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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
IN the neighborhood of 1890 certain short stories of rural life in New England began to attract attention in English-speaking countries. They were written by Mary Eleanor Wilkins, a woman of Puritan descent, one of whose ancestors, John Holbrook, served as selectman, magistrate, and captain in King Philip’s War. Mary Wilkins was born in Randolph, a village near Boston, but her parents early removed to Vermont, which, as she writes, seems more like her native state. She studied for a time at Mount Holyoke Seminary, but one may guess that the most important part of her education was derived from reading and observation. For many years Randolph was her home. In 1902 she married Dr. Charles A. Freeman of Metuchen, New Jersey. Since many unfounded stories about her life have somehow got into print, it should be added that she has never been occupied with any business or profession except that of writing.  1
  Her first volume was ‘The Adventure of Ann’ (1886), a handful of stories that had appeared in the magazines. This was followed by the collections entitled ‘A Humble Romance’ (1887), ‘A New England Nun’ (1891), and ‘Young Lucretia’ (1892). Miss Wilkins then sought a wider field in the novel, composing between 1892 and 1897, ‘Jane Field,’ ‘Pembroke,’ ‘Madelon,’ an historical romance, and ‘Jerome,’ besides ‘Giles Corey, Yeoman,’ a play of colonial times. This group comprises the author’s most important work in the larger form. The best examples are ‘Jane Field’ and ‘Pembroke,’ which in material and method closely resemble the short stories that preceded them. In her voluminous later work she has at times forsaken New England for New Jersey and has sought interest in somewhat spectacular effects, or, as in ‘The Portion of Labor,’ in contemporary matters.  2
  In spite of the damage wrought by over-production and work in alien fields, Mary Wilkins’s fame seems secure. It rests upon her short stories, seen at their best in the collections called ‘A Humble Romance’ and ‘A New England Nun.’ Many other writers, notably Sarah Orne Jewett, have drawn fine and faithful pictures of country life in New England, but not one has written with such poignant yet unobtrusive sympathy, such delicate humor, such a wealth of concrete detail, or with a technique that at times so nearly approaches perfection. The life that she knows so truly by heart is that of the village and the farmhouse. In many ways it is unlovely. Poverty, narrowness, and the New England dialect prevail. There is much yielding to primitive impulses of temper, curiosity, and household tyranny, and there are stubborn dislikes and stupidities. It is a life that would be intolerable if its gnarly characters were not often mellowed by humor and homely good sense, or elevated by pride, by fierce integrity, by unselfish heartaches and costly generosities. Everywhere may be felt the tense moral fiber that makes New England the conscience of the nation. Repentance for venial sin bulks large, and many a plot turns on the need of the soul for expiation or open confession of wrong-doing.  3
  Though death and failure enter into the stories, nearly all close in some mood of reconciliation, the satisfaction of some hidden hunger, the emergence of some unsuspected nobility, some proud or pathetic renunciation. Rarely are the events as romantic as in that tale of lowly chivalry called ‘A Humble Romance’; but Mary Wilkins is too good an artist to neglect the story, and she has the power to select the culminating moment in a drama that has lasted long and to give absorbing interest to events that are outwardly petty. Women predominate. Many a tale of spinster or widow permits no intrusion of the male, and he is not missed. The most memorable characters are the old, the elderly, and those just leaving youth behind. In the love stories the fragile girls who fade or bloom according to the ebb or flow of their romance are less individual than those of more stalwart mind who, jilted or forced to jilt, become easily fixed, to use Mary Wilkins’s phrase, “in the peace and pride of old maidenhood,” or than the elderly lovers whose tardy steps turn towards the altar with a kind of awkward grace. More tragical are the meek wives of tyrannical husbands, whether roused to rebellion late in life, as in the heroic tale of ‘Mother,’ or to unselfish deception, as in the tenderly humorous ‘Gentian.’ But these tyrants have hearts that may be wrought upon, and we are made to feel the humor and the pathos in the lot of the men, young or old, who cannot slacken their own rein upon their wills.  4
  It is not merely Mary Wilkins’s sympathy, humor, and sensitiveness to moral beauty that keep her dramas of humble life from leaving a sordid impression. She possesses, also, a delicate sensuousness, that, without deviating from the truth, distils every element of charm from commonplace objects:—the color and fragrance of ordinary flowers, the sanctities of order and cleanliness, the good savor of homely fare suggesting comfort, shelter, and coziness, the fugitive dignities and the ameliorating graces that may go along with poverty and a degree of narrowness. And at her best she attains a technique that seems inborn rather than acquired. There is little comment or analysis. Her men and women reveal their inner selves in the face, the figure, the dress; in their gestures, actions, or talk. Concrete and vivid details crowd her short sentences and short paragraphs. There is no word too much. Nothing, for example, could be more delicately finished than the quiet little masterpiece in psychology entitled ‘A New England Nun.’  5

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