WAG: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun and Other Stories



Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

A Cottage of Her Own
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's
A New England Nun and Other Stories

by Charlie Onion

'Regionalist' shouldn't of necessity be a pejorative term that implies primitivism or merely an historical intention to capture 'local color,' and there is no better proof than Penguin's new selection of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short fiction.

For all the talk about a pantheon of touchstone-level writers who dominate literary history, there's a surprising amount of movement on the periphery. Take, for example, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. With a professional career stretching from the 1870s to 1918, she had already been written off by many critics as a minor, regional writer by the time she received the first William Dean Howells Medal for distinguished work in American fiction in 1926 (she died four years later), and her works languished until feminist critics in the 1970s decided her stories did in fact merit a second look. As Sandra A. Zagarell writes in her superb introduction to the new Penguin Classics selection of Freeman's short fiction, "Freeman's many-sided depictions of women, on which feminist criticism initially cast light--of women single as well as married; old as well as young;often struggling for livelihood and determined to preserve their independence--spoke eloquently to late twentieth century readers and underwrote the current Freeman revival."

The feminists weren't wrong on either count--Freeman did indeed grapple with surprisingly complicated issues we would today label 'feminist,' and she did indeed merit a second look. But it would be wrong,

A New England Nun and Other Stories
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Penguin Classics
320 pp.
Amazon.com order now logo

I think, to rescue Freeman from the 'regionalist' label in the name of another, if only because Freeman's work is strengthened, rather than weakened, by her fiction's strong sense of regional place and by her preoccupation with historically-bound characters who find themselves on the fading side of a cultural shift (here, from agrarian to industrial). Freeman's stories often achieve something quietly profound that lifts them above the domain of local color into that more rarified plane of universal values, but they often do it with rather than despite the languid, beautifully described, lazy quality of her fictional country world. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph from "The New England Nun":


It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning. There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard. Somewhere in the distance cows were lowing and a little bell was tinkling; now and then a farm-wagon tilted by, and the dust flew; some blue-shirted laborers with shovels over their shoulders plodded past; little swarms of flies were dancing up and down before the people's faces in the soft air. There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence--a very premonition of rest and hush and night.


Later, in the same story, Freeman places her main character, Louisa, in this wonderfully observed setting and brings it onto a dramatic level by letting her overhear her fiancé, Joe Dagget, lament his inability to spend his life with the woman he really loves:


There was a full moon that night. About nine o'clock Louisa strolled down the road a little way. There were harvest-fields on either hand, bordered by low stone walls. Luxuriant clumps of bushes grew beside the wall, and trees--wild cherry and old apple-trees--at intervals. Presently Louisa sat down on the wall and looked about her with mildly sorrowful reflectiveness. Tall shrubs of blueberry and meadow-sweet, all woven together and tangled with blackberry vines and horsebriers, shut in on either side. She had a little clear space between them. Opposite her, on the other side of the road, was a spreading tree; the moon shown between its boughs, and the leaves twinkled like silver. The road was bespread with a beautiful shifting dapple of silver and shadow; the air was full of mysterious sweetness. "I wonder if it's wild grapes?" murmured Louisa. She sat there some time. She was just thinking of rising, when she heard footsteps and low voices, and remained quiet. It was a lonely place, and she felt a little timid. She thought she would keep still in the shadow and let the persons, whoever they might be, pass her.

But just before they reached her the voices ceased, and the footsteps. She understood that their owners had also found seats upon the stone wall. She was wondering if she could not steal away unobserved, when the voice broke the stillness. It was Joe Dagget's. She sat still and listened.


Dagget, she discovers, loves another woman (unable to see her clearly in the darkness, Louisa imagines "a girl tall and full-figured, with a firm, fair face, looking fairer and firmer in the moonlight") but feels duty-bound to honor his fourteen-year-long promise to marry Louisa (he'd been in Australia, "making his fortune" and presumably planning his post-agrarian future).

Here, in this relatively brief but beautifully charged scene, Freeman has taken that pastoral landscape that opened the story and rendered it psychologically complex: in the darkness, surrounded by a complicated 'tangle' of fertility, her fiancé's real desires are revealed, and even if the sun rises again and the pastoral laziness settles back onto the country world Louisa had previously thought so solid and obvious, she can't deny to herself the truth she's so painfully discovered this night. That this symbolic shift from the seemingly idyllic, sexless life of agrarian work and rest into a sexually charged world of shared secrets finds its backdrop in a carefully observed, beautifully described country setting demonstrates how complex and sophisticated Freeman was as writer. (And consider how beautifully she frames Louisa's central crisis as both a feministic and economic concern: Dagget's newly gained wealth offers escape from agrarian struggles, but it comes at the cost of her sense of romantic idealism as well as economic independence.) 'Regionalist' shouldn't of necessity be a pejorative term that implies primitivism or merely an historical intention to capture 'local color,' and I can think of no better proof than Freeman's writing in scenes like this.

In fact, as Zagarell points out, Freeman was something of a cosmopolitan, "part of a northeastern network of editors, writers, and artists and spent much time in Boston, New York and Chicago." And Zagarell suggests something quite complicated was going on between Freeman's stories and the magazines in which they appeared. "A New England Nun," for example, originally appeared in the May 7, 1887, issue of Harper's Bazar (the third 'a' in 'Bazaar' was yet to appear), which "As Freeman knew," Zagarell writes, "was a print emporium for middle-class women."


The story's emphasis on the austere neatness of Louisa Ellis's parlor, her homemade aprons and "flat straw hat," her pleasure in domestic work for its own sake, counterpoint the magazine's enthusiasm for commodity consumption, even as the story takes shape as yet another item to be consumed. Moreover, the placement of Freeman's story accentuates its appeal to the metropolitanism of its original readers. Given the place of honor at the magazine's center, with its first page laid out top to bottom, not horizontally, "A New England Nun" is set opposite the reproduction of a section of the painting "Full Speed" by Julius I. Stewart. This painting, which depicts two fashionably dressed young women and a young man aboard a yacht on the Seine, pays tribute to the increased postbellum cosmopolitanism of wealthy Americans by celebrating the merging of two leisure-time pursuits that had recently become markers of upper- and upper-middle-class life: yachting and tourism.

Its pairing with "Full Speed" may have cast "A New England Nun" as the medium of a kind of tourism that allowed readers to participate vicariously in the life of a rural New England woman, with Louisa's old-fashionedness providing temporary respite from the "fashion, pleasure and instruction" to which the Bazar's banner proclaimed its devotion. Perhaps, on the other hand, readers in 1887 saw Louisa more negatively, as the embodiment of provincial privations from which they were happily exempt. Surely, however its initial readers may have processed "A New England Nun," it appealed to their metropolitan constructs of the rural in complicated, perhaps self-contradictory ways.


Some of the stories in the Penguin Classics edition are relatively well-known from modern anthologies while others have been allowed, unfairly, to pass into relative darkness--including the lengthy The Jamesons, a collection of sketches about village life that Penguin is bringing back into print for the first time since its 1899 appearance. Zagarell has done a good job selecting stories that represent Freeman's output across the span of her career, and there isn't a weak story in the collection.




Amazon.com: Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.