The Rescue of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton: A Biography

by R.W.B. Lewis
Harper & Row, 592 pp., $15.00

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton; drawing by David Levine

Cunnilingus between father and daughter is an uncommon theme to engage the pen of a septuagenarian lady of fashion, even when she also happens to be a literary genius. If Edith Wharton detailed and preserved a vivid fantasy of incestuous passion around the time she was writing her autobiography, one may be excused for asking how it fits into the pattern of her family history.

Several of Wharton’s most brilliant works have hints of incest among their motifs. In the superb short novel Summer, for example, a middle-aged lawyer marries a girl whom he had adopted as an infant and who bears his name. There is evidence that Wharton, in her mid-forties, heard and ridiculed a rumor that she was herself illegitimate. She had grown up as a literary swan in a flock of Philistine ducks, and the rumor may have arisen from that glaring fact. But such a story would also have made it easier for her to handle some unconscious attitudes toward her father and one brother. One attraction of being thought a bastard is that the condition liberates one for sexual relations within the family.

Wharton had to face the situation directly at the age when sexual pressures rise as menopause approaches; for the single openly passionate relationship of her life was established in her forty-seventh year with a man already engaged to a girl who had been brought up as his own sister. This androgynous Casanova from Waltham, Mass., was named Morton Fullerton. Short, slight, and boyishly intellectual, he drifted high-mindedly into affairs with both sexes, and his fantasies about women were filial.

Edith Wharton succumbed to Fullerton because he allowed her to shift roles gracefully, from spiritual comrade to lustful mistress. Her uncertain sexual character was not challenged by him. She could be dependent and obliging in the bedroom, bossy in the drawing room, collegiate in the study. She could put him off when he made advances or carry him away on pastoral-erotic weekends, like a mature Artemis yielding to a mustachioed Hippolytus.

It is not surprising that in her subtlest novel, The Reef, Wharton recalled not only her affair with Fullerton but also the patterns of Racine’s Phèdre, with Psyche and Oedipus thrown in. The heroine, Anna, is the widow of Fraser Leath (cf. death and Lethe), with a stepson, Owen, by her late husband’s first marriage. She lives with Lucretia de Chantelle, her mother-in-law, whose barren second marriage had been with a French aristocrat, now dead. The ancestral seat of that marquis is the setting of the story, though all the characters are American.

Anna also has a little girl of her own, the one bright episode in a loveless match with an epicene spouse. Now she wishes to make the most of the vitality that remains to her, and marry George Darrow, a bachelor diplomat. But the two are hardly engaged when Anna…

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