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Edith Wharton’s Secret

This geography stands in demonstrable relation to the successive faces which she could present to those who knew her, to the way in which the frightened Victorian waif, the Miss Dombey, who looks out from the lap of luxury in a photograph at the age of five, was never really extinguished by the grand, smart, sharp, restless madame and martinet that she soon became—very intelligent and very competent, charitable to waifs but unkind to waiters, drawing herself up, putting down her pretty foot, and placing it to advantage in company, in its perfect shoe.

The victim, and her frightening successor, obverse or alternate, both speak in Edith Wharton. If it was the orphan of the storm who used the romantic vocabulary of flight, then it is not hard to feel that the author of the satirical shafts and invectives had retained some of the old armed exclusiveness of her Manhattan faubourg. The name given to Charity Royall, Summer‘s gruff waif, who is among the most intimately alive of her leading characters, is an inspiration which catches the spirit of these contradictions. Lubbock tries to catch them too, and resorts to what might now be seen as an old vicious distinction: “she had a very feminine consciousness and a very masculine mind.” He concocts a “mixture of the whimsical and the practical, the ribald and the romantic, in the mind of a boy.” Edith herself used to enjoy the joke that she was a “self-made man.”

It can be said that she escaped and did not escape from Old New York, but she was certainly bent on getting away. Lubbock mentions her “flights,” and that new luxury, the motorcar, was to serve what The Reef calls “the secret excursions of her spirit.” One of her travel books is called A Motor-Flight through France. There they sit, the civilized “Happy Few,” as they and their friends chose to see themselves, in their open tourer. In the front, Teddy, with the chauffeur and an armful of Pekinese. In the back, a grave Henry James, beside Edith, whose face, swathed against the dust, makes them look like a pair of majestic bank robbers—the Bonnie and Clyde of an earlier age and ampler income. Setting out from favorite places, like James’s Lamb House at Rye, or Queen’s Acre at Windsor, these tourists threaded the green lanes and white highways of half Europe, chasing the noble prospect that led them from America. James, she once wrote, had “fled” to the country to live with his “loot,” and James once complained that, in denying him time to pack for an escape from the American scene, she had not scrupled “to project me in a naked flight across the Atlantic”: for both of these formidable people, flight had meaning.

In due course, she flew both the Atlantic and the coop: and Teddy was projected from the motorcar. She committed the adultery, and obtained the divorce, which Old New York had held in horror. The flight from America was powered, in part, by a breach with dynastic standards, and, in one sense, it was never to be revoked or returned from, for all that it landed her in a foreign country and left her, aging anyway, with the problem of a receding subject matter. In another sense, though, the flight, in common with other leaps that she made, ended where it began: such circularity is apparent in her coming to think that there was good, after all, in the old ways.

There is an ancient story of the inescapable, concerning the appointment at Samarra, and she tells it in her memoirs, where Samarra is replaced by Baghdad. This “strangely beautiful” story came to her from the blissful Cocteau. A youth informs his sultan that he must “fly at once to Baghdad,” because Death has threatened him. But Death explains: “I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have a tryst with him tonight in Baghdad.”

There is another story in her memoirs which might seem to echo this. She and James have driven from Rye, “gypsying” through the Southern counties: the word was used by Granville-Barker in 1907, in his play Waste, for excursions which may well get you nowhere. The two of them are lost, and James has stunned an elderly man with the virtuosity and elaboration of his request for directions:

Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.

The hopeful travelers have already arrived, at Windsor. But they are also back where they started from, to the extent that Lamb House and Queen’s Acre are the same appointed haven—the same safe house of mirth and literature, from which one might want to take trips.

The secret place disclosed in her fiction and recollections contained literature, and it contained love. To reach that place, some flight or leap had to be undertaken, and, where the love was extramarital, any such undertaking was rendered all the more meaningful, and all the more difficult, by the mandates and obsessive fears which existed in her first environment. She recalled in her seventies that as a child she had been warned against adultery every week in church, and had believed that “those who ‘committed’ it were penalized by having to pay higher fares in traveling: a conclusion arrived at by my once seeing on a ferry-boat the sign: ‘Adults fifty cents; children twenty-five cents’!” But family censorship did not keep her from the Song of Solomon, Phèdre, and The Duchess of Malfi, and when she wrote books they were such as to incur a rebuke from Charles Eliot Norton—a translator, as she points out, of Dante: “No great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion.”

She heard that her own kin had suffered a Paolo and Francesca:

The vision of poor featureless unknown Alfred and his siren, lurking in some cranny of my imagination, hinted at regions perilous, dark and yet lit with mysterious fires, just outside the world of copybook axioms, and the old obediences that were in my blood; and the hint was useful—for a novelist.

The solitude of that secret spot could be a solitude à deux, and when the “no one whom I had yet encountered” was finally encountered in such a place, it was to have none—as her diaries record—of the infernal flames imagined in childhood.

Adultery was theft, the theft of someone else’s spouse, just as certain other transgressions could be regarded as thefts from the community or the family. One of Edith Wharton’s best-loved poems was Browning’s “Any Wife to Any Husband,” in which a wife frets that, after her death, her husband may philander with other women, who may appeal to him as images of herself. She says of these posthumous infidelities:

So must I see, from where I sit and watch,
My own self sell myself, my hand attach Its warrant to the very thefts from me.

In The Custom of the Country, a worldly bystander expresses a central concern of the novel, one which matches what James took to be a central concern of The Bostonians: the failure, in America, of “the sentiment of sex,” of what could be taken to be the old chivalrous, passionate and predatory relation between men and women. The passage runs:

Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional center of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a “big steal”—there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.

The custom of the country has reversed “all the romantic values.” The big steal is the business coup, with women idle or ornamental in the domestic coop. The old, the European steal is adultery.

And yet there are Americans, too, who commit adultery, and ponder it. Throughout her career, Edith was to use the word “steal” constantly, to refer to an often sexual disobedience. This was a woman for whom travel was sexual, and who stole from America.

Love and money are painfully entangled, at the start of this period of years, in The House of Mirth, where the smart set of her youth is likened to the hellish house of mirth in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Lily Bart touches somebody’s rich pig of a husband for a loan, he tries to touch her, and she perishes for want of a healing touch. This might have come from Lawrence Selden, whom she visits, yielding to a “passing impulse” and having to pay for this “least escape from routine” by being spied on and courted by the Jewish upstart, Rosedale. Selden lets her down, and he is one of a line of letters-down in Wharton’s fiction—weak, amiable, cultivated bachelors with a bit of money. There are times in the novel when a rich and snobbish woman seems to be striking at the rich and snobbish, and when a clever woman seems to be putting down, and to sleep, a vain and pretty girl. But the girl comes to life on her way to destruction, a more than touching life, in which the novelist shares. The novel is equal to the theme of Selden’s irresponsibility, though there are lapses, and we are invited to sorrow over his loss and relish the “moment of love” which he saves from the ruins.

In The Custom of the Country, New York’s blue blood displays virtues, but its faults, those of a hidebound, exhausted mildness, are felt to excuse the selfish behavior of the divorcing Undine Spragg, to whom Wharton awarded more than her own red hair, and with whose rebellious vigor there is some sisterly complicity. Nevertheless, the vigor of the book, and its retaliatory spite, are mainly directed against the unprincipled upstart. Undine “steals” off for solitude at one point, but is otherwise the reverse of romantic. The romantic language of the novel is generally bestowed on the dreams of her unfortunate well-bred husband, the Selden-like Ralph Marvell, whose “inner world” is compared to the seaside cave he visited as a boy: “a secret inaccessible place with glaucous lights, mysterious murmurs, and a single shaft of communication with the sky.” His inner world “wove a secret curtain about him, and he came and went in it with the same joy of furtive possession” as he’d visited the cave. But the novel is sufficiently unromantic to want Ralph to be betrayed by his dreams, and drift, like Lily Bart, toward suicide.

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