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.
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.
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.
February 23, 1978