Mary Heaton Vorse, prolific novelist, journalist, and labor activist, spent most of her long life trying to escape her upper-middle-class origins. The heroine of her 1918 novel I’ve Come To Stay calls the inescapability of a bourgeois upbringing life’s “blue serge lining”—a reference to the practical fabric that protected the inside of coats and suits, forming a barrier between the self and the world. The lining stands for the inevitable conformity of class, getting, if not quite under the wearer’s skin, then next to it, holding her upright, constraining her imagination and her freedom. Camilla is constantly on the run from it. She embraces the pretensions of bohemian Greenwich Village—anarchist friends, artistic aspirations, a Polish violinist lover, and nights spent in smoky bars. She repeatedly rejects her neighbor and suitor, the equally middle-class Ambrose Ingraham, out of fear that he will wrap her up in blue serge once again, and strangle her with it. Subtitled A Love Comedy of Bohemia, the novel is more of an archaeological find than a timeless classic. Yet its ironic depiction of young people caught between ambition and gender-based expectation dramatizes the central conflict of its author’s life, and that of her generation of American “New Women.”
Mary Heaton was born rich and rebellious in 1874, and spent most of her childhood in Amherst, Massachusetts, a place that was, by contrast, rural and religious. She was close to her bookish father and idolized her distant mother, Ellen, who paid more attention to her five older children from her first marriage. Mary watched her intelligent, energetic mother struggle to fill her days with meaningful activity. Other women of her era and class threw themselves into social reform and the fight for women’s suffrage, but Ellen believed too many people already had the vote, and that a woman’s place was in the home. This did not preclude plenty of European travel and culture to burnish her daughters’ marriage prospects, and Mary had a rich, if haphazard education, bolstered by voracious private reading. Although she belonged to a generation of women who were breaking down the doors to academia and the professions, she had no interest in submitting to the rules of a women’s college. She longed for a greater freedom, and begged to go to Paris to study art.