Ever hear of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852 – 1930)? It’s not one of those names that has come ringing down the ages. She was one of those female New England regional writers circa 1900,[i] at a time when the popular image of New Englanders fluctuated between the stern descendants of their Puritan forefathers, and the decadent descendants of their Puritan forefathers.[ii] Influenced by William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920), Wilkins Freeman typically wrote about the everyday life of New England country women. That one of her earliest successful stories was entitled “A New England Nun” tells you most of what you need to know about her subject matter: women and romance.
But every so often, Wilkins Freeman took a turn for the eerie and mysterious. The Wind in the Rose-Bush, and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903) collects six such stories. Usually, I find collections do the writer and readers a disservice, because a writer is too apt to repeat herself, and the reader becomes bored. Not so with this collection, in fact the converse. Wilkins Freeman’s supernatural is both obvious and subtle at the same time, and it takes reading several of them in a row to appreciate this.
The keystone to this collection is the story “The Southwest Chamber.” The room is, of course, haunted, and you can even guess by whom without any difficulty. There is no bloodshed, no torrid revelations, not even any truly dramatic confrontations. As I’ve said, Wilkins Freeman is subtle. Instead, the various residents of the house all confront the southwest chamber, only to find that it confronts them in turn with challenges appropriate to their characters. Sin and death have taken hold in that room, and one or the other undermines each visitant.
And that is the secret to these ghost stories: sin and death come creeping in by subtle supernatural means, picking away at the minds of the living, until they are too forceful to ignore. Go one way with this, and you get the psychological horror of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959); go the other way, and you get the bloody retributive “justice” of Vincent Price in Theater of Blood (1973). The adaptation of one of her supernatural stories to TV’s Night Gallery as “Certain Shadows on the Wall” (1970), while quite free, conveyed some of the psychological horror in Wilkins Freeman’s original.
I think that her contemporary readers may have found these stories emotionally disturbing. Tastes and in particular what scares us have changed; I find them more intellectually disturbing. Probably the most famous of them is “Luella Miller,” a vampire story without a bloodsucker, because bloodsuckers are too obviously evil. However, for me the most disturbing story is the last one, “The Lost Ghost.” I believe Wilkins Freeman meant this story’s ending to be interpreted sentimentally as a happy ending. Yet she left it sufficiently ambiguous that one can read it as a gruesome victory of evil over innocence.
Before you think I am reading too much ambiguity into what seems straightforward, I have another Wilkins Freeman piece for you to consider, one that is not supernatural, but highly entertaining. Bear with me a bit here: this takes some explanation. Back in 1906, William Dean Howells got this idea for a serialized novel called The Whole Family. The novel would be about a young girl’s engagement to a man she met at a coeducational college, and its effects on her family. Each chapter would be from the viewpoint of a different member of her family, and each would be by a different author. There would be twelve of each.[iii] Howells wanted to show how an engagement was as much about the families as the individuals involved. He also wanted to demonstrate how people should get to know each other before marriage, and that coeducation would help this process.
Howells wrote a straightforward introductory chapter, in which the local newspaper editor congratulates the father of the young girl on his daughter’s engagement. The father rambles on, alluding to Howells’ two main themes while casually sketching out the other members of the family. Howells didn’t go into much detail, for he wanted to give his stable of writers, many of whom he knew personally, ample freedom to demonstrate their talents.
Oh, boy, did he get more than he bargained for, and it was all on Mary Wilkins Freeman’s head. She was the next writer, and had been assigned the spinster aunt. Well, she sat down to read what Howells had written about the spinster aunt and took offense. Here it was 1906, and Howells was describing the spinster aunt, who was only 36, as a total has-been. And this in a story that was going to run as a serial in a magazine, Harper’s Bazar,[iv] that was oriented to modern women! Worse, Wilkins Freeman herself had been single until she married at age 49, and to a man seven years her junior at that, and she did not see herself as having been a has-been!
So, Mary Wilkins Freeman sat down and wrote a second chapter that completely changed the entire nature of the story. The maiden aunt, far from being a dried-up spinster, turns out to be an attractive woman with a long history of conquests among the opposite sex. Indeed, although no one knows it at first, her most recent conquest turns out to be her niece’s fiancé![v]
The other writers were astonished. Wilkins Freeman had certainly been picked because she had written many old maid aunts, but that is not what she wrote this time! Some writers were pleased with both the character and how her actions energized the plot. Others were of quite the contrary opinion. Among them was Howells. He was dismayed, believing that Wilkins Freeman had ruined his story. Certainly she had changed its nature and focus. All the remaining writers were forced to deal with the situation Wilkins Freeman had set up.
And here is where Wilkins Freeman’s talent for ambiguity comes in. One can read her chapter in a straightforward way as the honest account of a vibrant older single woman who really can seduce men of all ages, and who would want a sexually-charged marriage with a man she perceives as her equal. Or, one can read it as an aging woman’s delusions about how attractive she is to men, and who makes mischief because she cannot reconcile herself to the reality of her position. Or some intermediate point between those extremes. Wilkins Freeman deliberately left clues that made this range of interpretations possible.
Subsequent writers took both tacks, and the result is a novel which unintentionally demonstrates the device of the unreliable narrator in a very convincing way. The maiden aunt shifts from chapter to chapter, sometimes being a lovely lady who wants and deserves the love of men, other times becoming a silly, meddling fraud who preys on younger men. All the subsequent writers agreed that the aunt had to be sent off somehow, and those who liked her set up the possibility of a happy ending with the flame of her youth, but those who despised her came last, and had the aunt flee to the city to join forces with a fraudulent medium.
When it was published,[vi] The Whole Family received modestly favorable reviews, though several reviewers noted that the writers were clearly not in harmony with each other. Today it is more a literary curiosity, remembered mostly for how Wilkins Freeman disrupted Howells’ design. But if you are interested in seeing how mainstream American writers in the first decade of the 20th century tried to deal with the idea of a sexually attractive unmarried woman in her thirties, then it’s worth the trouble to read. And if you’re just interested in how Mary Wilkins Freeman could strike a blow for vibrant older women, then it’s worth a read for that as well.
[i] Of which Sarah Orne Jewett (1849 – 1909), with her The Country of Pointed Firs (1896), has had the most enduring reputation.
[ii] Add a supernatural element to that, and you get Lovecraft’s Whateley family in “The Dunwhich Horror” (1928).
[iii] Of the other writers, the most famous is Henry James. The rest are mostly forgotten. Howells wanted Mark Twain and Kate Douglas Wiggin involved, but they begged off. With one exception, each author got a character of the same sex.
[iv] Yes, that was how it was spelled back then. It wasn’t changed to Harper’s Bazaar until 1929.
[v] So in today’s slang, both Mary Wilkins Freeman and the character she wrote were both “cougars.”
[vi] First as a serialized novel in Harper’s Bazar from December, 1907 to November, 1908, then as a book immediately after. Publication in the magazine did not begin until all the chapters had been received and deemed satisfactory by the woman designated as editor for the project. One author was forced to rewrite a chapter, for reasons unrelated to Wilkins Freeman’s work.