A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1891
A NEW ENGLAND NUN
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1891
Though Mary E. Wilkins Freeman wrote many novels, she is best known for her short stories. Her subject matter in much of her fiction was life and character as she had observed them in the villages and countryside of her native New England. She was skilled in describing settings and in evoking atmosphere, but the main focus in her best stories was on character. She was especially interested in the New England will and conscience in their extreme, sometimes neurotic, manifestations. Life in Freeman's New England was frequently stormy.
Yet in "A New England Nun" a pastoral calm lies over the village in which the action takes place. Published in Harper's Bazar in 1887 and as the title piece in A New England Nun and Other Stories in 1891, the story opens by describing the onset of dusk in a New England village street. It uses terms that recall, apparently intentionally, the opening stanzas of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard": the lowing of cows, a farm wagon and laborers returning home, insects flying about in the warm air. The scene then shifts to the living room of Louisa Ellis, an unmarried woman approaching middle age, who has been placidly sewing all afternoon and is about to prepare her evening tea. The room is spotlessly clean and painstakingly neat, with every object resting precisely in its prearranged place. A canary dozes in its cage near a window. Louisa serves her tea "with as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self." Her way of life is regulated by a compulsive daintiness and formality that she obviously considers expressive of her femininity. There is only one discordancy in her dainty ménage. Chained to his house in her garden is the ironically named dog Caesar, who 14 years earlier had bitten a neighbor and has been restrained ever since. Louisa and the other villagers consider the animal to be savagely vicious, much too dangerous to go free, but she keeps him because he had belonged to a beloved brother long since dead.
Fifteen years earlier Louisa had become engaged to a local man, Joe Daggett. A year after the engagement Joe had gone to Australia to make his fortune in preparation for marriage. After 14 years, having accomplished his purpose, he returned to New England. During his absence he and Louisa had exchanged letters and had remained steadfastly faithful to one another. Such lengthy engagements were, in fact, not uncommon in New England at the time, and they are found quite frequently in Freeman's stories. During Joe's absence, however, Louisa's mother and brother had died, and, left alone in the family house, Louisa had undergone a subtle change: "Her feet had turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side."
But once Joe returned, plans for the marriage went ahead. Freeman describes one of Joe's twice-weekly visits to his fiancée during this time. With heavy tread he almost bursts into the immaculate room, tracking in dust, waking the canary, and disturbing the careful arrangement of some books that Louisa immediately replaces in their ordained positions. After an hour of discussion of the weather and other trivialities, Joe leaves, tripping over a carpet and knocking Louisa's sewing basket to the floor. When he has gone, Louisa sweeps up the dust he has tracked in. This man with rough, hearty ways fills her with consternation. Especially upsetting is his avowal that after their marriage he is going to unchain the luckless Caesar, who thus becomes a symbol of masculine aggressiveness and sexuality so frightening to Louisa.
Both Joe and Louisa begin to have secret misgivings about their marriage, but they are determined to abide by their vows. Then, one evening while taking a stroll, Louisa overhears a conversation between Joe and Lily Dyer, who had been his mother's hired girl. Lily is healthy, pretty, and lively, and the conversation between her and Joe reveals that they are in love but are resolved to forgo their own happiness rather than have Joe break his engagement. When Louisa returns home that evening, she realizes that Lily, not she, should be Joe's wife. The next day she and Joe come to an understanding, reached mainly on her initiative, and the engagement is terminated. Louisa "that night, wept a little … but the next morning, on waking, she felt like a queen who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession…. If Louisa had sold her birthright she did not know it, the taste of the pottage was so delicious…. Serenity and placid narrowness had become to her as the birthright itself." The dog Caesar would remain chained, the canary would doze peacefully in its cage, and Louisa would be spared the disruption that marriage would bring to her way of life.
Freeman has left to the reader the decision about the merits of Louisa's choice. Her own attitude seems to have been ambivalent. From the time of its publication the story caused Freeman's friends to wonder whether Louisa was not, in part at least, a self-portrait of the author. Freeman herself did not marry until she was 50 years old. She was extremely feminine, even doll-like in appearance, dainty in her ways, concerned with clothing, and interested in interior decoration and housekeeping in general. Of Louisa, Freeman writes that she "had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home." Modern critics have pointed out that Louisa's chosen way of life is a valid alternative to marriage. Another of Louisa's activities also suggests a relationship to Freeman. Louisa, we are told, has an apparatus she uses to extract the "aromatic essences" of various herbs and flowers, which may perhaps be the equivalent of Freeman's extracting and preserving in stories some of the qualities of life in her New England environment. But aside from any possible autobiographical element, "A New England Nun," with its deft symbolism, its evocation of atmosphere, and its delicate but vivid characterization, is one of Freeman's finest stories and an important contribution to American short fiction.
—Perry D. Westbrook