Edith Wharton's Pornographic (and Possibly Incestuous) Short Story

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There's no sex in Edith Wharton's best known work. Her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence chronicles a decades-long affair between a man and his wife's cousin—where the two lovers don't so much as kiss. In Ethan Frome, a married man and his would-be mistress decide to kill themselves rather than succumb to the temptation to sleep with each other. Her short story "Roman Fever" uses an illegitimate child as a plot device—but does not describe any of the out-of-wedlock sexual activity that went into producing it.

Literary types get excited, then, when they discover Wharton's more explicitly erotic work. Jezebel's Anna North has unearthed a "prose fragment" from a story called "Beatrice Palmato" that Lapham's Quarterly published last winter. North introduces the two-page story with the promise, "Check out the Wharton you didn't read in English class."

Indeed, this excerpt would likely make May Welland (The Age of Innocence's pure heroine) blush if she read it:

She let herself sink backward among the pillows, and already Mr. Palmato was on his knees at her side, his face close to hers. Again her burning lips were parted by his tongue, and she felt it insinuate itself between her teeth and plunge into the depths of her mouth in a long, searching caress, while at the same moment his hands softly parted the thin folds of her wrapper.

One by one they gained her bosom, and she felt her two breasts pointing up to them, the nipples hard as coral, but sensitive as lips to his approaching touch. And now his warm palms were holding each breast as if in a cup, clasping it, modeling it, softly kneading it, as he whispered to her, "Like the bread of the angels."

But it also could make today's readers feel sick if they knew the backstory—a 2001 New Yorker article suggests the two lovers are, in fact, father and daughter. Maybe there's a reason "Beatrice Palmato" doesn't show up on most English class reading lists...

Read the full story at Jezebel.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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