Sunday, May 17, 2020

Luella Miller

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

“All but Luella shone white in the moonlight.” Illustration by American artist Peter Newell (1862–1924) for “Luella Miller” when it appeared in the December 1902 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. Click on the image to see the full drawing.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins had been living on her close friend Mary Wales’s farm south of Boston for twenty years when, on New Year’s Day 1902, she married Charles Manning Freeman at his home in Metuchen, New Jersey. The newlyweds first met a full decade earlier, when she was nearing forty and he was thirty-two. By the time they were introduced, Mary Wilkins had made a name for herself as a writer of short stories of New England “local color,” and she had just finished Pembroke, which is still her best-known novel. Charles Freeman had briefly been an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers before entering medical school; after he graduated, he never practiced medicine but instead assumed control of his family’s lucrative business in coal and lumber—a career that utterly bored him. Wilkins’s friends described Freeman to her as someone who acted far younger than his years and who loved his drink, but she grew fond of his nonconformity. Her friends’ judgments proved prescient; Freeman’s alcoholism and drug use would eventually land him in a series of asylums and hospitals, leading to the couple’s separation in the late 1910s and his death in 1923.

In the happier months immediately following their marriage, however, Mary Wilkins Freeman acclimated herself to the mansions and servants of her new neighborhood. Mocking her home’s “seventy-eight doors and five sets of stairs,” she described her new life in letters to a friend:
I have two maids and one of them is almost as good as a housekeeper. The other is not yet wholly materialized as “help” but I don’t worry. I have made up my mind if my house is clean enough so there is no immediate danger of typhoid, and we have enough to eat, it is the principal thing.
She admitted to another correspondent that she was “keeping house horribly, and not managing well my servants,” and she was often tempted to help with some of the chores. “What's all this?” her husband barked at her one day, as the finances dwindled because they were having an even bigger house built down the street. “Making a cake when the same time would produce a story worth five hundred!”

During the first three years of marriage, while the new home was under construction, Mary finished two novels and numerous stories, including a half dozen ghost stories that she collected in 1903 as The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Tales of the Supernatural. In the decades after her death in 1930, scholars largely ignored these explorations of genre fiction, with one biographer dismissing their supernatural elements as “ludicrous devices.” Readers and critics in recent years, however, have resurrected several of these tales and recognize both their satirical intent and the obviously ambiguous nature of those “devices.” The most well-known and most anthologized is “Luella Miller”—but is it really a ghost story?

“I never made coffee in my life,” cries Luella Miller, during one of the rare periods when there is nobody around to help her. Luella is utterly dependent on a series of helpmates who become gradually powerless under the rule of her wheedling demands. Lynda L. Hinkle argues in a recent essay that the character of Luella is Freeman’s “stinging critique of a declining but still prevalent social class structure that churned out a large, useless upper class of women whose job it was to be beautiful and consume,” and Alfred Bendixen, introducing the selection in the anthology Haunted Tales, concurs that Freeman “confronts and rejects the Victorian ideal of the passive and dependent woman.”

The depiction of the story’s “servants” was almost certainly informed by the author’s own past. After the Civil War, her father’s carpentry business suffered repeated failures. The Wilkinses had to move from their home, first to Brattleboro, Vermont, and then, when his latest venture failed, back to Randolph, Massachusetts, to live in the household of a wealthy family, where Mary’s mother toiled as the housekeeper for seven years until her death in 1880. The plight of her mother’s final years influenced much of her writing; as biographer Perry Westbrook notes, “Many of Freeman’s fictional characters regarded such subserviency as the ultimate disgrace that could befall them.” Since her teens, Freeman had detested domestic chores and regarded the responsibilities of housekeeping as an intrusion on her writing, and her attitude toward service was reflected in the easygoing supervision of her maids. “Luella Miller,” then, combines her distaste for the pampered rich women in her new social milieu with her aversion for the drudgery and acquiescence demanded of “the help.”

When discussing the otherworldly aspects of the story, many critics and readers remark on how Freeman pointedly depicts Lydia Anderson—who narrates the core of the story in an extended monologue—as unreliable. Luella Miller, after all, married the man Lydia herself might have married. “Only Lydia mentions Luella’s duplicity,” literary scholar Susan Oaks reminds us. “Only Lydia’s version of the story exists.” Lydia is also the only source for the story’s supernatural elements, and the righteousness that pervades her narration leaves the reader wondering: what really was her role in these long-ago events? In the end, it is Lydia Anderson who commands the story because she controls its telling, and her homespun tone lends both authority and authenticity. As Martin Scofield writes in The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, “What gives this story its edge is the style of the narrator: as often in Freeman, and in the American short story in general, the quality of voice (often involving regional dialect) is essential to its effect.”

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Close to the village street stood the one-story house in which Luella Miller, who had an evil name in the village, had dwelt. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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