When Mrs. Wharton's stories first appeared, in that early period which, as we have now learned, was merely a period of apprenticeship, everybody said, "How clever!" "How wonderfully clever!" and the criticism—to adopt a generic term for indiscriminate adjectives—was apt, for the most conspicuous trait in the stories was cleverness. They were astonishingly clever; and their cleverness, as an ostensible quality will, caught and held the attention. And yet, though undoubtedly correct, the term owes its correctness, in part at least, to its ready-to-wear quality, to its negative merit of vague amplitude, behind which the most diverse gifts and capacities may lie concealed. No readers of Mrs. Wharton, after the first shock of bewildered admiration, rest content with it, but grope about to lift the cloaking surtout of cleverness and to see as best they may how and by what methods her preternaturally nimble wits are playing their game,—for it is a game that Mrs. Wharton plays, pitting herself against a situation to see how much she can score.
To most people the point she plays most brilliantly is the episode, which in the novel is merely one of the links in the concatenation of the plot, but in the short story is the form and substance, the very thing itself; and so to be mistress of the art of the episode almost seems to leave any other species of mastery irrelevant and superfluous. In Mrs. Wharton this aptitude is not single, but a combination. It includes the sense of proportion, and markedly that elementary proportion of allotting the proper space for the introduction of the story,—so much to bring the dramatis personae into the ring, so much for the preliminary bouts, so much for the climax, and, finally, the proper length for the recessional. It includes the subordination of one character to another, of one picture to another, the arrangement of details in proper hierarchy to produce the desired effect.
"The Dilettante," for instance, is a good example of craft in introducing a situation. The story is very short, the episode a mere dialogue; and, as the nature of the dialogue forbids an explanation of the situation through the mouths of the speakers, a neat prologue, in half-livery as it were, opens the door and takes your name, then the dialogue, in full livery, immediately shows you upstairs into the inner privacy of the episode, where the climax awaits you. You are met at each step by the forethought of a somewhat anxious hostess; and there is throughout a well-bred economy of effort which one expects to pass into grace, but which for some reason deflects and slips back into cleverness.
Some readers deem the dialogue the strongest point of Mrs. Wharton's game, it is so pithy and witty. Others, again, among the various excellences, prefer the author's own observations and comments. Still others like best the epigrams or the dramatic interest of the incident itself.
If the reader, after he has gone over these various points in the game, attempts to sum up his impressions, to his astonishment and dismay he finds himself again face to face with his old adjective clever. At first he surmises that this is a trick of his own indolence, which, lazily yielding to habit, offers him this serviceable word; but upon reflection he perceives that the adjective has a positive merit. It is a word of limitation; it fences in its own domain and excludes other regions beyond. Mrs. Wharton's stories are not original like Miss Wilkins's, not poetic like George Eliot's, not romantic like Bret Harte's, not rippling with muscular energy like Kipling's, nor smooth with the dogmatic determinism of Maupassant. To none of those story-tellers would one apply the word clever; and though Mrs. Wharton cannot very well monopolize the adjective, by her high level of skill, by her ready command over her own resources, by her tact, by her courage,—no situation daunts her,—and especially by her limitations, she wholly justifies the public in crying out, "Oh, clever Mrs. Wharton!"
Cleverness not only limits its own domain, but stamps a special character upon it. In the novel proper there is one fundamental rule: that the characters, once introduced, must act with the large liberty of life, and work out their own fortunes. For novelists believe that, though other arts are all artificial and do not hold up the mirror to nature, yet their art is life indeed, their business is to leave the reader uncertain whether he is really in or out of the book. Let that be so. Novels proper are not everything. There are other fields of fiction in which the author is an absolute tyrant, and need make no pretense of giving his characters any free will whatever. To these regions the short story as a rule belongs. There is no room for liberty. The characters must complete their episode in scanty pages, and they must do the most artificial things in order to make the scene effective. Mrs. Wharton makes a most excellent tyrant, and gives her subjects vastly more vivacity than they would have if left to themselves. The dialogues are far too good for life, the episodes too well modeled, the motives too well calculated, the actions too complete, to admit of any doubt concerning the immediate presence of the autocrat. Everywhere the emphasis is the emphasis of art, not of life. This literary art is, of course, not only wholly legitimate, but some people might contend that it is the only art worth having. Artificial fiction makes no pretense that it is a reflection of life; it does not profess to make a real man and a real woman living in a real house, and really talking over real toast and tea. It sets itself up as an independent art, with its own rules, its own proprieties, its own standard of success. It is akin to artificial comedy, as Sheridan, for instance, handled it. No one judges The Rivals as a bit of real life. The business of Mrs. Wharton's dramatis personae is to portray an effective episode; and it is a business which requires cleverness, as distinguished from originality, poetic feeling, humour, insight, romance, energy, or power.
Going a step farther, the most casual investigator becomes acquainted with Mrs. Wharton's propriety, tact, nicety of craftsmanship, and that special possession which in creative art is of the first importance,—human personality. Those people who advocate the suppression of all traces of the creator in his creations are too ascetic, too marmoreal, too super- or infra-human. Our generation, not yet wholly purged of the lingering effects left by the old Romantic individualism, cannot but feel that the more fiction is interpenetrated by the author's personality the more interesting it is.
This assumption involves as a corollary the immense importance of gender; and gender is indeed a matter of fundamental interest in literature, as in life. We are born on one side or the other of the great chasm; and in whichever camp we are, on the approach of anything that awakens our real interest, we challenge at once, "Fine or Superfine?" A man's world is not a woman's world. He and she are differently endowed; they perceive differently,—that is, all except the bald, unnanotated reports of the senses,—group their impressions differently, deduce differently. Traits which preserve neutrality and straddle the chasm, serving both sides alike, are limited to the performance of the mechanical parts of fiction, and subject to rules and regulations. Where they end, begins the employment of those faculties that make individuality; and here the first rough and ready test as to whether the work has the flavor of personality is the determination of sex. Readers, male readers at least, are sometimes so blinded by preudice, by an indefensible habit of identifying art with the male sex, that when a woman writes a novel such as Jane Eyre or Adam Bede, there is a general masculine readiness to be surprised, and a general masculine agreement that the talents and capacities which created the novel are of a peculiarly masculine order. In Mrs. Wharton's case men are debarred from any such self-complacent theory, for her talents and capacities are not only intrinsically feminine, but also, despite her cleverness, which, generally speaking, is a neutral trait, they are superficially feminine.
This fundamental fact of Mrs. Wharton's femininity is conspicuous in many ways. There was, for instance, in her early stories, a certain feminine dependence, as a girl on skates for the first time might lay the tip of her finger on a supporting arm. She showed a wish to learn, a ready docility, and the attractive simplicity of credulity, toward her first teacher, such as women, with their innate appreciation of authority, possess in a much greater degree than men. This hesitating dependence, as she took her first comparatively timid steps, following as closely as she could the sway and oscillations to which her teacher subjected his equilibrium, served her purpose. She learned her lesson, skated with ever greater ease, and, though still maintaining the rules she had learned, gradually got her own balance, and, after hard work and frequent practice, skated off, head erect, scarf, ribbons, and vesture floating free, with the speed and security of a racer. Her movements are always feminine movements, her ease, her poise, always feminine.
There is also in the stories what one might call a certain feminine capriciousness or arbitrariness, even beyond the ordinary autocracy of the story-teller, a method of deciding upon instinct rather than upon reflection. Take the union of episodes. Mrs. Wharton sees her story in episodes, or rather she sees episodes and puts them together. Sometimes they have no natural congruity, or are ever rebelliously opposed to union. A man would acknowledge their independence and leave them apart; but Mrs. Wharton, insisting on her autocratic prerogatives, forcibly unites them. In The Sanctuary, for example, she conceived the idea of repeating weakness of character and similarity of temptation in two generations; so she contrived two episodes, which, however, had no natural bond of union. She then put double duty on the heroine, and made her fulfill the function of joining the two episodes by the ingenious method of marrying her to the hero of the first in order to make her the mother of the hero of the second.
Her choice of plot, even, is distinctly feminine. Take The Touchstone for instance: given the situation, a man would have shifted the centre of gravity, and have rearranged all the effects. Her emphasis, her sense of interest, of importance, differ from a man's. Her feminine tact—that quality of unexpected control among forces so slight or so stubborn that no man can see how a woman gets her leverage; that power of steering when his rudder would be trailing in the air or stuck in the mud—is conspicuous in dialogue, in adjustment of relations, the whole frame and finish of the story.
These characteristics are minor matters, but they point unhesitatingly to the conclusion that Mrs. Wharton is not or mentally feminine, with all the value of personality and humanity, but so much so as to belong plainly enough to the species,—the notable and justly celebrated species,—the American woman. This interesting type has been studied with the ardor due to the rapid modification by which it has diverged from its European progenitors. Its salient traits are well known, and perhaps no one has portrayed them more effectively than Mr. John Sargent. In his portraits we see a network of nerves drawn too taut for the somewhat inadequate equipment of flesh and blood; an attention given to the business of receiving and acting upon sensations so disproportionate that there is no proper leisure for the sensations themselves; a superior, indeed, a snubbing attitude of the nervous system toward the rest of the body. In Sargent's women there is no wholesome tendency to loafing, no ease of manner, no sense of physical bien-être: rather they stand, or sit—in the latter case on the edge of their chairs—like discoboli, waiting for a signal to whirl and hurl anything—anywhere—direction being unimportant, the sibylline contortion everything. This fundamental nervous restlessness shows itself in all Mrs. Wharton's stories, in her rapidity of thought, of phrase, of dialogue, in her intensity, her eagerness, her rush of thought. This American dash, this cascade-like brilliancy of motion, make, no doubt, for most readers the interest of the stories. But many of us, idle and inefficient, weakly wish for repose, a little pause, a trifling indulgence. With many story-tellers the reader gets aboard an accommodation train, and during the jogging, the stopping and starting, the pleasant Trollopy leisure, he looks out of the window, reflects on what has gone before, and speculates on what is to come. None of these weaknesses are permitted to Mrs. Wharton's readers,—I speak of the stories,—we are booked express, the present is all-exacting, and the pace is American.
This nervous eagerness and intensity find their fullest and freest expression in the epigrams, metaphors, similes, and aphorisms which crack fast and furious about our ears. No sooner do we hear an epigrammatic phrase, catch a loose end of its applicability, and grasp at apprehension, than crack! crack! go another and another. There is something vindictive in this hailstorm. "His egoism was not of a kind to mirror its complacency in the adventure." "There was something, fatuous in an attitude of mental apology toward a memory already classic." "He had no fancy leaving havoc in his wake, and would have preferred to sow a quick growth of oblivion in the spaces wasted by his inconsidered inroads; " and so forth. Such quotations—one can pluck them from every page—are clearly the literary gesticulations of an American woman.
This American element, which gives the stories so much of their character, is also noticeable in another of Mrs. Wharton's accomplishments,—one had almost said one of her talents, so fully and freely does she use it,—her artistic and literary cultivation. That cultivation is distinctly American in the sense that it immediately displays its American acquisition and ownership, and peremptorily excludes the notion that it be English cultivation or French.
That such a distinction may be is due, no doubt, to the fact that we are on this shore of the Atlantic, and not on the other. The great traditional humanities, the inheritances of literature and art, are fundamentally foreign to us. Our ancestors did not create them, did not experience the emotions that prompted their creation, nor were they in any way cognizant of the stimulating circumstances under which they were produced. Emigration from Europe broke the course of spiritual descent, and our type is the result of modification by new conditions, and by a natural selection adapted to such new conditions, that our inheritance of European understanding and sympathy is an almost negligible quantity. We learn the humanities as we learn lessons; not in the way cultivated Englishmen or Frenchmen learn them, as part and parcel of their familiar experience of life.
Nevertheless, our national theory is that culture is not to be neglected, but to be assimilated rapidly in a manner becoming the busy, forward-looking, American spirit; and, accordingly, we make ourselves acquainted with the humanities,—as we might become acquainted with the British peerage in Burke,—in terms of galleries, museums, operas, scenery; whereas to Europeans the humanities, the inheritances of art and literature, constitute a collection of ideas, expressed in various modes, a study for discipline, for growth, for pleasure. Such being our attitude, we naturally look to the country where humanism, culture, art, may most rapidly be got up, where the greatest number of names may with least effort be appended to the greatest number of things, the amplest amount Bohned with the least expenditure of effort. That country, beyond dispute, is Italy, and thither we betake ourselves.
It would be absurd to apply this rude generalization to Mrs. Wharton's cultivation, which is so unusual in variety, accuracy, and scholarship; but one does not wholly escape an intimation of the presence of this cis-Atlantic attitude in the evidences of cultivation so profusely scattered through Mrs. Wharton's stories, and the patriotically inclined are justified in pointing to her with pride as a product of our national civilization.
This point, otherwise unimportant, suggests the further point as to whether culture of this character is favorable for the production of fiction. Of course the most highly cultivated novelist might write fiction free from all badges of the author's culture, but that would rather be a European way of doing than an American. Take Mr. Henry James, for instance: one would search his novels in vain for any such obvious badges; or take D'Annunzio,—no writer is more imbued with the culture of Italy than he,—and though he uses that culture obviously, perhaps, yet he uses it merely as a color to emphasize the pattern of his story. We are inclined—I refer to those of us who move in the denser and stuffier strata of our national culture, and not to those who, like Mrs. Wharton, float in a purer upper air—to hold the man who uses his knowledge of literature and art for personal enjoyment only as an Epicurean egotist; we look upon his accomplishments as bad investments until he is able to exhibit dividends. And he, not daring to hoist a standard unacceptable to the community, readily succumbs to our attitude, and hurries to advertise his possessions. The European method of mere unavoidable enrichment of the matter in hand is seldom adopted.
Mrs. Wharton, though flying briskly through that purer upper air, nevertheless is unconsciously affected by the fumes which rise from below. Her cultivation declares the most appetizing dividends. She showers her references and allusions to art and letters with the ready cleverness and lavish prodigality with which she scatters her epigrams. One cannot help asking one's self, diffidently indeed, but pertinaciously, are not the ornaments too clinquant, do not the decorations assert themselves too presumptuously and mar the softer and more harmonious colors of the groundwork? And the question—or a question derived from that question—obtrudes itself most insistently in reference to The Valley of Decision.
When that novel was first published, the fashion was to disentangle and distinguish,—as one ruminates and speculates over the flavors of a salad,—to separate the several ingredients culled from many books, and to crow over the discovery or attribution; in blindness to the fact that the somewhat royal levy of tribute was the object of the book, open, obvious, proclaimed, and carefully planned. The story, of purpose, is subordinated to its setting. The actors are necessarily a little frigid, the hero, unwillingly perhaps, a poseur, the heroine willingly a poseuse; but the scenery in which they carry about their rarefied and cool personalities is very attractive. Considering the book from the point of view of pageantry, one almost inclines to name it beside Le Capitaine Fracasse, so prodigal is it in details of information, so many-hued and high-colored in general effect, —the hero and heroine most dutifully going hither and thither wherever the calcium light will fall most effectually on the rich scenery.
Of course there were persons, devotees to the dogma that the proper material for a novel is personal experience of life, who said that a book compact of memories of other books, souvenirs des voyages intellectuels, was not admissible, must be frowned upon. But arbitrary positions, satisfactory though they be to the occupants, are not necessarily universally satisfactory. At present, authority in literature is of little moment, and success justifies itself. If Mrs. Wharton could gather matter, shear wool, as it were, from Wilhelm Meister, La Chartreuse de Parme, the memoirs of Goldoni, Alfieri, Casanova, sundry novels of Turgeneff, and what else besides, and make an interesting novel, one might fairly say that she had done admirably to use whatever materials were adapted to her purpose; for Shakespeare did not hesitate to use materials ready to his hand. The success is the matter. All life is but a transmutation of materials, and novelists may use whatever they can find in books, in history, in life, in imagination; the point is to create life again. One would hardly go so far in praise of The Valley of Decision as to think of it as creating life out of its literary materials. It did not do that; it made a very entertaining, interesting, and agreeable book. It gave that longed-for sensation of floating down a romantic river whose banks are lined with the rich hues which only far-away distances and the irrevocable past possess. One heard, despite a forced assent to pedantic and literary faultfinding, the "tirra lirra by the river" that caught one's imagination and bore it off.
Perhaps the first after-effect of the book on the reader was to set him wondering as to Mrs. Wharton's future career. Would she confine herself to study, to scholarship, to the world of the connoisseur and amateur? would she be our cicerone to the agreeable things of art and literature? Or would she take the road, study life, and become a novelist? It was not easy to decide one's wishes. Now, more than ever, we need critics to help us to an appreciation of the pleasures of refinement. Europe is so near, and so easily overrun, that the obvious charms of the obviously beautiful are daily rendered more and more obvious and less and less charming by scores of persons, who interpose themselves and their shadows between us and the ties of the past. We are so much more disposed to see obvious beauty, so much more disposed to have seen it, than to sit before one beautiful thing and incorporate it in our experience, that we need a teacher to teach us what immense differences lie huddled close to one another, how far apart are things that look to us so much alike. On the other hand, how delightful to have a real novelist, one who out of her own personal experience will take a part that shall stand by itself, and give us that sense of satisfaction which is, after all, the emotion which we commonly crave in novels,—the satisfaction of knowledge, of experience, of sympathy, of happiness, of sorrow, of life. And though, after reading the stories, the reader did not expect from Mrs. Wharton pathos, nor humour, nor tragedy, nor a wide range of experience, nor broad sympathies, nor raids upon the heart, one did expect wit, satire, flashes of insight, comprehension, analysis, vividness. So one stood with a divided mind.
In such a mood the volumes on Italian Gardens and on Italian Backgrounds came, with some interval between them. The name Italian Gardens carried with it a special aroma, and gave a fillip to expectation. At last we were to get at the meaning of Italian gardens, which to our ignorance appeared so inferior to the English in all usual horticultural appointments, in flowers, shrubs, turf, and trees; so unsentimental in their terraces, formalities, and observances, when compared with the "wet, bird-haunted English lawn" and the brick-walled, fruit-beloved, rose-encumbered gardens of England. The book, however, was a disappointment. Whether Mrs. Wharton's hand had not complete control, or whether she was impatient of a prescribed task, or whether the translation of the inner delicacies of an Italian garden into American notions was a task unsuited to her talents, or whatever the reason, the book had a cold, perfunctory, mechanical ring. We had hoped to share the branchless sentiment of the stone pine's bole, the green thoughts of the lizards that crawl out under the Italian sun, to enter into the connubial sympathies between ilex and stucco, to understand why Mignon felt the lemon's fragrance in so peculiarly rapturous a manner; but the book leaves us with a number of names of villas and of landscape gardeners, a consciousness of emptiness, and the conviction that Mrs. Wharton has never spent an hour in a garden uprooting weeds, hunting rosebugs, squashing caterpillars, or sealing up new-made homes of borer worms with putty and clay. One may talk with landscape gardeners by the hour about prospects, middle distances, reaches, effects, about lines of box, parallels of sweet peas, clumps of viburnum, about the values of an axis and of straight lines, about the etiquette of graveled paths and the massing of afternoon shadows; but the trowel and a broken back, the pruning hook and dazzled eyes, the vendetta with the slug, the rich, creative fragrance of manure, the heat and sweat of noon, dirty hands, with these indispensables to the love and knowledge of any garden Mrs. Wharton betrays no acquaintance.
In Italian Backgrounds she is on surer footing. She is familiar with Italy, and she has a very wide knowledge of the best that has been thought and said of Italy. She is hand and glove with the critics of art. She never enters a town in Italy, no matter how small, but she has in her handbag Crowe and Cavalcaselle, Kugler, Burckhardt, Morelli, Berenson, and a half dozen more. She looks at every picture, every fresco, every bit of sculpture and carving, like a constitutional queen, and they are her responsible advisers; she judges cherubim, madonnas, portraits, choir-stalls, proportions of height and breadth, contrasts of light and shade, relations of Gothic to Romanesque, of the quattrocento to the cinquecento, of masters to pupils, all ac- cording to the laws and rules adopted by her learned advisers, to which she gives full assent and approval. Certainly she does this well. There are no errors to be subsequently corrected, no rash ventures to be regretted; but ill-regulated readers sometimes long to fling authority to the winds. Give us not what Morelli thought or Burckhardt, but what you think, Mrs. Wharton; pitch your portable library out of your vettura, send Berenson to Jericho, make mistakes on every page, and let's hear how beautiful Italy impresses you. It is your personal intimacy with Italy that interests us.
It was at this moment, when Mrs. Wharton's devotion to culture seemed to produce less ripeness, less freshness of flavor, than our general elation with her accomplishments had led us to expect, that The House of Mirth made its triumphant appearance. Here Mrs. Wharton, as it were, lays down her hand (with all its trumps) on the table, and enables us to understand her play and to determine whether she is the novelist for us, whether she is able to provide us with that personal satisfaction to which as novel-readers we aspire. For our personal satisfactions are still, in America, our chief preoccupation. Elsewhere, it may be, a novelist is judged as an artist, a novel as a work of art. This foreign method, if it exists, is due to a coincidence between the reader's personal appetite and his artistic appetite, or to the subordination of the former to the latter. In this country there is no such coincidence, no such subordination; and novelists must submit, if they wish to be read, to the democratic methods of our merit system, must run the gauntlet of our personal tastes.
With a knowledge that this system obtains in this country, Mrs. Wharton approached her present position, which one may call, out of deference to its eminence, that of the novelist-laureate. Like other laureateships, Petrarch's for instance, it is a position that lies in the public gift, and the candidate must commend himself or herself to the good opinion of the patron. The only objection to the position is that in making the appointment the patron regards its own satisfaction far more than the excellence of its appointee, and interposes the obstacle of its appetite between approval and even so admirable a candidate as Mrs. Wharton. In other arts an artist is braced and enabled to sacrifice all to his art through the support afforded by the intellectual exclusiveness of the small band before which he presents himself; but the novelist is deprived of such support by the nature of his craft, and when he addresses a pure democracy of readers, as he must to obtain the laurel, there is an immense temptation to do what may be necessary to secure the patron's ear. None would go so far as to suggest that Mrs. Wharton deliberately or even consciously sought that ear, that she entertained any covetous thoughts of the laureateship when she held up to public gaze a certain aspect of fashionable life in New York in a popular and somewhat melodramatic fashion; on the contrary, she would doubtless prefer a patrician patron of her own choosing; but being an American, it would have been unnatural had she wholly avoided the inoculation administered by her birth and education. Our universal acceptance of the patron's right to appoint makes too strong a current to be withstood, unless there be some very good reason for resistance, and there was none in this case. The point I wish to make is that Mrs. Wharton is so thoroughly American that even in The House of Mirth she adopts a popular method unintentionally and successfully.
But most certainly one must not suffer this idea (too grossly stated), that Mrs. Wharton is affected by the atmosphere around her, does hear the murmurs of the many-voiced public, to obscure in any way one's judgment of her excellences as an artist; on the contrary, the idea should merely remind us that there is this unconscious difficulty with which her art has to struggle, and make us appreciate the more the brilliancy of her success.
On reading The House of Mirth, the first sensation of everybody, included or not among those whose plebiscite granted the laurel, was one of exultation, of "I told you so," as they recognized all Mrs. Wharton's talents, but better and brighter. Her mastery of the episode is as dashing as ever, and more delicate. The chapters are a succession of tableaux, all admirably posed. And yet this mastery, by its very excess, has marred the work of its necessary companion art, the hymeneal art of uniting episodes; it will not suffer any episode to remain in a state other than that of celibate self-sufficiency. But in a novel no episode can be self-sufficient; it must proceed from the episode before and merge into the episode that follows. In this part of her craft Mrs. Wharton has always shown a certain lack of dexterity; and the general effect of The House of Mirth is to throw this in high relief. There are places where the junction of two episodes appears no more than as the scar of an old inadequacy; and then again there are others where the episodes seem animated by a desire to break away from the trammels of the plot and pose by themselves. They remind one of the succession of prints that constitute The Rake's Progress. Like the rake, Lily Bart proceeds downward from print to print, from Trenor circle to Gormer circle, from the Gormers to Norma Hatch, from Norma to millinery; and so on, from morn to noon she falls, from noon to dewy eve, down to her catastrophe; each stage is a distinct episode, a scene which Hogarth—with Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint Lily's picture—might have portrayed.
The epigrams are as luminous as ever, but they are no longer firecrackers; they are brightened and softened to electric lights ensconced in Venetian glass, where they shed both illumination and color. They maintain their old electric vivacity,—Mrs. Bart sits at her husband's bedside "with the provisional air of a traveler who waits for a belated train to start,"—but now they serve a purpose, they explain, they emphasize, and in no readily forgettable manner. To be sure, the temptation to use an epigram because it is an epigram has not wholly lost its sweetness. Such phrases as "her finely disseminated sentences made their chatter dull" still recall a morning notebook in which the happy thoughts of a restless night are recorded; yet, on the whole, they serve to remind us that the epigram is a mark of youth,—youth cannot bring itself to forego the glitter of any of its diamonds,—and that Mrs. Wharton is still in the opening of her summer time, before the period of her ripest harvests.
The less artistic traits, which revealed themselves at times in the stories, show a great gain in self-effacement. Mrs. Wharton's nervous American energy has become far less tense, less fitful, far more even and self-controlled. Her luxuriant artistic and literary information is never put obviously forward; nevertheless, unjustly perhaps, one cannot shake off a somewhat uncomfortable suspicion that a great deal of the book is rather the product of culture than of real human knowledge; that it has been approached by the circuitous way of the authorities,—Stendhal, Bourget, Henry James,—rather than by grubbing in life itself.
A matter of great interest is to see whether Mrs. Wharton continues to maintain her attitude that fiction must be forced to accept its creator's arbitrary pattern, or whether she limits that view to short stories, and in the matter of novels ranges herself with those who deem objective reality alone of any value. Perhaps a safe answer to such questioning is to say that Mrs. Wharton has effected a compromise. She has undoubtedly tried to catch living traits, and from her success in that respect the book has been treated as a roman à clef; but she has also taken much of her color from her book-imbued imagination, possibly for fear of having drawn from life too closely. The motive for compromise, however, it is more likely, lies in a certain discord between Mrs. Wharton's talents. Her power of observation is admirably adapted to look directly at facts that lie before her; but her wit tempts her to satire, and satire is an unfortunate medium through which to study humanity. We may regard human beings as a superior or an inferior race of monkeys; but granting that they are monkeys, it would seem to be the business of the novelist not to make gibes at them, not to confront them with more elaborately evolved standards of living, but to keep the story on the plane of monkey life. Satire, perhaps, is a natural temptation to any observer of life; but human inadequacy, inconsistency, folly, may well be left, as life leaves them, to be noticed, scorned, pitied, or ignored, according to the humour of the observer. Mrs. Wharton, in her early period, acquired a habit of using men and women as butts for satire, masks for a dialogue, candelabra for epigrams,—as something other than human beings living in and for themselves; and that habit is a hindrance in her present task of studying them humanly. With her talents, with her growth in artistic feeling,—a growth that is conspicuous throughout The House of Mirth,—Mrs. Wharton will, no doubt, free herself from these trammels.
Even without the deflection of direct vision caused by such a habit, it is difficult for novelists to detect the identifying traits in men and women. Those most fitted by nature for such insight require a wide range of study, a comparison of many species, an intimacy with many individuals, of different education, different habits, different minds. Not that it is the business of a novelist to portray different species or diverging types; but men are so made that the finer characteristics in them, the fainter qualities, the nicer deviation of thought and action from the normal, can only be understood after studying such characteristics, qualities, or deviations where they exist with greater emphasis. And it is less easy for a woman than for a man—though nowadays sundry social exclusions and discriminations have been boldly brushed aside—to pick and choose her objects of study. She is on the whole confined to those that come voluntarily within the range of her vision. Mrs. Wharton, it would appear, has been limited to one somewhat narrow species of men and women, a species in which, perhaps, human nature does not find its freest expression. For the purpose of portraiture any species serves as well as another,—our interest in an artist's perception of our fellow beings is inexhaustible,—but to enable an artist to acquire a knowledge of humanity one species is too narrow a field of study. As soon as Mrs. Wharton leaves the Trenor set (supposing that that set is taken from life), she is forced to draw, and always more and more, upon the stores of her imagination and of her general literary information. The Gormers, though they, to be sure, are but temporary wheels to roll the plot forward, evince a disinclination to become solid and substantial. Even Simon Rosedale, with all the advantages of individuality conferred by his race, offers a by no means irrefutable argument for his verisimilitude. Mrs. Norma Hatch flutters beyond the frontier of Mrs.Wharton's experience, and the charwoman who as a dea ex machina shoves the plot onward, does so very unhandily.
A statement of the fact that Mrs. Wharton does not give to her characters the illusion of reality is no explanation of her motive in not doing so. One vaguely surmises that she feels she cannot attain the flashes of revelation of the great masters, and disdains the counterfeit procured by elaborate descriptions of petty details, and therefore rests content with her own individual, if arbitrary, representation of human life. But one has also a subsidiary feeling that it is safer to suspend judgment until one has approached this matter from another point.
This failure to observe the primary tenets of realism is not the only instance of Mrs. Wharton's disregard of ordinary rules; she does not adhere to the rule of inevitability. There is no inevitable connection between the last chapter of The House of Mirth and the first; the bottle of chloral may be the last link of a chain of which the visit to Seldon's apartment is the first, but it does not fasten upon us a sense of necessary connection. The reader is in doubt as to the intervening links; he snuffs, as it were, traces of indecision as to the termination of Lily's career. Some law-abiding readers resent the disregard of a rule they happen to know, but the ordinary mortal is comfortably pleased to experience the sentiment of suspense. A life when lived, a novel when published, are certain enough,—why should not a novel in the making enjoy the liberty of what, even in life, appears an ample uncertainty ahead?
The reason for Mrs. Wharton's indecision must perhaps be sought in the episodical character of her vision; possibly in the difficulty of discovering the inevitable thread. A better solution, justified by the fact that it also explains her neglect of the commandment of realism, is that, as an artist, she finds neither rule of advantage to her, and therefore brushes them aside with the elegant ease of an American woman passing the customs. Certainly The House of Mirth shows a marked advance in acceptance of responsibility to art, a far larger sense of the value of composition, and a great increase of power in putting that sense to use. It is her feeling for composition that causes her to disregard both literary determinism and realism; these she deliberately sacrifices for the sake of obtaining the desired emphasis upon the figure of central interest. All the minor characters in the novel are adjuncts and accessories, illustration and decoration, to display the commanding figure of Lily Bart; she stands conspicuous, and all the others derive their importance from their relations to her. What they do, say, and think, is done, said, and thought in order to explain and give a high relief to Lily Bart. This mastery of composition is the great artistic achievement of the book, and justifies its immense success.
Otherwise, except for this power of composition (which indeed will have to measure its strength with the old inadequacy of uniting episodes), Mrs. Wharton in The House of Mirth displays no new aptitude, no new sensitiveness, no new accomplishment. The plot, wholly apart from any question of determinism, is uninteresting,—if one may say this when so many episodes are extremely interesting. There is a monotony, due to the iteration of motive, like that in the dimly remembered figures of the Lancers at dancing-school,—"forward and back," ladies' chain, pirouetting, and so on, over and over, in interminable sequence. Lily's behavior is mechanical; she whirls round and round, fresh and glittering, like waters in the upper basin of a fountain; then tumbles into the basin beneath, whirls and eddies with breaking bubbles, and tumbles again, and so down and down, until at last her continual falls from set to set sound painfully like a neglected faucet. One might suppose that this would produce what in current criticism is called the "note of inevitableness;" but it does not; the reader is continually expecting Mrs. Wharton to get up and turn it off,
Her failure in the construction of the plot in this respect, so far as it is due neither to the episodical character of her vision nor to the imperious demands of composition, is because she lacks the talents of a story-teller; for Mrs. Wharton cannot, at least, she certainly does not, put forward any claim to be a raconteur. In the short stories this lack was concealed by her mastery of the episode, but in The House of Mirth it is betrayed by the mechanical monotony that, even in all the brilliancy and glamour of episodes, of epigrams, of Lily herself, oppresses us with drowsy remembrances as of a too familiar tune.
The traits of a raconteur belong to persons richly endowed with bodily life and animal spirits, persons exhilarated by mere living, who receive accession of vigor from mere physical contact with other living things; but Mrs. Wharton, as an American woman, segregates herself from all this; she looks down on life from a tower, armed indeed with a powerful glass—the very strength of her lenses limits her field;—but though she observes individuals in the crowd below as if they were close, she does not touch them, she gets none of the physical aroma of immediate juxtaposition, which is so exciting to the born raconteur.
There is another element that one misses in The House of Mirth, indeed, in all of Mrs. Wharton's books,—poetry. To be sure, the reader perhaps is exacting, finical, greedy, if he asks for poetry; he is no "Oliver asking for more," for he has certainly partaken of a lordly bill-of-fare; yet he is not without justification. There are modern novelists—Meredith's name alone would be authority enough—who look poetically at their subject, throw over it the haze of their own imagination. Mrs. Wharton cannot allege in defense the needs of realism; and if she did, there is poetry to be found in this real world, even in New York,—to be found, at least, by poets. Lily her self might seem to be the very subject for poetic treatment, so freely posed, so strongly modeled, so brilliantly lighted, so exalted on her pedestal, so persuasive in her physical beauty, and yet so barren of poetic dower. The demand for poetry in a novel, however, is the idiosyncrasy of certain readers; there is no law, no plebiscite, no good reason that novels should be poetical; on the contrary, if a novel is to mirror ordinary life, especially if it is to mirror ordinary American life for American readers, it must deal in prose. The demand is, in fact, a mere subterfuge; it sneaks forward in place of an honest demand for a romantic novel. For, after all, are not novel-readers in the final allotment divided into two camps, divided by the two fundamentally diverse conceptions of fiction: the one of a world parallel to ours, rolling along with even pace, with like gestures, mimicking the wrinkles, the matter-of-factness of our old world, repeating our own doings, our own imaginings, our own yawns; the other rounding out and filling in this defective world of daily experience, conceiving fiction as young Goethe or young Hugo conceived it, catching for this poor, wrinkled, matter-of-fact earth a ray of that brightness which shone on the first day of creation?
The world's unwithered countenance
Is bright as on Creation's day.
If this is so, can Mrs. Wharton be said to have taken sides? No doubt the school she consciously inclines to is that of the parallels; but she has diminished the effect of this inclination by her inobservances of the regulations of realism and determinism, which she has sacrificed for the sake of creating what the other camp may fairly claim is the romantic effect of Miss Bart towering above the other figures. This uncertainty furnishes another reason for believing that Mrs. Wharton has not obtained her full stature, that her powers have not yet fully and finally expressed themselves, and that The House of Mirth, with all its achievement, is most interesting as a promise of more important novels yet to come.
The mere thought of another novel sets the appetite on edge; one recalls the eagerness with which readers awaited the next Thackeray or Dickens, and with difficulty restrains impatient expressions, such as encourage passengers entering or leaving a street car; but one's judgment remembers the Flaubert-Maupassant maxim, "Le talent n'est qu'une longue réflexion," and hopes that Mrs. Wharton will let the seeds of inspiration slowly ripen, and, leaving books to bookworms, patiently study the living, so that, while fulfilling the duties of her position as Laureate, she shall also completely satisfy herself.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.