The village of Dulham is home to the well-bred and highborn sisters Miss Dobin and Miss Lucinda Dobin. We see from the beginning that the villagers mock them for their antiquated dress and manners. As daughters of ‘a once eminent Dulham minister’ and their mother’s social line was of ‘superior altitude’, they were descended from the famous Grenaple and Hightree families of Boston.
They enjoy recounting the experiences and acquaintances of their ancestors, especially taking tea with Governor Clovenfoot and an English lord. ’decorated’ with the Order of the Garter. Their mother, Madam Dobin, died ‘many years’ previous to the story, yet the sisters have not really moved on from this time – ‘they felt no older themselves than they ever had.’ They were very aware that their mother had been ‘a walking example of refinements and courtesies’. The sisters had striven to keep up her values but found the task ‘increasingly difficult forever afterward’. Family ceased to visit, except ‘when household antiquities became valuable’ and some distant members of the family hoped in vain to procure some valuables.
It is revealed that Reverend Dobin was socially beneath his wife, and she ‘was no longer young when married.’ His ecclesiastical title and Harvard education when some way to alleviating his social weaknesses. One he died ‘to everybody’s relief and astonishment’, the ladies are free to become ‘more used to the town.’ However, they ‘were amazingly slow to suspect that they were not so young as they used to be.’ They look on with horror ‘at the retrogression in society’ and are surprised that the ‘new’ people ‘had no desire to be taught better.’
Miss Lucinda has a vague suspicion that ‘perhaps they were getting a trifle dull’ and she acknowledges the ‘sad secret’ of their hair loss. They wore ‘breakfast caps’ as worn by ‘the young Princess of Wales’ until a child rudely asked if it was ‘because their bare heads is cold?’ Though Miss Dobin reprimands the ‘beast’, Miss Lucinda is aware that the ‘unwelcome truth’ had ‘paved the way for further action.’ Upon seeing ‘a relative…used to good society’ wearing ‘a row of frizzes, not originally her own’ the sisters plan a trip to the next large town, ostensibly to buy Christmas gifts.
Their servant, Hetty Downs is concerned what will happen to the ‘blessed innocents’ on their trip. They look for Paley’s, the wig maker who had equipped their father, but the store has closed down. The ladies then find the shop of a ‘middle aged Frenchman’ who flatters and fawns over them. They are persuaded by him to buy ‘two great frisettes’ that ‘had long been out of fashion’, and though each is unsure of the other’s appearance, each is also pleased with their own transformation : ‘Indeed, they felt quite girlish.’
When they return to Dulham, their bizarre transformations are revealed. They are treated ‘gallantly’ by the ticket collector, but ‘obnoxious Mrs. Woolden’ noted they ‘’look just like a pair o’ poodle dogs’’.
The sisters each secretly trim each other’s frisettes in an attempt to improve the appearance of the other, and Hetty offers to take the frizzes back to the store. The vain sisters reject this request, believing they ’owe it to society to observe the fashions of the day,’ without realising that their new accessories ‘set the clock back forty year or more,’.
Jewett uses the names in the story in a way that echoes the characterisation of Dickens. The ladies live in Dulham, a drab sounding village (Dull meaning miserable and ham meaning homestead or farm) which appears to them as central and cultured as London. Their surname is Dobin, which is cruelly mispronounced Dobbin, meaning a faithful workhorse. Their eminent ancestors are high trees and green apples, names more linked to the natural world that civilised society. They recall an eminent Governor – Clovenfoot – who again appears more like a goat than a great public official.
The sisters wish to carry on the influence their mother had in terms of ‘social education’ as they see she was ‘lamented’ ‘generously and sincerely’. However, they have not perceived time passing and attitudes changing – ‘though time and space are relative, after all.’ The ‘family circle…was greatly reduced in circumference.’ This metaphor reveals the fragmenting of the old families. We are told that Reverend Dobin was ‘a crooked stick’, and ‘dreary’ whilst his wife made a ‘social misstep’ in their union, in circumstances reminiscent of Ann Lloyd in ‘Marsh Rosemary.’ It is after the death of their father that the ladies become ‘no longer constrained by home duties’ and they have a new, though late, lease of life.
As they see their influence waning, and endure being ‘disrespectfully ignored’ then challenged for their attempts to conceal their thinning hair, the ladies take a trip to town to update their look, but only according to adaptations noted on ‘a relative…from town’ who would ‘know what was proper’. The sisters ‘felt a new bond of sympathy in keeping this secret with and for each other;’
They are taken in by the French store owner with his flattery and deference, and their ignorance is highlighted by their trust in his fawning and in Miss Dobin’s attempts to speak French, issuing a ‘gracious Bong sure’ as an attempt at Bonjour (French for good day).
After they purchase the bright frizzes, the sisters’ pride prevents each from telling the other how foolish they appear. However, each feels rejuvenated at their new look. The old conductor ‘gallantly’ ignores their bizarre appearance, but their mistake is noted by ‘the obnoxious Mrs. Woolden’ and their loyal maid. Again, their pride and ignorance overcomes them and they are happy to wear the frizzes, believing they are the height of fashion, rather than four decades out of date. One imagines that the ladies will still be gossiped about and ridiculed behind their backs, as they were at the start, but probably no more than before, as they are accepted for their eccentricity and outdated nature, though they are ignorant of these traits.