An 1882 Island Interlude

Sometimes in life, a certain place can be a refuge, easing difficult transitions back in the real world. For better or worse, Martha’s Vineyard was such a place for Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Charlotte Perkins was in her early twenties when she came to the Vineyard for two weeks. Initially she stayed in Cottage City (Oak Bluffs). Then she headed to Edgartown for a secret rendezvous with her friend Martha Luther.(Courtesy The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.)

Who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

In 1993, the National Women’s Hall of Fame named the ten most influential American women of the century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) was sixth, behind Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Rosa Parks, Margaret Sanger, and Margaret Mead. A leading intellectual of the early women’s movement, Charlotte was a radical feminist before the term existed. Brilliant and outspoken, she was convinced gender injustice blocked the evolution of the human race. The vote alone will not free us, she warned – there is more power in economic independence.

Charlotte wrote 186 short stories, seven plays, hundreds of poems and lectures, and more than a thousand articles for newspapers and magazines nationwide. Eight novels and eleven non-fiction books, some translated into seven languages. Monthly for seven years, she published the progressive magazine Forerunner – she wrote every story, poem, and essay, book reviews, silly pieces, and the installment of a serialized novel. She wrote the classic horror tale The Yellow Wallpaper at thirty, and the classic utopian novel Herland at sixty-five. She lectured internationally, much in demand on the busy suffrage circuit. Her personal life was front-page news.

In 1882, Charlotte lived in Providence, Rhode Island. She was twenty-two, tall and graceful with dark hair, intense brown eyes, and a tendency to run in public, much to her mother’s dismay. On and off sidewalks, dodging pedestrians, skirts held up by a garter and button contraption she devised so her hands would be free to carry something other than her skirts. And never a corset. You can’t run in a corset; you can barely breathe.

Charlotte was under intense pressure to marry Walter Stetson, a talented young painter, but marriage brought children and the end of any work in the world. She had always planned to improve humankind in some significant way. Her mother was disgusted that Charlotte wasn’t at least engaged, considering all of the unsupervised time she spent with Walter. Animal impulse led to marriage or ruin. Charlotte thought there was room for other possibilities. She was passionate and physical in a time when neither was considered appropriate or healthy for a woman. But after a steamy close call on the settee, she announced to Walter she would no longer do anything she wouldn’t do in front of her mother. It wasn’t her reputation she was worried about; it was her plan.

Walter was open-minded, even bohemian for his day, but he couldn’t understand how any woman could put a “burning desire to work” ahead of being with a man, body and soul. He told Charlotte she’d work better if she gave in to her physical desires, and he blamed the episode on her period. To avoid another argument, she waited until the last minute to tell him she was going to Martha’s Vineyard, would be gone for two weeks, miles from the nearest post office, and not to expect a letter.

island home
The side-wheeler Island Home, a sister ship to the ferry that carried Charlotte to the Vineyard, steams along the Oak Bluffs waterfront. (Courtesy Martha's Vineyard Museum.)

On Monday, August 14, according to her diary, Charlotte caught a horse cab to the Providence train station, took the 8:00 train to New Bedford, and bought a ticket on the 10:30 steamship to Cottage City. One dollar, round trip. She didn’t name the boat in her diary, but according to captains’ logs it was the Martha’s Vineyard, a pretty side-wheeler with an extravagant interior, that carried Charlotte away from Walter and toward Martha Luther. Her “first and dearest love” was to be married in a few weeks.

The trip is barely mentioned in the volumes written about Charlotte. But it was not a casual vacation, not a spontaneous getaway. Charlotte quietly planned it for weeks. Biographers have always assumed she meant Walter when she reported writing to “Love” that July, but she was actually exchanging letters with an Edgartown woman named Love Smith, arranging to rent a room at the Smiths’ isolated farm on the south shore to be alone with Martha one last time.

First love

Charlotte was seventeen when she met Martha Luther. A small sixteen-year-old with a quick laugh and gentle gray eyes, Martha was intelligent and irreverent like Charlotte. They were inseparable for three years, rowing on the Pawtuxet, picnicking and reading poetry under the willows, writing entire adventure ballads on tiny rolls of ribbon. They bought matching red bracelets and pledged to live together one day, sharing so many private jokes friends never knew what they were talking about. “Perfectly matched souls,” Charlotte wrote. Mrs. Perkins thought they spent too much time with each other, so Martha had to sneak up the back stairs to Charlotte’s room, where they spent hours alone with the door locked.

When Martha went away with her family for the summer of 1881, the young women exchanged twenty-page letters. “Dear pussy,” Charlotte wrote, “little kitten,” “sweetheart.” She poured out her thoughts for the future and described her Ambition, which she capitalized. “Defy the world,” she wrote. “It’s no longer friendship between us, it’s love. I want you and I am not ashamed to admit it. I can be a friend to thousands, but you–!” They joked about having a bonfire with their letters to avoid scandal.

Then Martha met a man. At first Charlotte encouraged her to flirt. “Torture him!” she wrote. “Beat him at croquet!” Charlotte saw Charles Lane as the enemy, a passing whim, a leftover shard of Martha’s upbringing. When Martha encouraged her to find a male friend, Charlotte fired back: “No gentlemen friends for me. I have friends enough, and one love.”

Finally Mrs. Luther intervened. We don’t know what was said, but Charlotte kissed Martha and told her to go ahead and marry if she must. “But I’ll have a night key,” she insisted, and “if Charles tragically dies, I will be all in all.”

“She has a ring,” she told her diary, “and I have only pain.”

“She’s still your friend,” her mother said. The word was meaningless after what they’d been to each other.

Charlotte wrote to Martha, December 13, 1881:

Think dearest while you yet can feel the touch

Of hands that once could soothe your deepest pain;

Think of those days when we could hardly dare

Be seen abroad together lest our eyes

Should speak too loud.

Those days when you and I asked nothing of the world

But room, and one another.

I love you, Sweet. I love you.

Twelve days later, Charlotte went to a demonstration on etching. The artist was Walter Stetson: twenty-four years old, tall and handsome, with curly blond hair and direct blue eyes. It was a relationship steeped in misunderstanding from the first.

“I like him and his pictures,” Charlotte wrote, pleased they had interests and talents in common. Across town, Walter wrote: An original! Eccentric, unconventional and well-versed in almost everything! A classic figure. Moral, intellectual and beautiful!

Charlotte told him about Martha and asked if he still wanted to be friends. “I’m not like other women,” she warned. “I don’t combine. My life is for public service. I will give and give you of myself, but will never give myself to you or any man.” But eighteen days later, after three walks, one concert date, and a handshake, Walter proposed. Charlotte declined. Maybe in five or six years, she told him.

Arriving on-Island

The ninety-minute ride to Martha’s Vineyard was clear and breezy. Charlotte sat on a bench near the bow. She snacked on a sandwich, then sketched with her new stylograph pen. Cottage City had seven hundred year-round residents in 1882, but during Camp Meeting week twenty thousand people might arrive in a day. People came all summer to relax, to play, to be healed by the salt water, to study at the Summer Institute, to worship at open-air revival meetings. Prosperous visitors paid three dollars a night for a room in the Pawnee or Island House. The luxurious Sea View had gas lights and the first elevator on the Island. There were inns and boardinghouses and any local with a spare room rented by word of mouth.

Charlotte stayed at Mrs. Field’s guest house, thrilled to sleep in the cupola. She walked the boardwalk along the bluffs from the wharf to the south end of the beach. Men and women wore bathing costumes that covered them neck to ankle, but most women didn’t swim. They sat on the sand with parasols or stood in the shallows to talk. Charlotte swam and dove off the raft with the boys. Despite what she’d told Walter, she could easily walk to the post office in the arcade at the Camp Ground entrance. The mail came twice a day. She wrote Martha and picked up her replies.

A New York Times travel writer at the time called Cottage City a fairyland, the smallest cottage like a sparrow’s nest, the largest a prince’s residence. He complained about the sandwiches on the steamship and rued the growing popularity of the town. “The old haunts a fellow can have to himself will soon be invaded by the multitudes.” He warned readers that local inhabitants expected to get their year’s income during July and August and inflated their prices. “The cobbler acts like he came over on the Mayflower,” he wrote. “But you can’t come down on them like in New York.”

Charlotte spent three days in Cottage City. She ate ice cream and listened to live music coming from the porches of Ocean Park mansions. She bought candy and peanuts, watched skaters on the roller rink, read in the hammock. It’s entirely possible she read the article in the Cottage City Star that very week by a London doctor who said women weren’t fit enough to walk around the block. He’d obviously never met Charlotte, who’d already created the Providence Ladies Gymnasium and designed clothes for women to run and jump and dance in. She could travel the hanging rings the length of the room and back without touching the floor, did it in every gym she could find on lecture tours, and could still do it at sixty-five.

One evening Charlotte heard music and followed it to Trinity Church, where a Creole quartet was singing old-time slave music. Another night she attended the Grand Costume Carnival at the Sea View. One rainy afternoon, she napped in her cupola, then when the sky cleared, walked to the beach to climb the observation tower. From seventy-five feet up, the endless ocean, flower-filled parks, and bandstand looked much the same as today.

She saw the Cape Pogue Lighthouse on the southeast horizon and the little steam train puffing along the gold curve of sandy beach toward Edgartown and on to Katama, where it would turn around and come back. But the train didn’t go where Charlotte was headed.

The secret rendezvous

The Edgartown census of 1882 reveals that Jophanus Smith, sixty-one, and Love Smith, fifty-three, lived by Oyster Pond. Charlotte left Cottage City with Jophanus on his horse-drawn buggy, accompanying him on deliveries for eight miles over dirt roads and cart paths, through fields and pastures, wildflowers and scrub oak to his farm. After chatting with Love, Charlotte followed the path to the ocean beach beyond the dunes. The nearest neighbors were the Nortons, their farm over a mile away.

“Luxurious loneliness,” she wrote.

For three days she swam in Oyster Pond and the smaller Paqua Pond, hiked the shorelines, and vaulted fences. Saw sunsets, got sunburned. She sketched sheep in the orchard in her bathing suit, much to the surprise of duck hunters who happened by. She read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge on a blanket under the trees, and anticipated Martha’s arrival.

She never mentioned Walter in her diary. The past months had been stormy between them but through it all Martha was there again. She and Charlotte met at the gym and ran errands after church. They had supper upstairs in Charlotte’s room like they used to, talking for hours, painting, knitting, and trying to avoid Mrs. Luther, who had a tendency to show up at Charlotte’s whenever Martha was there. Sometimes they gathered as a foursome, Martha and Charles, Charlotte and Walter. Charlotte ran to Martha after fights with Walter. Martha asked Charlotte to bring up her children if she died.

They’d never burned their love letters of the previous summer. Charlotte promised to be forever silent about their relationship, but Charles Lane was from a prominent Hingham family and Martha had more to lose if her letters came to light. Hoping for an exchange, she brought Charlotte’s letters back to her one spring day. But despite prodding from Martha’s mother, Charlotte did not reciprocate.

On Monday, August 21, Charlotte rode back to Cottage City with Jophanus to meet Martha’s boat. They left immediately, back through the countryside to the Oyster Pond farmhouse. Charlotte was thrilled to be with Martha again, bursting with affection. After an early supper, they strolled to the beach where Charlotte swam and splashed, even caught a small fish, making Martha laugh at her antics.

Edgartown’s Oyster Pond landscape remains much the same today.

Charlotte never loved anyone the way she loved Martha. Her diary describes six blissful days at the isolated farm, surrounded by water, waving grasses, and a huge blue sky. They played in and out of the water, buried each other in the sand. They watched the surf and spent afternoons in the orchard dozing under buzzy trees, talking and laughing. Reading Coleridge aloud, playing their favorite word games. They spent a cozy rainy day indoors painting vases full of the tiger lilies that were everywhere, and after dark they ran to the ocean to swim in the rain. One night, they watched a faraway fire from the roof. The moon was waxing full that week.

On Saturday, Charlotte paid the Smiths eight dollars for nine days of room and board and gave them a painting she’d done of their house. Jophanus’s wagon was so full Martha had to sit on Charlotte’s lap all the way back to Cottage City, pleasing Charlotte tremendously. They took the boat, then the train back to Providence, where Charlotte saw Martha onto the streetcar that went to her side of town.

Back to reality

While Charlotte was away, Walter waited for “love to conquer her,” complained to his diary about the dearth of decent nude models in his price range, and fretted about making enough money to support Charlotte and the houseful of children sure to come. He came over as soon as he heard she was home, and the conflicts resumed. “As much as I love you,” she told him yet again, “I love work better and cannot make the two compatible.”

In September, Charlotte helped Martha prepare for her wedding but rarely saw her alone and finally gave her letters back. Martha either burned them or hid them so deeply they’ve never been found. Maybe one day some unsuspecting great-great-grandchild will find a secret drawer in an old desk, letters tied in blue satin ribbon, frail but vivid. Martha’s voice.

On October 5, Martha married Charles Lane with Charlotte at her side. Charlotte caught the bouquet and gave it to a woman who “cared more than I do,” then sadly watched the coach carry the couple away to live in Hingham.

For two more years, Charlotte and Walter argued and made up, broke up and reunited, until she agreed to marry him. She urged herself in her diary to accomplish more in the months she had left, but despite publication of her poetry in a prominent journal, she slid into sadness as her wedding loomed. They were married in May 1884.

Charlotte quickly became pregnant. Weaker than she’d ever been, she cried uncontrollably for months before and after Katharine Beecher Stetson was born. She was twenty-six when she checked in to Dr. Weir Mitchell’s clinic for his now infamous Rest Cure, the treatment for women “unable to perform their domestic duties.” Enforced isolation from stress and responsibility was thought to increase energy flow.

Dr. Mitchell sent her home five weeks later with this prescription: Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you at all times. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours of intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.

Charlotte’s attempts to follow that regime were disastrous and led nearly to insanity before she was able to reject Dr. Mitchell and leave her marriage. The experience and its aftermath are the roots of her classic horror story The Yellow Wallpaper.

Martha was widowed at thirty-two and never remarried. Stories for Children, by Mrs. Charles A. Lane, was published the year after he died for the series Eclectic School Readings. Her purpose, says the introduction: “incite a love of reading for the pleasure of it.”

Charlotte lived in California, where her fame as a writer and lecturer grew, as did society’s outrage over her relationships, covered in misinformed detail by papers on both coasts. When Charlotte was forty, she married a cousin, George Houghton Gilman, a Wall Street attorney. He proved to be an affectionate, agreeable companion who was supportive of her prodigious work ethic. They moved back to the East Coast and were together for thirty-four years, until his death in 1934. About the same time, she was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer. On August 19, 1935, when she was seventy-five and had finished the last edit on her autobiography, Charlotte took her own life.

“When all usefulness is over,” read her note, “it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death over a slow and painful one. I have chosen chloroform over cancer.”

Charlotte’s sexuality has long been a source of speculation and debate. She loved and slept with men and women, Martha the first. Charlotte and Martha are usually described as pure and devoted friends but their love was deeply intimate and lifelong, clearly sexual when they were younger, possibly sexual again later. At least once a year Charlotte visited Martha, often as respite from a lecture tour. As grandmothers, they walked and talked, played games, read each other’s work aloud. “Perfect happiness,” Charlotte said. We don’t know if she had a “night key” but they did have “room and one another.” And the memory of six magical days alone together on Martha’s Vineyard, especially precious because it marked a turning point, after which nothing was quite the same.

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