Under Gemini, by Isabel Bolton

May 18th, 2011

Our twin sons will be heading off to college in a few months, and it occurred to me recently to look into the subject of neglected books about twins. Despite the fact that twins are not, statistically, all that uncommon, there are relatively few books on the topic, aside from parenting guides. Probably the best known these days in Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel and Oprah’s Book Club selection, I Know This Much Is True, about an identical twin’s coming to grips with his highly disfunctional family and his place in the world.

At the other end of the commercial success spectrum from Lamb’s best-seller are two diametrically different books about twins. Donald Newlove’s Sweet Adversity his 1978 integration of two earlier novels, Leo & Theodore (1973) and The Drunks (1974), a 600-plus page whirlwind about siamese twins, their rough-and-tumble childhood, and their descent into alcoholism. Newlove’s prose is robust, full of great riffs, swinging between euphoria and nihilism. It’s a fantastic book that at times will reach into your chest, rip out your heart, and leave it in tatters. I first read it twenty-some years ago, and I kick myself for having utterly forgotten it until I went on this search.Cover of first US edition of 'Under Gemini'

It would be tough to find a book less like Sweet Adversity than Under Gemini Isabel Bolton’s slender, elegaic 1966 memoir of her early life with her identical twin sister, Grace. It’s short, poetically succinct, and restrained. Yet it has an emotional power greater even than that of Newlove’s tour de force.

Two tragedies punctual the decade or so spanned by story in Under Gemini. In 1887, just two weeks after the girls’ fourth birthday, their mother and father died of pneumonia on the same day. Then, ten summers later, as she watched, helplessly, Bolton’s sister drowned when their rowboat was carried away from them in the currents of Long Island Sound.

In between, the two girls–Mary (Bolton’s real name was Mary Britton Miller) and Grace–and their two older brothers and older sister were looked after in a fairly haphazard way. Their aging grandmother showed the greatest concern for them, offering as much comfort and protection as her diminishing strength could muster:

The double weight of sensibility, the impact of living moments–the smell of bread rising from the kitchen, of gingerbread just taken from the oven, the sound of squirrels surrying on the veranda roof, shadows of leaves on the bedroom wall, flames in the open fireplaces, the all-pervading smell of burning logs, the sense of unseen presences–all combined to make use feel so safe, so sheltered in this comfortable home our grandmother had given us.

Sadly, though, she died less than a year after the parents. Their custody was left to their Uncle James (James A. Rumrill, a railroad executive) and Aunt Anna, who saw to their material needs in a begrudging manner, hiring a spinster in her sixties to run their home and raise them.

Mary and Grace Miller, age 3, around 1886As Bolton portrays her, Miss Rogers had the best of intentions and cared deeply for the children, but she was utterly unequipped to take charge of herself, let alone five willful children, each dealing less rather than more ably with the loss of their parents and grandmother. Philip, one of the boys, threw a glass of water in her face. She brought in a hired man to help with the house and yard. He clearly adored Miss Rogers, but he also clearly spent much of his time half drunk or half asleep. Each Sunday Aunt Anna and Uncle James came to inspect the situation and each week they left unsatisfied. Eventually, Miss Rogers is let go and arrangements are made for the children to be farmed out to boarding schools for much of the year. Grace drowns not long before she and Mary are to be packed off. “My darling Mary, how I love you” are her last words to her twin sister.

Isabel Bolton, 1966Although she published a number of books of poetry under her own name, Miller came to the novel very late, publishing In the Days of Thy Youth in 1943, at the age of sixty, and then, as Isabel Bolton, the three novels for which she has achieved lasting critical recognition: Do I Wake or Sleep (1946); The Christmas Tree (1949); and Many Mansions (1952). These were reissued in 1997 as one volume, New York Mosaic, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach. At the time of their first publications, the books received the highest possible acclaim. Edmund Wilson judged her style “exquisitely perfect in accent.” Diana Trilling called her “The most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Wilson is reputed to have fallen in love with his vision of Bolton as a bright and beautiful young thing, only to have find she was actually an elderly woman of upper class manners and discretion.

She came even later to dealing with her own experience. One reviewer wrote that Under Gemini reflected enormous strength of character in the moderation and perspective with which Bolton describes what must have been a near-over-whelming experience. “That business in which we are all perpetually engaged–the making of an individual soul–is an enterprise of memory,” she writes at the end of the book. “In our case it was a joint and not a single venture.”

What most distinguishes Under Gemini is how effectively Bolton conveys the unique sensation of encountering the world as two:

When I evoke those hours of childhood to live in them once more, it is not myself I see before me–it is she, the living image of myself, and there I stand revealed in all the sharp intensity of what the moment brought of pain or joy or curiosity or wonder or decision. I see my own face, my own dark eyes and hair, I hear my voice, my intonations and tricks of speech. The words that issue from her tongue are mine. Her expressions mantle, as I remember it, my countenance. Attuned to the same vibrations, with nerves that responded to the same dissonances and harmonies, we were one in body and in soul. What happened to one of use happened at the same instant to the other and both of us recognized exactly how each experience had registered in the other’s heart and mind.

It was never I but always we. It was never you or I but both of us. Never mine or yours but always ours. We were seldom referred to by those we lived among as Mary or as Grace but as the twins–I was Mary, she was Grace. This may be so.

Bolton was 83 when she published Under Gemini. Though she had abundant family connections with New York society, she lived most of her life in Greenwich Village, volunteering as a social worker and writing an occasional book of light poetry. She never married and lived on her own for nearly eight decades after losing Grace. That she was able to achieve at least critical success as a novelist so late in life is remarkable, but I suspect that what’s more telling is the fact that, at the age of 83, she could still summon so easily the sense of life as part of a larger being that was the two sisters together–and perhaps that she was never able to find another to replace the void left by Grace’s death.

Under Gemini was reissued by the Steerforth Press in 1999, but it’s no longer backlisted by them and is once again out of print.


Under Gemini: A Memoir, by Isabel Bolton (Mary Britton Miller)
New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966

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