Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Giant Wistaria

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)
From Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Novels, Stories & Poems

This photograph from 1894–95 shows a cottage engulfed by wisteria vines and climbing roses on the Carmelita estate owned by Jeanne C. Carr and her husband, Ezra S. Carr, in Pasadena. Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived “right opposite” from 1888 to 1891, during which she wrote “The Giant Wistaria.” The Carrs lived in the cottage until the completion of their three-story, 22-room home in the early 1880s and moved back in 1892, when they sold the larger house and most of the estate. Ezra died in 1896; Jeanne died in Oakland in 1903. (University of Southern California Libraries)

In The Grove: A Nature Odyssey in 19½ Front Gardens, published earlier this year, the Australian gardener and landscape historian Ben Dark discusses the sinuous and unsettling beauty of wisteria vines:
Budding from seemingly veteran wood gives Wisteria sinensis a uniquely gothic appeal. It has the poet’s ability to play the tortured ancient from youth. The stems bite into each other as they twist. Constricted growth bulges and flattens. Its wood quickly becomes striated, as if the thin bark lies over a mass of knotted tendon and muscle. It is why the wisteria is such a potent symbol of haunting. It is something decrepit and half-ruined but capable of transforming into a being of otherworldly beauty. . . .
Its destructive splendor, Dark adds, explains Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s choice of placing a monstrous wisteria at the center of her story: “only that plant’s roots could embrace the horrific secret at the tale’s heart.”

When she lived in Rhode Island, Gilman certainly would have been familiar with the plant, which had been imported from Japan and China early in the nineteenth century—but when she lived in Pasadena, California, in the late 1880s she would have been surrounded by massive specimens of Wisteria sinensis. She became friends with Jeanne C. Carr, a horticulturist, and Ezra S. Carr, a retired professor of agricultural science, who had moved in the late 1870s to the 42-acre Pasadena estate they called Carmelita. Jeanne became a prominent member of a group of settlers who encouraged the farming of citrus fruit and the ornamentation of homes with enormous, hardy, fast-growing plants that quickly covered gardens and buildings. The region soon became famous for both wisterias and roses—not to mention the orange farms that fueled the local economy. Gigantic Gold of Ophir rosebushes soon dominated the landscape, and the first Tournament of Roses took place in 1890. Brochures touting flower-laden gardens and homes were printed to attract tourists from the East; one widely distributed postcard is a hand-colored print of a photograph dating from 1894–95 showing Ezra Carr himself sitting in front of Carmelita’s wisteria- and rose-covered cottage. The world’s largest blossoming plant is a one-acre specimen of Chinese wisteria planted in 1894 in nearby Sierra Madre. It eventually destroyed the house it was meant to decorate.

In the hope of recovering from depression and ill health, Gilman first visited Pasadena in the winter of 1885. She stayed with her childhood friend Grace Ellery Channing, whose house was within walking distance of the Carrs’ residence. “The Channings had bought a beautiful place by the little reservoir at the corner of Walnut Street and Orange Avenue,” she recalled in her memoir, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Already their year-old trees were shooting up unbelievably, their flowers a glory.” Soon after she returned to Rhode Island the following year, Gilman wrote the ghost story that would become “The Giant Wistaria,” but it was apparently rejected for publication. The manuscript has not survived, however, and we don’t know its title or even if the original version featured a wisteria.

In October 1888, Gilman returned to Pasadena, where for three years she and her daughter lived in a rented cottage “right opposite Carmelita,” as she later put it. Amid wisteria vines, rose bushes, and orange trees, she launched her career. “With Pasadena begins my professional ‘living,’” she wrote. “Before that there was no assurance of serious work. To California, in its natural features, I owe much. Its calm sublimity of contour, richness of color, profusion of flowers, fruit and foliage, and the steady peace of its climate were meat and drink to me.”

Gilman may have been prompted to revise her ghost story when her uncle Edward Everett Hale, editor of The New England Magazine, accepted a short work by Grace Channing for the March 1890 issue. “Have you seen Grace’s story, ‘A Strange Dinner Party,’ in The New England Mag?” she wrote to a friend. “I’ve sent a story there too, my one ghost story, which I think I read you once. It now figures as ‘The Giant Wistaria,’ and has a prelude.” The magazine accepted Gilman’s tale, it appeared in the June 1891 issue under her first married name, Charlotte P. Stetson, and she was paid $14. Seven months later, the same magazine published, apparently without her prior knowledge, her most famous story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” for which she received nothing.

“The Giant Wistaria” was largely forgotten until 1988, when Gloria A. Biamonte reprinted it with an introduction in an issue of Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Since then, it has received so much attention that it may well be regarded as Gilman’s second-most famous short story. The “prelude” Gilman mentions in her letter sets the story not among the wisterias of Pasadena but in the settlements of colonial New England; the “giant wistaria” has been brought from Europe by an immigrant family whose daughter has become an unwed mother. The remainder of the story takes place in the same house more than a century later.

Eulalia Piñero Gil, a professor of American literature at the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid, echoes many commentators when she points out that Gilman’s story “reelaborates, in a more radical way, the central debate of the paradigmatic novel The Scarlet Letter, as it represents the position of women in Puritan society.” While acknowledging the parallels between Hawthorne’s novel and Gilman’s story, literary scholar Gary Scharnhorst argues that the daughter’s “literary forebear is not so much Hester Prynne” but rather Cassy, the enslaved mother in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Lest this point seem forced or contrived,” he adds, “note that Gilman considered Stowe, her great-aunt, ‘one of the world’s greatest women’ and her novel ‘a great book,’ the most popular and influential ‘work of fiction that was ever written.’” To discuss the similarities any further would give away too much of the story, so we’ll leave it to our readers to make the connections to Hawthorne and Stowe.

One aspect that has attracted much attention (and debate) among readers and critics is the mystery of what exactly happens after the scene depicted in the prelude. In a detailed examination of the story, Scharnhorst concludes, “An ambiguous, half-told tale disrupted by silences and ellipses, ‘The Giant Wistaria’ is a type of open-ended riddle rather than a closed authorial monologue. . . . The narrative is, perhaps, all the more terrifying for the questions it leaves dangling.”

Notes: For an overview of Gilman’s complex relationship with her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, and Stetson’s eventual marriage to Grace Channing, see our introduction to Gilman’s “The Unnatural Mother.”

Wisteria is often spelled wistaria, in part because the genus is believed to have been named in the early nineteenth century after the Philadelphia physician Caspar Wistar. Sticklers will note an anachronism: early American colonists would not have been able to bring over a seedling of wisteria because the plant was not introduced into Europe until the 1810s. An old-fashioned repeater is a watch that can chime hours or minutes. The expression “vide Jack!” translates loosely as “as Jack said earlier.” (Vide is Latin for “see” or “consult.”)

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“Meddle not with my new vine, child! See! Thou hast already broken the tender shoot! . . .” 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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