Wilson, Margaret W. (1882–1973)

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Wilson, Margaret W. (1882–1973)

Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist . Name variations: Mrs. G.D. Turner; (pseudonym) An Elderly Spinster. Born Margaret Wilhelmina Wilson on January 16, 1882, in Traer, Iowa; died on October 6, 1973, in Droitwich, Worcester, England; daughter of West Wilson (a farmer and livestock trader) and Agnes (McCornack) Wilson; educated in public schools including Englewood High School in Chicago, Illinois; University of Chicago, A.B., 1903, B.A. in philosophy, 1904; married George Douglas Turner (a British civil servant), in 1923 (died 1946); children: three stepdaughters.

Selected writings:

The Able McLaughlins (1923); The Kenworthys (1925); The Painted Room (1927); Daughters of India (1928); Rural Populations and Agriculture in Mission Lands—Africa, Asia & Latin America (nonfiction, 1928); Trousers of Taffeta (1929); The Crime of Punishment (nonfiction, 1931); The Dark Duty (1931, published in U.S. as One Came Out, 1932); Cardinal Points (1933, published in U.S. as The Valiant Wife, 1934); The Law and the McLaughlins (1936); The Devon Treasure Mystery (juvenile, 1939).

Later describing herself as "the most Middle Western of all Middle Westerners," Margaret W. Wilson was born in 1882 in the small farming town of Traer, Iowa. She was the fourth child of Agnes McCornack Wilson and West Wilson, Scottish Presbyterian farmers and livestock traders who later abandoned farming and moved to Ames, Iowa, to concentrate on trading. The family next moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Wilson attended Englewood High School. She earned an associate degree from the University of Chicago in 1903, and the following year graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. During her college years, Wilson had been moving toward a deep conviction in the Presbyterian faith of her parents. Largely unaware of her inward growth, her friends were astounded when, in 1904, she joined the United Presbyterian Church of North America as a missionary. A friend, Katherine Scobey Putnam , recalled her own reaction to the news as: "Margaret Wilson a missionary! Preposterous!"

Wilson spent six years working as a missionary in India. She later observed, "Being of a submerging disposition, I sank deeper into that country than the wise do, into Hindustan and Hindustani, into the Punjab and Punjabi, into Curmukha and Curmukhi, all of which are unsettling elements." She lived in the Punjab region of northern India, assisting Dr. Maria White at the Sailkot Hospital and teaching at and supervising the Gujranwala Girls' School. Wilson wrote regularly to Putnam that she was "happier than she had ever been in her life," but she was also witnessing aspects of existence she refused to write home about. In the end, missionary work proved too devastating to her emotional and mental health. She became ill with typhoid and in 1910 was forced to return to the United States, later writing, "I left India when I did because if I had not I should have died quite futilely of compassion."

After recovering her health, and still fueled with religious feeling, she reentered the University of Chicago in 1912 as a divinity student. Wilson completed the academic year and then began teaching at West Pullman High School, where she remained for five years. She officially resigned her missionary post in 1916, but her experiences in India still filled her imagination, and she began writing short stories. In 1917, she briefly resumed divinity school, but left after completing only two more quarters. Much of her time after that was spent nursing her father, whose health had been failing for years, but the free time she had was devoted to writing. She completed a set of short stories collectively called "Tales of a Polygamous City," some of which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1917 under the pseudonym "An Elderly Spinster." (She was then 35.) "When I wrote of India … I signed myself 'An Elderly Spinster' because I was at that time the oldest woman in the United States," she later declared. Two more of the "Polygamous City" stories were published in Asia magazine in 1921.

In 1923, she published her first novel, The Able McLaughlins. A story of harsh life in the barely settled Midwest during the mid-19th century, examining especially the influence of religion in a sparse Scottish Presbyterian community, the book brought Wilson much critical and public attention, and won that year's Harper Prize. The following year, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It would go on to be republished four times, most recently in 1977. Meanwhile, Wilson's father had died in 1923 and she had sailed to Europe, where she became reacquainted with George Douglas Turner. An Englishman whom she had met in India, Turner had served the British government as a spy during World War I, and was the divorced father of three daughters. Wilson and Turner married in Paris on December 24, 1923, and settled in England, where Turner occupied positions of increasing responsibility within the penal administration system of the British Home Office, from warden to inspector of prisons to assistant commissioner of prisons for England and Wales.

Wilson published her second novel, The Kenworthys, in 1925. Considered a somewhat scattered book but nonetheless an important contribution to domestic novels of the period, it focuses on two brothers, one of whom previously had been engaged to the woman the other marries. Wilson had written The Kenworthys prior to the publication of her first novel, and on the whole critics tended to think it a lesser work. None of her other novels would sell as well as had The Able McLaughlins, although they were read widely and critics remained interested in the controversies she raised. To Wilson, plot and character were secondary to the social themes she addressed, chief among them the influence of religion on both men and women. She once noted that she wrote "consciously and unconsciously for women," and her explorations of the various ways in which women were repressed in society have led to her reputation as one of the 20th century's early feminist writers.

The Painted Room (1927), a sequel to The Kenworthys, is an unflinching portrait of a young woman, duped and betrayed by a lover, who quickly comes to the belief that everyone is as vicious as her ex-lover and she should behave in a similar fashion, although the book's bitterness (and, indeed, point) is fairly well under-mined by an inexplicable happy ending. Wilson's next two novels, Daughters of India (1928) and Trousers of Taffeta (1929), both set in India, focus on the low social status of Indian women. Daughters of India concerns the experiences of a young American woman serving as a missionary, while Trousers of Taffeta explores the impact of polygamy on women (with a whiff of the Biblical tale of Rachel and Leah ) through the story of two wives, one barren and beloved, the other fertile and unloved.

Her marriage allowed Wilson to observe prisons firsthand, and she was greatly influenced by her husband's opinions on crime and penology. In 1931, she wrote a nonfiction work on these subjects, The Crime of Punishment, in which she discussed the conflict she saw between the moral correctness of punishment and the innate goodness of human beings. She argued that laws create criminals and that prisons do not effectively stimulate rehabilitation. Although Turner was assaulted by inmates during riots at Dartmoor Prison the following year, Wilson remained resolute in her views on justice and the prison system. While her husband embarked on a crusade of prison reform, Wilson wrote three novels on these matters: The Dark Duty (1931, published in the U.S. as One Came Out), about a prison warden facing the impending execution of a man who may have been unjustly convicted; Cardinal Points (1933, published in the U.S. as The Valiant Wife), set in Dartmoor Prison during the War of 1812; and The Law and the McLaughlins (1936). This latter book, which returns to the characters from TheAble McLaughlins, concerns an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring the perpetrators of a double lynching to justice.

With Turner's retirement in 1938, the couple moved to Droitwich in Worcester, England, but the onset of World War II interrupted their country idyll. The British government recruited Turner for wartime assignments, and filled their home with soldiers and refugees in need of temporary shelter with such frequency that the couple would spend weekends at a local hotel for some privacy and quiet. Aside from a children's book produced to earn money for home repairs in 1939, Wilson wrote nothing after the start of the war. Her husband suffered from illness throughout the fighting, and died in 1946. In poor health herself, Wilson was cared for by her stepdaughters until she outlived them. She died in a nursing home in Droitwich in 1973, at age 91.


Contemporary Authors. Vol. 113. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Wilkie, Everett C., Jr. "Margaret Wilson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945. Ed. by James J. Martine. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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