Books July 2001

Wharton's Sharp Eye

Our author, one of Britain's great novelists and literary biographers, explores Edith Wharton's short stories
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Short stories are best read in collections. Edith Wharton was one of the great exponents of the genre (one would in her age have unhesitatingly referred to her as a master of it), and these two generous volumes, collected and edited by the novelist Maureen Howard, have a fine cumulative effect. Here are riches. Wharton attempted, and succeeded in, a dazzling variety of styles, from the fantastic to the realistic, from the satiric to the sentimental. Here are antiquarian themes—ghosts, fables, historical fantasies, and tales of crazed connoisseurs in love with the past. But here are also a number of incisive dissections of contemporary American and European customs. Wharton brought a new acuity to the debate between manners and morals. And she knew well how to shape a story. In "Writing a War Story" she created a would-be author, Ivy Spang, who finds herself paralyzed in front of her ream of mauve paper, unable to make any sense of her "plethora of impressions."

The more she thought of the matter, the less she seemed to understand how a war story—or any story, for that matter—was written. Why did stories ever begin, and why did they ever leave off? Life didn't—it just went on and on.

If Wharton herself ever suffered such doubts, she concealed them. She organized her material confidently. She shaped, selected, cut, and fashioned, and presented her readers with highly finished and highly satisfying professional products. As we read her, we feel that we are in safe hands. Her stories work.

There is so much in these two volumes, much of it previously unknown to me, that it is hard to know where to begin. Let us plunge into what might be thought to be the shallow end, with praise of one of Wharton's lightweight stories, which satirizes the arbitrary nature of literary fame. It is accomplished, stylish, and witty, and it made this reader laugh aloud. "Expiation" was originally published in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan, in December of 1903, when Wharton had acquired a reputation as a writer but had not reached the large readership she was to gain two years later, with The House of Mirth. So she had not yet enjoyed or endured the experience of finding herself a famous author, although the story shows that she had armed herself against it. "Expiation" is about a young woman novelist who is awaiting with a mixture of anticipation and fear the press's reaction to the publication of her first novel, Fast and Loose. That title is an ironic reference to the unpublished novella by the same name which Wharton wrote in 1876-1877, when she was fifteen—a story about star-crossed love (in part a parody of the sensational novels that Wharton's mother discouraged her from reading) which incorporated fictitious hostile reviews. A comparison with Jane Austen's early work springs to mind, because Austen began her literary career at much the same age nearly a century earlier, with Love and Freindship [sic] and other exercises in affectionate parody. Austen's influence permeates Wharton's work: both novelists took an attitude of sardonic delight toward the business of being a writer, and toward changing fashions in narration and genre.

In this entertaining exercise the novice, Paula Fetherel, a comfortably married and respectable New York society lady, is contrasted with her older cousin—the shrewd, worldly, and shabby-genteel Mrs. Clinch, once uncomfortably married to the thoroughly absent Mr. Clinch and now earning her living by writing what she dismissingly describes as "pseudo-science and colloquial ornithology"—essays such as "Nests Ajar" and "How to Smell the Flowers." A third specimen of authorship is introduced in their uncle, the self-important Bishop of Ossining, whose literary works include "The Wail of Jonah" (twenty cantos in blank verse) and "Through a Glass Brightly," an edifying tale of a poor consumptive girl struggling to support her two idiot sisters. The bishop's works, we gather, do not sell well.

The comedy lies in the differing approaches to literary creation of these three, and in their acknowledgment that violent denunciation of a work can contribute more to its success than faint praise. Wharton brilliantly evokes the exquisite torment of Mrs. Fetherel, anguished first by her husband's undiscriminating admiration and "fatuous approval" of her efforts, next by a fear that her bishop uncle will be irrevocably offended by the light morals of her book, and finally by the agreement of the critics that Fast and Loose has a "pure fresh view of life." This last blow is of course the worst. Our would-be Ibsen is filled with horror as she hears that her first reviewer considers her shocking critique of society to be a "pleasant picture of domestic life, which, in spite of a total lack of force in character-drawing and of consecutiveness in incident, may be described as a distinctly pretty story."

All ends well, after a fashion, when the bishop is persuaded to denounce his niece's novel from the pulpit, whereupon it immediately becomes a best seller. Mrs. Fetherel is driven to complain, when she sees her "New Edition with Author's Portrait (Hundred and Fiftieth Thousand)" emblazoned on the station bookstall, that "they've no right to use my picture as a poster!" She has come a long way fast and learned much since the day she told Mrs. Clinch "in an unconvinced tone" that she supposed a book must stand or fall on its own merits.

This satiric fantasy about the forging of a literary success is rooted in its own period; the commercial value of a bishop's denunciation clearly owes something to the notorious attacks on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, a novel that caused great outrage when, in 1894, it was serialized in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. It was burned with much publicity by a bishop, and thereafter prospered. (In his preface to the 1912 edition Hardy wrote that the book was "burnt by a bishop, probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.") But "Expiation" is also a story for our time; violent denunciations, though not these days by bishops, continue to sell copies.

Wharton had a sharp eye for the whims and dictates of fashion in literature, in art, in intellectual debate, in décor, and in haute couture. She could detect a fake, and she could recognize the real thing. She was in every sense a well-traveled woman of the world, and the range of her discrimination was considerable. She was no modernist in manner, but she was formidably well read and relentlessly up-to-the-minute—indeed, ahead-of-the-minute—in her methods of social analysis. Her astute perception of the changing of fashion in morals has long been recognized as one of the major strengths of her novels, and in many of these stories she applied herself to charting the new social map of the twentieth century. She foresaw the declining power of conventional religion and the growth of various forms of relativist thinking. (In "The Seed of the Faith" she sketched, with a sympathetic and admirably understated assurance, the doubts of a poor young missionary stranded in North Africa who has been made tragically aware of his own ignorance by two or three talks with "a quiet French ethnologist who was studying the tribes of the Middle Atlas.") She drew the graph of the inexorable rise in the divorce rate, and the slow and at times hesitant movement toward the emancipation of women. In "The Reckoning" and other stories she carefully delineated the high personal cost of struggles between theory and practice for those who professed to believe in what she labeled "The New Ethics." Divorce and various manifestations of adulterous love provide many of her plots, and her tone modulates from the ironic to the tragic to the tragicomic, sometimes subtly shifting within a single story.

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