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Miss Marks was a teacher of English and Drama at Mount Holyoke, Miss Woolley the college preisdent from 1901-37; their deep attachment--intense, ardent, partly concealed--endured for more than 50 years. Author Wells, Class of '26, stumbled on their passionate love letters when preparing a biography of Mary Woolley, and changed her subject to accommodate the situation. Her deft exploration of their relationship clearly distinguishes the two women and recreates the period when the first women's colleges were being established. Twosomes existed on many of those campuses, and the modern question of sexual inclination remains open. Wells finds in these two lives no evidence of any sexual exchange beyond Miss Woolley's punctual goodnight kiss; certainly the emotions they express fall well within the 18th- and 19th-century tradition of intimate female friendships. Mary Woolley was the older woman, already a teacher when Jeannette Marks entered Wellesley, soon a college president and leader of national organizations and peace groups. Her devotion was complete: just appointed to the presidency, she could write to Jeannette, ""My own Darling, the year has brought me no gift as great as your love."" Miss Marks came from a less congenial family (Wells suggests ""she had grown to maturity under almost every handicap a Krafft-Ebing could have imagined"") and so found college twice liberating. Moody, often distraught or openly abrasive, she suffered in their first years together and painfully resisted a position of inferiority or dependence despite her lower status; once chairman of the English Department and inheritor of her father's house, she struggled less but had few friends among the faculty who regarded her as Miss Woolley's only weakness. Wells separates the apocryphal from the verifiable and the merely likely, and treats both women with remembered affection and objectivity. Had their work a more visibly enduring influence, this quite competent tribute would have a broader appeal; most assuredly, alumnae will read it (at least until Marks' message in an open-in-1999 letter is revealed) and students of women's history will admire these articulate feminist trailblazers.

Pub Date: May 30th, 1978
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin