Old Bestseller: Their Husbands' Wives, edited by William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden
a review by Rich Horton
This is the book I originally planned on covering last week for "Anthology Week" at Friday's Forgotten Books, but my computer troubles intervened. I was able to get to the hard drive from the messed up computer (the problem seems to be the video card), and I resurrected this review, which I wrote several weeks ago.
Henry Mills Alden (1836-1919) was Editor of Harper's for a remarkable 50 years, from 1869 until his death. William Dean Howells was his near exact contemporary, born a year later and died a year later. He was an editor with Harper's' rival (then and now), the Atlantic Monthly, and later with Harper's. He was better known, of course, as a novelist, indeed a doctrinaire realist novelist. Probably The Rise of Silas Lapham remains his best-known work. Howells is responsible for the very brief introduction.
The six stories are:
"Eve's Diary", by Mark Twain (5000 words) (Harper's, December 1905)
"Covered Embers", by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (8900 words) (Harper's, August 1905)
"Life's Accolade", by Abby Meguire Roach (5100 words) (Harper's, September 1905)
"The Bond", by Emery Pottle (4300 words) (Harper's, July 1904)
"The Eyes of Affection", by George Hibbard (3600 words) (Harper's, August 1905)
"The Marriage Question", by Grace Ellery Channing (8900 words) (Harper's, August 1905)
Mark Twain's story is actually part of a diptych, along with "Extracts from Adam's Diary", which appeared in Harper's for April 1901. They have often since been published together, including once again in Harper's in 1999. It's an amusing, and sometimes touching, comic retelling of the beginning of Genesis from Eve's point of view, and makes much of the differences in attitude between Adam and Eve, and Adam's grumpiness, and Eve's innocence. Supposedly Twain based Eve on his wife Livy, and Adam on himself.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was a significant early feminist, noted for advocating for financial independence for women, clothing reform (she advocating burning corsets), and for jobs outside the home. She was born Mary Gray Phelps, but asked to change her name to her mother's name after her mother's death when she was very young. I don't know if the name change became official, but she did use it as her pseudonym. She published a story as young as 13, and was very prolific in novels, short stories, and nonfiction throughout her life.
"Covered Embers" opens with a noted lawyer welcoming a new client: a countrified man (though somewhat prosperous) who wants a divorce. The lawyer wonders why? Has his wife been unfaithful? Has he? The man is shocked -- how can the lawyer insult his wife so! It turns out the problem is really that they just don't get along anymore, and the deeper problem is that their cherished daughter had died some years before. And now they -- mutually -- want a divorce, but divorces aren't so easy to obtain. Over the length of the story, as we expect, and with the lawyer's help (for some of his own personal reasons) they are subtly chivvied to rediscover their love. It's a rather nice story, really, funny in places, using dialect effectively, a bit sentimental of course, but effective.
Abby Meguire Roach was a Kentucky writer (her papers are at the University of Louisville). Her dates are given as 1884-1964 on the U of L page about her papers, but I found a reference in a book called Library of Southern Literature: Biography, published in 1907, that suggested she was born in 1876, and married in 1899. The earlier date seems plausible to me. Either way, she was quite long lived, and as late as 1957 published a short memoir of the "Authors Club of Louisville". I don't know of any novels by her -- the only book I can find is a short story collection called Some Successful Marriages (1906), which includes the story at hand.
"Life's Accolade" is a fairly simple romance, in which Frieda Channing, long cold to suitors, realizes she is in love with her friend Mr. Channing as they deal with a storm in a sailboat. After marriage and a child, however, things seem stale, and it takes a second, more difficult, pregnancy, and Channing's care for her, to bring her back to happiness. There's not much more to it than that: a fairly straightforward morality tale, about the propriety of married love and faithfulness, and working at it ... but it's nicely done, and makes its point well enough.
Emery Pottle is an interesting case. His full name was Gilbert Emery Bensley Pottle (1975-1945). He was perhaps best known, later in his life, as an actor, stage name Gilbert Emery. His roles seem mostly to have been fairly minor. IMDB suggests his most famous movies were A Farewell to Arms (starring Gary Cooper), That Hamilton Woman (based on the affair of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton, starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier), and Dracula's Daughter (starring no one I'd heard of). Before becoming an actor in his 40s, he was a writer, of short fiction, poems, and novels, using the names Emery Pottle and Gilbert Emery. He wrote a play, "The Hero", about World War I (he fought with the AEF), in 1920, and that may have led to his acting career.
"The Bond" tells of the marriage of the beautiful and upper class Frances to Richard Keppel, who is well off but comes of more countrified stock. They are happy together until the question of Keppel's relatives comes up -- he remains devoted to his mother and sisters, but he seems afraid of Frances' reaction to them, and indeed she seems to be a bit put off by their cruder manners. Things come to a head when Keppel goes by himself to Thanksgiving at his old home, and his mother gives him wise advice -- his place is with his wife. Of course, his wife has done some thinking too ... A fairly simple story painting a fairly simple moral. Like "Life's Accolade", it doesn't do much new or surprising in its short space, but it does what is does well enough.
George Hibbard is the most obscure of these writers -- I can find nothing about him. There are perhaps four notable George Hibbards -- a St. Louis art collector, a Boston mayor, a Canadian businessman and politician, and a contemporary golf instructor. None of these seems to be our man. Further digging finds a reference (from The Writer, "A Monthly Magazine for Literary Workers", August 1911) to a Buffalo lawyer who also wrote "prettygirl-handsomeman" fiction -- I suspect that's this guy!
Hibbard's story, "The Eyes of Affection", is about Isabelle Halcomb, who has been happily enough married to Jack Halcomb for some years. An old flame, Dick Graham, ends up staying at a nearby house, and she runs into him again, of course, and starts to wonder -- what if she had married him instead? He seems a well made and successful man. Did she make a mistake? But even though she feels her life with Jack is a bit humdrum after all these years, she is brought to realize that what she has with him is real, and better than worrying over past flames.
Finally, Grace Ellery Channing is a pretty intriguing figure. She was born in Providence, RI, in 1862, but moved to Southern California in the 1880s for her health (successfully). She became an editor with The Land of Sunshine, a magazine that advocated life in Southern California, including such things as spending time in the sun, and a Mediterranean diet, and wine. Her grandfather was the founder of the American Unitarian Church and her father was an inventor. She was a lifelong friend, and occasional collaborator, with the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and, curiously, married Gilman's husband, Charles Stetson, after he and Gilman divorced. (Wikipedia says Gilman and Channing, who remained friends, raised Gilman and Stetson's child -- I wonder if that's a typo?) Channing Stetson was a war correspondent in France during World War I. She died in 1937.
"'The Marriage Question'" is perhaps the most overtly feminist story here, and it's not very feminist in today's terms. Richard Satterlee is somehow a bit discontented with his wife, again named Isabel, and he starts to take an interest in his hard-working secretary. He fantasizes about asking her to dinner. Then his wife shows up, unexpectedly, at his office. She realizes that Miss Clarke has a relationship with her husband that she doesn't share (though she suspects no impropriety, and indeed Miss Clarke is guiltless) ... and she makes a plan. She suggests that Miss Clarke, who perhaps needs a rest anyway, take a few weeks off, with pay, and instead she'll do the secretarial work. What follows is a bit of a revelation to Isabel -- she has some learning to do -- but even more of one for Richard, who learns that there is more to his wife than he had credited. The end result is a renewed marriage, and a closer collaboration. (And Isabel will continue to be his secretary/partner ...)
In all, not a bad collection of stories, on a distinctly circumscribed theme: each story is about marriage, more specifically about women's roles in marriage, and each quite resoundingly supports the institution of marriage, and fairly traditional roles, but usually with a message for each partner: that they need to pay attention to their spouse's needs. Simplistic, I suppose, but sensible enough.