Ethelyn’s Mistake (Mary J. Holmes, 1869)

Ethelyn is in love with her cousin Frank and he with her. She’s of the Boston Bigelows and is quite refined and accustomed to leisure, although she personally has no money to speak of.  It’s for this reason that Frank’s mother objects to their marriage — Frank is a dandy with extravagant tastes; he must marry into wealth. Instead, she’s set up with Richard Markham — a judge, a member of congress, and good contender for governor of Iowa. Ethelyn doesn’t care for Richard at all — he’s entirely too boorish and uncouth for her — but marries him anyway out of spite and her dreams of wintering in Washington and the society she’ll mingle with there. Besides, Iowa is hardly the wild west anymore, surely Richard’s people are as genteel as her own.

No. No, they are not. Particularly not Richard’s mother, who’s of the pioneer generation and despite their present condition still lives fifty years ago in the hardscrabble past. She is as unwilling to meet Ethelyn’s point of view as Ethelyn is to hers. Richard, completely blind to his mother’s eccentricities, defers to her always. When Mother declares that it would be unseemly for Ethelyn to accompany him to Washington (largely because she was expecting to fire their maid and have Ethelyn do the housework), then there goes the single remaining reason for the marriage.

Ethelyn takes it badly and becomes quite ill, miscarrying their firstborn. Richard is at last persuaded that his mother is not a good influence on Ethelyn and agrees to establish a new and more modern household in the city. Ethelyn thrives there and actually begins to grow fond of Richard, but Mother disapproves of… well, of everything, and continues to tug at her son. Richard becomes jealous of his once-rival Frank and confronts Ethelyn, accusing her of having an affair. This goes beyond all of Richard’s slights. It’s an insult Ethelyn can’t overlook or forgive. Ethelyn leaves Richard. Richard goes east, hoping that Ethelyn had simply returned to her family, but she isn’t there. He does meet her aunt (Frank’s mother), who lays into him ruthlessly, pointing out all of his faults and telling him just why Ethelyn abandoned him, all of which Richard takes to heart.

Five years pass. Richard has reformed and would now be quite at home in the best of Boston society. He’s left his mother’s crude farmhouse and built a mansion befitting that of a governor, where stands a suite of lavishly outfitted rooms that have never been occupied. The rumor spreads that he’s planning to divorce his long absent wife and the suite is for another woman, and this rumor at last reaches Ethelyn. She’s kept herself quite busy and is now a wealthy woman (to the consternation of her aunt, as Frank’s wife’s fortunes have failed). Time has eroded her animus and she’s ready to take Richard back but now fears that he doesn’t want her. When he’s away, she visits the house, claiming to be some distant relation. On sight of what the maid calls the bridal room, she falls into a fit.

It’s touch and go for some days as Ethelyn lies insensible. When at last she recovers, Richard is there. The suite was waiting for her, he assures her. All are reconciled, even Ethelyn and Richard’s mother, who at last admits that perhaps she may be too set in her ways and didn’t exactly try to understand her daughter-in-law.

Inscription: “Annie Platt, from Mary, 9/’12”, on the front flyleaf.

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