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Edith Wharton’s Secret

Seven years later, in The Age of Innocence, the virtues of the past exert a stronger claim. The living death, in Wilson’s words, which overtakes the Selden-like Newland Archer when he surrenders to these virtues is offered as a triumph. Archer is engaged to May when he falls in love with the Countess Olenska, who has grown up in Old New York and is back from a bad marriage in Europe. Ellen Olenska consents to be let down—though that is scarcely how the novel puts it—but not until several meetings have occurred in the enchanted land of secrecy.

Both in this novel and in James’s Portrait of a Lady an act of sexual forbearance or renunciation is praised. In R.W.B. Lewis’s life of Wharton,* James is reported as advising that “love was not the most necessary thing,” and sooner or later both writers found reasons for causing their fictions to deny the reasons of the heart, and for refusing to condone unconventional sexual behavior in public while accepting it privately among the fit few: Fullerton was not only the lover of the one but the close friend of the other. For both writers, illicit passion was European, rather than American; for Wharton, it could also be Eastern, Levantine, Jewish. The Countess is European in her appeal to, and knowledge of, the heart and senses. But she is American enough, puritan enough, to tell Archer midway through the book, in words by which James might have been moved, and in which we can make out the image of the journey which takes you back to where you started from: “I can’t love you unless I give you up.”

Not long afterward, though, we are told that

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and visions.

This is not the only passage in Wharton’s work where reference to a “real life” might remind one of the language used by Chekhov, in the last year of the nineteenth century and in the last pages of his story “The Lady with the Dog,” to write about the double life, and in praise of the reality which may be attained through the lies and theft of an adulterous liaison. The husband and mistress in the story are “like thieves,” and the husband is of the opinion that “every man’s real and most interesting life went on in secret, under cover of night.”

The Age of Innocence is now poised in hesitation between the public place and the private. Archer has again met the conversable young French tutor who is thought by his wife to be “dreadfully common,” and who is thought by some critics to be a private allusion to Edith’s presumptive father, or to the rumor on the subject. Then he has set out on a journey with Ellen Olenska, an embarkation from Boston to Cythera, where they are able to communicate “in the blessed silence of their release and their isolation.” The paddle wheels turn, and “the old familiar world of habit” recedes, just as her American subject matter, dedicated to the same old familiar world, had been receding from the author in her French retreat. The lovers “were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.” Literature’s journeys into unknown worlds are apt to prove fatal, and when he meets her at yet another ferry, we may think of Charon, and Samarra, as well as Cythera. But Wharton’s ferries are more amorous than ominous. Adults fifty cents.

He does not feel the need to touch her: “A stolen kiss isn’t what I want.” But then they decide on a last flight or fling. “He saw a faint color steal into her cheeks.” Stealing is impulse, and the action of the blood—red, not blue—in her fiction, which is careful to grant, all the same, that stealing may be a snare and a game of snakes and ladders: “there stole over him the delicious sense of difficulties deferred and opportunities miraculously provided.”

In the end, he resolves to make the best of his marriage to May: Archer’s fate has lain in the hands of his two women throughout, and the wife’s merits, claims, and strength of will are respectfully conveyed, as indeed they had to be if he was not to seem embarrassingly weak. Even after May’s death he refuses to take up with Ellen—a refusal which may bring vivid memories of The Portrait of a Lady, whose Archer also becomes free to marry again. Cynthia Wolff’s book on Wharton notes allusions to James’s novel in The Age of Innocence, and observes that the final scene in which Archer stands in the dusk staring up at Ellen’s Paris window is like a scene from his own past once recounted by James: he, too, had stared up at “the unapproachable face,” which may possibly have been no more unapproachable than Ellen’s now is. Archer has missed “the flower of life,” Wharton writes. But he had been

what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died—carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child—he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

This instills, or ensteals, an increased respect for the practice of divorce.

So the ferry docks after its return journey, and Archer’s flights cease. One of the flights embarked on in her fiction belongs to her Gothic or ghostly vein, and is fastened to the idea of doubles. Around 1910, she wrote a couple of terror stories. In “The Eyes,” a figure resembling Walter Berry sees his double as two sneering disembodied eyes (there’s a similarity to the nasty American businessman who plays the double in James’s tale, “The Jolly Corner,” of a few months before), and he can only escape their gaze by letting someone down. In “The Triumph of Night,” the narrator, George Faxon, is a waif of a man—“a stranger everywhere,” with no “personal life” to warm him—who makes friends with another waif in the person of Frank Rainer, who has an uncle, Lavington. The temperaments of the youths might suggest a measure of duplication, but it is Lavington who has the double—a specter generated by his covert designs on the nephew’s cash. Faxon yields to an “impulse to fly,” and the flight, shared with Rainer, is a flight unto death. Of the two, only the narrator survives: to recover from his ordeal, which may have relieved him of his weaker self, he flies to the East—to Conrad country, for which, at about the same time, that writer was devising doubles of his own. These fifteen years were a high point in the history of duality and escape.

The year after this, Ethan Frome was published, in which, like other writers of the period, Wharton sees country life as worth escaping from. A mismated farmer, in a bleak and wintry New England, falls for his servant girl, Mattie. The heat of his tone “made her color mount,” we read, “like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.” Mattie is expelled by the ailing wife, and “an erratic impulse” prompts Ethan to take the girl on a last toboggan ride. And then another. It is a journey toward love, or toward death: “it seemed to him that they were flying indeed, flying far up into the cloudy night, with Starkfield immeasurably below them, falling away like a speck in space….” Wharton talked of the delirium of finishing a novel as being like tobogganing, and there can’t be any doubt that a good deal of Edith Jones was imparted to Ethan Frome. The tale is told by a Selden-like solitary, who witnesses the living death which has ensued, à trois, for Ethan and his women, and it was written in the aftermath of the affair with Fullerton. Maybe it can be read as saying that suicide is the only escape, and that love can lead to fates that are worse. But then Ethan could always have got on a train to Florida.

If adultery is throned among the secrets of Wharton’s sanctuary, we might ask what she does with illegitimacy. There are texts by her which treat the subject attentively, and that of mistaken parent-hood. They do not confirm the rumor of her own illegitimacy, which her two recent biographers do not accept. But it is by no means wholly implausible. The voice we hear when she is spoken of, on one of her motor-flights through England, as calling attention to the birthplace of her real father, and then remarking of the rumor, “I am not sure, and I don’t care,” sounds like the voice of Edith Wharton. As far as the literary evidence is concerned, however, she would probably have been intrigued by the subject of illegitimacy, and by the conception of herself as illegitimate, even if she flatly disbelieved the rumor—given the tendencies in her work which I’ve been examining. An interest in the idea of the changeling, the bastard, and the orphan had long reflected the wishes and frustrations of romantic writers.

This does not complete her repertoire of secrets, and it is completed in a manner no less in keeping with the precedents of romantic literature, whose ultimate and darkest secret is that of incest. The main texts here are Summer and the “Palmato” fragment.

She knew—and Conrad, her partner in duality, also knew—what she had achieved with Summer. Comparing “Hot Ethan,” as she nicknamed the tale, with her other work, she wrote at the close of her life: “I do not remember ever visualizing with more intensity the inner scene, or the creatures peopling it.” Charity Royall lives in, and livingly resents, a remote New England village, a sour and spiteful place, and she is primed with the “impulse of flight.” She works in a library, which has on its shelves the mid-nineteenth-century American orphan book, The Lamplighter (still being borrowed, in the 1970s, in Britain). She is an orphan herself, having been fetched down in infancy from the community of outlaws on “the Mountain” by Lawyer Royall. She gives herself to a Selden and conceives a child by him, but he lets her down and she lights out for the Mountain. The lawyer, though he has cursed her as a whore in drunken anger, comes to reclaim her from the outlaws, where she has been present at her mother’s death. To the applause of literary critics, he then marries her, in her spent and desperate state. Not only is Royall in loco parentis. As I read the story, he could well have been her real father: his reasons for adopting her, and his role at the time, are somewhat obscure.

It is a strange union. And so is the one celebrated in the “Beatrice Palmato” fragment. This is an erotic reverie, a self-exciting pillow piece, but very successfully transmitted, and very shrewdly judged, in which a suave, rich Levantine father makes sophisticated love with a willing daughter, who is due to be swallowed up in the doom of the Palmatos. Like James, Wharton could sometimes give expression to anti-Semitic feelings in her books, and her imagination can sometimes appear to be assigning the sexuality forbidden in her youth to a cast or caste—Old New York’s untouchables—of stealthy and desirable aliens and upstarts. Into this fragment she drops the most thrilling of her “steals,” which might almost serve to authenticate it as hers: “As his hand stole higher she felt the secret bud of her body swelling, yearning, quivering hotly to burst into bloom.”

Cynthia Wolff suggests that the cold and hunger of an emotionally deprived childhood are remembered in the heat, and in the oral avidities, of the passage, and it could also be thought to attest to the early bond with her father which is dwelt on in A Backward Glance, and which could conceivably have been strengthened and revived by the discovery that he was not her real father. In her memoirs, Mr. Jones is a romantic figure, who “stole” to his Rhinelander fiancée in a makeshift sailboat. An early dependency of this kind, on Edith’s part, might have helped to shape her emotional needs. Precisely how is indeterminable, since so much remains hidden. But those who, whether attached or estranged, are let down in childhood are not easily consoled in later life, and may go on being let down. And it may be that the disappointing bachelors of her satires and the attractive older men of her reveries are images or impacts of the same man. It is interesting that Berry was a combination of both species of male, while, in spirit, the Yankee Fullerton was straight out of the Whartonian Levant.

The passage also attests to the power which romantic preconception retained for the suffering woman who became one of America’s leading novelists of manners, and one of its leading potentates. Romantic fantasy commemorates a desire for the mother, a break with the father, and an equivocal departure from home, and it has been fascinated by incest. The brute force of short-term literary precedent is something else again. It is possible that the oedipal strain in The Golden Bowl, where one illicit passion is defeated by another, was, for Wharton, an incitement of this order, though she did not like the novel very much, and it is hard to picture the stolen kisses of Adam and Maggie Verver. There are signs that she did not like the contemporary researches of Freud very much either, but these, too, may have been an influence, and may have been experienced as romantic. It is likely, however, that the theme would have gripped her anyway, irrespective of what the culture was saying at the time.

It may be that Summer and the “Palmato” piece enable us to think that her secret journey took her back where she started, and took her back to her father. It is no harder to think this than it is to think, as some have done, that all her roads led to Rome, to the Ave Crux Spes Unica inscribed on her gravestone.

The “Palmato” piece was turned up by Cynthia Wolff in the Beinecke Library at Yale, and it was printed two years ago in R.W.B. Lewis’s biography. Now Mrs. Wolff has brought out a book of her own on Wharton, A Feast of Words. Each book is Eriksonian in outlook, according to its author, and the new one is a fully developed psycho-critical account, which shows how Wharton dealt with the anxieties of her childhood by means of a commitment to literary excellence, and how, as a late arriver in the sexual field, she was able to find satisfaction there. The book portrays a progress to maturity, finally achieved around 1920; it traces an Eriksonian curve, as opposed to the cycles I have been noticing.

Both biographers regard the illness of the 1890s as an identity crisis: Mrs. Wolff detects the renewal, at this time, of psychosomatic responses to Edith Wharton’s first afflictions—starving, choking, freezing—and investigates her subsequent attempts to come to terms with a regressive early self. Most of her life, until age slows her down and summons backward glances of one kind or another, is made to seem like a single crisis. Mrs. Wolff thinks harder about the fiction than Lewis does, lucid and industrious as he is. Psychology contributes to the establishment of a challenging literary critical case, though the psychoanalytic arguments are not always free from tendentious guesswork.

A Feast of Words is a book in which feelings—the author’s—run high. She is “astounded” that a work by Wharton with a subject such as “the decoration of houses” should have been popular. Teddy is a “buffoon.” When Edith’s mother copies out her daughter’s writings, this is used as further evidence of ill-treatment. Wharton is seen as a female victim, whose books affirm the injustice done to women by her society. The Custom of the Country is “infused” with “the long-suppressed fury of the girl whose deepest instincts had been engulfed by guilt. The object of that fury is a society whose norms are not equal to the range of experience that its members feel.” I’m not sure that the last statement is mathematically sound, and if Wharton was a victim, she was also, like some other victims, a master, who knew how to make other people smart and jump. There is not much about this side of her in A Feast of Words.

In The House of Mirth, she “chose to kill” Lily Bart. “That choice implies a judgment upon the elements of femininity that Lily embodies: they are not viable, not worth preserving.” I can’t feel myself that Lily was not worth preserving. The argument is that the novelist was acting here in relation to the cowering Lily of an early self. Undine Spragg is commended for her energy: in a better world, she might have been a big businesswoman. Sexuality is equated with initiative, and with power. But Undine is sexually cold, and accomplishes nothing but the destruction of what would have been worth preserving: not many readers can have wondered about her redemption in a just society. Mrs. Wolff says that Ethan Frome is about a “living death,” but the living death that matters to her is that of the slightly characterized Selden-like narrator, rather than that of Ethan and his womenfolk. She sees the tale as exposing what it is to think that suicide is the only escape, as repudiating the impulse to flight, as a conquering of regression.

Summer is a “hymn to generativity and marriage,” and Mrs. Wolff is struck by a word play in a public speech by Lawyer Royall, in which he urges that those who come back to his village of North Dormer, steadfastly presented in the tale as sleepy and unwelcoming, should come, in an intensive sense, “for good.” Mrs. Wolff writes: “Summer suggests that Wharton, too, was preparing to come back ‘for good.’ ” She takes her to be urging “Order is necessary,” though with a less confident view than she had once held of its necessary element of repression. Charity Royall’s return to North Dormer “is no surrender and no regression, but the act of a mature adult.” Little or no attention is paid to the fact that Charity’s acquaintance with generativity consists of being pregnant by the man she loves and has been left by, and of having to marry somebody else. We seem to be meant to think that the sexual ardors of youth must soon be left behind—as unviable? Is “maturity” marrying a man by whose advances you have been repelled? Is it marrying your father?

Wharton’s progress is reckoned by Wolff to terminate in The Age of Innocence. It is “a novel of maturity,” and “it signals Wharton’s truce with the specters of childhood.” But the novelist spoke of it as a work in which she “found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a longforgotten America.” It appears to me that neither this novel nor Summer constitutes a truce or a peace of the kind that is argued for, and that the conflicts endured in the distant past had not lost their capacity to disturb and distort. In Summer, two types of refuge—the love affair, the outlaws—are succeeded and effaced by a problematical third: I don’t know why the work should not be called regressive, and I don’t know why we should not inquire whether it tells the story of the writer’s real or imaginary changeling state. As for the “Palmato” dream, can that also be interpreted as maturity? Not that one would wish it to be interpreted as immature, by writers unable to tolerate regression.

Lubbock’s Portrait of Edith Wharton is no hymn to maturity, and one can recognize what he is getting at when, in his roundabout way, he refers to her adult life as exhibiting the persistence of a “wound” or “want.” Lewis and Wolff do not think well of Lubbock’s book. Lewis calls it inaccurate, without explaining the inaccuracies, while Wolff stresses a hostility toward its subject. But Lubbock acknowledges, and allows the reader to understand, his failures of sympathy: she was, on occasion, too public and brisk and orderly and fussy for this least happy, as he may seem, of the Happy Few. He had the advantage of knowing her, and of being a skillful writer, who evokes a living woman. If he criticizes her too much, Lewis rarely criticizes her at all. She was “not snobbish in the familiar American way,” Lewis points out. “When Berry saw a duchess, de Noailles has remarked, he saw two hundred years of duchesses. Edith did the same.” This is duality with a vengeance.

Lubbock’s is a mannered prose, in which his master’s voice is heard at every turn, and one may object to the images drawn, in Jamesian style, from the treasure house of Edwardian loot. Edith is a “faisan d’or,” “a very Golden Bowl of a pheasant”—finely flawed, we gather. But against his “gracilitys” and “ingeminates” we can set Cynthia Wolff’s “generativitys.” This, too, is jargon of a kind.

  1. *

    Edith Wharton: A Biography (Harper and Row, 1975).

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