At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: August 27, 1892


       Probably the strongest and most individual of New England's women writers of to-day is Miss Mary E. Wilkins, whose New England Nun and Other Short Stories" has been so successful in England as well as in America. Miss Wilkins' stories can hardly be called stories in the true sense of the word. They are merely short, concisely told episodes in a number of New England lives among the work-a-day people. The rural village is her environment, and the pathetic side of woman life, chiefly that of the single old women or attenuated girls who drift into old maidenhood, and who are a leading characteristic of New England life, is brought out in these homely pictures. There is very little of what might be called dramatic action in these sketches, but the charm lies in the pathos that enfolds the characters who are placed before you. It might be said that these sketches are monotonous in their similarity, but any person who has lived in rural New England will see that this is owing to the environment, which is dreary in the extreme and envelops the woman life in a sameness of sentiment and occupation. When Miss Wilkins lays stress on the life of the women in her sketches, we must remember she is a woman herself, and more likely to sympathise with that side of the picture, but outside of this fact it is apparent to the outside observer at once that the New England women of this class are superior to the men in intellect and general character. One strong reason for this is the natural intelligence of the past generations, and the lonely life led by the women of the present generation, who still hold on to the superior part as a sort of golden age, while the men for the most part have gone west or south, or died off or degenerated. When Miss Wilkins speaks of a New England Nun she brings out this fact of the lonely, contemplative life of the many elderly maidens, who gather rose leaves, live in refined loneliness and look back to the ante-bellum past; and the outside world would be surprised at the amount of sentiment that is hidden away in some of these old, quiet lives. Many of these women have themselves plucked up courage, and have gone west or south as school teachers, and have borne with them to the more rude localities of hate busy world some of that culture and refinement that is a part of their existence. A few have by a miraculous accident been married, but for the most part this is out of the question. The young men all went west or south after the war or during the California gold fever, and most of them took to themselves life partners among strangers, and forgot the more refined and more high-strung, if less beautiful, maidens who for the most part put them in the shade at the academics and debating schools of their eastern home. Here and there is found a man who went neither west nor south, or did both and came home, a failure, and married one of these pensive maidens, who all the rest of her life tried to respect him. But to the New England female mind the young man who went west and never came back, save for a short time as a western senator or judge, is the ideal of the successful hero. The other class, who stayed or came back to live a second-best kind of existence, generally chew tobacco and drink cider and New England rum, and develop a coarseness of exterior that is extremely painful to the women, who are remarkably dainty in their household matters. Miss Wilkins has given us many instances of this pathetic type, but she has failed to give us one that is perhaps the most pathetic of all—a picture of the home life where the woman tries her best to respect and live happily with the sort of man I have described. The New England man of this sort is generally more of a man, in the accepted sense, than the woman is a woman, but he necessarily is more of an animal; and when a man who loves tobacco and rum and cider and obscene stories, and is decidedly lazy to boot, is allied to a prim, active woman, who dotes on Ruskin and paints and is a lover of flowers and poetry, and yet polishes her house from end to end to chase the flies out—when, as we have said, this class of man and woman are tied together for life we have a sort of dog and cat mixture that is more pathetic in its dramatic possibilities of the finer sort than any Miss Wilkins has described. And yet this picture I have suggested is common enough in New England life to make it one of its most pathetic characteristics.

       There is a sensible article in the July number of The Contemporary Review, entitled "Are We Really So Bad?" It is about "the girl of the period," and is in some sort a refutation of the dismal things said by Lady Jeune and Madame Adams in The North American Review. I cannot understand the objection that many women have to the growth of wider tastes, more robust activities and freer manners among their own sex. It is absolutely necessary that this change should take place if the race is to reach its noblest and fullest development, and if, as in our time, the new state of things leads to some extravagances and unseemliness, that is simply the effect of a natural reaction from the condition of stunted grown and "intolerable ennui" which were the boast of the past.
       We say that women are unfitted for such and such occupations, forgetting that their unfitness is due simply to the fact that the rudimentary capacity for those occupations, which certainly is in them, is immature through never having been allowed exercise. Women are quite fitted for all the intellectual occupations undertaken by men, and for many of the physical. In some of the intellectual ones they decidedly excel. When the coming generations of women shall have been admitted to full freedom of movement and to the practice of every human activity, and shall have perfectly adapted themselves to the changed conditions, our children's children shall know a type of women of which we can only dream—natural queens among men, to whom they shall look up, as the Goths of old did to their Abruna women, superhumanly beautiful, superhumanly wise.

It was that time during the month of August when the September magazines commence to come in. It was a typical August day; the drowsiness of the heat, showering down from a grey, hazy sky, and the dull, sultry horison could have been produced by no other month. A cicada threw his long stinging crescendo from a butternut tree. But, although it was August, I was reading a September magazine, and as there was nothing in it to keep me awake I gradually fell asleep, hardly conscious that I was going, for the cicada kept hunting me through the first descents of slumber until I was beyond reach of his note in its deepest caverns and recesses. Suddenly I became conscious that it was Sunday. I was intensely aware of the fact, although I was perplexed by smelling soapsuds, and before long I saw a very small Chinaman hanging out clothes on a line. I was walking along the street all the time and observed many other things, but the Chinaman and the clothes line, with the effect that an amateur photographer obtains when he takes two pictures on one plate, were always sliding in front of everything else. By-and-bye I stopped in front of a store where a man was selling pith helmets, and I asked him what was the day of the week. He replied, "We call it Monday." I suppose he noticed my surprised air, because he added quickly; "You know we're all mixed up in the time now." "Would you think it too much trouble to explain?" I asked. "It's no trouble at all," he answered; "but I can't explain, nobody can; our scientific people have stopped discussing whether Mars is inhabited and all that sort of thing and are trying to discover the ratio of advance, as they call it." "What is the 'ratio of advance'; what do you mean by it?" I asked. "I don't mean anything by it; that's the difficulty; but, as you're a stranger, I will tell you all that anybody knows about it. We call to-day Monday, but last year it was Wednesday, and the year before it was Friday, and this year is really 1908, but we call it 1997—" "Well," I said, "that must be very confusing." "It is," he replied, "when you think of it, but the best way is not to think of it." "But how can you help thinking of it? When you have to date your correspondence you must know what year it is." "Well," he replied, "we get that from the newspapers, in fact that is the only way to get it, and now the scientists are trying to figure out how the newspapers know." I asked him how it came about that the world had got so far ahead of itself, as it were. "Well," he said, "the magazines were to blame. They commenced to issue their numbers in the preceding month, and very soon they got two months ahead, and that's the way the difficulty commenced. I believe myself it would have been all right if the newspapers hadn't taken it up. But they did. They began to anticipate, and then there was no end to it. Why, some of the radical journals are away into the twenty-first century, and there is no stopping them now. Some of the wise men try to make out that the whole trouble originated from the desire of mankind to peer into the future, and, failing that, they tried to cheat themselves by anticipating time." "Do you believe that?" I asked. He did not give me a direct answer, but he asked me if I would like to buy a pith helmet; it would keep my head cool. I was just on the point of telling him he needed it for that purpose more than I did when I heard the cicada quieting down after an immense crescendo.

       Those who do accomplish anything in literature in this country have, at any-rate, the grim satisfaction of knowing that it is not what they might have done under more favorable circumstances, it is at least the product of sheer natural talent. The Canadian litterateur must depend solely upon himself and nature. He is almost without the exhilaration of lively and frequent literary intercourse—that force and variety of stimulus which counts for so much in the fructification of ideas. The human mind is like a plant, it blossoms in order to be fertilised, and to bear seed must come into actual contact with the mental dispersion of others. Of this natural assistance, the Canadian writer gets the least possible, and, if out of hate poverty of his opportunities he accomplishes something, let him not be blamed for being, perhaps, a little too boastful and inclined to rate himself at a little more than his actual worth.
       Our only remedies for this want is an occasional visit to the American literary centre, or to London if we are fortunate enough to have the means of getting there, and the friendly help of books, especially those memoirs which distinguished people in the older countries have left behind them for the entertainment and encouragement of those that come after. For the rest we shall have to do our best to create by degrees what we so much feel the need of now, by drawing toward one another as much as possible and bridging the long distances that separate us by friendly and helpful correspondence.