Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Letters to Martha
In January 1890, after two and a half years of depression and mental illness, Charlotte Perkins Stetson began to keep her journal again. Basking in the "steady windless weather" of Pasadena and the support of her friend Grace Channing, Charlotte slowly regained her strength, ambition, and ability to write. Concentrating on a new life on a new coast, her first brief entries express each day's essential details. On January 20, she says only "Began writing with Grace…". Charlotte does not record that on that clear, sun-shot Californian day, her thoughts turned once more to frigid New England and a friend from a former life.
Despite her exhaustion, Charlotte gathered up a pile of stationery and began to write in a refined version of her usual scrawl. "Dear Martha", she wrote, "You knew and loved me once. You do not know me now, and I am not sure that you would love me if you did… I have grown and changed wildly, darkly, strangely, beyond a mother's recognition, beyond my own."
Perhaps here Charlotte paused, raised her head, and, contemplating her moonlit grove of orange trees, pondered Martha's reaction to her bold statements. Although these words were painful, Charlotte would not soften them for the sake of her gentle, distant friend. Bound still by a pact of "mutual understanding" nine years old, Charlotte owed Martha complete honesty in "word and deed". Nine years ago, before courtship, marriage, and childbirth, Mrs. Charles Lane of Hingham Massachusetts was simply Martha Luther and Charlotte's dearest friend.
Their friendship began in 1878 when Charlotte was seventeen and Martha was sixteen. Both girls lived on the East Side of Providence: Charlotte on Manning Street and Martha on Arnold. They shared a love of reading, a desire to write, and had experienced a similar tragedy: the loss of a father. Martha's father, John Luther, died when she was fourteen. During Charlotte's childhood, her parents' separation reduced her father to a mere correspondent and occasional provider. Charlotte's numerous letters, diaries, and autobiography characterize her own mother as overly strict, disapproving, and physically distant. In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charlotte wrote that, denied affection from her mother as a child and adolescent, Martha became one of her "first memories of loving any one".
At seventeen, athletic and energetic Charlotte roamed the streets and hills of Providence. One day she would attend a class at the Rhode Island School of Design, the next she would stride down the hill to browse through the shops, or go for a rousing, giddy carriage ride in Roger Williams Park with a pack of friends.