In a literary career than spanned almost fifty years, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman wrote fifteen collections of short stories, sixteen novels, one play, and eight volumes of prose and poetry for children. Of the various genres she attempted, her best writing occurs in the genre of short fiction during the 1880’s and 1890’s. She rejected a career in teaching to concentrate on her goal of becoming a writer.
Freeman is recognized for two fine collections of short stories: A Humble Romance and Other Stories and A New England Nun and Other Stories. The two elderly sisters of “A Mistaken Charity” represent the typical Freeman female protagonists of these short-story collections: fiercely independent, a product of their New England environment, capable, determined, and nonconformist. The title of “A Mistaken Charity” typifies the well-meaning but misplaced intentions of social do-gooders in a New England community who believe that two elderly sisters who live alone would be better off in the “old ladies home” and who make such arrangements. Harriet and Charlotte, the two sisters in question, disagree, make their escape, and return to their dilapidated but perfectly suitable cottage.
Freeman continues themes of independence, determination, and female capabilities in short stories included in A New England Nun and Other Stories. Louisa Ellis of “The New England Nun” discovers, on her suitor’s return after fourteen years from seeking adventure and fortune in Australia, that the quiet life of spinsterhood is preferable to marriage. In rejecting marriage, Louisa’s actions are dramatic, feisty, and most unusual for the time. That same feistiness, will, and determination are characteristic of “The Revolt of Mother,” perhaps Freeman’s most famous story. After waiting patiently through forty years of marriage for a new home, which her husband promised her before they were married, Sarah Penn has had enough and revolts. Determined to live at least as well as her husband’s livestock do, she and her two children take up residence in a new barn that her husband has built. The barn was built to hold livestock that he neither needs nor owns and occupies the site designated for Sarah’s future home. This story’s characteristics are vintage Freeman: independent and strong-willed women, a stifling and oppressive New England environment, and universal truths from everyday experiences of ordinary men and women.