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.

We are accustomed to thinking of Edith Wharton as the chronicler of unforgiving codes of behavior and of the fierce and cruel exclusivity of New York's aristocratic old money, but some of the stories here strike a shockingly modern note. In "The Other Two" the happy husband of a charming and much married woman comes, by a sequence of bizarre coincidences, to be entertaining his two predecessors at tea in his home, a situation that, he finds, loses its grotesqueness through the "sense of ease and familiarity" with which his wife greets her unexpected visitors. That phrase is beautifully chosen, and speaks volumes: this is a new world—though whether or not the complaisant third husband will long remain happy in it is another question.

Compare the more somber note of "Autres Temps" and "The Long Run," both of which deal with age and failure in the sexual arena. In the first of these Mrs. Lidcote, exiled from New York for many years owing to a sexual transgression, returns home to her newly divorced and newly remarried daughter, amid bewildering assurances that divorce is now socially acceptable. But she finds herself entering a maze of innuendo and misapprehension, in which she is rejected even by those who are most eager to tell her that all is changed. For her daughter, maybe, the future is here, and it is bright. But for Mrs. Lidcote it is too late.

Similarly, in "The Long Run" a courageous and unorthodox married woman risks all, in Anna Karenina mode, by offering herself to the man who loves her, in the full awareness that he is already envisaging, à la Count Vronsky, a post-elopement future of "listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances; or the proud quarrelling wretches shut up alone in a fine house because they're too good for the only society they can get." But her courage is in vain: he rejects her and the idea of an improvised life together, and "in the long run," as we are shown, they both—having missed this one chance, this one choice—dwindle into conformity and mediocrity.

Wharton depicted women caught between constraint and the possibilities of a new sexual freedom—a freedom that she herself enjoyed, though at high cost. She portrayed the historical deformations imposed on women by social relations and expectations—within the family, between the sexes, and between women. Female rivalry and jealousy—emotions of the old regime which Virginia Woolf predicted would pass away under the new—are well caught in the celebrated "Roman Fever."

Wharton's descriptions of the maternal deformation are particularly interesting. She had no children, and she was not generally overindulgent toward the maternal impulse. Her early tale "The Pelican" is a simple story of misguided and destructive motherly devotion. The long and deeply ambiguous "Sanctuary" is a much more complicated piece that does not lend itself to any one definitive reading. Is it a portrait of benign and altruistic maternal love or of blighting maternal possession? Are we presented with a woman who fatally retards her son, preventing him from finding true adult freedom, or with a woman who saves her son from his father's fate of moral turpitude? The tone is so evenly balanced that it is almost impossible—indeed, I think it is impossible—to be sure. The psychological insight into motive is so keen, the moral meaning of the acts within the story so opaque, that the story takes on its own meaning. We can interpret it as we may, or as Freud might have us. It is a fine portrait of inner conflict, but the good angels and bad angels wear multiple disguises.

Less ambiguous, but equally gripping, is the later "Her Son," about a beautiful widow in search of a son born out of wedlock, whom she guiltily gave up for adoption before her marriage to the child's father. In middle age she is possessed and obsessed by her quest, and eventually destroyed by it. The intricate turns of the plot are finely handled through the medium of a semi-detached male narrator, a ventriloquist device familiar from the works of Henry James, and a device that Wharton frequently employed with great assurance. (She clearly felt safer with the authority of the male narrative voice: rarely in these stories did she risk a female narrator, though she was confident with female subjects and the female point of view.) "Her Son" is a thoroughly satisfying tale in which each revelation, including the last and most astonishing, has a natural inevitability. "Sanctuary" is marked by improbable incident; here the events, though even more melodramatic, are more cunningly connected. It is a well-shaped story in the mode of Guy de Maupassant, its power residing in the last twist of the knife.

The short-story form lends itself to the melodramatic initiatory or concluding event, and Wharton certainly did not eschew such effects—though it is worth noting that her life contained its fair share of melodramatic incidents, in the form of unexpected legacies, financial misdemeanors, and early deaths. Typhoid and tuberculosis and bankruptcy were handy tools for the author, providing sudden death or disgrace when needed, but they also reflected a familiar social reality: artists did indeed die of ill health in garrets, and businessmen were ruined on the stock exchange. Not even Wharton's circle of friends, leading their luxurious rentier lives, were immune to the diseases of their day: her contemporary, the upstart but highly successful novelist Arnold Bennett, like Wharton an aficionado of steam yachts and motor cars and other forms of expensive travel, managed to die of typhoid after drinking water from a carafe in a Paris restaurant—an incident that he, in his major realist vein, would have been unwilling to invent. So one cannot convict her of dwelling too much on the accidental and the improbable. Like Bennett, Wharton was fond of fantasies of sudden wealth, and made good use of them in stories like the perfectly pitched comic fable "Velvet Ear-Pads" and "The Letters," in which the life of a poor little teacher, Lizzie, is transformed by an unexpected legacy. Unlikely, one might protest; but Wharton herself, hardly in such desperate need as Lizzie, had learned in 1888, while on a cruise in the Aegean, that she had inherited $120,000 from a "reclusive New York cousin."

Wharton was in many ways blessed to have been born into a life full of agreeable choices, but she paid a high price for it in her often prolonged nervous and physical illnesses. She did not dwell much on inward descriptions of nervous prostration. Her characters, both male and female (apart from those doomed to disaster by plot), tend to the energetic and the robust. Perhaps it is in her ghost stories that the subplot of her ill health and the exhaustion of her own struggles emerges. There are several classic ghost stories here, and nearly a third of the collection (twenty stories out of sixty-seven) has a touch of the supernatural and the macabre. Ghosts were in vogue, and Wharton no doubt wrote partly to please her public.

Her models included Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), which reappears here in several guises, and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the less supernatural but heavily haunted The Aspern Papers (1888). M. R. James, the author of the lastingly popular Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), makes his presence felt, and one can also detect the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, both of whom were intermittently attracted to the genre. Wharton handled the form with considerable dexterity, though it has to be said that some of her efforts are little more than conventional attempts to chill the blood, with the usual apparatus of revenants and curses and hauntings in country houses. One could argue that the theme of the imprisoned damsel reflected the social reality of the powerless turn-of-the-century woman, and Wharton offered several variations on this possibility—including a daughter imprisoned by her father and a long-dead wife guarded by a ghostly butler. But her effects are neither original nor wholly convincing, though the stories are enjoyable enough. One feels that her pen and her purse were more involved than her imagination. Nowhere did she achieve the mythic resonance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, although she borrowed a few effects from Shelley, too.

For me, perhaps the most effective of these ghostly tales is a strange little piece called "Miss Mary Pask," atmospherically set in Brittany, where the detached male narrator takes it upon himself to visit the reclusive old sister of an American friend, who lives alone by the sea in a house on the Baie des Trépassés. He arrives, of course, at night, in thick fog, with a reluctant guide, who abandons him. He finds Miss Pask, white and twittering, but even as he finds her, he remembers that in fact she is dead—he had forgotten (a little improbably) that she had died the previous autumn. The story ends with a twist and a naturalistic explanation, but the encounter between the old woman and the young man is finely done, and the fragility of her old body is intensely evoked: "I looked at the soft wrinkled fingers, with their foolish little oval finger-tips that used to be so innocently and naturally pink, and now were blue under the yellowing nails—and my flesh rose in ridges of fear."

In one of the longest and strongest stories in this collection, "The Marne," a hint of the supernatural offers itself as a positive blemish. This is a powerful and for the most part thoroughly controlled account of a young Francophile American's response to World War I. Wharton made excellent use here of her involvement in relief efforts in Paris and on the Front, which she visited several times. The reactions of panic-stricken Americans caught in Europe at the outbreak of war are described with a wit equal to that in Thackeray's treatment of the Battle of Waterloo in Vanity Fair. Her depictions of vacillating American reactions to the need for engagement make bracing and salutary reading. All this is observed in vivid, damning, and authentic detail: Wharton's comments on those patriotic converts, at first complacently isolationist and later noisily and militantly convinced of "America's mission" and "Liberty's chance to Enlighten the World," retain a sinister and dangerous topicality.

We are also persuaded by and attracted to the character (though perhaps not the overweighted name) of the hero, young Troy Belknap, in love with France from his early years, when he sailed with his family from New York "every June on the fastest steamer of one of the most expensive lines." His youthful passion for France echoes Wharton's own, and she believably conveys his frustrated masculine regret that he is too young to fight for his adopted country; as the war drags on, he has to satisfy himself by working with the ambulance brigade. In the denouement Troy finds himself at last, by accident, engaged in active combat in the second battle of the Marne. (There are honorable echoes here of the young Fabrice del Dongo's adventures at Waterloo in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma.) All this is so well done that it seems a pity that Wharton allowed a sentimental and supernatural conclusion. Troy's much loved French tutor, killed four years earlier in the first battle of the Marne, appears as a rescuing angel. Wharton's prevailingly ironic narrative mode knits uneasily with such a resolution.

"The Marne" is dedicated "To the memory of Captain Ronald Simmons, A.E.F. who died for France August 12, 1918." As I wrote this, I was too far from my own or any other English-language library to look up the true story of Captain Ronald Simmons, which might have led me to revoke my strictures. Perhaps I can make recompense for those strictures by a short, ghostly coda of my own.

I wrote this in Venice, surrounded by ghosts. I went there on December 31, to spend a month and thus to avoid the inevitable fuss attendant on the publication in England of my latest novel, which had been denounced in advance (unread) not by a bishop but, for reasons I well understand, by various members of my family.

From the archives:

"Senses of Place" (January 1999)
Atlantic contributors reflect on intersections of books and travel.

I arrived in Venice in what I fancied was rather a Whartonian style, though perhaps a little less grand, with a half-finished new novel to work on, and the Library of America loose-leaf page proofs fluttering around me like sibylline leaves. (The last page of Wharton's last ghost story, "All Souls'," was, mysteriously, missing. That was an alarming and frustrating discovery—would I ever find out what happened?) Reading Wharton in Venice proved, as I had expected, a treat, and I found, as I knew I must, an excellent story set in Venice: "A Glimpse." Beautifully narrated by that familiar worldly male observer, it concerns the power-structured rivalry of a male cellist and a female pianist. I chanced upon this story the day after I had been to a Vivaldi concert in the church of San Bartolomeo, near the Rialto, where the demeanor of the cellist and the pianist had given rise to some imaginative speculation. Such things happen here. And that night, walking back home over the Rialto, it just happened that I observed a total eclipse of the moon.

I was staying in the apartment of a friend of mine and my daughter's. It belonged to her great-aunt, who died five years ago, at the age of ninety, leaving the apartment full of her presence and her memories. She was a painter, and her still lifes hang on the walls. Her books, her playing cards, her cooking utensils were still there; her umbrella was in the umbrella stand, and her unfinished embroidery lay in a drawer. Her fluffy tortoiseshell cat consented to come in from the garden from time to time to crunch up some food.

Venice was enchanting and alarming and spectral in midwinter. The blue-green high water lapped on the steps down to the little canal below my bedroom window, and for two thrilling days I was cut off at high tide from the campo where I went to buy milk for myself and the cat. A siren called its warning each morning through the ghostly gloom. The high water at the beginning of January was followed by a bright and bitter chill, with temperatures well below zero. Icicles dripped from bridges. I found I had not brought enough warm clothes.

In one of the wardrobes hung some of the aunt's clothes—good, serious, well-tailored clothes from which her niece could not quite bring herself to part. One chilly night I tried on the aunt's fur coat. The coat fitted me well. I was tempted to sally forth in it, to walk the cold, silent, and desolate streets of the sestiere in it. Had I done so, surely a neighbor, looking out from a window, would have said to herself, "There walks the ghost of my good friend Elena Ballerin."

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