Watts, Mary Stanbery

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WATTS, Mary Stanbery

Born 4 November 1868, Delaware County, Ohio; died 21 May 1958, Cincinnati, Ohio

Daughter of John and Anna Stanbery; married Miles T. Watts, 1891

Mary Stanbery Watts wrote in 1918 that her childhood on an Ohio farm was the "greatest asset" in her writing career. Apparently, because of declining fortunes, the family lived at "The Lindens" in solitude enforced by their social superiority over their illiterate neighbors. She was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Cincinnati. She married a successful real estate agent and spent the rest of her life in Cincinnati.

Most of Watts' novels are set in Ohio, and she consciously chronicles Midwestern manners. One of the prevalent themes of the early novels is the once-prominent and wealthy family now down on its luck. Her first novel, The Tenants (1908), set in Columbus during the 1880s, concerns the fortunes of the Gwynne family and their management of the family mansion built by Governor Gwynne and now merely a burden to his heirs. As in two other early novels—The Legacy (1911) and Van Cleve (1913)—there is one sensible and responsible member to contrast with less reliable family members.

Watts' second novel centers not on a family on its way down but on a young man on his way up. Nathan Burke (1910), a historical novel with a wealth of interesting characterization, is set in the Scioto River country where Watts was born and in Columbus, where young Burke goes to seek his fortunes. He becomes a hero in the Mexican war and makes good as a lawyer. The novel was well received by reviewers in major critical papers.

With The Rise of Jennie Cushing (1914), Watts launched the dominant theme of all her later novels: the difficulties of marriages between classes. As a child, Jennie is taken from her home to become a ward of the state at the Girls' Home (a facility that actually existed near the Stanbery farm). A beautiful, hardworking, independent young woman, Jennie leaves the school at eighteen, works for a farm family, becomes a manicurist, then later works in private homes as a hairdresser. Donelson Meigs, a painter, falls in love with her and takes her to Paris. But when he finds out about Jennie's background, she, believing she'd only drag him down, goes back to America and runs a home for orphans in the country near the Girls Home. When Meigs comes after her, she refuses to marry him. Clearly, Watts believes this is the wise decision not only for Jennie but also for Meigs and his family.

The rest of Watts' novels all use romance and marriage to make the point, in the words of Mrs. McQuair of The Noon-Mark (1920), "the clay pots cannot float down stream with the brass pots; each to its own current." There are good and bad characters in both classes. In Luther Nichols (1923), a handsome, aggressive chauffeur's life ends tragically because of a flirtatious irresponsible society girl. In The Noon-Mark, two realistic young people break their engagement when they realize they are too widely separated in background. The lower-class heroine, a secretary, is rewarded by marriage to her employer. Watts does not gloss over these troubled relationships, and only in her last novel, The Fabric of the Loom (1924), about the terrible error made by Dick Meryon in marrying a middle-class "person" who does not share his family's tastes in pastimes or home decoration, does she become petty and absurd. Perhaps the best of these novels is The Rudder (1916), which contains varied characters in a humorous story about a young woman of good family who becomes a social worker. There are no deserving poor, according to the heroine, but "they've got to be taken care of whatever they are."

Watts herself said she modeled her work on the novels of such writers as Thackeray, Defoe, and Hardy; and she believed the depiction of ordinary life to be the highest goal of a writer. To a certain extent, she was successful, for her novels are rich in realistic characterization and incident. Perhaps her gift for describing the social milieu of a group of people and then relating them to people in other circumstances led to her preoccupation with class issues. Watts was a fairly competent writer whose novels are quite worth reading, although it is hard to imagine how a woman with such vision could have such narrow sympathies.

Other Works:

Three Short Plays (1917). The Boardman Family (1918). From Father to Son (1919). The House of Rimmon (1922).

Bibliography:

Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1922).

Other references:

Atlantic (1910). Bookman (July 1910). Dial (1910). Mentor (15 Aug. 1919). NYT (21 May 1910, 25 Oct. 1914).

—BEVERLY SEATON

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