Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.
There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.
There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.
For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.
Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.
Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.
Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.
Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.
By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”
What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”
And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:
Where Are You Now?
Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night—
People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.
The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.
Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.
Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”
In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”
In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”