Friday, February 23, 2018

A happy coincidence: Sylvia Townsend Warner on Mary Eleanor Wilkins

As a few of you already know from a previous mention of it, a few years ago, before I ever started blogging, I put my fantasy publishing energies to use by self-publishing an anthology of short stories by American women. This was just at the beginning of my interest in women writers that most people had never heard of, and I wanted to learn about the process of putting together an actual book.

At that time I had not the foggiest notion of tracking down heirs or creating rights contracts, so I chose stories from the middle of the 19th century up to 1922, because under U.S. copyright law nothing published in the U.S. before 1923 can still be under copyright. (Thanks to Disney wining and dining the U.S. Congress a while back in order to obtain changes to our copyright laws, it's possible that that year will never change—and it's not a coincidence that Mickey Mouse came along later in the 1920s and was in danger of lapsing out of copyright, but that's another story.)

Putting together the book took a crazy amount of time, since I was figuring out each step on my own, but it was a lot of fun, and what I ended up with was a book called Her Peers: Stories by American Woman, 1852 – 1917. I was pleased with the result overall. It was also a marvelous excuse for reading writers like Harriet Prescott Spofford (whose "Circumstance" can stand alongside anything Hawthorne ever wrote), Rose Terry Cooke, and Susan Glaspell, and probably led me to the greener pastures of exploring women writers from the other side of the pond. If I were doing it again I might make the book a bit shorter and therefore more affordable (a valuable learning experience about nice big reader-friendly fonts and how quickly they add to the cost of a book), and although I thought it was nice to use a picture of a quilt made by my grandmother for the cover, I might actually use one showing the design to better effect instead of just some of the blocking. And don't remind me of the several typos I found too late. But oh well, not bad for a first attempt.

I was amused to find that Her Peers is yet another example of insane
overpricing on Amazon--presumably an algorithm gone berserk? 

You can still view the book on Amazon here, and I'm delighted to report that it's current sales rank is #6,388,680—clearly they can barely keep up with demand! (You can also see the pretentious and utterly embarrassing little blurb I wrote about "Canon Fodder Press," as if it was going to be the next Random House. Ugh.) But this is NOT a pitch to get you to buy the book, as I will hasten to add that since the stories are all public domain, they are also all available for free online, so please save your money for the next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles…  :-)

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

But on to the happy coincidence: One of my favorites of the authors I read in researching Her Peers was Mary Eleanor Wilkins (later Wilkins Freeman, following her own unhappy marriage), best known for her story "A New England Nun" and the 1891 collection from which it came. Although I didn't read enough of her work to make a broad generalization, several of her best-known stories deal with single women who choose or have already chosen to retain their independence and their solitary happiness. In an age, of course, when most writers still wrote as if happy endings must necessarily include marriage.

Although scholars these days are perhaps a bit more aware of Wilkins than they used to be, and some literature students might happen to read something of hers, she is still not widely known. So imagine how happy I was to find another of my favorite authors, the brilliant Sylvia Townsend Warner, devoting an entire, very charming, late story to Wilkins.

I've been reading several of Warner's later collections recently and loving every second of them (spoiler alert: her abilities just kept improving with age), and in the middle of reading The Music at Long Verney, a volume of previously uncollected stories which only appeared in 2001, comprised mostly of stories that first appeared (as almost all of her stories did) in The New Yorker, there was "Item, One Empty House," a lovely, humorous, presumably autobiographical tale from 1973 that centers entirely around Warner's fondness for Wilkins!

Here Warner is irresistibly describing her first experience of Wilkins' work:

After I had been taught to read I was left to read on unassisted. If a title looked promising I tried the book (and thus for years and years never opened Gogol's Dead Souls, being convinced it was a work of piety). One day I pulled out a volume called A New England Nun. There were two convents in our town, and a nun was a regular feature at the fishmonger's—but nuns in fiction led more animated lives; though my notions about New England were of the vaguest kind and Mary E. Wilkins not a compelling name, the title, I thought, warranted a try. There was no word of a nun; but from the moment when Louisa Ellis tied on a green apron and went out with a little blue crockery bowl to pick some  currants for her tea I lost all wish for nuns and animated lives. I had found something nearer the bone. Though I could not have defined what I had found, I knew it was what I wanted. It was something I had already found in nature and in certain teapots—something akin to the precision with which the green ruff fits the white strawberry blossom, or to the airy spacing of a Worcester sprig. But, scampering between balderdash and masterpiece, I had not so far noticed it could happen in writing too.

Having found it, this mysterious charm, I read on how Louisa, after she had finished her tea and washed up the tea things, took off her green apron, disclosing a pink-and-white apron beneath it, which was her sewing apron. This in turn she took off when she heard a man's steps coming up the walk. Beneath the pink-and-white apron was her company apron, of white linen. The man came into the room; he was her suitor, and his entrance, as usual, frightened the canary. He was honest and good and had wooed her faithfully, but in the upshot she dismissed him and remained alone among the currant bushes; and that was the end of the story.

She goes on to think of Wilkins in relation to her more famous contemporary, Maupassant:

He would have thought her a quaint character and put her into one of his stories. She would have surmised him to be a bad character and kept him out of any story of hers.

And she also delineates Wilkins' limitations, including that "lettuce juice too often flowed through the veins of her characters instead of blood," with which I might have to quibble with dear Sylvia, however much I adore her. But there is a clear genuine affection for Wilkins, and it may be no coincidence that I feel that both Warner and Wilkins are kindred spirits.

I can't spoil the story by revealing the ending, but Warner, in just a couple of final paragraphs, describes how, walking in the New England woods one day, she came upon an intriguing scenario that perfectly evoked Wilkins, and concludes:

This was no business of mine. I had come on a story by Mary Wilkins—a story she did not finish.

If you haven't read any of Wilkins' work, I do add my recommendation to Warner's, and I just stumbled across this site which has a number of her stories as well as stories and even novels by many other authors (including some British authors, strangely enough considering the site's name, so I have made a note to revisit it and explore further). Under "Authors" at the top, there's an option for "Women Writers," which leads to an array of options.

And for that matter, if you haven't read Warner's witty and charming late stories, I recommend those too. I have now moved on from The Music at Long Verney to Scenes of Childhood, comprised of recollections of her late Victorian/Edwardian childhood, also originally published in The New Yorker, and I am eating it up. Fans of Gwen Raverat's Period Piece might find it right up their alley.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Update: New children's authors (3 of 3)

My pick for best cover art in this batch

My third and final post about children's authors just added to my British & Irish list contains Scottish settings, witchy "hags", and enticing book covers. But I find myself irrationally attracted to a single WWI-era title by one of the new authors…

WINIFRED PARES was the author of more than a dozen children's books, but the one that has caught my eye is Hen and Chickens: A Story of Girl Life in the Great War (1920). I can find no details about it. Has anyone ever come across it?

Pares published her first two titles—A Pair of Ducks (1898) and Peacocks, or, What Little Hands Can Do (1899)—appeared under her maiden name, Winifred Percy Smith. She married in 1900, which may explain why she apparently didn't publish again until 1919. Other titles include An Everyday Angel (1919), The Grey House Opposite (1924), The Secret of the Dusty House (1925), The Creaking Bough (1926), Miss Lavender (1926), Poor Man's Pepper (1930), The Toymakers of Trev (1939), and Mr Nobody's House (1939).

But now, on to Scotland (and oh I wish I was really bound for Scotland)! ELLEN JANE MACLEOD has almost as good a claim to be on my American list as here, having emigrated to the U.S. with her family at age 9. But she returned to Scotland in the early 1950s, and her work is almost entirely set there, so she fits here better. Reportedly, she began writing after an automobile accident ended early efforts to be a dancer. Her children's books include The Crooked Signpost (1957), Adventures on the Lazy "N" (1957), Mystery Gorge (1959), The Vanishing Light (1961), Stranger in the Glen (1969), and Isle of Shadows (1974). 

MacLeod also published a romantic novel, Orchids for a Rose (1963). The Writer's Directory lists several additional titles not shown in Worldcat—From Aunt Jane, with Love (1974), Wing Home, My Heart (1975), Those Joyful Days (1976), and Another Time, Another Place (1977). These could have been self-published, and information is hard to find, but they could plausibly be memoirs.

Like MacLeod, ISOBEL KNIGHT spent a number of years in the U.S., though her time was spent there as an adult. she was the author of numerous readers and story books for younger children, as well as retellings of works by other authors. The only title I've found that appears to be for older children is The Mystery of the Island (1948), about children exploring a ruined castle on a small Scottish isle. She got married in Calcutta and on the 1930 U.S. census was living in Detroit and working as a stenographer in an auto factory.

Sadly, ELIZABETH LEITCH remains untraced, but she wrote four children's titles—The Raiders' Road (1937), The Two Houses by the Shore (1938), The Saturday Club (1940), and The Family at Kilmory (1955). Some or all of these seem to have Scottish settings, and most were reprinted at least once.

BRENDA G. MACROW wrote mostly non-fiction about Scotland, as well as verse for children, but she also published two works of children's fiction, the fantasy-themed The Amazing Mr. Whisper (1958) and its sequel The Return of Mr. Whisper (1959), about children whose summer tutor has magical powers.

And now we come to the hags, which I admit are intriguing me a bit. I've had a love for witchy kinds of books ever since discovering Lolly Willowes, so a series of books by LORNA M. WOOD about the "hag" Dowsabel appeals to me. Depressingly, it seems like it will be a challenge to get my hands on any of them though. The series includes The People in the Garden (1954), The Hag Calls for Help (1957), Holiday on Hot Bricks (1958), Seven-League Ballet Shoes (1959), Hags on Holiday (1960), Hag in the Castle (1962), Rescue by Broomstick (1963), and Hags by Starlight (1970). Her first published title was The Crumb-Snatchers (1933), a novel which the Spectator called "vivacious." Two subsequent titles, Gilded Sprays (1935) and The Hopeful Travellers (1936), appear to also be for adults. Her childhood, which she described in a Contemporary Authors entry, was clearly unconventional—no formal education, raised in a home without gas or electricity, then discovered as a musical prodigy and giving regular concerts. She and her husband visited Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and she contributed a piece about their experiences, "Correspondent's Wife," to the 1939 anthology Nothing But Danger.

K. WALLIS COALES wrote (and often illustrated) nine works of children's fiction, some with scouting and/or mystery themes. These include The Wharfbury Watch-Dogs (1930), The Pennyfound Puzzle (1931), The Monkey Patrol (1932), The Secret of the Fens (1935), The Mascot at No. 7 (1936), and Patricia at the Wheel (1937). She came by her interest in scouting honestly—her father was Herbert George Coales, who published scouting fiction under the pseudonym Mark Harborough.

Another title that sounds a bit intriguing is MODWENA SEDGWICK's The Children in the Painting (1969), which the Spectator called "a case history, told from the eye-level of a seven year old, about loneliness, unwantedness and the sense of loss." 

Sedgwick also had success with several books about a ragdoll named Galldora and several volumes of tales about a harvest mouse named Jan Perry.

LYDIA S. ELIOTT published a single adult novel, Lake of Destiny (1948), about which I couldn't locate any details. She then progressed to writing more than two dozen works for children, including fiction, non-fiction, and Bible stories, some for younger children. 

Children's titles that appear to be fiction for older children include Susan of Red Rock Fjord (1949), The Chief's Secret (1951), Ceva of the Caradoes (1953), The Girl from 'Chinooks' (1954), The Young Explorers (1958), and Found in the Forest (1958). Interestingly, her 1950 title Children of Galilee was illustrated by Mollie M. Kaye, later better known as novelist M. M. KAYE.

WINIFRED FINLAY may not be exactly a household name, but she garnered some good cover art. Finlay wrote more than 20 volumes of adventure and mystery fiction for children, as well as several collections of folktales, many of which she collected from oral sources. Her titles include The Witch of Redesdale (1951), Peril in Lakeland (1953), Cotswold Holiday (1954), The Castle and the Cave (1961), Mystery in the Middle Marches (1965), Summer of the Golden Stag (1969), and Beadbonny Ash (1973). 

Finlay wrote several series for the BBC Children's Hour. In the 1970s, she co-authored, with Gillian Hancock, several collections of themed stories, including ghosts, treasure hunter, and dog stories. She also published several late volumes of fantasy fiction, including Secret Rooms and Hiding Places (1982).

I don't have a lot of detail about the remaining five authors, but of course I have to include them and some of their charming, pretty, ordinary, and/or appalling cover art.

M. E. MATHEWS remains untraced, but there seems to be a consensus that the books are by a woman. She wrote about half a dozen books, including The Featherlight Family (1942), Princess Storm (1943), Runaway Adventure (1944), The Redheads of Windyridge (1950), The Island in the Lake (1951), and Sixpenny Holiday (1953).

Elaine Joan Murray Warde wrote as E. J. WARDE and published nearly a dozen volumes of adventure and mystery fiction for children, including Dangerous Diamonds (1960), Stoneacres (1962), The Riddle of Anchor Farm (1965), Adventures in Anderton (1968), Stowaway Farmer (1973), and The Jigsaw Puzzle (1978).

JEAN VAUGHAN is the untraced author of three children's titles—Lone Star (1940), Star and Company (1947), and Elizabeth's Green Way (1950)—described by one bookseller as girls' adventure stories.

Kathleen Mary Gadd, who published as K. M. GADD, is also unidentified (the full name comes from the British Library catalogue, but we can get no further). She published seven children's titles, some or all of them designed as readers for schools. Her first work, apparently non-fiction, was From Ur to Rome (1936). The others—La Bonté the Trapper (1939), X Bar Y Ranch (1939), White Hawk (1939), Wang Shu-Min: A Chinese Boy (1950), Sally Ann: A Tall Ship (1953), and Summer-Tenting: A Circus Story (1956)—seem to be fiction.

And finally, MARJORIE THORBURN published a single children's title, Edward and Marigold (1933). Her other two published works were Child at Play (1937), apparently based on her observations of her own child, and The Spirit of the Child: A Study of the Moral and Spiritual Development of Small Children (1946). She is described in one source as an educator, but little else is known.

So much for a big finish. But there still remain 32 new additions to the list who wrote primarily for grownups, and there are some intriguing discoveries among those as well. Stay tuned.
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