consistent as a doomed and fateful creature than as a rather well-to-do Mrs. Burr Gordon. Nevertheless the story is interesting, full of movement, and significant in touching a broader field of action than the short stories. Moreover, in choosing a larger stage, the author seems to attain a wider sense of beauty. The book begins with a description of a snow-laden forest, which curiously recalls the beautiful opening of Under the Greenwood Tree. There is the same accuracy of vision, the same imaginative linking of past and present, the same super-sensitive appreciation of sound.
Take only two short paragraphs:
This was an old road, but little used of late years, and the forest seemed to be moving upon it with the unnoted swiftness of a procession endless from the beginnings of the world. … Everything was very still. The new-fallen snow seemed to muffle silence itself, and do away with that wide susceptibility to sound which affects one as forcibly as the crashing of cannon.
Lot talks of the wood:
“Set me down anywhere in the woods when there's a wind, and I'll tell ye what the trees are, if it's so dark ye can't see a leaf, by the way the boughs blow. The maples strike out stiff like dead men's arms, and the elms lash like live snakes, and the pine trees stir all together, like women.”
This is strikingly like the passage where Hardy speaks of the voices of oaks, birches and ash trees, but the resemblance arises from similar inspiration, not from plagiarism. On this occasion our author rises to true generalisation. The more violent theme seems to have quickened her pulse. Kisses here are less formal, more a matter of impulse than convention. Even the consumptive Lot views life with colour, speaks of it with a happy imagery. “There isn't a rose that's too good to take in a bee,” he remarks to Burr, a sentiment which would certainly have met disfavour in the eyes of a New England nun.
Though not as a whole equal to the short stories, Madelon contains more than one passage which belongs to the entire world of feeling and imagination. There is even a touch of genius in the description of a boy's soprano voice: “Louis . … raised his piercing sweet treble, which seemed to pass beyond hearing into fancy.”
In Jerome Miss Wilkins not only is more ambitious in the number of people introduced, but she also aims at recording gradual development of character. Although the book is full of interest, the author sees her own creatures so completely in the first flash of conception as to be slightly handicapped in any attempt to follow them in process of formation. The figure of Jerome himself never, as a whole, quite materialises, although episodically he has moments of undeniable life. You can think of him defying the doctor, you can think of him stitching shoes and planning to conquer fate, but you never succeed in realising him other than in glimpses.
Lucina Merritt, child of good fortune, finds Jerome Edwards nestling in the hollow of a sun-warmed rock, enjoying the relief from winter frosts. Baby as she is, Lucina divines that this barefoot little boy is poor and hungry; she offers him her chunk of gingerbread. He refuses it angrily and is only to be pacified when she accepts his bit of sassafras root. Delicate symbolism of what is to follow throughout their lives, where Lucina forever offers, and pride or principle forever goads Jerome to reject.
Fear of obligation lies like a scourge across the Edwards family. Mrs. Edwards, chair-ridden, painfully stitching shoes, yet sends a bowl of parsnip stew to a rich neighbour who once gave her a pitcher of lamb broth. Little Elmira Edwards, overworked and famished, must carry this gift to Mrs. Prescott before eating her own portion. Pride warms and nourishes this family. When Abel Edwards, the incompetent father, vanishes under a strong suspicion of suicide, Mrs. Edwards gives a decorous, though corpseless funeral, with sufficient tea and cake to have comforted the family through long weeks.
The story of Jerome's fight with poverty, the child forcing himself to a man's part, would be unbearable were it not for the author's intimate sense that the invincible thing in him, the unbreakable purpose, made life inevitable and therefore, in some strange way, worth while. A passion not of the senses throbs and quivers in Jerome, whether he be fighting and beating a bigger boy, wresting a living from the hard New England earth, or rejecting benefits.
Giving amounts to mania with him. Spurred on by the sight of mortgages being foreclosed, paternal acres sold for a song — all the detail of that condition which made of New England one vast deserted village — Jerome pledges himself, if ever money comes to him, to give it to the poor. His existence is adjusted to self-sacrifice, and then again Lucina Merritt crosses his path. With infinite lightness Miss Wilkins touches upon the embarrassment of love in the life of a young man who has left no place for it. Still, you wonder at such self-mastery. These are human beings — they love and suffer — but surely they conduct matters after a fashion of their own. No doubt Mrs. Edwards was eternally unflinching, no doubt Paulina Maria refused the money to save her blind son's eyesight. No doubt John Upham denied a doctor to his ailing baby, no doubt Jerome dominated his love. Perhaps all of the noble and difficult actions are the commonplace of New England village life. At least, while reading Jerome you almost believe it. On laying down the book, however, you grow suddenly inclined to protest. Yet, whether they truly are quite as Miss Wilkins here sees them, is hardly relevant, since she sees them so sincerely that her complete vision makes a consistent picture.
It is a common mistake to confound her absence of flame with lack of passion. Passion she has, but it is still, white heat, never a ruddy glow. It is the passion that sustains a sentinel quietly starving at his post, not the fury of cavalry charges.
Her humour is made up of insight and happy analogy. She does not provoke open laughter when she describes a schoolmarm as “mildly and assentingly good, virtue having, like the moon, only its simple illuminated side towards her vision.” The titillation is too delicate for noisy mirth.
In Jerome there is the comfort of seeing some well-fed people (though sugar predominates distressingly in their diet). Miss Camilla Merritt has servants, a fine old house, a boy to weed her garden. Cream goes with her tea, and plum cake. Squire Merritt and his cronies play for small stakes and drink Mrs. Merritt's punch. Lucina has pretty clothes and a saddle horse. The Squire secretly prefers fishing to church-going. Yet the atmosphere of Puritanism never weakens. As in Pembroke and Madelon, the time of the story is vaguely remote; but if of doubtful benefit, this can hardly be rated a disadvantage, as, save for the matter of a hoop-skirt or two, never was period less emphasised.
It is not easy to decide whether there are too many characters, or whether so many dour New Englanders make rather oppressive company. Jerome, Elmira, Dr. Prescott, Mrs. Edwards, Ozias Lamb, John Upham, Paulina Maria and the blind Henry doggedly knitting are all fierce with repressive pride, yet the whole book, in one point, surpasses Pembroke in its all-pervading sense of beauty. You actually linger upon the descriptions of nature instead of skipping them.
This attraction is denied to The Portion of Labour, as here the stage is set in a manufacturing town. It is, moreover, fairly crowded with figures, some sharply realised like old Mrs. Zelotes Brewster, whose pride rates her own poor belongings above the richest possessions of other people — some shadowy and unconvincing, as Cynthia Lennox, a rich woman who for two whole days plays kidnapper to a lost child — and some, like Robert Lennox, the leading young man, who never seems more alive than the photograph of a tailor's dummy. Although The Portion of Labour deals with a strike, it is in no sense a labour novel. The trouble at Lloyds should be merely considered as an incident in the development of Ellen Brewster. Miss Wilkins rigidly abstains from taking sides, and if her sympathy obviously lies with the needy, her treatment of the problem is hardly such as to gratify the friends of Organised Labour.
Here, as ever, she is intensely personal. She sees in detail. Large issues do not animate her, and if both here and in Jerome there are prickings of Socialism, they come rather of an impulse towards the poor than from any specialised spirit of revolt. To be truthful, The Portion of Labour is long, and not too well held together, and as occasionally happens in this writer's sustained efforts, her style suffers, the analogies grow forced. No doubt she is bigger for occasionally venturing further afield. In so doing she is saved from shallowness, from tricks of repetition, from atrophy; but the flights themselves unveil weakness. At the same time, in that very weakness there is revelation of the source of her strength. She is absolutely free from didacticism. She is no showman objectively displaying her prim old maids, her girls with their fragile arms, sharp features and evanescent bloom. You sometimes doubt if she can have the slightest conception of how these New Englanders appear to the outside world, how forbidding their virtues, how bewildering their fierce, cold tenderness, how deplorable their tyranny of conscience. You suspect that to her they are just ordinary humanity, the norm! Being of them to her inmost fibre, she vibrates with their passions, stiffens with their pride. Her mouth might even grow moist at the sight of their endless pies and sweet-cakes. They are her people and she loves them!
It is not only the poor. Comfortable old ladies in rich silks, dispensing old-fashioned hospitality from ancestral silver and porcelain, are no less dear to her than ancient crones fighting off the poorhouse in wayside cottages; but city-bred creatures like Cynthia Lennox seem out of the realm of her sympathies, and as it is through sympathy and emotion that she sees, such portraits are dim and ill-realised.
She never dislikes one of her eccentric villagers, domineering old men and women, insanely obstinate lovers, lukewarm New England nuns. To her they are comprehensible and therefore lovable, like a dog made cross by confinement. She no more presents them as specimens than decent people exhibit their grandmothers in a museum. If she chances to leave a genuine record of New England — when the farms were being abandoned, before country trolleys and rich settlers had brought back a measure of the prosperity that perished with the whale fisheries and the decline of a local agriculture — that is chance. She is nowhere a self-conscious observer and historian. There is no contrast, no point of observation. Her eye never rests on her audience. Absorbed in each story, identified with every character, she narrates spontaneously. In consequence, when she attempts a character with which she cannot be identified, whose outlook is different, whose skin she can by no possibility inhabit, that character fails. But this failure comes of her very sincerity. Curiously enough, the same condition affects her style. She has actually forged herself a medium. In the short stories it is pure, simple and tinged with a provincialism which admirably fits it to its subject. A skilful homeliness bridges over the gap between the delicately indicated dialect spoken by the characters and a tongue suited for literary narrative. She has found a perfect compromise, something as far from commonness as the manners of her gentle provincial ladies, yet, like them, vaguely savouring of rusticity. In the novels this is not always the case, and in The Portion of Labour the provincialisms grow aggressive, and for a curious reason. While unable to blend with the town rich, she perfectly identifies herself with the city poor, and as they are common, the commonness of their speech invades her narrative. She tells of “horseback-riding,” of Ellen's “rubbers,” of Mr. Lloyd's holding the “lines” (reins), of how Floretta “toed out.” You rub your eyes. Can this be your Miss Wilkins? And what freak of anatomy was the “silent arm” which Ellen flung about her father's neck? And then you remember bits so fine and thoughtful as almost to reconcile to an abuse of “gotten” amounting to positive self-indulgence. Take the reflection upon Ellen: “The child might have been in some subtle and uncanny fashion the offspring of her age and generation instead of her natural parents” — simple, obvious even, but who before has said it so luminously?
Miss Wilkins has been compared to the Dutch and Flemish genre painters, to Gerard Dow, but the likeness is founded on a fancied similarity of subject. It entirely ignores the naïf quality of her style which (at its best) gives her the charm of something greater than skill, the touching sincerity of the primitives. And as the price of that naïveté, we must of course be prepared to accept certain limitations.
Of her latest novel, The Debtor, it is well to speak with reserve. Miss Wilkins's transplanted genius proves its vitality by an effort to strike out new roots in the strange soil of New Jersey. But in leaving her own people, in losing that intense vibration with the perfectly understood, Miss Wilkins necessarily imperils her real ground of distinction. As her vibration is all the stronger for being special, not universal, so in new fields it becomes less available. The lack of journalistic quality, which places her so high in her own rank, becomes a handicap when she breaks fresh ground. In classing her as a specialist, it must not be overlooked that if she has chiefly confined herself to one locality, to one branch of the human race, within that boundary her observation knows no limit. Take her flowers, her trees, her birds, her animals. Here again are no snap-shots, no “clever” sketches, but a deep, sentient familiarity with the ways of nature, and in such vignettes as The Cat, The Monkey, The Squirrels, she ventures beyond the realm of her etherialized realism into a country bordering upon fable.
Nothing could be more gayly whimsical than the points of view in The Squirrels. The farmer and his wife never harvest so much as a windfall from their English walnut tree. When after years of disappointment the old man finds the squirrels' hoard under his wood-pile he has every sense of being plundered.
When the squirrels see their winter store taken by this marauder, their sense of property is equally outraged. The situation grows tragic. You shrink in anticipation of starved furry bodies, limp, bushy tails.
The farmer relents, but Mrs. Farmer can see in the squirrels only law-breakers. She sends him to the loft for a dish of walnuts.
“I dunno as I want any,” he remarks as he pounds them. “I never did care much about nuts anyway, and somehow I've always felt as if we'd stole the squirrels' after they'd worked so hard.” “How silly you be!” said his wife, but she looked at him lovingly. “You were always too tender-hearted for your own good. Talk about stealing; it was the squirrels that stole our nuts.”
(Perhaps her admonition would have been less gentle had she known of that bag of shagbarks which her husband had bought and hidden in the ravished wood-pile.)
But the squirrel and his mate had different views. … They were in the woods champing their supper of shagbarks, and often finding a wormy one, and they considered that the farmer had stolen their nuts.
Of the six ghost stories (The Wind in the Rosebush), five though admirably told are not remarkable. Luella Miller, however, has a peculiar interest. True to her instinctive avoidance of didacticism, Miss Wilkins doesn't even hint at its being an example of that belief in vampires which even now lingers in New England. She is telling the story of Luella Miller, not giving an account of contemporary demonology in outlying rural districts. Never a parenthesis is vouchsafed the reader. If you happen to know her country, you may ratify the truth of her stories. If not, little she cares to convince you!
To a genuine child of the soil, New England customs and characteristics are synonymous with those of the human race, so why explain? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, New England might be a rock-bound island. Here is no trace of cheap cosmopolitanism. Miss Wilkins is expressing that life, not describing it!
It is interesting to see the impression made by this special talent upon an appreciative foreigner. In a study of Pembroke, accompanying a translation of A New England Nun, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, Madame Blanc says:
All of this possesses a savage greatness, no matter how humble, how homely, how rude the subject. At first, passing through the terrible village of Pembroke, you are inclined to put considerable price upon lukewarm virtues, beginning with tolerance. Through a spirit of opposition you begin to excuse small weaknesses current in the world at large. But grow more widely acquainted with this little rustic society, so different from ours, and you cannot deny a vivifying influence — the same produced upon us by harsh sea winds or robust Alpine odours.
After pointing out the accord between character and climate, Madame Blanc ends with one of those fine observations in which French critics excel:
Through the very modern talent of Miss Wilkins one may study, not without interest, a soul as curious as the Scandinavian or the Russian, although one quite lacking the same enigmatic seduction; I mean the English soul of the Seventeenth Century, transplanted into a region . … which has become the ancient portion of America.
To this may be added a suggestion that through Miss Wilkins it is possible to gain understanding of that part of America which is not yet old.
The pioneers of New England sought religious liberty. Hence their own ways, their own customs, became to them not only dear, but sacred. Consequently, those in whom the old blood ran purest clung to tradition. These remained at home to starve upon exhausted bean and lettuce patches. The irreverent, on the other hand, cast tradition to the winds and went West. These new pioneers sought not only money, but relief from a form of religious liberty which quite excluded any chance of personal freedom. The condition worked as automatically as a cream separator. Old people and conservative young ones stayed at home, eking out an existence of inexpressible economy. As a result of this division, the breach of mental sympathy and understanding between East and West far exceeds that between the colonies and the old country, and for a clear comprehension of what the village of New England strives to preserve and the young Western towns look on with pitying contempt, no student of American psychology can afford to neglect the stories of Mary Wilkins.