Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

Purchased at Indigo.ca

As Part One of Edith Wharton’s novella, Sanctuary, is drawing to a close, young Kate Orme has just confirmed her fear that her fiance, Denis Peyton, has told her a devestating, and all too convenient, lie. It has shaken her deeply and she asks her father about it — he finds nothing wrong, indeed he feels Denis’ behavior has been quite appropriate:

Long after Mr Orme had left the topic, Kate remained lost in its contemplation. She had begun to perceive that the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals; it was only among the reckless and improvident that such hygienic precautions were neglected. Who was she to pass judgment on the merits of such a system? The social health must be preserved: the means devised were the result of long experience and the collective instinct of self-preservation. She had meant to tell her father that evening that her marriage had been put off, but she now abstained from doing so, not from any doubt of Mr. Orme’s acquiescence — he could always be made to feel the force of conventional scruples — but because the whole question sank into insignificance beside the larger issue that his words had raised.

Edith Newbold Jones grew up in that high society world and knew firsthand the perceived value of keeping those social secrets — the reference may be inaccurate but it is said her family is the source of the phrase “keeping up with Joneses”. Her unhappy marriage to a Boston Brahmin, Edward Wharton, took her even further into it. She spent most of the last four decades of her life portraying aspects of it in her fiction.

Sanctuary was published in 1903 — only her third published fictional work, after The Touchstone (another novella) and The Valley of Decision. But if you have read any Wharton at all, the paragraph quoted above could serve as a synopsis of a condition that will feature in almost all her famous works — it is an apt description of the world of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country and a whole cast of characters in The Age of Innocence. Great artists often do detailed sketches to prepare for their larger canvases — Sanctuary is only 94 pages, but it is a distinctive sketch of the world that Wharton will explore in much more intricate detail in the future.

Like many of Wharton’s heroines, Kate Orme is a hopeless romantic who, when we first meet her, has experienced life as a bird living in a gilded cage:

Kate Orme was engaged in one of those rapid mental excursions that were forever sweeping her from the straight path of the actual into uncharted regions of conjecture. Her survey of life had always been marked by the tendency to seek out ultimate relations, to extend her researches to the limit of her imaginative experience. But hitherto she had been like some young captive brought up in a windowless palace whose painted walls she takes for the actual world. Now the palace had been shaken to its base, and through a cleft in the walls she looked out upon life. For the first moment all was indistinguishable blackness; then she began to detect vague shapes and confused gestures in the depths. There were people below there, men like Denis, girls like herself — for under the unlikeness she felt the strange affinity — all struggling in that awful coil of moral darkness, with agonised hands reaching up for rescue.

Until her discovery of what she perceives as a moral outrage, Denis has a “happy literalness” — an easy, overall acceptance of the world as it is — that served to offset Kate’s “visualizing habit”. Now, in a circumstance that will be reflected by future Wharton heroines, she finds herself isolated, unguided and searching for a compass.

And, in another trait that will occur in future works, Kate opts not to engage with the world to deal with her distress but to internalize it completely and arrive at her own self-centred (and inherently selfish) resolution. I won’t spoil by revealing exactly how she resolves her dilemma, but it gives nothing away to say that the marriage to Denis goes ahead.

Part Two of Sanctuary takes place more than 25 years later. Denis died eight years into the marriage, but not before it produced a son, Dick. Kate has devoted her life, in a not-totally-healthy fashion, to her son, including accompanying him to Paris where he studied as an architect. When Part Two opens, Dick Peyton is busily engaged in preparing drawings for a competition to design a museum extension that he believes he must win to “make” his career. His best friend from Paris, Darrow, is preparing for the same competition — even Dick knows that Darrow has more talent and he regards his friend as his only competition.

And, to complete the Wharton pattern that will show up in future work, Dick also has a prospective mate, Clemence Verney, an early example of the kind of delightful, intriguing secondary characters who add so much to Wharton’s overall work — Clemence too has a “happy literalness” although in her case it is leavened by an unshakable determination to do whatever is required to get ahead.

Part Two features another moral dilemma and, again, Kate responds with complete internalizaton of the consequences even though in this case she is not directly involved. As much as we might want to love her, Kate has a destructive selfishness that rises to the surface whenever reality threatens.

Edith Wharton is on my shortlist of “best authors ever” and Sanctuary joins my list of worthwhile works that she has written, even if it does come from very early in her career (she had just started The House of Mirth when this was published — in some ways, it reads as though she was “purging” herself of some external characteristics or circumstances that she did not want Lily Birt to have). If you know Wharton’s work, I think that, like myself, you will find it a fascinating indication of what is yet to come. If you don’t know her work, it is a quick read with which to start getting acquainted — but remember it is only a “sketch” of what Wharton will eventually produce.

Indeed, I can come up with no better critical assessment than that which William Fiennes supplies in the Hesperus Press edition that I read:

Later, in A Backward Glance, Wharton describes her friendship with a judge named Walter Berry, who would read her manuscripts with forensic attention. ‘With each book,’ Wharton writes, ‘he exacted a higher standard in economy of expression, in purity of language, in the avoidance of the hackneyed and the precious.’ Sanctuary doesn’t always meet the Berry standard. The opening paragraphs, with their surfeit of abstract nouns (happiness, beatitude, peace, joy, confusion, harmony) and imprecisions (seemed, a certain, somehow), are some way from the shimmering specificity of The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. Those novels contain some of the most thrilling prose of the twentieth century. Sanctuary is a flexing of wings.

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16 Responses to “Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    Very nice assessment Kevin. I’ve just read Ethan Frome and plan to work through Wharton’s career in a build-up to The Age of Innocence. It sounds like this would be easy – and well worthwhile – to fit into the schedule.

    I had planned The Custom of the Country as my next Wharton. I read House of Mirth earlier in the year and I must say starting to read her has been a highlight of 2011.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I would recommend both this and The Touchstone as invaluable examples of early Wharton work that you will be able to relate both to the major novels that you have read and those that are on the agenda. I haven’t found a collection of her shorter fiction in North America like an Everyman’s Library or Modern Library and now have purchased enough shorter works that it wouldn’t be useful anyway — you may have options in the U.K. that we don’t have here. NYRB has published an excellent collection of her New York short stories which I also find very useful if you opt for the multi-volume approach to her shorter work.

    I’ll admit that I find her novellas and short stories a literary version of an ice-cream sundae — I curled up with this one looking forward to 90 minutes of entrancing reading and that is exactly what I got (even if it is not an example of her best work). I can’t say there are very many other authors who I know will provide that kind of one-evening value.

    As for the major novels, I’d say reading The Custom of the Country next would probably be best — unless the New York aspect of The Age of Innocence is particularly appealing to you. Both are exceptional; Custom of the Country may be a little more fun because it has some wonderful satire in it.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Thanks for the additional pointers Kevin. I planned to get the NYRB collection as well – and I am saving Age of Innocence for last.

    I see Library of America have a 4-volume Wharton set, including 2 volumes of stories. They are monster books though, 8 or 900 pages each. Personally I find smaller books more amenable generally, even if you forego the convenience of having everything between a single set of covers.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: For the most part, I agree about those monster collections, although I do have a few. It costs more to buy shorter works individually (although I do love the physical feel of Hesperus novellas — and their excellent covers) but I must admit I find it a better reading experience.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Another thumbs down for the monster collections. Love the cover of this one. Incredible use of the term ‘honeycombed” in the first quote.

    And, yes, kevin, I agree, one of the best-authors-ever.

    Have you read The Reef? An underappreciated Wharton, I think.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I have The Reef and The Children on hand but have read neither — I’ll admit to rationing the Wharton novels that I have not yet read.

  7. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    You have reminded me that I have to make a start on reading Edith Wharton – I feel my literary education is incomplete in that I have never touched her books.

    Over here we have a quarterly journal called Slightly Foxed which contains articles rediscovering forgotten writers – I keep picking up on authors from the first half of the last century and think what a fantastic era it was for literature.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Well, the good thing about not having read her is that you have a lot of reading to look forward to :-). She is definitely worth the time.

  9. Lee Monks Says:

    One of the greatest ever authors. Your ‘ice-cream sundae’ analogy works for me. The House of Mirth and particularly The Age of Innocence are pretty much the pinnacle. And I look forward to your ‘Best of 2011′ list, Kevin…

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I’d add The Custom of the Country into the top three, mainly because I find Undine so intriguing. Having said that, I don’t like doing a “best of” with Wharton because I like everything of hers that I have read — my ranking is more a reflection of my mood of the moment than a reasoned assessment.

  11. Lee Monks Says:

    I haven’t read it. I’m saving it…though Julian Barnes agrees: he cites it as one of his favourite ten novels.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have too much unread Wharton to add this one yet. I want to read Ethan Frome and The Custom of the Country first, but still an interesting review Kevin and I can see once I’ve read more of the majors this might shed some interesting light on that earlier flexing of her powers.

    Count me as another by the way who finds monster collections offputting. So bulky, and somehow so intimidating. Books which individually are a delight collected together can seem a project, a canon, rather than something alive and still engaging.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I have a small section on a shelf near my reading chair of what I think of as “one-night reads” — novellas or short novels that I am confident I will like and can finish in a single evening. I guess I’d say they are the reading equivalent of a sorbet at a formal dinner: something the cleanse the palate (especially appreciated after a course or two that didn’t really succeed) and get one ready for some more serious dining/reading up ahead. Sanctuary (and other short Wharton — and Henry James) did that for me — I’ll admit that description probably best describes my very un-disciplined approach to the shorter works of two authors whom I very much admire. So stick with those major works for now.

  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s essentially the goal of Peirene Press Kevin. Their concept is novellas capable of being read in a couple of hours, instead of watching a movie say. I’ve reviewed some of theirs at mine and some are very good. Possibly worth you adding to your shelf.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have been watching reviews of their publications — may put together a Book Depository order later this year. So far, it seems, I’ve been working my way through the Hesperus catalogue (which I’d say has many of the same characteristics).

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