The Library of America’s collection is a splendid and satisfying publication, and a landmark in the history of Edith Wharton’s ever-shifting reputation; but it is not the whole story. In Maureen Howard’s two-volume edition there are sixty-seven stories, which span forty-six years (1891 to 1937). These include three of Wharton’s less well known novellas (“The Touchstone,” “Sanctuary,” and “The Marne”), originally published as individual titles, and some, but not all, of the mostly early stories which she didn’t choose to republish in her lifetime after their magazine appearance. Twenty-two stories are omitted.
The collection reminds us, both in its lavish display of little-known work and in what it chooses to leave out, of what a small proportion of this great and popular writer’s work gets read. And this is even though she now attracts as much attention as she did when The House of Mirth was a big best seller in 1905, eagerly sought after by readers who wanted the lid lifted on New York society, or when The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921—awarded, much to her dismay, to the book which “best presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”
The long desert stretches of neglect which followed, from the late 1930s into the 1970s, when Wharton was downgraded as a reactionary, an antimodernist, a rich old-school genteel snob, and a minor female version of Henry James, have passed—though you will still find critics of Wharton who can’t get beyond the class barriers. Now biographies and movies, TV adaptations and attractive paperback reprints, a secure place on reading lists and a fascination with all the details of her well-guarded private life have brought her back into the mainstream. It’s ironic that her affectionate, combative relationship with James underlay such a seesaw in their reputations. While they knew each other, she was a best seller and he was in the doldrums. In the mid-twentieth century, he was the revered, hugely written-about and much-edited master of American fiction and she was a belittled sideshow and imitator. And now he is mainly known, except among specialists, devotees, or academics, for the films of his novels, and she no longer has to be judged by his standards.
Even so, Wharton is still only popular for a very few of her forty-three books. (Forty-six, if you count manuscripts unpublished in her lifetime and her wartime anthology for charity, The Book of the Homeless.) Everyone with an interest in her reads The House of Mirth, The Reef, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. But her somewhat baffling and formal autobiography, her choosy essays on fiction, her impassioned books on France, the pioneering work on domestic interiors, on Italian architecture, landscaping, and culture, and on traveling in Morocco reach a much smaller, special-interest readership. The House of Mirth has stolen the limelight from the other novels of her forties, the grandly ambitious, heavily researched eighteenth-century Italian historical novel The Valley of Decision and The Fruit of the Tree, which deals with social issues such as conditions for millworkers, euthanasia, and women’s education, and is extremely impressive in patches, in a George Eliot manner. And the post-1920 novels, such big sellers in their time, are relatively neglected now. Who reads that heartbreaking, troubling precursor to Lolita, The Children, or the evocative, ruthless, long stories of Old New York (I wish they were reprinted here), or the angry, emotional satire of Americans in wartime Paris, A Son at the Front?
As for the stories, the same outstanding examples have been anthologized over and over again: “Souls Belated,” “The Other Two,” “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “The Last Asset,” “Afterward,” “Xingu,” “Autres Temps…,” “Atrophy,” “After Holbein,” “Pomegranate Seed,” “Roman Fever.” These are stories which, even if Wharton had written nothing else, would make us recognize and remember her. But the separate volumes of her stories have not been republished under their first, grave, knowing titles—Crucial Instances, Human Nature. And even now the Library of America has missed the opportunity to have a complete stories of Edith Wharton. In fact such a thing has never existed, since the only other “collected stories,” R.W.B. Lewis’s handsome 1968 two-volume edition for Scribner’s, long out of print, contained all the hitherto uncollected stories, and the stories she published in collections, arranged by volume title, but unhappily omitted the novella “Bunner Sisters” (reprinted here) on grounds of length.
“Bunner Sisters” has had an odd publishing history which suggests a good deal about the slow evolution of Wharton’s professional career and reputation. She wrote it in 1892, at thirty, before she had published anything except a small locally printed collection of verses when she was sixteen, some poems in the Atlantic Monthly and in Scribner’s Magazine, and the first of a group of stories she was tentatively sending to Edward Burlinghame, the editor at Scribner’s. She’d been writing stories and poems since she could hold a pen or a book, but marriage and illness and social pressures and travel, compounded with uncertainty, had held her back in her twenties. And what she started her published career with were not, as might retrospectively be assumed, stories of New York high society, but quiet, implacable tales of urban poverty and confinement.
The first, “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” entered the life of an impoverished widow whose view from her boarding-house window—her only pleasure—is to be obstructed by new building. “Bunner Sisters” expanded on that line of bleak, tender realism. The story of the two sisters making ends meet with their shabby-genteel shop (rather like Hepzibah’s shop in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables) in a run-down corner of New York, fretful and fussy in their interdependence, one self-abnegating and anxious, the other spoiled and dissatisfied, whose lives are changed and destroyed by a German clock-mender (he courts them both, marries the younger, turns out to be a drug addict, and abandons her) is shaped by a painstaking, Balzacian exactness, eloquent detail (there’s a particularly good ferry-crossing to semi-rural Hoboken), and a somber interest in these compressed lives.
“Bunner Sisters” is the beginning of a powerful line in harshly compassionate social realism in Wharton that leads on to the factory and hospital scenes in The Fruit of the Tree, to Lily Bart’s stint in the milliner’s workroom in The House of Mirth, and to the deprived rural lives of Ethan Frome and Summer. When Ann Eliza Bunner, who has always pandered to her younger sister’s discontent, starts to fall in love with Mr. Ramy, the narrator tells us: “She had at last recognized her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own.” That narrative voice of Wharton’s—severe, realistic, and full of feeling—is already strong in this remarkable first long story.
But “Bunner Sisters” was, for a long time, one of her own “lost opportunities.” Burlinghame turned it down (twice) because it was too long (and perhaps too harsh) for his magazine. Twenty-four years later, when Scribner’s would accept anything they could get from Wharton, they didn’t want to publish it as a novella because it was “just a little small for the best results in separate form.” So it came out, finally, in 1916, in Wharton’s wartime volume of stories, Xingu.
This volume was a striking mixture: a brilliantly finessed comic satire on a New England women’s reading club, a savagely anti-German war story, a violent ghost story set in Brittany and featuring some alarming spectral dogs, and several painfully clearheaded investigations of the penalties for sexual passion and social aberration. These include the great story “Autres Temps…,” in which the divorced and disgraced Mrs. Lidcote, returning to New York after many years of exile because her daughter too has divorced and remarried, is amazed at a world completely changed, in which divorce is the norm and “every woman had a right to happiness.” But she rapidly finds that nothing has changed for her, forever “shut up in a little tight round of habit and association.”
Nearly all the stories in Xingu deal out harsh punishments to women: they are sexually exploited, socially humiliated, murdered, abandoned, or forced into intolerable choices. “The Long Run,” one of the best stories Wharton ever wrote, and into which she poured all her strongest emotions, is about a man who refuses his lover’s offer of her whole life, chooses to “abstain and refrain” for safety’s sake, and spends the rest of his time incarcerated inside his compromise and regret, and watching hers. “Bunner Sisters,” the last of the Xingu stories, is also a story of incarceration and thwarting. And the story’s publishing history seems to echo its subject matter. It has never had the status it would have had if published as a separate novella, as the dazzling, chilly Madame de Treymes was, or the great small book of obscure, paralyzed lives it deserved to be compared with, Ethan Frome.
The other three novellas reprinted here, all originally published individually, and none of them, now, very well known, also deserve a new lease on life. By far the best of these is “The Touchstone,” of 1900, which, like much of Wharton’s work, especially the earlier stories, deals with rights of intellectual property and a conflict between privacy and publicity. It’s also a very characteristic kind of ghost story, in which the feelings of the dead have a posthumous force. For the sake of his marriage, Glennard makes money from the sale of letters written to him by a famous woman novelist, now dead, who had loved him unrequitedly. He is full of self-disgust at what he has done, seeing the private letters in print like “wounded animals in the open”; for, as someone remarks, “How can any letters belong to the public that weren’t written to the public?” But he is “saved” by the love and forgiveness of his wife, who understands that, through his suffering and regret, he has at last become the person worthy of the love of the dead novelist.
“The Touchstone” was her first short novel to be published, building on the modest success of her first short story collection, The Greater Inclination, the year before. “Sanctuary,” another New York story, the second novella included here, came a couple of years after “The Touchstone,” by which time she had published another collection of stories and The Valley of Decision. (Once Wharton had started, there was no stopping her: after The Greater Inclination in 1899 she published pretty much a book a year, sometimes more, for the next thirty-seven years.)
“Sanctuary” is an odd, troubled, creaky piece of work, about a possessive mother whose marriage had been a self-sacrificing compromise, and who is battling to save her son from falling into the same kind of corruption and weakness as his father (he is tempted to cheat in an architecture competition by stealing a dead friend’s work). Though it’s ostensibly about the mother’s battle to maintain integrity once she’s realized that “the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage,” it seems much more to be about her inability to let go of her son’s life: “Her soul rejected the thought that his future could ever escape from her.”
The third of the novellas here is “The Marne,” a huge success when it appeared in 1918 and much derided thereafter. The young Francophile American Troy Belknap, devastated by the destruction of the first year of the war and the battle of the Marne (in which his French tutor is killed), impatient with American complacency and indifference, finds himself in the thick of the second battle of the Marne. He is rescued from death by the sudden appearance on the battlefield of the ghost of his tutor, and, like the other heroic young American soldiers now joined in the battle, swears to dedicate himself for the rest of his life “to the battle-fields of France.”
There are some fine moments in the novella, notably Mrs. Belknap’s thwarted attempts to show off her war experiences to an uninterested American audience, and the dignified description of the tutor’s rural family in the Argonne, wiped out in the war. But Wharton’s bitter emotions about France’s destruction and America’s slowness to help, profoundly earned though they are by her own war work, make for a rather wobbly tone of passionate outrage.
Still, I would have sacrificed “The Marne” and “Sanctuary” for a “complete” edition of the short stories. Some of the omissions are just oddities or magazine fodder, but some are to be regretted. “Friends,” one of the early uncollected pieces, for example, is (like “Bunner Sisters”) a painful story of close but hostile female interdependence, of a woman who loses her job as a teacher in an industrial New England town because she thinks she’s going to be married but, when the man abandons her, returns to find her job taken by a friend she has always tried to help but knows is her inferior. Her interior battle between generosity and resentment is unsparingly done. “The Blond Beast,” unusually in the mode of Dreiser or Frank Norris, is about a struggle for power between a millionaire banker and his underling, who believes in the “larger scientific view” that “we’re all born to prey on each other.”
Behind the absent stories are other absences, ghosts of the stories she planned but never wrote. Traces of these remain in her archive in the form of plot summaries, “données” (she took the term from Henry James), half-pages, paragraphs, single epigrammatical lines, fragments of dialogue. They bear witness to her ceaseless snatching-up of opportunities. Her friend Bernard Berenson, traveling with her in Germany in 1913, told his wife that at dinner together in a hotel, “Edith eyed a young man at a neighboring table and said: ‘When I see such a type my first thought is how to put him into my next novel.'”1 Many of the subjects in her notebooks come with comments like “Real story,” “Develop this—good subject.” What she didn’t use makes a tantalizing collection, and a surprisingly large one, given how efficient, organized, and resolute she appears. These fragments suggest another side to her, more experimental and uncertain.
She often contemplated sequels that came to nothing, such as “Homo Sapiens” or “The Age of Wisdom” for The Age of Innocence (the sequel to be the story of Newland Archer’s son and his marriage). She often worked on two books at once, one of which would succeed and the other not, and she had several long-running projects which eventually got turned into something different, or abandoned. “Disintegration,” seventy pages of a lacerating New York novel of manners written between 1900 and 1902, would be recycled for The House of Mirth. “Literature,” on the disillusionment of an ambitious young writer, was begun in 1914 and at long last, in the late 1920s, transformed into Hudson River Bracketed. She started at least two full-scale historical novels, one set in Morocco and one in Hyères, and two stories of concealed identity based on “real life” crime stories (including the notorious Lizzie Borden case).
One of Wharton’s unfinished novels is called “Logic,” and it’s a vivid, painful account of a passionately literary, socially awkward young girl growing up in the equivalent of Newport, at odds with her disapproving, snobbish, and pragmatic mother, who wants to get her out of the library and into a pink frock for parties. Perhaps the closeness of this narrative to Wharton’s memory of her relationship with her mother prevented its completion. And clearly some of these false starts are very close to the bone, like the draft of her autobiography, “Life and I,” much more confessional than the finished product, and not published until many years after her death, or a three-page, untitled manuscript in which a mother and daughter are talking, in horror, about the daughter’s intolerable marriage to a man who “does” something unspeakable (drinks? drugs? sexual violence?). The story ends as the daughter is about to answer the mother’s question, “What does he do?”
And there is one fairy story for children, “Princess Bluey,” which perhaps gives more of Wharton away, in its ending, than she might have realized: “And they all lived happily ever after; and they were as rich as could be.”2
Attempts to talk about Wharton in terms of the dazzling variety, ambition, inventiveness, and professionalism of her work always get entangled—as is the case for all great women writers—with a general preference for decoding her writing for clues to the personal life. So the most famous of these fragments, always discussed without its being placed as a part of this mass of unfinished or experimental materials, is the sensational “Beatrice Palmato” plot outline and sex scene. Though this was discovered (by Cynthia Griffin Wolff) and published (by R.W.B. Lewis) over a quarter of a century ago, it is still the first thing most people want to talk about when Wharton’s name comes up. When it came to light, the story of the incestuous (and suggestively Mediterranean) Mr. Palmato, whose actions drive his wife and two daughters to breakdown or suicide, with the luxuriously explicit fragment describing his lovemaking with his newly married and highly aroused daughter, radically altered the chilly, grand, conservative, reticent image of Wharton that had settled around her since the 1930s and 1940s, and has been eagerly read as possible evidence for Wharton as a victim of abuse.
But the more we know about her writing and its context, the less aberrant the “Beatrice Palmato” fragment looks. Wharton was deeply inter-ested in sexual exploitation, brutality, arousal, and possession. “Beatrice Palmato” is much more explicit, but no more intense, than the horribly evasive account in “The Old Maid” (one of the Old New York novellas) of a sheltered, sexually ignorant, well-brought-up New York girl making a “startled puzzled surrender” on her wedding night, with “terror” and “flushed distress” and the sense of “a fiery pit scorching the brow of innocence”—leading on to “the growth of habit” and “the babies who were supposed to ‘make up for everything,’ and didn’t.” Or than the fastidious and sexually reserved Anna Leath’s anguish of sexual jealousy, in The Reef, on learning of the affair between the man she loves, George Darrow, and a younger, more easygoing and vulnerable girl (who happens, unfortunately, to be engaged to Anna’s son). Anna at once wants to “stop her ears, to close her eyes,” and is “tormented by the desire to know more.” She pictures them together with “torturing precision.” After she and Darrow have finally become lovers, she feels a humiliating sense of sexual dependence, “a sort of suspicious tyrannical tenderness” that makes her unable to bear being out of his sight.
Wharton is a very sexy and a very ruthless writer. And she spent a lifetime—like all her fellow authors—negotiating with the genteel puritanical censorship of the American magazines, where her stories, and the serializations of her novels, were published. When we see her stories collected in this handsome Library of America volume, it’s easy to forget the surroundings in which they first appeared. Scribner’s Magazine in the 1890s was full of genteel literary essays on the “Frenchifying” of American fiction, or the proliferation of newspapers and new books, or how writing was turning into just another business. There were articles on “American Big Game Hunting,” “Personal Recollections of Gettysburg,” “A Thackeray Manuscript in Harvard College Library.” There were sentimental love poems by now-forgotten authors like Josephine Preston Peabody and Theodosia Pickering Garrison. The big names were Meredith, W.D. Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, Theodore Roosevelt, James Barrie, and Sidney Colvin (on Stevenson’s letters). There were polemics on higher education and women’s place in society (by Robert Grant, whose novel Unleavened Bread Wharton much admired, and who wrote: “It seems to me imperative to go back to the original poetic conception of woman as the wife and mother, the domestic helpmate and loving, self-abnegating companion of man”).
That article appeared in the same issue as a coruscating story of marital disappointment and male inadequacy by Wharton, “The Lamp of Psyche.” Wharton’s self-creation through the 1890s and 1900s as a woman writer who could be, all at once, highly cultured, palatable, and popular is all the more of a feat when placed in its un-adventurous setting. And the propriety of her first middlebrow venues—Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, The Century Magazine—would be echoed right through the 1920s and 1930s in more mass-market, popular American magazines such as Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, the Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Pictorial Review.
Her stories were always coming up against demands for wholesomeness and healthy-mindedness. In 1921, her editor at Appleton, Rutger Bleeker Jewett, was finding it hard to place “The Old Maid,” one of the four novellas of Old New York, the story of a single mother who conceals her relation to her illegitimate child. The Ladies’ Home Journal found it “a bit too vigorous for us.” Wharton replied despairingly: Haven’t they read The Scarlet Letter, or Adam Bede, or her own Summer? In 1924 she told a friend that Jewett was persuading her to write “nice” stories, and she was making every effort: “You ought to see me!” But in the 1930s, prudery and escapism became more the rule than ever. The opening of one of her most grimly dazzling stories of adultery, “The Day of the Funeral,” is still a startling one: “His wife had said: ‘If you don’t give her up I’ll throw myself from the roof.’ He had not given her up, and his wife had thrown herself from the roof.”
Not surprisingly, this story was “too strong” for the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1931, who asked if she couldn’t “leave the reader guessing as to the exact relationship” between the man and the girl. (She agreed to tone it down.) Letting off steam about censorship in 1934, Wharton expressed her feelings about the bizarre combination in American letters, as she perceived it, of prudery and sensationalism:
What a country! With Faulkner & Hemingway acclaimed as the greatest American novelists, & magazine editors still taking the view they did when I began to write! Brains & culture seem non-existent from one end of the social scale to the other, & half the morons yell for filth, & the other half continue to put pants on the piano-legs.3
Her fury at finding herself dealing with magazine censorship at the same time as Faulkner was publishing Sanctuary is understandable—and would explain the presence of “Beatrice Palmato” in her papers. In a letter to Berenson of 1935, which appears to refer to it, she boasts of having “an incest donnée” which would make Faulkner and Céline “look like nursery-rhymes.” Whether “Beatrice Palmato” dates from then (an interesting exercise for a woman in her seventies) or, as has been argued, from a much earlier period in her life, it seems like a private act of literary bravado rather than a piece of lurid self-exposure.
Transformation, not autobiography, is the driving force of Wharton’s stories. Of course she uses her experiences and emotions. It’s moving and interesting to see, in her private manuscripts—diaries of her affair, love letters—how she shapes the narrative of her life like a story (always conscious of how the affair is going to end) and how she can sound in her letters to her unreliable and alluring lover Morton Fullerton like one of her own passionate, betrayed, but realistic heroines.4 Many of her stories treat the failures of nerve, compromises, and disappointments of marriages and affairs. Nobody describes better what the results are, in “the long run,” of not getting it right. The middle-aged woman of “The Pretext” who, after her one erotic adventure, feels the “net of habit” tightening again and sees her husband’s figure advancing toward her again (“She would see it presently—she would see it for many years to come”); the men who never love quite enough or settle for less than they might have had, the couples who had only “sidled around the edge of the crater” (“A Glimpse”)—these are products of unsparing observation and self-analysis, and come weighted with the ring of truth:
Her husband’s personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old conspiracy into this bondage of body and soul filled her with despair. If marriage was the slow life-long acquittal of a debt contracted in ignorance, then marriage was a crime against human nature.
(“The Reckoning,” 1902)
But it’s an injustice to her to report on these stories (as in a recent review of this volume by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker) simply as “an emotional release,” as records of Wharton’s “emotional turmoil” and “loneliness.” Just as she deploys the scenes and societies she knows with wonderful economy and evocativeness in her stories, so she takes what she needs of her personal feelings and uses them for far more than self-expression. Indeed she was anxious about giving too much away: one of the reasons she didn’t republish her first stories from the early 1890s in book form is that, a few years on, they felt to her as if they’d been written “at the top of her voice”; one of them, a fable of marital oppression, read like “one long shriek.”
Wharton’s life is full of secrets—burned letters, hidden facts, withheld feelings—and so are her stories. Often it feels as if not quite everything is being told (as with the strong homosexual undertones of “The Eyes” and “A Bottle of Perrier”); often there’s something hidden, for life, right at the center of the story, like the parentage of the love child in the brilliantly reserved story “Roman Fever.” But she can be ironic about secrets, too. In one of her first and best stories about the tussle between art and life, “The Muse’s Tragedy,” the woman who loved, but (contrary to what had always been supposed) was never loved by, a famous poet, put asterisks to mark omitted material when she published his letters. Everyone thought it was a delicate avoidance of intimate secrets. But “the asterisks were a sham—there was nothing to leave out.” The secret was: there was no secret.
The strategies of “Roman Fever” or “The Muse’s Tragedy” could provoke accusations—often leveled against her—of overmanipulation. Her sharpness can be so severe, her plot twists so tight, her epigrams, especially in the earlier stories, so killing: “Her friends were not worthy of the chairs they sat in” (“The Quicksand”); “If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time” (“The Last Asset”).
The person listening to that last desolating remark replies that Schopenhauer had the same idea. But that’s an unusual moment. Wharton wears her immense literary, philosophical, and historical knowledge lightly in her stories. Deeply bedded underneath them, like a rich garden mulch, is a passionate lifetime of reading. Her library (what has survived of it), her book on fiction, and the many references to books read and exchanged in her letters show what a range of storytellers (quite apart from other kinds of literature) she kept always with her: French translations of Tolstoy and Chekhov, Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, two sets of Henry James’s New York Edition, a complete Balzac, Stevenson, and Flaubert, M.R. James, and Sheridan LeFanu’s ghost stories were, among other authors, on her shelves. But though at moments her stories can be reminiscent of Balzac or James or Hawthorne, she is not an imitator or a self-consciously literary writer. Literariness is a target for satire, as in “The Legend,” about a phony cult which succeeds in driving away its obscure master (a story provoked by her friend Henry James’s plummeting readership). In her earlier stories, literary or artistic characters are almost always in bad faith, struggling between the pull of integrity and fame, privacy and self-promotion.
As she says in a letter of 1898 to her Scribner’s editor Burlinghame, each of her stories is really “a study in motives.” Her sharp epigrams and the twists of her plot aren’t merely superficial: they are used repeatedly to display a moral quandary or equivocation. One of the subjects that most interests Wharton is the gap between the peculiar aberrations or desires of individuals and the pressure of accepted laws or standards. That’s why she is always inventing odd, quirky, even ridiculous situations for her characters: a man who is socially embarrassed by his wife’s previous husbands, or a couple who are brought together by their dislike of their adopted daughter. What do you do when your own predicament doesn’t answer to any rule book? There’s an argument always going on about the extent to which moral theories can actually be applied to specific situations, in all their distressing specialness. “Life is made up of compromises,” says the embittered mother to her son’s idealistic girlfriend in “The Quicksand” (not included here). She wants to show the girl “how little, as the years go on, theories, ideas, abstract conceptions of life, weigh against the actual, against the particular way in which life presents itself to us—to women especially.”
That sense of a gap between the theory and the actuality, which afflicts so many of Wharton’s characters in her short stories, leads to their feelings of alienation and unreality. “What was the staunchest code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms?” asks a young man (“A Cup of Cold Water”) who’s ruined himself in order to keep up with the social milieu of the girl he wants to marry, and stands back to observe it “like a traveller in a strange city.”
To be an alien in the place you live in: that’s her darkest, deepest subject. In “The Reckoning” (1902), Julia, who ran away from her terrible husband and agreed to set up a rational, modern relationship with her new lover, not bound by conventions and free to be broken at any moment, finds that when her lover decides to leave her for a younger model she is thrown back, in agony and confusion, on the “old instinct of passionate dependency and possessorship.” The theories haven’t worked, and her own life becomes strange to her: “Her room? Her house? She could almost hear the walls laugh back at her.”
It’s this alertness to the terror of being a stranger in one’s own house, in one’s own self, that makes Wharton such a fine and frightening writer of ghost stories. Stories like “Afterward,” “Pomegranate Seed,” and “All Soul’s Night” play on the idea of finding yourself not at home: a helpless, lost, estranged captive inside the world you have built to surround you with comfort and habit. And edging up under that sense of personal alienation is, very often, a wider sense of cultural exile or estrangement. The two Americans, in “Afterward” (1910), who find a refuge in an old Dorsetshire house, supposed to be haunted, are pursued by the ghost of a man the husband has done an injustice to, a ghost out of the American Midwest and the world of mines and engineering, utterly foreign to the “deep dim reservoir” of English rural life at Lyng. The story ends with the wife realizing that the husband has been taken away by the ghost, as she sits in the library, the heart of the old house, where “she felt the walls of books rush toward her, like inward falling ruins.” The house has turned on its alien residents, who could only have pretended to be at home there.
One of the most powerful of Wharton’s stories of estrangement is the last story she wrote, “All Souls'” (sent to her agent six months before she died, and published posthumously in Ghosts, in 1937). As she grew older, Wharton was in the habit of sitting alone on All Souls’ Night with the memory of her dead friends. That the last story she wrote before her own death was set on All Souls’ Eve, October 31, when the dead are supposed to walk, seems almost too tidy, as though she were stage-managing her own departure. But the story is about loss of control. The woman in the story, a widow called Sara Clayburn, is a “quick, imperious” person, like Wharton. She is used to running her large eighteenth-century New England house and its small team of servants (headed by a Scottish housekeeper from the Hebrides); she takes long energetic walks, knows all her neighbors, bosses the local doctor, and is not afraid of solitude. Mrs. Clayburn has the misfortune of fracturing her ankle on the last dark snowy Saturday of October, just after meeting a strange woman walking up the drive to her house. That night, and all the next day, she finds herself alone, terrified and helpless in her abandoned house: no servants, no heat, no electricity, no telephone—all mysteriously resumed, as though nothing had happened, on the Monday. The following year, when she meets the same woman walking up to the house on the same day, and senses some strange reactions from her Scottish housekeeper, she packs her bags and flees to New York, to the cousin who is telling us the story. He deduces that the Scottish servant had imported into the rational New England house an ancient Hebridean “affinity with unknown forces,” and that the strange woman had lured her and all the other servants to a witch’s coven.
As is often the case with ghost stories, the explanation is the least interesting part. It’s the helpless terror which lays hold of this well-organized and controlling woman in her dark empty house, which has become suddenly alien to her, that gives the story its power. Wharton’s horrified anticipation of losing all her own control, of having to join her own dead—of the burning of her own clay—courses under the story. But there is more than personal dread here. The most frightening moment in “All Souls'” is when Mrs. Clayburn crawls down toward the kitchen and hears, through the door, “a voice speaking…a man’s voice, low but emphatic, and which she had never heard before”:
The invisible stranger spoke so low that she could not make out what he was saying, but the tone was passionately earnest, almost threatening. The next moment she realized that he was speaking in a foreign language, a language unknown to her. Once more her terror was surmounted by the urgent desire to know what was going on, so close to her yet unseen. She crept to the slide, peered cautiously through into the kitchen, and saw that it was as orderly and empty as the other rooms. But in the middle of the carefully scoured table stood a portable wireless, and the voice she heard came out of it…
She must have fainted then, she supposed….
Wharton is suggesting that terrifying ghost stories can take place in modern circumstances. As her narrator says at the beginning:
As between turreted castles patrolled by headless victims with clanking chains, and the comfortable suburban house with a refrigerator and central heating where you fell, as soon as you’re in it, that there’s something wrong, give me the latter for sending a chill down the spine!
Wharton sounds more like Elizabeth Bowen than Henry James here, giving the lie, in this detail as in so many other places, to critics who accuse her of never coming to terms with the twentieth century. But something else is going on too. The terrifying low intense foreign voice coming from the wireless in the isolated American house in the late 1930s could well be the voice of Hitler, whose broadcasts Wharton, like everyone else, used to listen to on the wireless in France, with memories of France’s last war with Germany—and America’s long period of isolationism, which she bitterly criticized—so vivid to her mind.5 In old age, Wharton imagines herself as the woman she might have been if she had stayed in America and never left the Mount. But the old world presses in on this American story.
October 4, 2001
Bernard Berenson to Mary Berenson, August 10, 1913, Berenson Archive, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti, Florence. ↩
“Princess Bluey,” Edith Wharton Papers, Series I, Box 18, File 543, The Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Edith Wharton and the Watkins/Loomis Agency. ↩
Edith Wharton to Minnie Jones, November 2, 1934, Edith Wharton Papers, Box 28, File 857, The Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Edith Wharton and the Watkins/Loomis Agency. ↩
For an exhaustive account of this affair, see Marion Mainwaring, Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton (University Press of New England, 2000). ↩
This point is made by Candace Waid in Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld (University of North Carolina Press, 1991). ↩