Kirk, Ellen Warner (Olney)

views updated

KIRK, Ellen Warner (Olney)

Born 6 November 1842, Southington, Connecticut; died 1928, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Wrote under: Henry Hayes, Ellen Olney Kirk, Ellen W. Olney

Daughter of Jesse and Elizabeth Barnes Olney; married John F.Kirk, 1879

Even in her childhood, Ellen Warner Kirk enjoyed a familiarity with the publishing world. Her mother was the sister of the New York publisher A. S. Barnes, and her father, in his time a well-known geographer and educator, was the author of numerous textbooks including Geography and Atlas (1828), a standard work widely used in American schools that went through nearly 100 printings. Although Kirk evidenced a love of literature and a penchant for creative writing throughout her extensive private education at schools in Connecticut and Boston, she did not actively try to get her work published until after the death of her father in 1872. The serialized publication of her first novel, Love in Idleness, in Lippincott's (1876-77), brought her an immediate fame, which she enjoyed throughout her prolific career. She published 29 book-length works of fiction as well as numerous essays and short stories for various periodicals, primarily Atlantic Monthly. Following her marriage to an author of historical studies and editor of Lippincott's, she lived in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.

In Love in Idleness (1877), Kirk traces the adventures and misadventures of several characters spending a vacation together at the Connecticut country home of a wealthy bachelor. Nearly everyone falls in love, but almost never with each other. There is no actual plot other than that provided by the conversations that reveal the inevitable unraveling and recoupling. The novel ends happily, if predictably, with at least half a dozen marriages.

Kirk repeated these basic elements in her second novel, His Heart's Desire (1878). Here the setting is a stately "old Knickerbocker" family mansion, comfortably overlooking the Hudson River. The various complications originating from the tangled lives of the many characters are resolved only through an equally complicated series of misunderstandings, trysts, deaths, suicides, and blackmail schemes. This interest in combining a variety of characters in revealing social situations was to prove the mainstay of Kirk's popularly received fiction throughout her prolific career.

Kirk's most favorably reviewed and financially successful novel was The Story of Margaret Kent (1886). Rumored to be a fictionalized, and overly flattering, account of the life of the writer Katharine Sherwood McDowell (1849-1883), it relates the travails of a young author trying to support herself and her daughter after having been deserted by her weak, spendthrift husband. Many of the complications in the novel arise when Margaret is courted by several suitors who presume that she is a widow. Margaret is the most complicated, realistically portrayed, and continually intriguing of Kirk's many heroines. Her struggles to earn an independent income and wrestle with the conflicting demands of passion and propriety are of lasting interest. Even the contrived death of her husband, which frees her to marry the worthy Dr. Walton and conveniently resolves the moral ambiguities surrounding divorce and fidelity, does not seriously undercut the novel's worth. Kirk was less successful when she repeated the plot of a noble heroine married to the wrong man in a later novel, Walford (1890).

Another of her better novels is Queen Money (1888). The focus is on the misadventures that befall Otto March, a naive young college graduate apprenticed to a prominent Wall Street financier and living with relatives involved in the publishing industry. The setting provides Kirk with a wide range of possible intrigues, humorous anecdotes, and social commentary upon which to capitalize. Although many of these complications arise as a result of the numerous characters' attempts to heed the dictates of materialistic and overly fashionable society, Kirk's motive seems less social criticism than entertainment. The menu at a dinner party and the program at an opera receive as much narrative attention as the vagaries of the stock market; events provide the background for the revelation of and interplay between characters. A calamitous stock market crash does solve most of the romantic complications, and the essentially unscathed Otto escapes with the idealized heroine, Lucy Florian. Kirk repeated this examination of the follies that befall the "Mammon worshippers of New York" in two subsequent novels, A Daughter of Eve (1889) and Ciphers (1891). Of the two, A Daughter of Eve is the more interesting.

The novels Kirk wrote during the second half of her career are strikingly less memorable than her earlier novels. Her critics often bemoaned that she did not live up to the promise she initially demonstrated. The clever style and definitive ability to capture characters through their conversations becomes less controlled, the repetition of plots more tedious, and the powers of observation less acute. Although widely read in her own time, most of Kirk's works will probably strike the modern reader as ephemeral. Only The Story of Margaret Kent and Queen Money seem to deserve any genuine resurrection.

Other Works:

Clare and Bebe (1879). Through Winding Ways (1879). A Lesson in Love (1881). Fairy Gold (1883). A Midsummer Madness (1884). In City and Camp (1886). All in the Wild March Morning (1887). Sons and Daughters (1887). Better Times Stories (1889). Maiden's Choosing (1890). A Superfluous Woman (1892). Wooing of the Two Mr. Benedicts (1892). The Story of Lawrence Garthe (1894). The Revolt of the Daughter (1897). Dorothy Deane: A Children's Story (1898). A Revolutionary Love Story, and the High Steeple of St. Chrysostom's (1898). Dorothyand Her Friends (1899). Our Lady Vanity (1901). A Remedy for Love (1902). Goodbye Proud World (1903). The Apology of Ayliffe (1904). Marcia (1907).


Hill, V., Strategy and Breadth: The Socialist-Feminist in American Fiction (dissertation, 1979). Logan, J., The Part Taken by Women in American History (1912). Taylor, W., The Economic Novel in America (1942).

Reference works:

Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1900). A Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1863). A Dictionary of American Authors (1904). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Atlantic (June 1888). Epoch (Feb. 1888). Galaxy (May 1877). Harper's (Apr. 1886). Independent (30 May 1889). Literary World (6 Feb. 1886, 5 Jan. 1889). Nation (13 Mar. 1879, 19 Mar. 1891, 11 Feb. 1892). Overland Monthly (Aug. 1887).