The Mother's Recompense

by Edith Wharton. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1925. 12mo. viii+340 pp. $2.00.
IN many respects The Mother’s Recompense is Mrs. Wharton at her best. It has the distinction of style, the wit, the emotional intensity, and, under the sardonic manner that repels the sentimental reader, it has the deep preoccupation with the ethical problem, and the sense of the ideal immanent in the actual, even in the shabby and shoddy actual, so characteristic of her fine art.
The opening pages show very quickly that the stage is set for one of Mrs. Wharton’s bitter and ironic dramas. Kate Clephane, the central figure, who twenty years since eloped from her home and abandoned her baby daughter, for no better and no worse a reason than that, her husband’s pompous self-satisfaction had become unendurable to her, has been suddenly, miraculously recalled, not after her unforgiving husband’s death, but after that of his more grimly unforgiving mother, to the life that she threw away. There follows the spectacle of the culprit who, having fondly imagined that by long and bitter suffering she has expiated her fault, that all is safe and clear again, realizes that her expiation is only beginning. To Mrs. Clephane this realization comes when the somewhat caddish man whom she has loved with the full strength of her uncircumspect heart, and who has wearied of her and left her, reappears in her secure, rehabilitated life as her daughter’s suitor. Here is stuff for a tale that might be too ugly; but in Mrs. Wharton’s firm, reticent handling it is safe.
Kate Clephane belongs among the best of Mrs. Wharton’s portraits of women. Not virtuous, she has her virtues. She is capable of deserting her baby, but through twenty years of absence she carries the love of her in her heart, an ache not to be dislodged even by the rapture and the pain of her passion for her worthless lover; she is anything but a heroic figure, but once she touches heroism. She cannot respond to deep trust with a lie; she must meet chivalry with chivalry. Another excellent portrait is that of the old bachelor, Fred Landers, outwardly commonplace, almost stodgy, but among the manliest of Mrs. Wharton’s creations. Delicious comedy is furnished by Mrs. Parley Plush, an aspiring hostess who scatters giant blue-china frogs through her garden to make it look more natural; and by Mrs. Minity, who regards a drive with the latter in her victoria as the ultimate treat to be earned by deserving woman.
For all its mounting dramatic intensity, the story is told with restraint, and crisply. The account of Kate Clephane’s behavior on the day when the heavenly messenger, the telegram of recall, arrives, is the very triumph of unseatimentality. And, characteristically, Mrs. Wharton makes no promise at the end that poor Kate, chastened as she is by disillusionment and by anguish, will remain at the height to which she has sprung in her best moment of generosity and courage.