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Edith Wharton’s Secret

A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton

by Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Oxford University Press, 453 pp., $15.95

Edith Wharton’s best work belongs to the period of fifteen years which ended in 1920. Just before the turn of the century, she suffered a spell of nervous exhaustion—of asthma, nausea, and depression—in which a troubled childhood, and a distaste for her marriage to Teddy Wharton, can be perceived. Confinement within an unhappy marriage formed part of her confinement within what survived, as much did, of Old New York—her name for the world of her childhood. She has described this as the world of the hereditary rich in that city, infiltrated by the new industrial fortunes, of matrons who believed in an undefiled and ceremonious past, of dry old male celibates, propped by the fireside like wooden Indians, who remembered and related such a past, and could speak of laxities condoned in the Faubourg St. Germain. Miss Edith Jones had an engagement knocked over by jealousies among the contending rich, and she was then let down by a man who went on to become a distinguished snob, and her dearest friend, Walter Berry. Then there was the eligible Teddy Wharton. From the confinements of wealth and caste, however, and of a suitable marriage, she was to imagine and to execute certain escapes.

It was a liberation in itself that she emerged from her illness with the will to write unimpaired. In 1905, the year after James’s The Golden Bowl, one of her finest novels appeared—The House of Mirth. Two years later she began an affair with the fatal Morton Fullerton, who was promiscuous and unreliable and who seems to have awakened her sexually, and she acquired an apartment in Paris, the city where, from then on, she was to be chiefly based. Around 1909, by which time the affair had about a year to run, she is thought to have learned of a rumor which alleged that she was the offspring of an affair between her latterly starchy and punctilious mother and a young Englishman who had served as tutor to the family. In 1911, the story of the captive Ethan Frome was published by the former Edith Jones, and the following year she brought out The Reef, in which a stately woman agonizes over her love for a sexually compromised suitor, and in which, where others have hailed a resemblance to James, James hailed a resemblance to Racine.

Meanwhile Teddy’s mental and physical health was breaking down, and she was shocked to discover that he’d been borrowing her money and splashing it on chorus girls. Divorce, by which Old New York had been affronted, overtook her in 1913—the year of The Custom of the Country—and so, shortly afterward, did the Great War. This refugee from the gilded, from the shocked and shocking, life of her native country set herself to work for the war’s refugees, but she also managed to write a most eloquent book about a very different type of refuge—the novella Summer. Some months after the peace of 1918, it would seem, she composed the “unpublishable” fragment, as she called it, of a story entitled “Beatrice Palmato,” in which a father and daughter make love.

Finally, in 1920, came the highly publishable Age of Innocence, from which incest is absent, in which adultery is arrested, and in which, while continuing to find fault with its narrow-minded philistine devotion to kinship and routine, to ease and eating, terrapin and canvas-back duck, she signs an armistice with the world she inherited and had hitherto resented. “After all, there was good in the old ways.” The canvas-back duck reveals a silver lining, if not a heart of gold.

The works which saw the light in the course of these fifteen eventful years carry a critique, in the mode of the novel of manners, of the society in which she was raised. But they are not all novels of manners: in some of them, satire is suspended, and a more frankly personal, even a confessional note is sounded. There are very few of them, moreover, in which she suspends her interest in questions of confinement and escape, and this has also been held to be true of her work as a whole.

Edmund Wilson has summarized in these words:

Her tragic heroines and heroes are the victims of the group pressure of convention; they are passionate or imaginative spirits, hungry for emotional and intellectual experience, who find themselves locked into a small closed system, and either destroy themselves by beating their heads against their prison or suffer a living death in resigning themselves to it.

And Wilson adds:

her later works show a dismay and a shrinking before what seemed to her the social and moral chaos of an age which was battering down the old edifice that she herself had once depicted as a prison.

Blake Nevius has identified, as concerns prominent from 1905 onward, the mismating of a sensitive nature, and the degree of “freedom or rebellion” which is to be permitted to such captives, and in his Portrait of Edith Wharton of 1947, Percy Lubbock evokes the quality of her preoccupation with the themes of freedom and order. It is clear that her taste of freedom, and of the Great War, and of the far end of middle age, was to give her a new sense of the need for order.

In her treatment of these themes, she drew on the worldly, skeptical capacities for which she is famous, but in yielding to the compulsions associated with such themes, she also drew on resources of quite another kind—on a language and outlook to which a statement from Lubbock’s Portrait can be taken to guide us: “wherever there is romance it is the proof that you are outside yourself and leaving yourself behind.” His words have in them something of the traditional belief in double or divisible identity, and of a traditional scheme for the imaginative treatment of human destinies, and destinations. According to this scheme, the self lies in prison, and the prison is that of the family or community, or that of marriage. But you may move outside yourself and take flight—perform a journey of escape. Or you may opt for a series of little flights—hops and skips, rather than leaps. Such efforts may succeed or fail. But the writer who uses this language is likely to appoint limits, to arrange for the traveler to return home. The possession of two or more selves may enable you to be both at home and away.

The words “fly” and “flight” are important to the scheme, as are “solitude,” “impulse,” and “fancy” or “imagination.” American writers of the period as different as Wharton and Frost can concur in thinking it natural to talk of someone’s being fueled by the “impulse to flight.” The old opposites, “regular” and “irregular,” were available to the Joneses to characterize the behavior of outsiders and bohemians—such creatures as the “drunken and demoralized Baltimorean,” Poe, whose works were unmentionable, Wharton says, in the family circle. And ever since the advent of Romanticism, the irregular impulse to flight had accounted for a variety of fits and feats of human waywardness and idiosyncrasy. Another important word is the figurative sense of the verb “to steal,” a synonym for the secrecy which plays a large part in the scheme, and one about which I have already written with reference to Frost.

The memoirs of her seventies, A Backward Glance, are interesting from this point of view. Her parents’ set cared about language, and was on the watch for vernacular infection. All her life she thought that there was such a thing as “insignificant people”: her mother thought that there was such a thing as common people, and that commonness was contagious. (In this respect, she was not altogether unlike those earlier romantics who had been snobs enough to want to abstain from “common life.”) Wharton writes: “I still wince under my mother’s ironic smile when I said that some visitor had stayed ‘quite a while,’ and her dry: ‘Where did you pick that up?”’ The novelist of manners was born to a phobia about bad manners. Her first attempt to write, at eleven,

was a novel, which began: “‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tompkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawingroom.”’ Timorously I submitted this to my mother, and never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: “Drawingrooms are always tidy.”

It was an environment which she was to remember as hostile to her: her comfort lay in making up stories and writing them down, and in reading other people’s stories, under her mother’s suspicious gaze.

There was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude, or at least no one whom I had yet encountered. Words and cadences haunted it like song-birds in a magic wood, and I wanted to be able to steal away and listen when they called. When I was about fifteen or sixteen I tried to write an essay on English verse rhythms. I never got beyond the opening paragraph, but that came straight out of my secret wood. It ran: “No one who cannot feel the enchantment of ‘Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,’ without knowing even the next line, or having any idea whatever of the context of the poem, has begun to understand the beauty of English poetry.” For the moment that was enough of ecstasy; but I wanted to be always free to steal away to it.

She read hungrily in her secret wood, and she does not seem to have missed the story of Keats’s flight to join his nightingale, in another such wood.

She was to gain the sense of leading “two lives”: her storytelling life took place “in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness,” though it was a region to which her critical faculties had access. This was a geography she could be doubtful of, and The Reef worries over “the old vicious distinction between romance and reality.” But she was to write, time and again, and in what we can agree is an old way, about there being these two regions. In the first were the unforgotten rigors and proprieties of her childhood, and the whole business of practical living. A philistine world. In the second, dimly prefigured in its bohemian annex, were art, heart, and the true self. A world that was esoteric, and erotic. The boundaries and existential claims of the two rival species of reality, as it may be best to think of them, were never to be exactly settled: the aesthete Walter Berry, who used to correct her writings, was more of an inhabitant of the first region than she supposed.

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