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A Lost World

New York Mosaic: Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, Many Mansions

three novels by Isabel Bolton, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach
Steerforth Press, 401 pp., $35.00

By 1946 I had spent three years in the army where the name of the daily New York Times book reviewer, Orville Prescott, struck not a bell, while, to the few who were literary-minded, Edmund Wilson meant everything. Wilson was The American Critic whose praise—or even attention—in The New Yorker meant earthly glory for a writer. When my first novel was published, I realized that he no longer bothered much with current novels or new writers. Although politely loyal to commercialite friends like Charles Jackson and Edwin O’Connor, he was now working up large subjects—most lately the suppurating wound of Philoctetes, the necessary archer. Also, he was known to have a not-so-secret passion for beautiful young women who wrote beautiful young prose that he might nurture with his generous praise and gentle advice (“‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c,’ dearest.”) and, indeed, if he could hack it, actual presence in their lives should the dice so fall. Even so, one still hoped. In my case, in vain—snake eyes.

It was the prissy Orville Prescott who praised me while Mr. Wilson astonished everyone that season with a Pythian ode to a beautiful young woman called Isabel Bolton, whose first book, Do I Wake or Sleep, he hailed as “school of Henry James… the device of the sensitive observer who stands at the center of the action and through the filter of whose consciousness alone the happenings of the story reach us…a voice that combines, in a peculiar way, the lyric with the dry; and is exquisitely perfect in accent; every syllable falls as it should….” A star was born.

A comic legend was also born. Wilson, ravished by the beauty of Bolton’s prose, hoped that its creator was equally beautiful and so…. Well, Wilson was very much school of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, he was not exactly misogynistic but he felt that the challenge of another male mind was the highest sort of human exchange while possession of a beautiful woman was also of intense importance to him. Could the two ever be combined—the ultimate soulmate? Montaigne thought that if women endured the same education and general experience as men they would probably be no different and so intellectual equality might be achieved. But he gave no examples. By Wilson’s time, many women had been similarly educated and luminous feminine minds—chock-a-block with pensées—were very much out there. But what about…well, to be blunt, Beauty? Could Mind as well as Beauty be found in one person?

Wilson’s lifelong quest led him into some strange culs-de-sac. The strangest of all must have been when he discovered that Isabel Bolton—name deliberately reminiscent of Isabel Archer?—was, in reality, a majestic granddame of sixty-three, born Mary Britton Miller in 1883 at New London, Connecticut.

Only five minutes, so legend goes, after my sister. This participation in identical twinship is the most valuable experience of my life…. Both of my parents died of pneumonia and within an hour of each other in the fourth year of my life…. In my fourteenth year my twin sister was drowned. After this there seems to be a kind of blotting out of life—everything became dim, unreal, artificial.

Perfunctory attendance at a boarding school. A well-off family made travels in Europe possible. “Three years in Italy were of profound importance. In 1911 New York became my permanent home.”

As Miller, she published a half-dozen unmemorable works. Then, in 1946, she recreated herself under another name; and entered her kingdom. Wilson’s was the first fanfare for a woman who was to write a half-dozen more novels of which two are as distinguished as her “first” (the three are now collected in New York Mosaic). Bolton died in 1979 at ninety-two, productive almost to the end. As practically nothing is now known of her, editor Doris Grumbach does her best with the odd facts: Bolton came from a “good” family; had two close lady friends; lived in pre-1914 Europe and then Manhattan. Attended the Writers’ Colony at Yaddo. Died in Greenwich Village at 81 Barrow Street, not far from where Wilson’s jolliest muse, Dawn Powell, lived. The rest is, so far, silence, secret—Sapphic?

So little is known of Bolton that one does not know if she and Wilson ever met. But I am fairly certain he saw to it that they did. A meeting only the prose of Henry James could have risen to, unlike the equally great Edith Wharton, who might have fallen upon it with terrible rending eagle’s swoop:

There had been—one wondered not so idly why—no photograph or other rendering of likeness or, even, dis-likeness, on the homely paper “jacket” that embraced the ever, to Wilson, with each passing day, more precious volume, the distilled essence of all feminine beauty and sensibility, quite overpowering in its effect upon his perhaps too febrile adhesive system for which the names so boldly yet, by some magical art, demurely printed on this very same “jacket” convey to him the physical beauty of the divine girl who had “cut to roundness and smoothed to convexity a little crystal of literary form that concentrates the light like a burning glass”—his very own words in his devoir for The New Yorker, written with so much pounding of the heart as, to put it in a plain and vulgar fashion, a cry from that never not susceptible heart—in short, a love letter to the unknown girl—surely, a girl of genius rather than a woman like his handsome, brilliant, but—well, incendiary (literally) wife, Mary McCarthy, who had recently, when he had withdrawn to his study and locked the door, slipped under that same door a single sheet of paper deliberately set aflame in order to smoke him, as it were, from his lair, all the while shouting in a powerful voice, not so much golden as a reverberating cymbal of purest brass, “Fuck you.” The plangent voice resounded even now, unpleasantly, in his mind, as he rang the doorbell to a Greenwich Village residence set in a quarter not too—nor less than—fashionable.

The door opened. “Mr. Wilson.” The voice was neither golden nor bronze but of another quality and substance entirely—honey from Hymettus, collected from blue and white Attic flowers—perhaps those very same asphodels which adorn the hill at Marathon that looks upon the sea, wine-dark sea like the eyes of Isabel Bolton into which he now so intensely gazed that he let fall the cluster of white violets he was holding and they scattered, as offering, at her shapely feet encased in crimson velvet with the sort of high instep that caused his heart to beat even more wildly than before. “Do forgive me,” he said, collecting the fallen blossoms as the divine girl, all willowy with golden hair—no sign of chemical artifice in those massed curls—and the small exquisite poitrine like—what was it? gazelles? He must really get around to learning Hebrew one day.

Wilson’s praise of the perfect book came in bursts of sound between articulated wheezes of emotion as he drank the perfectly made martini—plainly, there was to be no end to her genius—and his heart, that metaphor as well as vulnerable organ, rattled in his bosom like the unfortunate occupant in the fabled ferrous mask. Here, at last, she was. So entirely there, so real—man-brain in girl-shape. She was tantalizingly silent. So must Moira—Fate for the ancient Greeks—have appeared upon first encounter with a mere mortal.

An inner door of the tastefully decorated—all Englishy and yet impeccable—chamber opened, revealing a tall woman, old but majestic, with the creased brow of Juno beneath white hair parted in the middle. As the ancient Norn strode into the room, Wilson rose from his chair, saying to the perfect girl, “This then is your mother?” The powerful old lady smiled and held out her hand.

No, Mr. Wilson. I am the Isabel Bolton you have lately written so amiably of in the popular press. This…” she indicated the girl of what had been his best dream, ever, “is my ward, Cherry.” With that, Bolton shook Wilson’s hand while her other arm enfolded lovingly, possessively, the narrow waist of the perfect girl.

As Wilson made his all too slow, it seemed to him, descent to the—yes, entirely clear at last, figure in the Persian carpet, he heard, from far-off, Bolton’s voice—could it have been one of brass like Mary’s? “I fear that Mr. Wilson has fainted. But then he is very stout. It is not uncommon at our age. Bring smelling salts.” The last thing he saw were the heavy leather boots of the old lady, with their—what else? fallen insteps.

Needless to say, I have invented Cherry, yet there is often a Sapphic glow to Bolton’s exchanges between women. In Do I Wake or Sleep the relationship between the exquisite Bridget (for whom Wilson fell as Bolton’s surrogate) and the rough-hewn Millicent is loverlike in the teasing French manner rather than today’s klutzy American style where each would have had to wear an auctorial label and, if sympathetic, behave correctly according to rules laid down by the heirs and heiresses of Cotton Mather. Happily, for Bolton, the amatory simply is; and, in general, gaiety (old meaning) rules and no one is assigned a label much less sold off in midseason to a team. In this, she is as alien to us as Ovid, and I suspect only a very few rare spirits ever took to her even when the books first came out in post-Hitler days, a time of stern Julius Caesar rather than her own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To read Bolton’s three novels in sequence is to relive the three major moments of the American half century as observed by an unusual writer located aboard what Dawn Powell called “the happy island,” Manhattan. The first novel takes place in 1939. War is wending its way toward the United States and the protagonist, the enchanting Bridget St. Dennis, is lunching blithely in the French Pavilion at Flushing Meadow’s World’s Fair. Although the chef, Henri Soulé, would later open what was regarded for many years as New York’s best restaurant, it is a part of Bolton’s magic that not only do you get quite a few good meals in her books but you get subtle distinctions as well. She shared everyone’s delight in Le Pavillon’s transfer from Flushing to Manhattan. But Bolton herself opts for the magical Chambord in Third Avenue where, as the cartoon used to say, the elite meet to eat or, as someone said to an ancient bon viveur who was recently extolling the long-vanished Chambord, “You are living in the past,” to which the old man replied, “Where else can you get a decent meal?”

Bolton belongs to the James-Wharton school of trans-Atlantic fiction or, perhaps, a new category should be invented—of mid-Atlantic literature that flourished, to put arbitrary dates like bookends to its history, from Hawthorne’s Our Old Home (1863) to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, published in 1943. It was a long and lively run and brought out the best in two literatures never destined to be one but each able to complement the other while even those professionally committed to the American side, like Twain and Howells, touched base regularly with their common old home. For a writer born in 1883, with sufficient family money but no Jamesian fortune, Europe would be as much a part of her life as Brookline, Massachusetts, where the last of Bolton’s protagonists hails from: a world of numerous servants, of courses at dinner, of changes of clothes, presumably to give the servants more than enough to do in the pre-1914 world when Bolton was already a grown woman. As it turned out, pre-1914 continued well into the modern age of cocktails and movie stars—one of Edith Wharton’s least-known novels, Twilight Sleep, deals with a Hollywood movie star in a way that must make the Collins sisters, the Bel-Air Brontës, quite nervous at how well the stately Mrs. Wharton depicts the life of one who lives on the screen everywhere on earth but nowhere at all in the flesh at home. Then, with Depression and Second War, the old world expired. Good riddance, the modern thought. Bolton is of two minds. She is conscious of the douceur de la vie of the old time; also of the narrow callow brazen world that that time was rendering all gold, or trying to.

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