Happy birthday, Mabel!
Today is Mabel’s birthday, her 162nd, if my math is correct. When I look back on what she wrote in her diary or journal on her birthday over the years, I mostly find the kind of reflection many of us tend to have: how fast the time has gone, how hard it is to believe that she’s reached a certain age, how depressing it is to start to see those signs of aging.
Not surprisingly, many of her birthday musings were in direct relation to her relationship with Austin. In 1883, Mabel wrote in her journal, “27! It seems impossible in most things. I feel like a child – in fact it always seems true that I am 18 and I suppose I act so.” Of course this was toward the beginning of her romantic and sexual relationship with Austin, and she was undoubtedly basking and reveling in his attentions. By 1885, things had become tense in Amherst for her, after Susan discovered the full extent of her husband’s attentions to young Mrs. Todd, and on her birthday Mabel wrote, “I am very happy and very unhappy by turns as this finds me this birthday. I will not expatiate upon it now. But I and my soul are becoming very well acquainted of late.”
After Austin died, Mabel threw herself into her work as a way to distract and tire herself. To mark her birthday in 1899 she wrote, “Anyone who lives in this age, in the midst of life, is hurried almost to the point of distraction all the time. I am, particularly, for I am ‘in’ so many lives.” It was still hard to separate herself from Austin. And in subsequent years on her birthday, she often made some comment like “And now the hills lie under the sky with a beauty that stills the heart from beating, the sky, the sun, all are more beautiful than I ever have seen before. But Austin lies in Wildwood – and all the years cannot make me used to it. I miss him so that all the beauty seems empty. I see it all, I appreciate it, I feel it first the same as ever. But it only TELLS me there IS a story – it used to translate the story…I wonder if from the other side of the sunset Austin watches it – and me –and cares still for hills and clouds! I wonder if in the radiance of his new life he remembers and would help and comfort still.”
Over time, she shifted, as we all do, from finding ways to deflect the years to finding ways to deny them. In 1898, for example, she wrote, “My birthday – is it the 42nd? I believe so, but it does not seem possible, and no one can think it.” And just a few years later, in 1901, she wrote, “Another birthday. I cannot count them any longer.” By 1906 her only remark was dour: “Another birthday. They come very fast now.”
But today I hope that Mabel would celebrate her birthday, knowing that once again people are talking about her, and that a version of her life’s story – and one that depicts her other than Emily’s first editor or Austin’s lover – is now in bookstores.