Wharton, Edith Entries

Roman Fever and Other Stories


After the blood and guts of Blood Meridian, I needed to add a little civilization back into my reading life - and nobody does over-civilization like Edith Wharton. Whether they meet the challenge by laughing, crying, or overdosing on exhaustion and sleeping pills, her characters are beset on all sides by the constrictions of unimaginative convention - a force with which McCarthy's cowboys are entirely untroubled.

I have a mixed history with Wharton; I found The House of Mirth overwrought, and wouldn't have been inspired to read The Age of Innocence except that I ran across a pristine Norton edition of it for under ten dollars. (Would I read anything if given a free Norton edition of it? Probably anything but Walden.) When I finally got around to cracking it open, I was surprised at my hearty enjoyment: it's a later, more mature novel, and Wharton displays her delightful satiric edge to a far greater advantage. With more distance from her subjects, I felt she could both enjoy them more herself, and allow her reader a bit of breathing room. I felt the same way about the short story collection Roman Fever and Other Stories: Wharton is most enjoyable, to me, when she is in rollicking satirical mode, or at least writing drama with a satirical edge, rather than giving in to full-blown melodrama. One of my favorite stories, "Xingu," is a famous example of Wharton at her cutting, cackling best: a clique of haughty New York society matrons are looking forward to giving a luncheon for a famous female author, and lamenting the necessity of inviting their least fashionable member, as she's bound to spoil the atmosphere. She simply doesn't know how to behave, the ladies tell each other. Why, just the other day she was so outré as to ask Mrs. Plinth her personal opinion of the book they were discussing:

It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a breach of discipline. They all knew there was nothing Mrs. Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to be read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. The club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth's. Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental "pieces" that were not meant to be disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of the Lunch Club that, within her own province, each member's habits of thought should be respected. The meeting therefore closed with an increased sense, on the part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby's hopeless unfitness to be one of them."

When the author in question turns out to be even more of a pill than her Lunch Club companions, Mrs. Roby manages to get her own by introducing "Xingu" as a topic of conversation: nobody knows what it is, but they're not willing to admit their ignorance, and hilarity ensues.

On a darker satirical note, I also loved "After Holbein," which is almost a ghost story but written about a still-living people. According to Hermione Lee's biography, Wharton loved ghost stories and wrote a number of them throughout her life, and "After Holbein" has many of the tell-tale conventions: huge mansions that used to be grand centers of entertainment, now mostly sheeted and run with a skeleton staff; a dark night; a past estrangement; the impression of a whole world that has slipped into the past. But rather than ghosts, this setting is populated by two ancient denizens of Old New York: Mrs. Jaspar, stroke victim and erstwhile society hostess, and the decrepit Anson Warley (based on Ward McAllister, the super-elite arbiter of Old New York Society and author of the list designating the members of "The 400" who would be invited to Mrs. Astor's yearly ball and therefore be "received"). While Mrs. Jaspar badgers her maid into preparing her, night after night, for the same dinner party she was to give on the eve of her stroke, Mr. Warley engages in an interior monologue about how many invitations he still receives, and how young he still feels. He's planning to go out this very night, despite the disapproval of his valet. He gloats to himself that he's still "in the running" - not like that fossilized Mrs. Jaspar, whom he remembers snubbing wittily in his youth to the delight of all his many society friends. He spares a moment to hope that his barbed witticism didn't get back to the lady herself, but can't be too bothered about it. He shakes off his valet and steps outside - only to forget which of his friends invited him to dine. The outcome of the night for both Mrs. Jaspar and Mr. Warley is deliciously creepy - much more so than if the two friends and rivals were actually coming back from the dead to haunt the dinner tables and ballrooms of their pasts. Their lives as living fossils also allows Wharton, writing from her home in Paris after having forsworn everything her characters stand for, to comment on the few remaining New Yorkers still yearning after the old ways, the old society - and more than that, to comment on people, like Anson Warley, who become so entrenched in their routines of pandering to others, that they are left with little or no inner life of their own. As a character in the final story implies, the only rational cure for over-civilization is to promote a rich inner life, and these relics of Old New York certainly don't have it:

We're all imprisoned, of course - all of us middling people, who don't carry our freedom in our brains.

There was another story in the collection that interested me for more personal reasons, although it was in Wharton's dramatic, rather than satirical, mode: "Souls Belated" tells of a woman, recently divorced, who wants to continue living with her lover unmarried, rather than attempt to rejoin their former stuffy, hypocritical society by accepting the state sanction of marriage a second time. I don't write about it much here, but I live in a long-term, committed relationship in which both I and my partner have chosen, for personal and political reasons, not to get married but to safeguard our legal rights in other ways. I've always felt uncomfortable with the cultural baggage around marriage, and it was fascinating to read a story featuring a character who had a related set of feelings. As you might imagine, it doesn't happen very often: there are scads of happy and unhappy marriages in literature, plenty of illicit love affairs and passionate flings, lots of unrequited love, and a few portraits of people who find themselves happier leading a single life, but not a lot of stories about the attempt to live in a caring, committed way outside the bounds of matrimony - especially when those attempts are chosen, rather than forced. (If you know of any, I would love to check them out.) Unfortunately for Wharton's characters, their particular attempt doesn't end very well: the woman's lover doesn't understand her unwillingness to marry him, and she finds, to her disgust, that they both care more about the opinion of Society than they imagined. Wharton's own attitude toward her protagonist, while sympathetic, seems to me slightly rueful at the woman's idealism. Still, it was an interesting and perceptive read, and made me think about how my own situation would have differed had I been born a century earlier - and, it goes without saying, wealthy.

Overall, this slim volume of shorts was just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to Cormac McCarthy - subtle and thoughtful, often melancholy, sometimes deliciously sardonic.

(Roman Fever and Other Stories was my sixth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1930s. This is a little bit of a stretch, since not all the stories in the collection were published in the 30s, but the titular one was, so I think it counts.)

Edith Wharton


Although I have almost zero interest in military strategy, I do believe I would read a biography of Vice Admiral Nelson if Hermione Lee wrote one. Her prose is an absolute pleasure, she's insightful and nuanced, and I'm very lucky that she happens to specialize in authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, rather than in tire manufacturers or bank directors. Her most recent book, Edith Wharton, only heightens my esteem: she paints a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of Wharton, never glossing over her less attractive features, but never sensationalizing or over-simplifying them either.

Diving into a biography is sometimes daunting, because there are usually many pages before one even reaches the object of one's interest. A biographer will often begin far back on the paternal side of the subject's ancestry, working gradually up to her father's meeting with her mother. Then, when the birth of the subject is almost in view, the reader must backtrack into the mists of ancestry on the maternal side, and spend another chunk of time waiting for the subject's mother to meet her father. We then hear all about their courtship, still waiting patiently for the subject to be born. All of this is important information, of course, but the strictly chronological accounts in many biographies don't do much to elucidate why it's important: the ways in which the subject herself interacted with her parents; how her ancestry shaped her; conflicts in her adult life that may have had their seeds in her parents' relationships. Lee takes a more organic approach, incorporating into the accounts of Wharton's upbringing and ancestry glimpses of the woman she would become, and the complicated relationship she would develop with her upper-class "Old New York" parentage. I found that, in addition to being infinitely more enjoyable to read, this method allowed me to get more out of the sections on Wharton's parents than I usually do. Thanks to Lee's early sign-posting of relevant aspects of the parent-child relationship in the Jones household, I was able to absorb, remember, and apply my reading in the early chapters to events much later in the book.

This organic, nuanced approach extends to Lee's treatment of the relationship between art and biography. While the events of a writer's life obviously affect her art, many biographers take an overly simplistic view of the way in which that manifests. Some critics, for example, will reduce the work of a writer who suffered from mental illness into a list of symptoms, completely erasing the writer's own agency in creating her art. Or they will hone in on an artist's political liberalism or conservatism, but fail to examine the nuances of those politics, the tensions and harmonies between the artist and any movements in which he may have taken part. Lee's analysis, by contrast, is patient and complex. This is lucky, because Edith Wharton mined material from her own life in varied and unexpected ways. Characters who display surface details culled from her past in Old New York may share very little with their creator on a deeper level, and in her most autobiographical pieces her "self" is often split between multiple characters in a novel or story. She repeatedly re-worked specific themes - forbidden sexuality, or a person still haunted by obsolete social strictures - which were suggested by her experience and deeply important to her in her own life, but in ways that bear little resemblance to her specific circumstances.

A particularly subtle, and touching, elucidation of the life/art relationship has to do with The Age of Innocence, which Wharton wrote just after the death of her dear friend and fellow-writer, Henry James. The two were close in a deep yet complicated way that allowed for certain resentments on either side. James tended to caricature Wharton to other members of their peer group, and Wharton spent her entire career fighting against a critical reputation as "a female Henry James." Yet the two supported each other more-or-less successfully through dark times. (As a gossipy aside, James was instrumental in introducing Wharton to the one physical passion of her life, Morton Fullerton, and proceeded to form an awkward third to many of their rendezvous and quarrels, much like a character out of one of his own novels). Lee points out that The Age of Innocence was the first book Wharton had written since her very early career that James would not read, and delicately examines the many nods to different James plots and characters that are scattered throughout the novel. Considering Wharton's life-long struggle to divorce her work from James in the public imagination, it's even more poignant that she would engage in this kind of public elegy for her lost friend, in the medium they shared - and, at the same time, as always, she is re-working and commenting on his writing as she honors it.

One of the things I appreciate most about Lee is that she respects the passions of her subjects, even if they may be unexpected from a reader's point of view. As she begins a long section on Wharton's gardens, she reminds us that

This expensive, pleasurable, and profound obsession should not be thought of by non-gardeners as a form of quietism or a mere hobby. ... Apart from traveling, writing, reading, and seeing her friends, this, for the rest of her life, was what she did. ... She was a writer and gardener, and her gardens became, for those who saw them and heard about them, as admired as her books.

As a reader and a human, I find this kind of reminder extremely useful. There exists in every life more than we expect, more than we care about when we begin our examination. Just because we enter into the life of Wharton wanting to read about her books, doesn't mean that we should pass over other passions that sustained her just as much. Lee does a beautiful job of portraying how crucial and soul-sustaining gardening was for Wharton, how she strove toward her gardening vision, exulted in her successes, and mourned deeply when her entire garden was killed by a freak storm and cold snap as she approached old age. Gardens may not be that important to me, but through Lee's eloquence I grasped their deep and lasting importance for Wharton, and connected that importance to similarly life-giving elements of my own life.

But as lovely as the gardening section is, my favorite pages deal with Wharton's 4,000-volume library, beautifully bound, much read and marked up. Only a careful and passionate reader like Lee could communicate the excitement and joy of connecting with Wharton through the record she left of a life of reading:

These marginal marks make up a form of autobiography. There are love gifts from Fullerton and copies of his work; affectionate dedications from James; copies of Berry's books; books she could not discuss with Teddy, or that were left over from his own minimal collection; books that once belonged to her father, her mother or her brothers; early gifts from a great variety of French writers, presentation copies from Theodore Roosevelt. There are old book-plates from Land's End, and the ownership signatures of "Edith Jones." There are corrections she made in her copies of her own works. Her books do not just provide evidence for her life story, they were also protagonists in it, and the equivalent of old friends.

I love this idea of books, marked-up and idiosyncratically organized, as somewhere between a record of one's life and a room of one's friends. It's how I feel about my own library, and a source of joy to me every day. Occurring, as it does, toward the end of the biography, this section on Wharton's library is a chance for the reader to look back over the course of her long life from a different perspective, and to access her feelings in a different, and possibly more intimate, way.

There's no avoiding it, Edith Wharton is long: 762 pages in paperback, discounting the copious notes section. It's a commitment, and there are quirks that strike the modern reader as odd: Lee's decision, for example, not to translate most of her French quotations. (I personally quite liked this, since I read French middling-well and prefer not to read the same passage twice, but I can understand how it might get frustrating for the majority of English readers.) But to me, every page of this tome was worthwhile. I now feel I know someone new: a driven, passionate, flawed individual, one I appreciate and disagree with, one who would probably not like or humor me if we had dinner together, but one who seems tangibly present thanks to this biography. My own copy of Edith Wharton is just as marked-up as Wharton's volumes of Keats or Proust, and will be a good friend to me from now on.

(Edith Wharton was my sixth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography