Saturday, August 18, 2012

"The Little Room" by Madeline Yale Wynne

 photo: Picaresque but creepy photo of Madeline Yale Wynne's final little room (sorry), in the Berkshire Mountains, from Find A Grave's website.  (I couldn't find a Wikipedia page or anything else less creepy.)

The latest in the series from The Library of America, this for Week #42, "The Little Room" was first published in Harper's Magazine in 1895.  (Because of this, one assumes that when a character asks another if they'll be heard "in the car," she must be referring to a train; funny how it's so assumed by the author and characters that this would be the case, as the automobile itself had just been invented maybe three years before, and it hadn't yet entered the vernacular as a "car.")  You can read the story here.  It's very short and very easy to read, though you might come out of it underwhelmed as I did.

I've never heard of the author or the story before, despite the Library's insistence that it is a heavily anthologized and well-known story.  And I'm a pretty well-read guy, too.  Wynne never wrote anything else of value, apparently, though artisans in the Berkshires would remember her as a supporter of those local arts, and as quite the artisan herself.

The author might be more of a story than her story, but we'll start with that first.  (Skip the remaining paragraphs if you want to read the story first.  If so, do that first, now, and then come back.)

The framework of the story is interesting.  The beginning is mostly told via conversation, as per Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; this was the norm for late Victorian stories.  Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was written this way, too, if I remember right.  Anyway, you've got a newly married young couple and they're on their way to visit the bride's reclusive and eccentric half-aunts.  She tells the story of how her mother was brought up there for most of her childhood, and afterwards her mother grew up in Brooklyn.  When her mother returned to the aunt's the day of her own marriage, she was horrified and mystified to find that the room she more or less grew up in--and was memorably sick in for some time as a youth--had been done over and made into a china closet.  When she asked the aunts about it, they had no idea what she was talking about, and said so with old-time New England steadfastness, and with no emotion at all, not even behind the eyes.  The mother, however, remembered every single little thing about the room, and some memorable conversations in the room, and the reader agrees with the bride telling the story that her mother couldn't have made all that up, and that there's something weird going on in that house and with the aunts.  Ultimately, the mother never recovers from the weirdness and dies at a young-ish age.

So the bride and her husband get there, and he immediately notices that they're served with gilt-edged china, so there has to be a china room somewhere.  (I keep mine in a hutch, and in one of the kitchen cabinets, but whatever.)  They investigate what the woman had said should be a little room, but it's just a china closet, and the husband basically rolls his eyes at his new wife and acts a bit verbally condescending.  The bride asks the aunt about it, and she gets the same answer that her mother had, in just the same stoic way.  The aunts didn't even remember that the bride's mother had asked them about the china closet/little room as well.  The new bride takes a long while to get over this, but she finally does, and she and her husband move to Europe and have a few kids.  (The reader assumes he's gotten over the condescending attitude, as well.)

Fast forward five years.  The wife asks her cousin to visit the aunts to tell them goodbye for her, as she's now in Europe and had been too afraid to go say goodbye to them herself.  Her cousin agrees to do this, and intends on bringing another woman with her.  But they have a failure to communicate, and as it turns out, they each go by herself at different times.  As it happens in stories like this, the two women get together with their kids (Where are the husbands?) while camping, and they tell each other their stories, each believing beforehand that the other had blown her off, and that she had gone there while the other one hadn't.

One of the women saw a little room, and wrote to the newly married couple in Europe about it.  The other had seen just a china closet.  They argue for awhile, each believing that the other one's lying.  Finally, they decide to go back to the house together.  When they're close, they're told by a local that the house had burned to the ground the night before, with everything in it.  The reader is never told what happened to the aunts.

And that's it.  The story is told with a little more unease about it, and I suppose it's somewhat effective, maybe.  The Library says of the theme that some see it as a woman's need to have a room of her own, which I get; the Library also says others see a "closet of domestic confinement."  I can see that, too, in the story.  But I can't say I agree with literary scholar Alfred Bendixen (go to the head of the class if you've ever heard of this guy, or of Madeline Yale Wynne, for that matter), who says that the story is "one of the most effective 'puzzle stories' ever written."  Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King have written more effective "room" short stories than this, as has Arthur Conan Doyle.  "The Yellow Wallpaper" works better for me as a "room" story with a feminist bent, as well.

Are the aunts domestic servants?  Well, I guess, except they never married, and they actually have a former slave on the grounds to help them, too.  So what husbands or sons do they serve?  The china is theirs, and their company is theirs--and very infrequent, too.  (I might actually have more people over.)  And the story is very feminist and rather easy to see that way, so I don't know what Bendixen was so puzzled about.

I see the flip-flopping china closet / small room situation as an extended metaphor of how women are expected to shell out the china from a china closet as they serve their husbands and families and entertain their guests, but how actually what a woman (and yours truly) really needs is a room of her own, to just be her own individual, independent and creative self in.  The aunts, after all, never married or had kids.  Wink, wink.

Which segues nicely to the author.  Madeline Yale Wynne was, in fact, the daughter of the guy who created the lock company.  Yale was also a heckuva artisan himself, apparently, as he taught the craft to his daughter and sons.  According to the Find A Grave website (No, not creepy at all; I Googled her name and that's what came up first.  No one's made a Wikipedia page of her, I guess), she married Henry Winn in 1865, when she was 18.  They had two sons before they separated in 1874.  By 1883 she was sharing her studio and home with a Miss Annie Putnam.  (Ah-ha! you say.  Fits the story a bit, right?  Except the aunts really were sisters to each other, I think.  But they had their own secret little room, apparently in a Victorian/Freudian way.  Perhaps that room was a china closet only when they had family over, yes?)  They stayed together for about 30 years, until she died.  Putnam put together her various unpublished writings, none of them of any note, and printed them posthumously.  And somewhere in there, Madeline Winn changed her last name to Wynne, thereby still sticking to the social mores of carrying the (ex-)husband's last name, while yet slapping him across the face at the same time.

There's a little of that in the story as well.  The little room was the elephant in the room that the aunts never spoke of, and it apparently never bothered them at all that a village of people kept asking them about the china closet / small room thing.  It's as if they were like, "Nope, la la la, not there, nope, no room there, la la la..."  There's a symbol or metaphor with the chintz going on in the story, too, as the very mention of it almost (but just almost) causes one of the aunts to blush, but I'm not sufficiently up on my fabrics to figure that out.


  1. Hmmm what a neat little story! So one theory is the aunts were not able to see the room because they themselves were unmarried and never had kids.. (I'm unmarried and childless, but would certainly enjoy the solitude of my own private little room in a household with nutty half sisters! In fact it sounds like my own childhood.)

    But my question is why did they feel the need to keep hiding the fact that the room may have existed? They pretended Maragaret's mother never inquired about "the little room"...and they kept changing their story. I find that to be the most uneasy aspect of the tale. What were they hiding and why be so cold and unemotional about it? Or maybe Maria had relations with an actual sea captain causing her to blush...but Hannah wouldn't allow her to speak of it. Clearly they knew more than they were letting on. And how eery the aunts (or maybe the house itself) somehow predicted the two cousins were going to see the room together (having each seen it apart) and that caused them to either burn the house or maybe it self destructed?

    And wow her husband was beyond condescending. Talk about an unsupportive newlywed. It's a miracle that marriage lasted. Imagine finding out on your honeymoon your spouse thinks you're either a liar or possibly screwed up in the head. Gee thanks honey for the overwhelming reassurance!

    By the way, almost every time I type in the name of a deceased celebrity, Find-A-Grave will pop up on Google. Just because I want to read about their life doesn't mean I want to see their burial ground or open casket (yes it's happened when I've clicked on that website..)

    1. They hid the existence of the room because the room was an extended metaphor for their possible lesbianism, and they pretended it never existed because they were doing the same about their possible homosexuality.

  2. Please can you tell me if there are any other stories which written about the same theme and about the same era