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.