Chic Home-Office Wear & Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun”


 It’s a pajama day, because I am doing my best to relax in this jittery time–but today I exchanged my soft jeans for a slightly more upscale style.  

I have an extensive wardrobe of pajama-type garments. I do not have the 1930s beachwear pajamas jumpsuits (above left), but if you can sew, perhaps you can make your own. Today I dragged a black sweater and forgotten stretch pants (just like the ones in the 1961 Sears catalogue above) from the bottom of a trunk.  If you have not Marie Kondo-ed your house, you wil find rummaging in an old trunk the equivalent of shopping. The malls are closed, so what else?   And it is the perfect time to be super-casual, because you’ll find your co-workers are equally blasé in their home offices or crowded family-filled houses. 

WHAT ARE YOU READING?  Maybe P. G. Wodehouse? Or Carol Shields?  I recommend Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s enjoyable book,  A New England Nun and Other Stories.  This has gathered dust on my shelves,  possibly because Freeman (1852-1930) used to be dismissed as a “regional” writer.  Yes, her books are set in New England, but why is that regional?  

Freeman’s unshowy prose is effortlessly graceful and her plots absorbing. Every word matters:  no sentence is a throw-away.  She is known for portraits of independent women in New England villages and small towns:  their social positions vary, but everyone has a crisis to surmount.

In one of her most famous stories, “A New England Nun,” the heroine, Louisa Ellis, is very pretty and gentle.  Her long-distance fiancé, Joe Doggett, has worked 14 years to make his fortune in Australia.   Now Joe is back, and she is bewildered.

From the first paragraph, Freeman describes Louisa’s quiet life through nature and the objects around her. 

It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.  There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard….  There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything for the mere sake of subsidence–a very premonition of rest and hush and night.”

Louisa is happy drinking her solitary tea and listening to her canary chirp. She is not looking forward to a visit from Joe. What strangely disconcerts her is his hugeness:  he seems to fill up the room, and brings in dust from the outdoors. Will these two really marry?

In “A Moral Exigency,” the heroine, Eunice, refuses to marry Mr. Wilson, a widower with four children.   Her father insists it is “an opportunity,” but Eunice says, “I don’t think I should care for that kind of opportunity.”  It’s not that she’s cold:  she loves another man.  But duty can get in the way of affection. 

In “A Mistaken Charity,” two old women are dragged from their hovel to live in an old people’s home. It’s not a poorhouse out of Dickens, but the sisters miss their hovel.  What unfolds reminds me of an episode of Grace and Frankie.  Did the TV writers read this story?

I also very much enjoyed The Jamesons, a comic novella about a small New England town turned topsy-turvy when the Jamesons move in.  Mrs Jameson is domineering and insists on reading Browning aloud for hours. Very, very funny–very different from the stories.


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