Over the course of 2010 and 2011, the Schlesinger Library purchased some 100 books once owned by the family of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her grandson, Walter Stetson Chamberlin. While most of these books belonged to Charlotte, others belonged to her first husband, the artist Charles Walter Stetson (known as Walter), his second wife and Charlotte’s close friend, Grace Ellery Channing Stetson, and those of Charlotte and Walter’s only child, Katharine Beecher Stetson Chamberlin. The books, though only a portion of the books owned and read by the family in their lifetime, document the reading habits and intellectual history of this literary and artistic family, and complement the papers of Charlotte, Grace, and Walter, long held by the Schlesinger. Many of the books were gifts, given by friends and relatives, sometimes by the authors (and often the authors were themselves friends and relatives). Of all the books given to Charlotte, the most fascinating are Christmas gifts from Walter, her first husband, and George Houghton Gilman (Houghton), her second. Each gift is emblematic of the two profoundly different relationships, which are nearly always contrasted with one another in the story of Charlotte’s life.
The popular narrative of Charlotte’s first marriage, fostered by her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well as readings of her most famous work, the autobiographical The Yellow Wall Paper, is one of nearly unending misery entered into with grave doubts, the end of which freed her to become the renowned author and public intellectual we know today. Recent scholarship by Cynthia J. Davis and Helen Horowitz have complicated this version somewhat, and the mutual gifts that Charlotte and Walter gave one another the first Christmas of the married life supports a more nuanced telling.
Watercolor illustrations by Charles Walter Stetson in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s copy of The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited by William T. Arnold. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1884. Click to see enlarged images.
By Christmas of 1884 Charlotte and Walter had been married for almost 8 months, and Charlotte was 6 months pregnant. Each gave to the other a copy of the recently published The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited by William T. Arnold, which they had illustrated with watercolors. Walter included a poem of his own composition, “In Her Praise.”
Taken alone, with its overwrought romantic idealization that reduced the beloved to an object rather than a full human, the poem is remarkable for exemplifying all of Charlotte’s misgivings about their relationship. In the context of the reciprocal gifts, however, we see Charlotte fully participating in a romanticized partnership, especially with her exquisite final illustration of two lovers entwined for Keats’ poem, Bright Star! This is not only doubt, but deep ambivalence. She may know that the relationship is profoundly unhealthy and will leave both deeply unsatisfied, but, at the age of 24, she is as enamored of the idea as he.
Watercolor illustrations by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Charles Walter Stetson’s copy of The Poetical Works of John Keats, edited by William T. Arnold. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1884. Click to see enlarged images.
George Houghton Gilman’s 1906 Christmas gift of Lester Ward’s Applied Sociology, on the other hand, is perhaps the perfect gift for the 46-year-old Charlotte. Ward deeply admired Charlotte’s poetry, beginning with one of her earliest poems to reach a broad audience, Similar Cases, and Charlotte’s sociological work was profoundly influenced by Ward and his theory of gynaecocentrism. If Charlotte might have wished that Ward was willing to regard her sociology with the same respect that she had for his, she nevertheless continued to support his work, even after his death.
Houghton’s playful note to Charlotte is especially delightful, displaying his gentle humor in addition to his excellent taste in gifts. One imagines that he must have purchased the gift with her in mind quite early in the season in order to have it before Charlotte could say, “Oh, I don’t need anything this year,” perhaps to help with their perennially cash-strapped finances, or perhaps because he was gift enough himself.