Archive for the ‘Wharton, Edith (4)’ Category

Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

December 12, 2011

Purchased at

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.


The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

January 4, 2010

Purchased at Hatcherd's, Piccadilly

Undine Spragg may not be the most selfish central character in English-language fiction, but she certainly deserves a place on the short-list. Since her childhood in Ajax City, somewhere in the American mid-West, her entire life has been devoted to upward social mobility.

Her parents have fed this obsession. Her father, a successful business manipulator in Ajax, has, at Undine’s demand, summered at Great Lakes resorts and then in Virginia and neither of those two spas met the cut for his daughter — he now finds himself ensconced in the Hotel Stentorian in New York City, as Undine trolls for bigger fish. She has known since childhood that the way “up” was to hitch yourself to higher-flying stars but now she is in the City and opportunity blooms:

Undine, as a child, had taken but a lukewarm interest in the diversion of her playmates. Even in the early days when she had lived with her parents in a ragged outskirt of Apex, and hung on the fence with Indiana Frusk, the freckled daughter of the plumber ‘across the way’, she had cared little for dolls or skipping-ropes, and still less for the riotous games in which the loud Indiana played Atalanta to all the boyhood of the quarter. Already Undine’s chief delight was to ‘dress up’ in her mother’s Sunday skirt and ‘play lady’ before the wardrobe mirror. The taste had outlasted childhood, and she still practised the same secret pantomime, gliding in, settling her skirts, swaying her fan, moving her lips in soundless talk and laughter; but lately she had shrunk from everything that reminded her of her baffled social yearnings. Now, however, she could yield without afterthought to the joy of dramatizing her beauty. Within a few days she would be enacting the scene she was now mimicking; and it amused her to see in advance just what impression she would produce on Mrs. Fairford’s guests.

That quote from the early pages of the novel is instructive. Undine knows what she is good at (mainly being beautiful) and knows what she wants (more, more and more is a fair summary). And while she is aware of her weaknesses (they all come down to a lack of exposure) she is more than willing to learn — and learning, for her, is to gain access to the company and experience of people whom she can exploit.

I make no secret of the fact that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors — one of her other great novels, The House of Mirth, was one of the first posts on this blog and her novella, The Touchstone, followed some months later (links to both posts here). Her best works capture and amalgmate two themes — the transition of New York from “old” to “new” money as the twentieth century dawns and the forces that play on upwardly mobile individuals in that changing society.

The Custom of the Country is arguably the best of her novels, rivalling The Age of Innocence — I think this one would get my vote. Wharton herself was born to old money and married, disastrously, into new. This novel was written in 1913 after Wharton had moved to Europe and, not coincidentally, the year of her divorce from Teddy Wharton. The “custom of the country” of the title has more than one reference in the book — one is the notion of divorce as a needed tactic for those who want to move up the social scale, the other is the idea that the American way to achieve self-interest is to exploit all the social opportunities that are around you.

Undine’s life journey is, perhaps, captured in her strange first name. Those with a classical background will know that she is related to the nereids, the classical sea-nymphs. But that was not what inspired her parents. Rather, as her mother explains, it was the source of the family fortune: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born…it’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.”

Undine learned early on that the shortest way to her goals was/is through marriage. Her first, back in Ajax, is to Elmer Moffat; it is quickly to be undone by her father, but will remain a powerful force throughout the book. As we first meet her in New York, she is angling for her second and sets her sights on Ralph Marvel, the symbol of “old” New York money, which in this book comes down to a lot of “old” ethics and not much money, a sign of the times.

Old New York is comfortable and wants no part of the smart New York money, represented by Wall Street. Undine discovers, too late, that she has married into the the wrong class. Ralph takes her to Europe (finally, in her estimation) but all the wrong Europe — dreadful, boring Italian mountain towns with art and history, instead of the glamor of the cafes of Paris (only patronized by Americans) or even, horrors, swinging London.

Undine finds a useful amusement when she returns to New York in the form of an acquaintance with Peter Van Degen, the avatar of “new money” in this book. Societally well-married, and very rich, Van Degen wants nothing more than an affair with Undine. Alas, despite the custom of the country, or perhaps because of it, that is not on in Undine’s complicated moral world. She is willing to follow Peter to Paris and let him subisdize and entertain her, but anything more is not allowed.

Which is where Wharton introduces her own European experience and values — she had been spending more than half her time in Europe for close to a decade before writing this novel. As Charles Bowen, an older American who is a sort of amanuensis in this novel, observes:

To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people who give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

Undine does marry into French tradition and money — and does discover that her reach has finally exceeded her grasp.

I’m sorry to end my thoughts there, but Wharton’s ending deserves not to be spoiled. She has created a marvelous cast of characters (my concentration on Undine is an understatement of what the book has to offer — Ralph Marvel, in particular, is fully developed) who serve her overriding theme.

The Custom of the Country is one of the best novels ever written in English. Wharton develops a number of important themes and succeeds with each of them. It is truly a book that should be treasured.

The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

October 16, 2009

Purchased at

Purchased at

I admit to being a fan of all Edith Wharton’s work — short stories, novellas, novels. Born to the purple and wed to it as well, throughout her career she maintained her ability to portray New York society at the turn of the century with a discerning critical eye. Like Henry James, she left the country of her birth for Europe, but she never lost her skill to analyze it. If anything, again like James, distance heightened the perception that was already present.

The Touchstone, an early novella (written in 1900, so very early in her overall work), displays all of these traits — while it is not perfect, it is an excellent example of what is to come. And I would be very remiss if I did not acknowledge the wonderful look and feel of the Hesperus Press edition that I read, not just the beautiful cover but also the way that Hesperus produced a physically impressive short volume that is a delight to hold as well as read.

Stephen Glennard has only one marketable asset — the love letters sent to him by the eminent, now deceased, author, Margaret Aubyn. They had grown up together in upstate New York; Margaret (not unlike Wharton) had married poorly, then divorced and she and Stephen had carried on an affair, mainly (again not unlike Wharton) through correspondence. Now that Mrs. Aubyn, the famous novelist, has died, her correspondence has value. Stephen, who has formed a new attachment that he cannot afford, “owns” something of value — will he sacrifice his integrity to exploit it and serve his own ends?

It is no spoiler to say that he does — that in fact is the touchstone of the title. What this novella does is explore the cost that that betrayal inflicts on him and, indeed, on his success. It is a study in the price that is extracted by known but unacknowledged guiilt. It is Wharton showing hints of her best — even though she will get better as she gets older. Consider Stephen’s initial betrayal:

It must have been an hour later that he found himself automatically fitting a key into a locked drawer. He had no more notion than a somnambulist of the mental process that had led up to this action. He was just dimly aware of having pushed aside the papers and the heavy calf volumes that a moment before had bounded his horizon, and of laying in their place, without a trace of conscious violation, the parcel he had taken from the drawer.

The letters were tied in packets of thirty or forty. There were a great many packets. On some of the envelopes the ink was fading; on others, which bore the English postmark, it was still fresh. She had been dead hardly three years, and she had written, at lengthening intervals, to the last…

One of the things that I most admire about Wharton is that her central characters always place expedience ahead of morality — and then spend the rest of their life paying the price for doing that. Stephen Glennard is the prototype for that role. He publishes the letters, makes enough money to afford his society marriage and then has to deal with the consequences.

In true Wharton fashion (no spoiler here), he wants to be discovered. He leaves hints everywhere, and he sees plots. Alas, no one pays any attention. The author winds the yarn tighter and tighter on the bobbin — Stephen can’t wait to be exposed and it just won’t happen.

The subplot that plays out as this is going on is an equally important aspect of the book. Mrs. Aubry wrote the letters to her lover but even though she is now deceased should she be subject to this travesty? While it preoccupies Stephen, no one else in New York society seems to be very much concerned by it — that in itself is an interesting Wharton sub-theme. They love the scandal of the story so much they cannot start to contemplate the cost at which it comes.

Like Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master (reviewed here), The Touchstone is another wonderful novella that opens a Pandora’s box, let’s some things escape and then asks “Why?” As one would expect from early Wharton, it offers some intriguing thoughts about the New York of the time (and now, if you are up to making a few mental leaps). Stephen Glennard had to make his choices — and he did. Edith Wharton in 92 pages does a great job of exploring what those choices actually meant.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.

January 8, 2009

2wharton1The plight of women in unhappy marriages has been experiencing a bit of an upswing lately.  Madmen, the TV series, probably marked the popular start.  Its creator was inspired by Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which Sam Mendes has now turned into a film re-uniting the Titanic stars.

So it is worthwhile to consider that between Jane Austen (or maybe Samuel Richardson) and her unhappy heroines and these women of the 1950s, badly wedded or not, there is another generation of sorely treated women — and Edith Wharton has done a very good job of portraying them.  The daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander — it is said that “Keeping up with the Jones'”  originated as a reference to her father’s family — she was born into the American version of the aristocracy.  She married “up” as it were to Teddy Wharton, thus beginning a domestic disaster which ended with his nervous breakdown and divorce in 1913.  She then headed to Europe, setting herself up in an apartment in Paris owned by George Washington Vanderbilt II (which, if you are trying to be contemporary, gives her a connection with Anderson Cooper of CNN, himself a Vanderbilt — but I digress).

The House of Mirth, published in 1905, was the first of her New York novels, a genre in which she excelled.  It’s central character, Lily Bart, is in some ways the opposite of the women in Revolutionary Road or Madmen — the seeds of her tragedy are sown in her resolute desire not to be married.  It is not that she doesn’t have the chance — or at least think she has the chance — it is that when finally marriage becomes the only option she thinks is open it turns out that it too has closed.  Marriage in the 1950s may be a tragedy, in Wharton’s 1905 New York, not being married was an equal tragedy.

Wharton, a very modern woman when you think about it now, also published books about gardening (The Mount in Lenox, MA remains a testimony to her ability) and interior decorating, but she is probably now remembered principally as a poor person’s Henry James.  Contemporary ex-pats in Europe, they both wrote novels, often looking back over their shoulder to America.  For my money, James is the better novelist, but Wharton does a better job of capturing turn-of-the-century New York City and this first novel of that genre does a wonderful job of setting the table for what is to follow.

Every serious reader of novels has their own picture of the City as framed by novelists, be it Fitzgerald, Salinger, Wolfe or whomever.  Too often, Wharton tends to be overlooked and that is a mistake.  In some ways, the New York she both lived and wrote about is a bridge between Jane Austen’s landed aristocracy in England and Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (fill in Gatsby and the Glass family along the way).  The House of Mirth should be read in conjunction with The Age of Innocence (1920), where Wharton does explore the consequences of marriage and updates her impressions of New York and its restrictive society.   In between, there is the wonderful novel, The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton’s own exploration of the James’ story of the rich American woman in Europe.

The House of Mirth is not a gripping tragedy, but it is a timely one.  As early 21st century culture contemplates the historical role of women, we should look back not just to the 1950s, but to a full century earlier.  In some ways, as Wharton shows, for those women, not much has changed.

In fact, Wharton was very much one of them herself.

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