I’ve always been drawn to Edith Wharton’s work, partly because of its astonishing combination of elegance and urgency, and partly because her world is so familiar.
Wharton and I come from similar backgrounds. I grew up with the rules that governed her: emotions were to be strictly controlled, pain was not to be acknowledged, and the rules of decorum were to be obeyed. I’ve always been fascinated by her unblinking exegesis of all this, the way you are when someone breaks the rules, the way you are when you read something and think, “What? Are you allowed to write about this?”
Wharton wrote about her world in a way that made it possible for me – and for all of us who come after her – to go into our own worlds still further, and to tease out the innermost reaches of pain and passion from the decorous woven fabric of our lives.
The following is excerpted with permission from the introduction to The New York Stories of Edith Wharton:
A writer’s world both shelters and confines, and she must write her way both into and out of it. She must form her own world, but it will always be part of the one that formed her. It will always be both beginning and end of her journey.
Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862, in the family brownstone on West 23rd Street. Her forebears were Dutch, English and Huguenot – a long line of successful merchants, bankers and lawyers. They were well-established, and at the time of her birth, Edith’s family had lived in New York for nearly two hundred years. Old New York was an insular, tribal society, with a rigid caste system and a strict code of behaviour. The code of manners governed all aspects of behaviour, including frivolous ones of social comportment. At the core of this code, however, was a stern Puritan ethos of moral rectitude, self-reliance and a stoic disregard of pain. Edith learned the rules of this formal, restrained world, but she also felt the presence of another, unacknowledged one. This held emotions and ideas, and it seethed around her like an invisible mist. Wharton learned the power of the secret, forbidden realm, that the laws of decorum were set up to control and counteract. The conflict between these worlds – the mannered, mandarin one, and the passionate, uncontrollable one – would provide the central dynamic of her work.
Despite moving to Europe, Wharton never gave up her American citizenship, however, and her deepest literary and emotional connections always remained to her world – Old New York. Her first novel, a historical romance called The Valley of Decision, was set in Italy. When it was published, in 1902, Henry James had famously advised her: “Use the American subject! Do New York! There it is round you.” But New York was already Wharton’s subject; she had been “doing” it in stories for over a decade, and would continue throughout her career. New York was the center of her life, the place where she had struggled most ardently with conflicting claims of manners and passion, the place where her heart had beat most powerfully; where her soul had seemed most desperately constrained and her happiness most perilously at risk. In her work, New York received her greatest scrutiny, sternest criticism and deepest understanding. It was her greatest subject. In her New York stories, we find all of Wharton’s great themes: stifled passion and the suffocating soul; the conflict between idealism and pragmatism; the charged erotic constellation of marriage, adultery, divorce and betrayal.
One of the richest and most fertile themes in Wharton’s work was that of the complicated connection between love and pain. Wharton’s own romantic history was not happy: her first engagement was broken off, not by her. A second romantic relationship, disappointingly, did not produce an offer. Her marriage to Teddy Wharton was neither passionate nor fulfilling, and ended in misery. Her brief erotic engagement with Morton Fullerton was wounding. These experiences are reflected in her fiction: rarely are her central male characters both sympathetic andeffective. Those who are sympathetic are often passive or uncommitted; those who are powerful are often evasive and opaque, solipsistic or brutal. The presence of a subtle emotional sadism runs like a dark undercurrent through Wharton’s fiction. The same troubling theme is strikingly present in “The Dilettante,” written in 1903, long before her affair. Perhaps her most shocking story, “The Dilettante” is a subtle disquisition on cruelty. Thursdale, an idle and worldly bachelor, maintains an amitie amoureusewith Mrs. Vervain, an elegant divorcee. Cold, cynical and controlling, Thursdale considers their relationship, and the “emotional training” he has given Mrs. Vervain. As the narrative unfolds we learn of his decision to marry – though not, of course, the well-schooled Mrs. Vervain. He has found a fresh, untainted young woman. With sublime effrontery he asks his mistress to support his marriage suit, persuading the young fiancee of Thursdale’s worth. The lethal potency of the story arises partly from Mrs. Vervain’s intelligence and vitality: she seems to have deliberately chosen this ghastly thralldom, this humiliating emotional martyrdom. In return for it she receives only a cruel intimacy. Love is what she wants, but it is not offered, and she is too well-trained to make a scene.
Wharton wrote brilliantly right up to the end of her life, and “Roman Fever,” of 1934, just three years before her death, is one of her great stories. It is not a quiet rumination on mortality, but the summoning up of rage, stifled passion, and sexuality: a remarkable work for a woman of seventy-two.
Though the story is set entirely on a rooftop terrace in contemporary Rome, Old New York is a looming presence, and provides the background of “two American ladies of ripe but well-cared for middle age.” Friends since childhood, brownstone neighbours on East 73rd Street, now both widowed and the mothers of two marriageable daughters, the two sit decorously watching the sunset “…contemplating it in silence, with a sort of diffused serenity which might have been borrowed from the spring effulgence of the Roman skies.” Mrs. Slade thinks slightingly that her friend’s late husband “was – well, just the duplicate of his wife. Museum specimens of old New York. Good looking, irreproachable, exemplary.” Slowly, through dialogue and flashbacks, the two recall their young womanhood, inducting us into its secret sisterhood as they remember a common visit to Rome some twenty-five years earlier. If New York represents a moribund rigidity, Rome embodies a dark, charged vitality, worldly and unfathomable. The fever of the title refers to malaria, a fatal nineteenth-century disease and a real threat before the Roman marshes were drained. Fever was the ostensible reason for keeping young women inside during the evenings. The risk of illness was real, but so was the other, unspoken reason for sequestration – sexual adventure, with its terrifying consequences.
Seated overlooking a ravishing twilit view of Rome, with its “great accumulated wreckage of passion and splendor,” the women are carried by the march of memory, to the rising rhythm of animosity, through a landscape of jealousy and deception, illicit assignations, sexual thrall and unwed pregnancy. It is a virtuoso’s performance, and Wharton’s greatest story of old New York may be this one, set in Rome. Here Wharton reverts to her most enduring theme, the power of passion. It is passion that has driven the lives of these two decorous matrons, and it is passion that reveals itself anew, as they sit in the splendor of the Roman sunset.
Edith Wharton’s lifetime spanned the Victorian era, the First World War, the Jazz Age, and the Depression. It was a period of enormous transitions, and subject to the competing forces of conservatism and modernism. The great changes she witnessed are reflected in her work, against the backdrop of old New York. Wharton’s writing is difficult to place. She schooled herself by reading non-fiction: history, philosophy and scientific theory. This gave her a firm intellectual grounding and a rational, analytical approach to the world. She admired the novel of ideas, and the work of George Eliot and George Sand. Because of the elevated social circles of her characters, as well as the subtlety and nuance of her work, she has often been compared to Henry James, a mentor and friend. James was a very different sort of writer, however, and his vision was interior and more mysterious than hers. Wharton’s work had more clarity and directness, more boldness and drama.
Wharton wrote about the twentieth century, but, by her formal, ceremonial style and her belief in a moral order, she was linked inextricably to the nineteenth. The next generation of writers – Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, among others. – shared a sense of post-war disillusionment, and they experimented with literary styles that reflected the fractured rhythms of the twentieth century. Despite her decorous style, however, Wharton is anything but prim. Her work is informed by candor, clarity, and a deep understanding of the great subversive force of the emotions. Perhaps only one for whom the life of the emotions has been so explicitly forbidden can truly understand the potency of that life.
Wharton’s work was overlooked for many years because of its awkward placement, stranded between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Returned now to its rightful prominence in the history of American letters, it offers a profound and moving reflection on desire and its consequences, on freedom and its limits, in American life. Her New York stories show Edith Wharton’s world as she knew it. They show the crystalline brilliance of Wharton’s literary style; they show the intellectual reach and the complexity of her mind. They show the courage, depth, and compassion of her heart. They show her to be one of our greatest short story writers.