Pembroke (1894) is a 300-page novel written by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It is set in the small town of Pembroke, Massachusetts in the 1830s and 40s. The novel tells the story of a romance gone awry and the dramatic events that follow, which entertain the residents of the small town for years after. As one of Freeman's first novels, Pembroke experienced great success in its time and, although it has only recently experienced a comeback in the academic sphere, it is known for being an exemplary piece of New England local color fiction.
The novel begins with the breaking off of the engagement between Barney Thayer and Charlotte Barnard after Charlotte’s father and Barney get into a heated political argument. The breaking of their engagement is central to the story, as it happens in the beginning of the novel and sets the stage for the novel’s later events.
Upon ending their engagement, Barney moves into the house that was intended to be the home of him and Charlotte after their wedding. Many members of Barney’s family and Charlotte’s attempt to appeal to Barney to make him return to Charlotte and fix their engagement, but in his mind there is no alternative to the way things are and there is sense in him trying to return to Charlotte. Thus, Barney continues to live in the unfinished house alone. Although Charlotte has the opportunity to marry Thomas Payne, a wealthy and worthy member of her town, she declines his offer, stating that she is not in love with him and could only ever marry Barney. Charlotte continues to live in her parents home, taking on work as a seamstress and assistance at weddings.
Other courtships are revealed throughout the novel, including that of Sylvia Crane and Richard Alger, Rebecca Thayer and William Berry, and Rose Berry and Tommy Ray.
Sylvia Crane, Charlotte’s aunt, is involved in a long-term courtship with Richard Alger that provides a source of wonder to the townspeople. No one seems to know the details of their relationship, and even Sylvia and Richard do not seem to know where they are trying to go. At one point, Richard tells Sylvia that they should not see each other anymore and stops visiting her, which breaks Sylvia’s heart. This continues for a few years, until Richard witnesses Sylvia being taken to the poorhouse. Richard finally takes control of the situation, returns Sylvia to her home, and promises to make up for the bad ways he has treated her. Sylvia and Richard are then married and are essentially given a “happily-ever-after” ending.
Rebecca Thayer, Barney’s sister, and William Berry have a scandalous affair. Despite being forbidden by her mother to see William, who is Charlotte’s cousin, Rebecca proceeds to have a several month long courtship with William that entails her sneaking out of the house on several occasions to see him. Although the whole town is aware of this, no one says a word to either of Rebecca’s parents, who remain oblivious. Deborah eventually becomes aware of what her daughter has been up to when she is making a dress for Rebecca and notices her swollen belly, recognizing that she is pregnant. Deborah kicks Rebecca out in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Later that night, Deborah goes to Barney and commands him to find William and make him marry Rebecca. Barney and William eventually find Rebecca at the home of the town recluse, where Rebecca and William are married by the minister. At this point though, there is no longer any love between Rebecca and William, which results in their withdrawal from the town.
After Charlotte and Barney’s engagement ends, Rose Berry begins to show interest in Barney. This is quickly put to an end when Charlotte becomes aware of what her cousin is up to and Barney begins to avoid Rose. Rose quickly moves on to Tommy Ray, despite the fact that she knows he is not a good match and she thinks of him as still a boy. Nonetheless, after several months of courtship Rose and Tommy are married, providing the only example of a typical courtship in the novel.
These are not the only important events that add to the drama occurring in Pembroke at the time. Silas Berry, the father of Rose and William, further ostracizes himself through his greed when he offers to let his children have a party at his cherry orchard for all the young people of Pembroke. The party ensues happily, but as the guests are leaving, Silas approaches them with a bill for the cherries they ate. This action leads to the utter embarrassment of William and Rose, and successfully prevents Silas from ever making a profit on his cherries again.
The small town is also rocked by the death of Ephraim Thayer, Barney’s brother. Because Deborah Thayer viewed her other children, Barney and Rebecca, as lost causes, all her hope was placed in her youngest son who is quite ill with some type of heart ailment. Having been ill his entire life, Ephraim always received stronger amounts of Deborah’s sternness. He lived a solitary childhood, never getting to experience and of the typical joys of youth. His mother always kept him on a strict diet and schedule, which contained nothing of what he wanted to do. As he gets older, Ephraim becomes more and more rebellious. He begins to sneak snacks that he is forbidden to eat, gives his mother a hard time when she tells him to do things, and secretly thinks of all the things he would do were she not around. One night Ephraim sneaks out to go sledding, knowing this is strictly against his mother’s rules. The next day Ephraim fails to carry out one of Deborah’s orders. In the midst of her anger from her other children, Deborah whips Ephraim, despite the fact that he had always spared such a punishment due to his poor health. Ephraim dies in the middle of the whipping and for a long time Deborah lives thinking she has killed her son. She is eventually made aware of Ephraim’s joyride, which is more likely the cause of his death, but by this time she has already lost so much of herself from the strain placed on her by Rebecca and Barney that Ephraim’s death is too much for her to handle. Deborah dies a sudden death, leaving her husband, Caleb to live alone in their house.
The end of the novel brings focus back to Charlotte and Barney. It has been about ten years since their engagement was ended, and the town has stopped overflowing with rumors about them. Barney has taken up work as a woodcutter, and suddenly falls severely ill with rheumatism. Despite her parents’ wishes, Charlotte maintains her dedication to Barney by going to take care of him. Once again, the town begins to talk. Everyone disapproves of Charlotte staying in Barney’s house to nurse him when they are unwed. The townspeople send the minister to Charlotte to convey their feelings. Barney realizes what troubles he is bringing to Charlotte and tells her to leave his house. Charlotte says nothing, packs her things, and heads home. Barney then experiences a change. He becomes aware of the wrong he has been doing to Charlotte all these years, and the fact that Charlotte is still devoted to him brings him great guilt. Barney undergoes a type of spiritual healing that miraculously brings him back to health. The story is drawn to a close with the hopeful image of Barney walking up to the Barnard house, and announcing to Charlotte that he is back.
Barney Thayer is the son of Deborah and Caleb Thayer. He is a central character of the novel, as his engagement to Charlotte Barnard sets the stage for the story. Barney is a very stubborn man, whose bullheadedness is the reason for his unhappiness throughout the novel. In the novel, Barney develops a hunched-back, which is a symbol of the inner turmoil he experiences while being separated from Charlotte.
Charlotte Barnard is the daughter of Sarah and Cephas Barnard. She is a proud and stubborn character, taking after the personality of her father more than that of her mother. Charlotte seems to always be aware of other people’s suffering, particularly of Barney’s. Her actions often do not fit in with what is expected of a female at the time.
Caleb Thayer is Barney’s father. Caleb is a meek man, often reminiscent of a child. He does not hold the typical place of the patriarchal father, and instead allows his wife, Deborah, to rule the house. Caleb is constantly sympathetic for his children and the harshness they must endure from their mother.
Deborah Thayer is Barney’s mother. She is a harsh, stern woman, who intimidates most members of the town. She plays the role of the patriarch in her family and rationalizes her harsh behavior through her religious motives. Deborah brings about her own demise through her inability to sympathize with anyone and the responsibility she places on herself for the actions of her children.
Rebecca Thayer is Barney’s sister and the daughter of Caleb and Deborah. Like many characters in Pembroke, Rebecca is also stubborn and goes against the will of her mother when she continues to see William Berry. Rebecca plays the role of the “fallen woman” in the novel, as she begins in a place of respect and falls down the social ladder due to her premarital affair with William.
Ephraim Thayer is the youngest son of Deborah and Caleb. He is ailed with a heart disease that prevents him from leading a normal childhood. Despite his mother’s attempts to make him religiously conscious and obedient, Ephraim is just as rebellious as his siblings.
Cephas Barnard is the husband of Sarah and father of Charlotte. Cephas is the reason behind the argument that ended Charlotte and Barney’s engagement. Cephas fills the typical role of patriarchal father. He also is known for his strange views on the link between food and a person’s spirit.
Sarah Barnard is the wife of Cephas and mother of Charlotte. She is a dramatic woman, who is easily made anxious or overly emotional. She performs the typical housewife role and believes in everything Cephas does and says.
Sylvia Crane is the sister of Sarah Barnard and Hannah Berry and is Charlotte’s aunt. Sylvia is a relatively quiet and independent woman, who lives alone in the house she inherited from her parents. Sylvia is younger than her sisters, but has an old spirit. She kept all of her hopes in Richard Alger, even when it appeared that their relationship might be over.
Richard Alger is the man who eventually marries Sylvia Crane, after an approximately eighteen-year courtship. Richard never seems to know exactly what he wants and treats Sylvia poorly, but redeems himself in the end when he saves Sylvia from the poorhouse and marries her.
Hannah Berry is the sister of Sarah and Sylvia and wife of Silas Berry. While she is very upfront and her personality can seem slightly abrasive, she has a certain kind of loyalty to her family members that cannot be shaken.
Rose Berry is the daughter of Hannah and Silas Berry and is Charlotte’s cousin. Rose is a typical teenage girl, who is easily distracted by the prospect of love. However, Rose also believes that females should take an aggressive role in their love lives, as she demonstrates by telling Charlotte to pursue Barney and through her own active role in her love life.
William Berry is the son of Hannah and Silas Berry and the brother of Rose. William is a responsible young man, who takes responsibility for his actions. When he learns that Rebecca has been kicked out of her house, he does not hesitate to marry her, even though he is no longer as in love with her as he once was.
Silas Berry is the father of Rose and William and the husband of Hannah. Silas is a very greedy man, whose constant search for economic power causes him to be disliked by many of the townspeople. However, Silas is old and crippled and is easily intimidated by the youth and strength of his son.
Thomas Payne is the son of the town squire. He is a wealthy, handsome, and respectable man. After Barney and Charlotte break their engagement, Charlotte recognizes Thomas as a respectable option, even a better man than Barney, but cannot marry him because she does not love him. Thomas handles this situation with grace, like he does all others.
Mrs. Jim Sloane is the town drunkard. She is ostracized and looked down upon by the townspeople, who avoid her as much as possible. When Rebecca is banished from her home, it is Mrs. Sloane who finds her, takes her in, and walks her through the process of marrying William.
Tommy Ray works at Silas Berry’s store. Rose eventually chooses him as her marriage opportunity despite the fact that she sees him as a boy, not a man.
Pembroke is a novel about the workings and dynamics that are characteristic of a small town, in this case, a small town in New England. Freeman treats each character individually and devotes much time to their personality, giving the events that take place in Pembroke a more authentic feel. Through her characters, Freeman gives focus to the effects a person can have on their own happiness, the changing role of women in society, and the changes family dynamics. These topics bring to light social changes that were becoming more popular in New England at the time.
Each character of that Freeman has created is given the freedom to control his or her own future. However, many of these characters are so stubborn that they believe they are incapable of changing the way things are. Because none of them are able to see that they are causing their own problems, they are unwilling to change their opinions or habits and are often forced to live unhappily. The best example of this lies in Barney Thayer, who could have easily prevented all the years of torment that he endured had he simply approached Charlotte and apologized.
Women play as critical a role in this book as men, if not more so. These women are often going against the wishes of the men in their lives, particularly their fathers, and breaking down social barriers that apply to relationships and the way they live their lives. Both Rebecca Thayer and Charlotte Barnard take control of their lives and go against social norms when they disregard the wishes of their parents and take control of their own lives. Rebecca goes against social norms even further by having premarital sex with William Berry. Sylvia Crane lives alone for many years and then marries at an older age, despite the fact that her actions go against the typical courting routine.
Families in Pembroke tend not to follow the typical patriarchal setup. Many times the father is not the only authoritative figure in the family, assuming he holds any authority at all. In the Thayer family, Deborah is quite clearly the head of the family. She plays the role typically held by the father and acts as the decision maker and rule enforcer of the family while Caleb cowers under her control. Hannah Berry acts with equal power in her family as her husband, often overriding his commands, as she does at the cherry party.
Pembroke was Freeman’s second novel and received much acclaim. The content of the book appealed to a large audience, who were already avid fans of Freeman’s short stories. At the time, the novel was regarded as “the most profound, the most powerful piece of fiction of its kind that has ever come to the American press” by Kate Chopin and received similar praise from other contemporary writers.
Information on Sales
- Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. Pembroke: A Novel. Boston: Northeaster University Press, 2002. Print.
- Thomas, Heather Kirk. "It's your father's way": The father-daughter narrative and female development in Mary Wilkins Freeman's Pembroke." Studies in the Novel. 29.1 (1997): 26-40. Web. 15 May. 2012.
- Quina, Jr., James H. "Character Types in the Fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman ." Colby Quarterly. 9.8 (1971): 432-38. Web. 13 May. 2012.
- Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman at britannica.com