Friday, February 23, 2018

A happy coincidence: Sylvia Townsend Warner on Mary Eleanor Wilkins

As a few of you already know from a previous mention of it, a few years ago, before I ever started blogging, I put my fantasy publishing energies to use by self-publishing an anthology of short stories by American women. This was just at the beginning of my interest in women writers that most people had never heard of, and I wanted to learn about the process of putting together an actual book.

At that time I had not the foggiest notion of tracking down heirs or creating rights contracts, so I chose stories from the middle of the 19th century up to 1922, because under U.S. copyright law nothing published in the U.S. before 1923 can still be under copyright. (Thanks to Disney wining and dining the U.S. Congress a while back in order to obtain changes to our copyright laws, it's possible that that year will never change—and it's not a coincidence that Mickey Mouse came along later in the 1920s and was in danger of lapsing out of copyright, but that's another story.)


Putting together the book took a crazy amount of time, since I was figuring out each step on my own, but it was a lot of fun, and what I ended up with was a book called Her Peers: Stories by American Woman, 1852 – 1917. I was pleased with the result overall. It was also a marvelous excuse for reading writers like Harriet Prescott Spofford (whose "Circumstance" can stand alongside anything Hawthorne ever wrote), Rose Terry Cooke, and Susan Glaspell, and probably led me to the greener pastures of exploring women writers from the other side of the pond. If I were doing it again I might make the book a bit shorter and therefore more affordable (a valuable learning experience about nice big reader-friendly fonts and how quickly they add to the cost of a book), and although I thought it was nice to use a picture of a quilt made by my grandmother for the cover, I might actually use one showing the design to better effect instead of just some of the blocking. And don't remind me of the several typos I found too late. But oh well, not bad for a first attempt.

I was amused to find that Her Peers is yet another example of insane
overpricing on Amazon--presumably an algorithm gone berserk? 

You can still view the book on Amazon here, and I'm delighted to report that it's current sales rank is #6,388,680—clearly they can barely keep up with demand! (You can also see the pretentious and utterly embarrassing little blurb I wrote about "Canon Fodder Press," as if it was going to be the next Random House. Ugh.) But this is NOT a pitch to get you to buy the book, as I will hasten to add that since the stories are all public domain, they are also all available for free online, so please save your money for the next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles…  :-)

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

But on to the happy coincidence: One of my favorites of the authors I read in researching Her Peers was Mary Eleanor Wilkins (later Wilkins Freeman, following her own unhappy marriage), best known for her story "A New England Nun" and the 1891 collection from which it came. Although I didn't read enough of her work to make a broad generalization, several of her best-known stories deal with single women who choose or have already chosen to retain their independence and their solitary happiness. In an age, of course, when most writers still wrote as if happy endings must necessarily include marriage.


Although scholars these days are perhaps a bit more aware of Wilkins than they used to be, and some literature students might happen to read something of hers, she is still not widely known. So imagine how happy I was to find another of my favorite authors, the brilliant Sylvia Townsend Warner, devoting an entire, very charming, late story to Wilkins.

I've been reading several of Warner's later collections recently and loving every second of them (spoiler alert: her abilities just kept improving with age), and in the middle of reading The Music at Long Verney, a volume of previously uncollected stories which only appeared in 2001, comprised mostly of stories that first appeared (as almost all of her stories did) in The New Yorker, there was "Item, One Empty House," a lovely, humorous, presumably autobiographical tale from 1973 that centers entirely around Warner's fondness for Wilkins!


Here Warner is irresistibly describing her first experience of Wilkins' work:

After I had been taught to read I was left to read on unassisted. If a title looked promising I tried the book (and thus for years and years never opened Gogol's Dead Souls, being convinced it was a work of piety). One day I pulled out a volume called A New England Nun. There were two convents in our town, and a nun was a regular feature at the fishmonger's—but nuns in fiction led more animated lives; though my notions about New England were of the vaguest kind and Mary E. Wilkins not a compelling name, the title, I thought, warranted a try. There was no word of a nun; but from the moment when Louisa Ellis tied on a green apron and went out with a little blue crockery bowl to pick some  currants for her tea I lost all wish for nuns and animated lives. I had found something nearer the bone. Though I could not have defined what I had found, I knew it was what I wanted. It was something I had already found in nature and in certain teapots—something akin to the precision with which the green ruff fits the white strawberry blossom, or to the airy spacing of a Worcester sprig. But, scampering between balderdash and masterpiece, I had not so far noticed it could happen in writing too.

Having found it, this mysterious charm, I read on how Louisa, after she had finished her tea and washed up the tea things, took off her green apron, disclosing a pink-and-white apron beneath it, which was her sewing apron. This in turn she took off when she heard a man's steps coming up the walk. Beneath the pink-and-white apron was her company apron, of white linen. The man came into the room; he was her suitor, and his entrance, as usual, frightened the canary. He was honest and good and had wooed her faithfully, but in the upshot she dismissed him and remained alone among the currant bushes; and that was the end of the story.

She goes on to think of Wilkins in relation to her more famous contemporary, Maupassant:

He would have thought her a quaint character and put her into one of his stories. She would have surmised him to be a bad character and kept him out of any story of hers.

And she also delineates Wilkins' limitations, including that "lettuce juice too often flowed through the veins of her characters instead of blood," with which I might have to quibble with dear Sylvia, however much I adore her. But there is a clear genuine affection for Wilkins, and it may be no coincidence that I feel that both Warner and Wilkins are kindred spirits.

I can't spoil the story by revealing the ending, but Warner, in just a couple of final paragraphs, describes how, walking in the New England woods one day, she came upon an intriguing scenario that perfectly evoked Wilkins, and concludes:

This was no business of mine. I had come on a story by Mary Wilkins—a story she did not finish.

If you haven't read any of Wilkins' work, I do add my recommendation to Warner's, and I just stumbled across this site which has a number of her stories as well as stories and even novels by many other authors (including some British authors, strangely enough considering the site's name, so I have made a note to revisit it and explore further). Under "Authors" at the top, there's an option for "Women Writers," which leads to an array of options.

And for that matter, if you haven't read Warner's witty and charming late stories, I recommend those too. I have now moved on from The Music at Long Verney to Scenes of Childhood, comprised of recollections of her late Victorian/Edwardian childhood, also originally published in The New Yorker, and I am eating it up. Fans of Gwen Raverat's Period Piece might find it right up their alley.
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!