Sunday, September 23, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Louisa by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Title: Louisa
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I read it: A New England Nun, and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's stories are set in 19th century rural New England, and her female characters, in one way or another, don't fit the mold of "normal" or "respectable" womanhood; they don't always do what's expected of them by their families and by society at large. They aren't necessarily rebellious in a flagrant way. They're pious and hard-working, much like their neighbors. But from one story to another there's something that sets them apart. They might be marginalized, living on the fringes of their society, in poverty, old age, and/or spinsterhood; they might be too firm and independent, with too little care for what others think, or they might have some unusual interest or hobby. They make unconventional decisions that aren't immoral but nevertheless raise eyebrows.

In this story, Louisa is a young woman who has no money and is pressured by her mother to marry. She used to work as the schoolteacher in her village, a job that earned her enough income to support herself, her mother, and her senile grandfather. But then the position was given to the daughter of the school's superintendent, and what other jobs are available to a rural village woman in Louisa's position? She raises some crops on the scarce land her family owns, and she helps out with the hard labor of planting and harvesting on other farms. It's barely enough to keep her family afloat.

Her mother meantime is leaning on her to get married to a young man who's shown an interest in her. But Louisa refuses to respond to his overtures. It's not that he's terrible in some way, it's just that she doesn't love him, and she wants to avoid a marriage of convenience driven by a lack of options. It's an impractical way to behave, her mother thinks, but Louisa's whole life is made of hard practicalities and this is her one "romantic notion" - marrying for love, if she marries at all. In the meantime she treasures her self-sufficiency.

So what happens to Louisa? The author it turns out decides to give her an important triumph. I won't say what, only that it involves a long difficult walk - a symbol for strength of will and independence. Freeman shows, without melodrama, both Louisa's desperation and her refusal to compromise herself in the face of desperation. It's a powerful story, not least because it could have easily had a different ending, with circumstances requiring Louisa to give in after all.


Other stories in this collection include: A New England Nun.


This post is linked to at the September round-up of the Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.


Nancy Cudis said...

I haven't read anything by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman before, but this is something I want to read. I enjoy female characters who are strong, and here, Louisa is not only strong but human, too, by possessing that "romantic notion" innate in many women I know. Thanks for sharing! :-)

HKatz said...

I think you would enjoy Freeman's stories. Thanks for stopping by!

naida said...

This sounds like a good story, I wonder what happens with Louisa and I hope she doesn't conform.

Umā said...

This sounds like good a good read for winter in rural New England...which will be here all too soon.

cleemckenzie said...

Sound interesting. Haven't heard of this book or the author, so thanks for the post.

Andreia said...


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HKatz said...

@ Uma - definitely it could fit that kind of weather, though her stories are good in all seasons.

@ cleemckenzie - She's worth checking out (she's a 19th century and very early 20th century American writer).

@ Andreia - welcome to the blog, and thanks for following it.

(And thanks to all of you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.)

Risa said...

While reading your summary of this story I couldn't help but wonder about women writers writing about women who do marry for seems that they rarely do...write about this theme, that is. And yet it's what happens to the majority, right?

I'm talking of Western Women writers. In the East one is bound to read a lot on women marrying due to so many other factors except love....

HKatz said...

Interesting point, Risa. I'll keep it in mind, especially when reading 19th or early 20th century authors. One novel I recently read that does have something like that is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton; Ethan and his wife did not marry for love. Also I remember a Mary E. Wilkins Freeman story - a rather dark one, I think it's called Old Woman Magoun - in which a grandmother is trying to prevent her granddaughter's father from marrying her off (or possibly prostituted) over a gambling debt.

multoghost said...

I really like Mary Wilkins Freeman. Her collection Wind in the Rose-Bush is a good October read (supernatural stories). "Shadows on the Wall" is terrific. And all the stories really call out the difficulties of being a woman in her era.

Edith Wharton is also one of my favorite writers from that period.

HKatz said...

Welcome, multoghost. I haven't yet read that collection but will check it out. I've also come to love her stories (I plan to write about a few more of them: Dear Annie, The Revolt of Mother, A Poetess, and one or two others).

As for Wharton, she's been a pleasure to read so far; of her longer works I've read Custom of the Country and Ethan Frome.

Relyn Lawson said...

I remember when you recommended A New England Nun. I absolutely loved it.