A shorter piece this month, and more opinion than analysis.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
She wore a settled frown of dissent at life, but it was the frown of a mother who regarded life as a froward child, rather than an overwhelming fate.
- Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, ‘The Wind in the Rose-bush’ (1903)
When Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman was born in 1852 it was still legal for Americans in certain states to own other human beings. When she died in 1930 women had been eligible to vote for about a decade. It is needless to say that she lived through great changes, social, political and cultural. Known mainly as an author of realistic novels and stories set in her native New England, she wrote around a dozen supernatural tales that were praised by H.P. Lovecraft and constitute one of the most original bodies of work in the canon. Despite this, the fantastical side of her work has not received much attention from scholars and she is often overlooked in favour of her contemporaries Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Edith Wharton.
Freeman’s stories are notable for their subtle characterisations and the believability of the characters’ interactions. The most disturbing feature of ‘The Wind in the Rose-bush’, at least before the story’s cold conclusion, is the unashamed adversarial evasiveness of Mrs. Dent, the stepmother. The characters in these tales are much more relatable than the scholarly bachelors of M.R. James and Lovecraft or the twisted, troubled gentlemen of Poe. They are women who, while dealing with the supernatural, also have to deal with family, work and the daily grind. The stories also touch on other themes. Though their settings and language may at first seem quaint, we soon learn that there are much darker avenues in these pretty villages, and wonder what goes on behind the locked doors of the clapboard houses. The community’s response to events in ‘The Wind in the Rose-bush’ hints at the dark side of the “good old days” when everyone knew everyone else’s business (but did not necessarily care). In these stories we can see perhaps a precursor to the conspiratorial communities, such as that of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, so beloved by fans of “Folk Horror”. Through the medium of the ghost story, Freeman reminds us that not only does it take a village to raise a child; frequently it takes a village to hurt one as well. The dialogue in ‘The Wind in the Rose-bush’ is so tense and the interactions so full of hidden meaning that it is a great surprise that it has not been dramatised.
As remarked, Freeman’s heroines often have to face the incessant tasks of day-to-day life whilst also facing the supernatural. In her story ‘Luella Miller’ the supernatural itself uses the ordinary stuff of life to further its own ends. This tale would benefit from a reading informed by the customs and beliefs regarding vampires found in New England right up until the 1890s. Tuberculosis, known then as “consumption”, haunts the story. However, this is not A Ghost Story that is Not a Ghost Story, but perhaps a vampire story with ghosts. It is notable that, only a few years after Bram Stoker took his Wallachian nobleman to London, Freeman was writing about thieves of the life force coming from within recognisable contemporary communities. It would be another seventy or so years before Stephen King populated a New England town with vampires. Freeman was in some ways ahead of her time.
‘Luella Miller’ could be given a fairly straightforward feminist reading, but there is so much more to it than “woman sucks men dry” or “evil temptress must be stopped”. Freeman contrasts the eponymous character’s “passive femininity” with the positive and life-affirming “active femininity” of Lydia Anderson, the character who tells most of the story. This seems to suggest the view that a woman should be a hard worker as opposed to decorous (or decorative). However, this is not quite the conservative message that would encourage a woman to look no further than her daily chores. The active femininity encourages the passive femininity to look after itself, while those who cannot look after themselves become little better than sacrifices. That is, unless they have beauty and social position. Freeman was, of course, writing in the age of the “New Woman”, the time of the first stirrings of the women’s suffrage movement, practical dress reform and increasing female mobility, thanks to such inventions as the bicycle. Even in her ghost stories, Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman provides valuable insight into the long transition period between Victorian femininity and 20th century femininity.
Next time, we shall look at ‘The Burned House’, by Vincent O’Sullivan.
*Photograph of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman originally published by Harber and Brothers, New York, 1899. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The Wind in the Rose-bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural is available to read for free on Project Gutenberg.
Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins. ‘The Wind in the Rose Bush’, in The Wind in the Rose Bush, and other Stories of the Supernatural, 1903.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1973 .
Tucker, Abigail. ‘The Great New England Vampire Panic’, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012.