A New England Nun and Other Stories
A NEW ENGLAND NUN AND OTHER STORIES
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930) is best known for the short stories she published under the name Mary E. Wilkins beginning in 1883 in Harper's Bazar, some of the finest of which are collected in A New England Nun and Other Stories. By the time this collection was published in 1891, Freeman had received considerable recognition as a short story writer. She broke new ground through the creation of heroines who continually challenged gender and class boundaries. Building from a tradition of women's regionalist prose by such writers as Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Cary, Rose Terry Cooke, and others, Freeman wrote about the importance of place in her heroines' struggles for autonomy. She uncovered the profound effects of patriarchal strictures on women's daily lives. With her focus on the small New England villages that she knew best—Randolph, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont—she found the freedom to step beyond the narrow expectations of her editors without seeming to do so, to explore the connection between feminine identity and place, and to subvert the domestic realm as an arena for female rebellion.
Early literary histories frequently marginalize Freeman as a local colorist, a minor writer whose primary talent was depicting the peculiarities of her region. Yet like Henry James, she was interested in inner as well as outer landscape, and like Mark Twain, she experimented with dialect and humor while probing deep questions about the nature of the human race. She shifted readers' attention to the relatively invisible realms of domesticity where large battles are fought on humble turf. With her focus almost entirely on women's struggles and concerns, Freeman's depictions of region explore the psychology of women's conflicts as she knew them.
LIFE AND WORK
Many of the stories in A New England Nun and Other Stories draw from the author's life experience. Mary Ella (later changed to Eleanor) Wilkins was born on 31 October 1852 in Randolph, Massachusetts, a small rural town near Boston. She moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, with her family when she was fifteen, and then returned after the death of her parents to Randolph in 1883 to live with her childhood and lifelong friend Mary Wales for the twenty most productive years of her literary career. Much of the work she produced about women's relationships drew from the intensity of this friendship.
The first surviving child of the orthodox Congregationalists Warren and Eleanor Wilkins, Mary grew up in a repressive environment with parents who expected her to conform to traditional standards of feminine passivity. After she graduated from high school in Brattleboro, she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1870. Like Emily Dickinson, however, she lasted for only one year. The many rules at the seminary were too restrictive for her, and she longed for the privacy she would need to write her stories. When she returned to Brattleboro, she began writing and publishing fiction.
Her family was poor, and Freeman turned to writing rather than to marriage for financial independence. Writing also became a channel for her to voice her revolt against the limitations of growing up female in New England. Much of her fiction reflects the contradictions of her roots in a culture in which the experience of pleasure was linked to sin and the means for earning love was dutiful self-sacrifice. She learned to value the subtle forms of rebellion evident in the lives of New England women, their methods of appropriating power within the domestic realm. Since many men in New England villages such as Randolph had migrated westward or to urban centers, Freeman developed in a community of women; the source of much of her fiction is the oral histories she had gathered in the kitchens of her grandmother, her mother, and her neighbors.
As she became an established writer, Freeman's literary circle grew to include her regionalist counterpart in Maine, Sarah Orne Jewett, and male writers such as Hamlin Garland, William Dean Howells, and Rudyard Kipling. She sat beside Mark Twain, whose work she admired, at his seventieth birthday banquet. Her frequent correspondence with her editors at Harper's in her richest period of publication, the late 1880s and the 1890s, reveals her effort to develop in her fiction a fresh voice, full of her unique wit and irony, and yet to win acceptance within the traditions and standards of nineteenth-century women's magazines, which required sentimentality and gentility to match their assumptions about women readers.
Caught between the longing for acceptability and the need for autonomy in her personal life, Freeman resisted the pressure to marry through her childbearing years. After nine years of hesitation, she finally married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902; the marriage required that she part with what she called "the old me," leave Randolph, the setting for so much of her work, and move to Metuchen, New Jersey, where she found "I have not a blessed thing to write about" (letter to Harriet Randolph Mayor, 22 December 1901, Infant Sphinx, p. 256). The marriage dissolved in 1922 largely because of her husband's decline into severe alcoholism and drug addiction. She died on 13 March 1930 of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven. Widely recognized for her work, in 1926 Freeman received the Howells Medal for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the bronze doors of the Academy still bear the inscription "Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Women Writers of America."
THEMES AND CONTEXTS
Freeman was among the first American women authors to write openly about the complexity of female sexuality, the role of work in women's lives, the experience and stigma of nineteenth-century spin-sterhood, and the unique relationships that women form outside of marriage and motherhood. Her finest work reflects her experience as an unmarried woman who struggled both within and against the ideology of nineteenth-century womanhood. Freeman's form of regionalism focuses more often on inner rather than outer landscape as she explores the effects of New England culture on the interior lives of women. The short stories in A New England Nun and Other Stories are her best-known, but Freeman's work includes more than a dozen novels; a similar number of short story collections, which largely reprint more than two hundred stories first published in magazines and journals; and several plays, children's works, and essays.
Since the 1970s feminist criticism has brought about a revival of interest in women regionalists such as Freeman. Although earlier critics dismissed her as a minor local colorist, she has found an increasingly enthusiastic audience among contemporary readers of American women's literature. Like Sarah Orne Jewett and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Freeman wrote about women's strategies and responses to social conditions at the turn into the twentieth century. Yet she is neither an outspoken and committed feminist, the "new woman" who began to emerge most visibly in the 1890s, nor the passive promoter of the status quo evident in nineteenth-century women's advice books and journals. In the early 1900s she wrote amid the emergence of feminist politics and the suffrage movement. Although Freeman captured in her work the spirit of the call for economic independence and liberation from the social restrictions of her time, she did so in subtle, coded form, embedding her most rebellious material in the framework of sentimental beginnings and endings. She kept in mind at all times the need for what she called in her letter to Fred Lewis Pattee on 5 September 1919 "selling qualities" in her work (Infant Sphinx, p. 382.) It was her livelihood.
This passage depicting Louisa Ellis is a good example of Freeman's capacity for precise and detailed characterization. Here she captures the essence of unmarried life in nineteenth-century New England, both its freedom and its limitations; she also suggests the stigma attached to self-satisfied "spinsterhood."
Louisa tied a green apron round her waist, and got out a flat straw hat with a green ribbon. Then she went into the garden with a little blue crockery bowl, to pick some currants for her tea. After the currants were picked she sat on the back door-step and stemmed them, collecting the stems carefully in her apron, and afterwards throwing them into the hen-coop. She looked sharply at the grass beside the step to see if any had fallen there.
Louisa was slow and still in her movements; it took her a long time to prepare her tea; but when ready it was set forth with as much grace as if she had been a veritable guest to her own self. The little square table stood exactly in the centre of the kitchen, and was covered with a starched linen cloth whose border pattern of flowers glistened. Louisa had a damask napkin on her teatray, where were arranged a cut-glass tumbler full of teaspoons, a silver cream-pitcher, a china sugar-bowl, and one pink china cup and saucer. Louisa used china every day—something which none of her neighbors did. They whispered about it among themselves. Their daily tables were laid with common crockery, their sets of best china stayed in the parlor closet, and Louisa Ellis was no richer nor better bred than they. Still she would use the china. She had for her supper a glass dish full of sugared currants, a plate of little cakes, and one of the light white biscuits. Also a leaf or two of lettuce, which she cut up daintily. Louisa was very fond of lettuce, which she raised to perfection in her little garden.
Freeman, "A New England Nun," in Selected Stories, pp. 109–110.
Freeman's voice resonates today as an odd mixture of traditions: sentimentalist, regionalist, subtle feminist, supernaturalist. She stands as one of the most significant precursors of twentieth-century psychological fiction about women. Writing within the boundaries of domesticity and region, Freeman simultaneously subverted these arenas. In A New England Nun and Other Stories the themes she had begun to touch upon in her earlier collection, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887), resonate still more dramatically, particularly the connection for women between identity and place, and the struggle for recognition and acceptance in the context of one's work. Her most common themes span a range of unresolved conflicts: repression and rebellion, submission and autonomy, heterosexuality and lesbianism, marriage and spinsterhood. The stories depict the struggle of rebellious though often ambivalent heroines for self-realization and empowerment. The range of voices and genres in this collection is striking, incorporating humor, satire, and drama, and drawing upon the structures of gothic, romantic, realist, regionalist, and supernatural fiction. In this sense Freeman defies categorization. Readers who enjoy these stories will find in her novel Pembroke (1894) a compelling extension of the themes she began to explore in A New England Nun and Other Stories.
THE ROLE OF DOMESTICITY
Freeman redefined domesticity in terms that suggest the possibilities of unexpected power and autonomy. Rather than viewing the choice to focus attention on the details of the home as a sign of conformity to feminine norms, she reconstructed the domestic sphere as a place of opportunity for feminine protest and often self-discovery. The title story of this collection, "A New England Nun," as well as her frequently anthologized "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" portrays her reconstruction of the domestic realm for both married and unmarried women.
Marriage for Louisa Ellis, the heroine in "A New England Nun," represents as much a threat to the world she has created for herself as it did to Freeman's, who waited until she was forty-nine to marry. Louisa has waited fourteen years for her sailor fiancé, Joe Dagget (not unlike Freeman's first love, Hanson Tyler), to return from his voyages, only to decide against marrying him when he does. She battles against the expectation that she will give up her home and shift her attention to Joe. The story raises significant critical issues for twenty-first century readers: Is Louisa the self-repressed "nun" who has rejected the possibility of sexual fulfillment, as early critics assumed, a neurotic woman reflecting the seeds of Freeman's own neurosis? Is Louisa instead a victorious, autonomous woman, preserving the right to a home of her own and positing feminist values? Or is the story an analysis of the tension between these possibilities? Freeman's ambiguity is precisely what makes this story so brilliant. She captures the complexities of the choice Louisa ultimately makes, imparting both the cost of Louisa's form of autonomy and the victory she wins to claim and assert control over her own space. The scene at the story's beginning in which Louisa eats alone shortly before Joe's arrival provides a glimpse of the autonomy she chooses. As she prepares her tea, she serves herself on her best china with a setting for one, for she is "a veritable guest to her own self " (p. 110). Although the story does suggest through images of repressed sexuality the cost of Louisa's choices, it also honors her defense of her world from intrusion, her determination to continue the work she loves, storing the essences of rose petals, threading and unthreading a stitch for the pure delight she takes in the act of sewing, and enjoying the art of living alone. The story makes clear Louisa's understanding that she would have to part with all of this if she were to marry Joe. "All alone by herself," Louisa weeps a little after her rejection of Joe; "but the next morning, on waking, she felt like a queen who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession" (p. 124).
Hamlin Garland visited Freeman and commented on the connections he saw between Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and her character, Louisa Ellis, in "A New England Nun." He refers here to the scene in which Joe Dagget visits Louisa after their long separation, and upsets her well-ordered home.
Her home might have been used as a typical illustration for her characters. Its cakes and pies, its hot biscuits and jams were exactly right. I felt large and rude like that man in one of her tales, "A New England Nun," who came into the well-ordered sitting room of his sweetheart with such clumsy haste that he overturned her workbasket and sat down on the cat.
Hamlin Garland, Roadside Meetings (New York: Macmillan, 1930), p. 33.
In "The Revolt of 'Mother'" the issues of domain and possession within the domestic realm intensify as Freeman shifts her focus from unmarried to married life. In this story Sarah Penn transforms the new barn her husband has built to house his cows; while he is out of town, she creatively redesigns it into the home of her dreams, with a fine kitchen as a tribute to her only arena of power, her form of work. Here once again a heroine defies patriarchal assumptions. Freeman creates a woman capable of reframing marital discourse so that her domesticity is honored, becoming a place of meaning. The spirit of the story conveys the pleasure that Freeman took in transforming her own mother Eleanor's experience into revolt and in creating imaginatively the new home Eleanor never had. Facing financial decline Freeman's father gave up his plan to build a new house with a fine kitchen for Eleanor. Instead the family moved in 1877 into the home in which Eleanor was to serve as the housekeeper. Suddenly Eleanor was placed in a position of domestic servitude. In Freeman's story Sarah Penn's domesticity defies the concept of servitude, for it is a space she claims as her own, a place where she can simultaneously care for her family and "think my own thoughts an' go my own ways" (p. 310).
GENDER, CLASS, AND AGE
Much of Freeman's fiction focuses on the conditions and experience of poverty and aging for women. Her interest in the culture and economy of rural New England mixes in her work with her focus on gender. She was familiar with financial struggle. When she sold her first piece of writing, a lengthy children's ballad entitled "The Beggar King," she began to help her family pull out of years of economic difficulty.
Many of her stories describe the struggle and victory of aging women to support themselves, and their call to be accepted and supported by their communities across gender and class assumptions. In "A Church Mouse," Hetty Fifield, the heroine, must fight for the right to choose her form of work independently rather than being placed in a home as a poor and aging woman. Hetty rejects her community's assertion that the job of sexton, cleaning and tending the local church, should be held only by a man. Her poor circumstances drive the need to support herself, but she also takes pride in the work she has chosen. Male authorities in the village object: How can she ring the bell, clearly a man's job? But Hetty creates a room for herself in the church gallery. She cooks cabbage, creates a stench, makes her presence known to financially comfortable churchgoers. When a boy comes to ring the bell, she sends him away with pride: "I'm goin' to ring the bell; I'm saxton" (p. 280). Finally she barricades herself inside the church, physically barring men from intruding, and looks out at the crowd below with the "magnitude of her last act of defiance" (p. 290). Soon after, Hetty pleads far more submissively for the right to continue as sexton, and all of the middle-class women in the village now demand that the men submit to Hetty's will. In this way Freeman shows that Hetty's war is every woman's war. The story crosses class boundaries, moving from an individual plea to a collective demand. Moreover Freeman herself achieves what Hetty does, rebelling but safely and with a receptive audience: her story was first published in a woman's magazine that would reach an audience composed largely of women.
Most striking in this story is Hetty's position in the church. It suggests a context for Freeman's feelings about the role of work in her life. Hetty's room in a corner of the church gallery is behind a brilliant sunflower quilt she has made. In this way Freeman places her character in the nineteenth-century woman writer's predicament: Hetty is both trapped within the boundaries of the narrow congregation, ultimately answerable to its rules, and she is set apart by the quilt she hangs—her art—to announce the significance of her separateness, her individuality, her ability to assert.
SPINSTERHOOD AND MARRIAGE
In 1877 Susan B. Anthony described the single woman as a model for all women to emulate. Freeman, like many of her contemporaries, was not prepared to assert openly a position that so opposed the general public opinion and her own mother's choices. Freeman was far too conflicted to become active in the feminist movement; yet even at its most ambiguous, her work and her life fully support Anthony's manifesto and continually defy the negative cultural stereotyping of the spinster or "old maid." Based on the advice books readily available in Freeman's time, a spinster could look forward to a shortened life span and possible insanity. In response to these assumptions Freeman offers a sharp critique in several of the stories in A New England Nun and Other Stories, most especially "Christmas Jenny." Here Jenny Wrayne defines herself against, rather than within, the context of male values. As are so many of Freeman's singular heroines, Jenny is set apart from the rest of the community, viewed as "love-cracked" (p. 207), having been in love with a man who married someone else. Yet she redefines love in matriarchal terms and chooses an alternative to what her friend calls the "reg'lar road of lovin'" by loving creatures of nature, "starvin' chippies an' lame rabbits" instead of a husband. As her married friend Mrs. Carey explains, "She ain't love-cracked no more'n other folks" (p. 213). Jenny comes down from her mountain abode to sell evergreen trees and wreaths in the winter and vegetables in the summer. Her influence on the married couple down the road suggests Freeman's analysis of both the institution of marriage and the stigma of spinsterhood. By the end of the story Jenny has taught Mrs. Carey how to enjoy a feast for her own pleasure and how to appreciate the sacred refuge that Jenny has created for herself.
REFLECTIONS ON HER CRAFT
Much of Freeman's work comments on itself. Stories such as "A Village Singer" and "A Poetess" describe the painful process involved in pursuing a craft that may not reach the level of one's aspirations. In her response in the New York Times to winning the American Academy Medal, Freeman described her sense of victory upon acceptance of her first major story in Harper's Bazar and receipt of a check for twenty-five dollars: "I felt my wings spring from my shoulders capable of flight and I flew home" (24 April 1926, sec. 1.7). Acutely self-critical, however, she knew that home was a place where she was grounded in realities that often interfered with her craft—the need to earn money and the consequent goal of satisfying her editors. She worked in feverish tenhour blocks of time. She acknowledged to her editor, Elizabeth Garver Jordan, on 12 July 1904 that "sentiments and uplifting ones are in demand" (Infant Sphinx, p. 301). Yet in a letter to Hamlin Garland on 23 November 1887 she asserted, "the idea of being true is always with me. . . . Yes, I do think more of making my characters true and having them say and do just the things they would say and do, than anything else, and that is the only aim in literature of which I have been really conscious myself " (Infant Sphinx, p. 83). Representing the finest of her work, the extraordinary heroines in A New England Nun and Other Stories meet this high expectation. The collection makes a rich and important contribution to the field of American literary realism.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. A New England Nun and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. First published under the name Mary E. Wilkins.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Edited by Marjorie Pryse. New York: Norton, 1983. The quotations from Freeman's stories that are used in the present article come from this volume.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Edited by Brent L. Kendrick. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1985.
Dwyer, Patricia M. "Diffusing Boundaries: A Study of Narrative Strategies in Mary Wilkins Freeman's 'The Revolt of Mother.'" In Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 10, no. 2 (1993): 120–127.
Glasser, Leah Blatt. In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse. Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Hirsch, David H. "Subdued Meaning in 'A New England Nun.'" Studies in Short Fiction 2 (winter 1965): 124–136.
Leah Blatt Glasser