Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a late nineteenth-century American writer.  Her stories are  set mostly in New England and deal with the lives of ordinary people, especially women.  This collection contains eight of her best known works spanning twenty years of her career.

The impression I was left with after reading the stories was ambivalence: ambivalence about the place of women under patriarchy, about female sexuality and about relationships between men and women.  This ambivalence is often played out in Freeman’s work through the doubling of a passive, self-effacing, devoted woman, with another woman, who is aggressive, demanding and determined to ‘do for herself’ in life.  ‘Gentian’ and ‘The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin’ both feature sisters, one married and subservient to her man, and the other, who is an assertive, independent spinster.  The question underlying the latter story is whether Amelia has actually damaged her family through her self-sacrificing behaviour.  In ‘One Good Time’ we have a trembling, weepy mother and her assertive daughter, and in ‘The Butterfly’, a devoted daughter with a mother who we never see, but whose questionable sexuality haunts the story.  The title story, ‘The Revolt of Mother’ is probably the most straightforward in its joining of these two female positions in the figure of a farmer’s wife, who after years of devoted submission to her husband finally insists that he fulfil his promise to give her the one thing she’s ever asked him for, a new house.  In almost all the other stories, though, there is a splitting of female subjectivity into different figures.

In two of the stories, ‘A New England Nun’ and ‘Old Woman Magoun’, this ambivalence and sense of splitting becomes positively sinister.  In the first story, gentle Louisa has waited 15 years for her fiancée to return from making his fortune overseas, only to find that when he does come to claim her, she doesn’t want him disrupting her perfectly ordered life of embroidery, cream teas and distilling essences.  Louisa’s double, however, is not another woman, but an old yellow dog chained up in the overgrown part of her garden.  This dog once bit somebody and Louisa is afraid that if she marries Joe, it will get loose and go on the rampage through the village.  There is something terrible about this uncanny canine symbol of repressed female sexuality (or perhaps, of the way female sexuality has been viewed).

‘Old Woman Magoun’ is another haunting story about a grandmother (one of Freeman’s assertive angry women) who takes drastic measures to prevent her sweet, innocent granddaughter coming under the influence of her father, who the grandmother believes wants only to sexually corrupt the girl.  Is this the tale of a loving grandmother forced to an extreme act to save her granddaughter, or is it something worse, a story about a power struggle between a man and a woman over the body of a child in which both adults are actually cruel abusers?

Most of the stories can be read from more than one perspective: is Amelia Lambkin a self-sacrificing wife and mother, or is she actually the power in her family controlling everyone through rendering them helpless? Is the daughter in ‘The Butterfly’ right to choose her father over her mother? Is the wife in ‘Gentian’ right to return at the end to the husband who has dominated her entire life? These stories present no easy answers and ultimately the women who people them remain oddly resistant and elusive.

Brilliant stories that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.  My only complaint is that they didn’t include the eerie Gothic story ‘Luella Miller’ which goes even further, presenting passive femininity as parasitic, even vampiric.

UPDATE: Further reading, Luella Miller: A Marxist Feminist Vampire Story