The marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton had for a long time looked workable, marked by a shared passion for travel and dogs and later for automobiles, if not by passion itself. They each suffered from the neurasthenia common in their time and class, and lacking children their movements from house to house and continent to continent were a touch more restless than the change of seasons required. Her one affair stayed secret. None of his did, but when in 1913 Edith sued in Paris for divorce her husband’s adultery was the least of her reasons. Teddy had embezzled $50,000 from her trust funds; he had shouted and wailed and indulged in verbal abuse. Increasingly they lived apart, though he sometimes moved back in simply to announce that he refused to stay on.
Megalomania, the doctors said, and people remembered that his father had killed himself; Henry James described him as “noisily and topsyturvily, and alas vulgarly…off his poor little head.”1 Nothing helped, not even the Mount, the country place in Lenox, Massachusetts, where they had once been happy. In 1911 she gave him her power of attorney when she sailed for France, and landed to the news that he’d sold the house: an act of vengeance against a place she had loved, the vengeance of a man without a profession or talent against a woman who had both. Wharton filed for divorce in Paris both because she was there—they had a flat on the rue de Varenne—and because the French kept such proceedings private. No reporters saw the court records, and the news didn’t appear in either the gossip sheets or The New York Times. But the end of her marriage also meant the end of her American life. France was now her home, and she afterward made just two brief visits to her native land.
Those paired facts—Wharton’s divorce and her expatriation—provide the ground for the four novels gathered in this new volume from the Library of America. Unhappy marriages are fiction’s stock-in-trade, and divorce had always figured in her work, going back to the amiably scandalous Carry Fisher in The House of Mirth (1905), the book in which she first accepted James’s plea to “do New York!” She had never expected that she might need a divorce of her own, however, and doesn’t seem to have contemplated one during her 1908 affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton.
Still, she could see the smash of her marriage coming from a long way off, and her work of the period shows it. Ethan Frome (1911) depicts the prison of marriages that cannot end, and in The Custom of the Country (1913) Undine Spragg burns through three husbands before returning to the first of them; that caustic novel was indeed running as a serial in the very month of Wharton’s own decree. Yet the best glimpse into her mind belongs to the brilliant “Autres Temps” (1911), in which a divorcée of the writer’s own generation, who has never quite recovered from the scandal, looks on with wonder at her own daughter’s smooth uncoupling.
None of the many divorces in these newly republished novels at all resemble Wharton’s own. They are amicable or casual and sometimes both; families are blended, stepchildren embraced, and in no case is there the sense, as R.W.B. Lewis wrote of Wharton herself, that “the decision to divorce [is] the most painful one” many people must ever make.2 That ease allows her to measure the gap between the world in which she’d grown up, whose rigid certainties she both hated and admired, and the modern world she increasingly distrusted.
Of course Wharton had other ways to mark that change, and maybe better ones. The astonishingly prolific decade in which these novels first appeared had begun with her detailed recreation of 1870s Manhattan in The Age of Innocence (1920), and she published as well the four novellas of Old New York (1924). That historicizing impulse was, however, short-lived. It may have led to The Age of Innocence, her greatest single book, but she preferred to write about the way we live now.
But first there was the war. Wharton made France’s cause her own, and was appalled that most Americans did not yet see it that way. In the fall of 1914 she set up a string of hostels, which by the end of the next year had fed and clothed and housed over nine thousand refugees. She had not been much of a committeewoman before the war, and would not be after; during it she was tireless. She opened ateliers for unemployed seamstresses, founded TB sanatoria, arranged benefit concerts, and put together an anthology called The Book of the Homeless (1916), with the proceeds going toward helping displaced civilians and the contributors ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Igor Stravinsky.
That labor left its marks on A Son at the Front (1923), in a few sardonic chapters that trace the social advantages of charity work. Wharton’s protagonist is John Campton, an American painter long resident in Paris, and the father of a son who is, through an accident of birth, a French citizen. In the summer of 1914 young George has come over from New York just in time for the start of a war that nobody believes will happen. He is immediately mobilized, while his father tries, along with his ex-wife and her banker second husband, to ensure that the boy finds a safe job on the staff; after all, it isn’t really his show. That’s not how George sees it, though. He arranges a transfer to the front, gets wounded, and then hurries to return to his unit; the inevitable end comes on the very day of the American declaration of war.
By that time Campton has made his peace with his son’s need to fight, and finds himself believing that even in death there is “the life-giving power of a reality embraced and accepted.” Yet that image of the soldier’s transcendence places a limit on Wharton’s sense of the war’s losses. Kipling’s lines after his own son’s death point to what she could not say: “If any question why we died,/Tell them, because our fathers lied.” The novel’s earlier sections are wiser. One of her characters suggests, for instance, that “the meaning had evaporated out of lots of our old words,” and his statement anticipates Hemingway’s claim in A Farewell to Arms that “there were many words that you could not stand to hear,” that the war made abstract nouns like honor or glory into obscenities.
Still, the best thing in the book has little to do with the fighting as such. Campton is a sour man, and at first unwilling to admit that George’s stepfather, Anderson Brant, has any rights at all. And yet when the boy falls wounded Campton finally begins to understand the banker’s discretion and devotion. He recognizes the other man’s sense of paternity, the depth with which he too loves George; their friendship remains awkward but it’s nonetheless real, and a surprise to the woman they have each married.
Wharton first proposed A Son at the Front as a serial for a women’s magazine called The Pictorial Review, but it refused the subject. She wrote The Age of Innocence for it instead, and when she went back to her war story the New-York Tribune suggested that her sense of the struggle was already outdated. War novels by Rebecca West and John Dos Passos had just been published; Hemingway and Remarque were to follow. The three other books in this new volume did better both critically and commercially. None of them is now counted among her best, and with the possible exception of The Children (1928), their revival probably won’t change that. Yet they are all of them funny and at times wicked in their view of the fashionable life, and marked by deliberate echoes of her earlier and greater work.
Each of the three was serialized in The Pictorial Review, which had replaced Scribner’s as her most important periodical outlet. The magazine is now forgotten, but its circulation then topped two million and Wharton did well out of it. She had always written for popular publications; this one was less squeamish about sex than some of her other markets, and paid enough to help support the new houses she acquired at the end of the war, one just outside Paris and the other on the Mediterranean.
The magazine had been started to sell dress patterns, but in the 1920s it mostly ran fiction along with a few columns on cooking, household management, and “What Are the Young People Coming To?” Vogue pushed clothes and The Saturday Evening Post sold cars; The Pictorial Review depended, in contrast, on advertisements from the kinds of modest household products that are still household names: Mazola, Del Monte, Listerine, and Brillo. Few of its contributors are now remembered, and in its pages a novel like Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), with its opening scenes on Lake Como, must have looked as exotic and aspirational as the Hollywood feature it almost immediately became.
The novel provides what William Dean Howells once said the American public most wanted—“a tragedy with a happy ending.” He used that phrase to console Wharton herself over a failed stage version of The House of Mirth, and in many ways The Glimpses of the Moon rewrites that bleak early masterpiece. Susy and Nick each have a “substantial background of…cousinships in New York and Philadelphia,” but they’ve separated themselves from that old innocent world, and become part of a “denationalized” crowd that has “intermarried, interloved and interdivorced each other over the whole face of Europe.”
Or at least everyone else has; Wharton’s pair seem ingenues by comparison. They are handsome, clever, and poor; too poor to think of marrying each other, however strong their attraction. Then Susy has an idea: marriage means presents, not silver and jewelry so much as checks and houses. People always enjoy lending houses to newlyweds, she explains, and by moving from one to another they can make their honeymoon last a year. And after that? Well, if “either of them got the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released.” Divorce has become so easy, and marriage may even increase their desirability; at the very least they’ll have fun, and be no poorer than before. So they start at a villa on Como and move on to a Venetian palazzo, with a grouse moor to follow, and all the while Susy worries that when some richer woman comes along she might not want to let Nick go.
Still, the plan goes forward, and after a few missed signals Susy finds herself engaged to an English peer even before she’s seen a lawyer. Wharton is always good at boxing her characters in. The doors of possibility are forever sliding shut around them, their futures no sooner glimpsed than foreclosed; Lily Bart in The House of Mirth finally recognizes the life she should have had as she slips into her last sleep, and in The Age of Innocence Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska can preserve their love only by not seeing each other at all. The young people here miss their chances for an early reunion—a friend’s yacht always sails off at just the wrong moment. Nevertheless they each balk at the splendid futures they are offered, and once she’s alone again Susy follows Lily’s course so far as to think of taking a milliner’s job. But Wharton herself was now more forgiving than she’d once been. The Glimpses of the Moon hints at heartache, but it reaches the conventional conclusion all the same, and with just enough delay to make the reader grow anxious.
Wharton told Bernard Berenson that Susy and Nick believe themselves entirely “up-to-date, but are continually tripped up by obsolete sensibilities, & discarded ideals,” ideals of which she clearly and almost despite herself approves. So did her readers; the novel sold a quick 100,000 copies, more than anything she’d written since The House of Mirth. It was, however, a decided fall in quality from The Age of Innocence, its immediate predecessor, and a look at the history of its composition helps explain why. Wharton had started writing it in 1916, as an escape from the war. Not surprisingly she stalled and put it aside, and when she returned to it in 1921 she gave her characters the clothes and motorcars of a postwar world in which the war has not in fact happened. Susy and Nick have floated out of history. They live in no real time and no real place, and so the stakes for which they play seem low.
Twilight Sleep (1927) is even slighter. The title refers to an anesthetic that often left women without a memory of childbirth, and Wharton generalizes that numbness to cover the entirety of fashionable New York, a city in which the social life of her protagonist, Pauline Manford, seems billed by the quarter-hour. Her characters live in the “breathless pursuit of repose,” but though their hobbies and beliefs are all terribly modern, they speak of the family madeira as if they were still back in Newland Archer’s library. Wharton made her last visit to the city in 1923. She stayed for less than two weeks, and mistook the people she knew—the streets she had known—for all of New York; a better product of the same trip is The Mother’s Recompense (1925),3 in which the middle-aged Kate Clephane learns that her daughter wants to marry an old lover of her own.
Yet Twilight Sleep does gain a bit near the end in its portrait of Pauline’s first husband, Arthur Wyant. An alcoholic cared for by a female cousin, he rarely leaves his apartment, and his situation seems a softened version of Teddy Wharton’s later life. Though Wyant has at least kept his charm; he takes “an intense interest in the private affairs of the world he had ceased to frequent,” and is a favorite with the daughter of Pauline’s second marriage. Nevertheless his actions lead to one of those catastrophes that Wharton’s people can only deal with by pretending, as in The Age of Innocence, that nothing whatever has happened.
Wharton was in her sixties when these novels appeared, and the pattern of her life had hardened. She had left her Paris apartment after the war, and spent the summer and fall at a house just to the north called the Pavillon Colombe, and the winter and spring at Hyères on the Riviera; in moving between them she checked into the Crillon while her servants shut one place and readied the other. Her biographies refer to an “inner circle” of friends, an exclusive ring of which she was the center; most of them, of whatever nationality, had the same kind of “substantial background” that she did herself. She had few strictly literary friends, and her world no more touched the 1920s Paris of Picasso or Stein—let alone that of the Lost Generation—than it did what Ann Douglas has called the “mongrel Manhattan” of the same period.4 Her American life had once been bigger, and probably some of that constriction comes from her expatriation, some from the conservatism that was, for her, a part of growing old. So it is no wonder that her finest postwar work looks to the past, to the world that she already had within her: The Age of Innocence, parts of Old New York, stories like “After Holbein,” and her stately autobiographical writings.
The wonder isn’t that she found it hard to catch the pulse of the moment. It’s that The Children is nevertheless so strong. The book is thick with people: seven children, at least as many marriages, and a middle-aged engineer named Martin Boyne. When the novel opens, he’s on his way to the Dolomites for a meeting with Rose Sellars, an old friend, now widowed, with whom he might have a future. On the boat to Venice, however, he meets a teenaged girl named Judith Wheater, who has been put in charge, along with a governess and a nursemaid, of her six younger siblings: full, half-, and step-. There is no parent in sight.
Boyne quickly learns that she is the daughter of a college friend, and moreover that her parents are for the moment married to each other, as they were when she was born. There have been other marriages in between, though, new ones look likely now, and while Judith’s father Cliffe Wheater has a perpetually open wallet, it never occurs to him that his offspring might crave more stability than he does himself. Because what those children—“my children,” Judith calls them—most need is one another, and they’ll do almost anything to stay together.
Boyne acts as a kind of chaperone on board, at once charmed and reserved; he sees them off in Venice, and then goes up to the mountains, where his new life starts to open. He’s there with Rose when Judith suddenly appears, “frail and straight in her scant travelling dress,” and begging for his help. The children have run away in the fear that their parents’ latest liaisons will split them all up. They look to Boyne for safety, and after a bit of maneuvering he agrees to take them on for the summer. For a long time the novel trembles on the edge of comedy, as the bachelor plays father. Some pages on contemporary notions of child-rearing are as joyously absurd as a film by Preston Sturges, while those about the parents seem as acid as The Custom of the Country itself. But though Rose agrees that the children need help, their presence soon interferes with the life she and Boyne have begun to plan.
The novel isn’t perfect. Once again the war seems absent, a single stray reference aside, and Wharton’s attempts to make a historical type out of “the modern hotel child” look pale in comparison to the collision of two continents from which James had created his Daisy Miller. Nevertheless this story of “defeat,” as Hermione Lee puts it in her biography, is both “daring and profoundly sad,” and deserves to be far more widely read than it is today. Rose is gracious and calm, judicious and wise. When she looks at the Wheater brood she sees the children she hasn’t had; and when she looks at Boyne she knows he has not yet understood his own feelings for Judith. He mistakes his sexual interest for something avuncular, and when he finally recognizes it, he makes a second mistake about the girl herself.
Wharton often set a man between two women, and Boyne’s situation recalls that of The Reef (1912), in which George Darrow hovers between his all-too-appropriate fiancée and a younger woman with whom he has had an affair. Nothing quite so stark happens here, but The Children nevertheless provides something even more gnawingly troubled. Judith escapes—she will have her life. But neither Boyne nor Rose will have theirs.
The book was one of its year’s best sellers, and her last major success. In her final novels, Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and its sequel, The Gods Arrive (1932), Wharton tried to define the changes in the culture of America itself. She embodied the country in a boy from the Midwest, which she did not know, and made him discover the world of literature in an old manse on the Hudson. Those late books make an argument about the problem of artistic vocation in a market-driven world—the market that had, paradoxically, always treated Wharton herself so well—but as fiction they remain inert.
She told a magazine editor at the time that she kept up with American life by listening to her fellow guests at the Crillon. It wasn’t enough; she had lost the American tone. Nor does her account of expatriate life ever quite manage to tell her native country about itself. Her characters may have different hats and hemlines, but in their lives abroad they belong always to the world before the war. They are James’s people still; her times no longer were. Critics used to wonder what his emigration had cost him, but the question might also be asked of the woman who had once given her readers New York.
Quoted in Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (Knopf, 2007), p. 393. ↩
R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton (Harper and Row, 1975), p. 333. ↩
Included in the Library of America’s volume of Wharton’s Novellas and Other Writings (1990). ↩
Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). ↩