Her Letters To Lovecraft: Marian F. Bonner

Home via Point St. Bridge & Benefit St., & then proceeded to write the promised notes to Miss Bonner & “Aunt Enda” [sic].
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.985

Dear Miss Bonner:—
I called on my aunt at the hospital for the first time this afternoon, & she wished me to drop you a particular line of thanks for the many works of consideration extended—the pansies which arrived almost simultaneously with herself, the flowers arriving since then, & the bottle of eau de cologne, all of which were profoundly appreciated.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1011

In 1933, H. P. Lovecraft and his surviving aunt Annie Gamwell moved into 66 College St. Across the backyard was a boarding-house at 53-55 Waterman St., called the Arsdale—where Annie Gamwell took her daily meals, where Lovecraft would join her on occasion, especially holidays. Among the boarders at the Arsdale from 1922-1936 was Marian Frederika Bonner (1883-1952).

“Miss Bonner” was the seventh and youngest child of English immigrants; five of her siblings survived childhood. She attended Brown University for a year (1902-1903), and by 1905 was working for the Providence Public Library, where she became head of the periodicals room. She lived with her parents until her father’s death in 1898, and with her widowed mother until her death in 1913, when she began to live in boarding houses. She never married or had children, and continued to work at the Providence Public Library until her retirement in 1947.

We can only guess at the friendship of Marian Bonner and Annie Gamwell; Lovecraft’s aunt was some 17 years older, but they would have both been adult single women of limited means and literary interests, and from Lovecraft’s letters as well. The earliest references to Bonner in Lovecraft’s letters are in 1934; these do not give her name, but the inference is strong that this is she. In one she is described as providing the surnames for the neighborhood cats:

As for the name—an old lady at the boarding house started the Perkins business last February when Betsey & her 2 brothers were born. For some reason or other—perhaps because “Perkins” has a kind of quaint, old-fashioned sound—she named the black & white kitten “Betsey Perkins”, though leaving the others (slated for presentation to a family across the city) undesignated. I, however, called the little fellows “Newman Perkins” & “Ebenezer Perkins” after ancestors of my own—for I have a Perkins line. When the black kitten appeared, I went back along my Perkins ancestry & called him Samuel, after a forebear who fought in King Phillip’s War in 1676. If there are any more kittens later on, I shall probably keep going back along my Perkins line (which is traceable to 1380 in Shropshire & Warwickshire) for names—John being the next in order.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200

In another 1934 letter, Lovecraft says:

One of my aunt’s best—or likely-to-be-best—friends is a gentlewoman whom she met only last year!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 15 Jul 1934, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman &c. 383

In a letter dated 13 March 1935, Marian F. Bonner is described as “my aunt’s closest friend” (Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258-259). Not surprising when Bonner and Gamwell may have seen each other almost daily at the dining room in the Arsdale for something like three years—until March 1936, when Annie Gamwell was hospitalized to undergo a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. At which point H. P. Lovecraft, who probably knew her casually, began to correspond with Bonner on his aunt’s behalf. No doubt Lovecraft did this as well for Evelyn M. Staples, another friend of his aunt’s and Arsdale resident for whom no letters from Lovecraft survive, and “Aunt Edna”—Edna Lewis, who was Annie Gamwell’s cousin, close friend, and eventually one of the heirs to her and her nephew’s estate.

Lovecraft’s correspondence with Marian Bonner is thus brief: only 14 letters survive from 22 March 1936 until 9 December 1936. Part of the reason this correspondence continued was, no doubt, because Marian Bonner had moved out of the Arsdale in June 1936 to live in another boarding house, which would have prevented many of the little daily encounters Lovecraft may have had as he crossed the lot to retrieve a meal for his aunt. We can actually follow some of the correspondence with the diary-like letters recorded for his aunt during her hospitalization. Ultimately, their friendship continued in letters for almost the entire year.

The first letters are mostly concerned with Lovecraft’s aunt and her health; from Lovecraft’s reply of 25 March 1936, it seems that Bonner expressed her concerns for how Annie Gamwell was getting around and whether she was receiving sufficient care, to which Lovecraft responded:

Have you ever, by any chance, attempted to stop the present patient from doing anything she was determined to do?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 26 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1012

It was no doubt rare for Lovecraft to find someone who could commiserate on his aunt’s willful temperament. A chance use of the word ailurophile (cat-lover) led to one of Lovecraft’s didactic mini-essays, including carefully written out Greek, and an introduction of Miss Bonner to “Kappa Alpha Tau” (ΚΑΤ), the fraternity of neighborhood cats who often dozed in the sun on the shed in the backyard of 66 College St., which Lovecraft could observe through his window. While unable to afford to keep any of them as a pet, Lovecraft would keep track of the extended Perkins clan, and even borrow a kitten for a while in his study at times.

Kappa Alpha Tau would be an ongoing part of Lovecraft’s remaining letters to Marian Bonner, demonstrating his rare humor in full flower—and, weirdly enough, his artistic skills as he chose to hand-illustrate many of the letterheads.

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Besides cats they spoke of books, of Marian F. Bonner’s part in a play, local words, old Providence street names, the articles of local Providence journalist Bertrand K. Hart, bits and pieces of their daily lives (including R. H. Barlow’s 1936 visit); he lent her some books (and noted the irony, given that she was a librarian) and a copy of Weird Tales that contained his story “The Outsider” (either the Apr 1926 original printing or the Jun-Jul 1931 reprint), and she even asked questions about weird fiction, which Lovecraft dutifully answered:

Regarding the difference betwixt “myster” & “fantastic” fiction, as these terms are commonly used—I believe that by the former only detective tales & their close congeners are usually meant. Some striking event or situation of unknown cause, but with a natural explanation deductively reached, is the usual so-called “mystery” pattern. On the other hand fantastic fiction involves the impossible & incredible, admitting supernatural causation of every sort. It is, in its purest form, simply the projection or crystallisation of a certain type of human mood. Its truth is not to objective evnets, but only to human emotions. In this genre the greatest masters—in addition to Poe—are Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Montague Rhodes James, Walter de la Mare, William Hope Hodgson, & to some extent the present incumbent of Lord Minto’s erstwhile vice-regal seat at Ottawa [John Buchan]. Many of the finest specimens, though, are the work of writers who do not specialise in this field—for example, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, & “The King in Yellow” by the late popular hack Robert W. Chambers.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 9 Apr 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1021

Marian Bonner’s move to a boarding house at 156 Meeting St. in June 1936 occasioned one of Lovecraft’s bright spots of 1936: the street had formerly been “Gaol-Lane,” and he addressed the envelope as such—and someone at the Providence post office either knew their history or deciphered his meaning, for they delivered it to the correct address.

There is a break in the letters from mid-June to mid-November 1936; no doubt these were lost sometime in the intervening decades, and probably Bonner continued to visit 66 College St. to speak to Annie Gamwell and Lovecraft, but the correspondence does not seem to have ended, as it continues on without apology. Most of the last few letters deal almost exclusively with Kappa Alpha Tau, but it seems that Lovecraft may have made Marian Bonner something of a convert to supernatural fiction:

As orally expressed before, we rejoice that you have located “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” & have thereby become familiar with Sabbats, Estbats, Covens, & all the other attributes of the festering horror which brroded over mediaeval & renaissance Europe & perhaps over colonial Salem. And we apologise that our nominated guide Sir Walter failed to mention Sabbats at all—as he really should have done, since the term was well-known from constant repetition at witch-trials long before the actuality of any subterraneous cult was suspected.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 9 Dec 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1043

Of the latter part of their friendship, little is written. Lovecraft’s 1937 diary lists “Miss Bonner calldiscuss—lighted tree” (CE 5.241) on 1 January 1937, so apparently she came to visit Annie Gamwell & her nephew, and may have stayed to see the candles lit on the small tree they had for the holiday season.

After his death, Marian F. Bonner was approached to contribute to a memorial volume; the effect was “Miscellaneous Impressions of H.P.L.” in Rhode Island on Lovecraft (1945), where her name is mispelled as “Marian F. Barner.” Her brief account, only two pages, are accurate according to the letters that survive—and, more importantly, give us some of her understanding of things:

Some of his letters to me were in pen and ink, and bore a leter head of cat’s face. […] His handwriting was not easy to read, as he used, among other things, the old fashioned long “s.” Realizing his weakness, he would often compare his manuscripts very carefully with the type. […] It seems there is a postal law enabling one to write on most of the address side of a picture postcard. Mr. Lovecraft took a fiendish delight in covering every bit of a postal that he could, with the message. he was the despair of the postal authorities. hose postals were crazy-looking things! […]

I now how much store Mrs. Gamwell set by him, and how much she missed him after his death.
—Marian F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H.P.L.”, Ave Atque Vale 433

Excerpts from nine of Lovecraft’s letters to Marian F. Bonner were included in volume 5 of the Selected Letters (1976, Arkham House), and all known surviving letters in Lovecraft Annual #9 (2015, Hippocampus Press) and the second volume of Letters to Family & Family Friends (2020, Hippocampus Press). Many of the letters are available to view online at the Brown University Library website.

For the biographical information on Marion F. Bonner I am indebted to Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., whose essay “Lovecraft Was Our Neighbor: The People of The Arsdale” is included in Lovecraftian People and Places (2022, Hippocampus Press).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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