Books July 2001

Wharton's Sharp Eye

Our author, one of Britain's great novelists and literary biographers, explores Edith Wharton's short stories

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.

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