When she was in her early sixties, Mary Britton Miller (1883-1975), who after twenty years of publishing had found no success as a lyric poet, reinvented herself as Isabel Bolton, a writer of lyric prose. The first book under her pen name was Do I Wake or Sleep (1946), a perfect fable of America and Europe on the eve of World War II and a witty, stinging satire of New York's moneyed class. Edmund Wilson, who seldom gushed, was lavish in his praise: "She has cut to roundness and smoothed to convexity a little crystal of literary form that concentrates the light like a burning glass." Miller followed this triumph with three more novels, each a miracle of concision, and a handful of striking short stories--a small, distinctive, and sadly overlooked body of fiction that, in her lifetime, earned her deserved comparisons with James and Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen. She also wrote a remarkable memoir, Under Gemini, published in 1966 and now, after three decades, plucked from obscurity by the venturesome Steerforth Press.
Of Mary Miller's many acknowledged masters, Bowen is the presiding influence here. As Diana Trilling once noted, Bowen and Miller share "the same scalpel-like precision of observation and expression, the same ability to make the most delicate differentiations between appearances and reality, the same fierce insight into human error held in check by warm human sympathy." Both are also modern masters of what Bowen once called "Life with the Lid On," that kind of fiction in which terribly well-bred ladies and gentlemen, every whalebone and stud in place, suppress passion, terror, and doubt as they take up their fish forks and smile past their host. And, most relevant to Under Gemini, Bowen and Miller are unrivaled as creators of child protagonists, characters who are never miniature adults but who, in the purity of their emotions and their imperfect understanding of the workings of the world, are at once real Children and criticisms of the adults who share the stage with them--their parents, their protectors, and especially their exploiters.
The protagonist of Under Gemini is Mary Miller herself, who writes of her Brahminbohemian girlhood at the end of the last century, a girlhood marked by privilege, disorder, longing, and loss. Her parents are glimpsed; we hear the word "cholera"; the parents disappear. We meet the good grandmother, and run wild on her seemingly boundless estate; then we meet Julia, the quick-to-anger aunt who too soon takes her place. Best of all, we come to know Miss Rogers, the loving but crisis-prone governess, a "sad and hungry heart" who strives in vain to be the perfect mother to the five ungovernable Miller children. We are led through the seasons of New England, through blizzards and weddings and fourteen seaside summers, to the &fining moment of Mary's life--the afternoon in August when, in one shocking instant, her childhood abruptly ends.
The power of this book--and it is truly, strangely powerful--lies not in its set pieces, not even in its moral counterpoint of the child and the adult worlds, but in its unique narrative voice. Under Gemini is written not in the first-person singular, the "I" of every other memoir, but rather in the plural, "we," for Mary was born not just Mary but, wondrously, Mary and Grace--one mind in two bodies, her own and her identical twin's. Mary Miller evokes not only the universal aspects of her New England childhood--beach days, snow days, school days--but also one of the most exotic of human experiences, that of being accompanied through life by a second self, and of knowing oneself to be that other person, down to the last nerve. "I look at Grace and know that I am crying too" she writes; "Tears stream down our faces." "A thought that we had never had before struck us suddenly." "I kept shouting but it was not my voice I heard. It was hers."
As a novelist, Isabel Bolton took as her motto a line from Keats's letters: "Life is a valley of soul-making." In her own case--in her and Grace's case--the making of a soul was a joint, not a single, venture. Under Gemini is an exquisite book, beautiful in its form and haunting in its effects. It is also, at little over one hundred pages, proof of the argument that, in matters of art, the miniature need never be mistaken for the minor.
Editor's note: We wish to call our readers' attention to the publication of The Primate's Dream: Literature, Race, and Ethnicity in America by James W. Tuttleton (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50). Portions of the volume first appeared in The New Criterion.
Christopher Carduff reviews books regularly for The New Criterion.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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