Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.
- False Dawn (pp. 3-74): The ‘Forties.
I was intending a post on all four of the novellas in this collection together, but I decided it was worth devoting a whole post to each one. They deal respectively with the New York of the 1840s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These can serve as my contribution to bloggers posting on Novellas in November #NovNov (no particular host; I learned about it from Bookish Beck)
This is the same complacent, morally bankrupt New York world that Wharton indicted so trenchantly in novels like The Age of Innocence (link to my post HERE). Some of the characters and motifs reappear from that 1920 novel across this collection.
The plot is simple: a bastion of conservative, wealthy New York, Halston Raycie, sends his son, whom he considers a weakling, on the European ‘Grand Tour’ to make a man of him, but also to buy a collection of artworks that will fill his planned Raycie Gallery. He’s an ignorant philistine, and wants only those universally acknowledged Old Masters that mean nothing to him, but that he has learnt are esteemed as “acceptable taste” and considered worthy as ostenatious domestic ornaments by his equally ignorant, mercenary peers. He’s not interested in the aesthetics of the mission, just the anticipated glory acquired by owning ‘a gallery of Heirlooms’. On this he is ‘dogmatic and explicit.’
No surprises how all this turns out. More interesting is the depiction of this monstrous patriarch and his family. Here’s how we first hear about his own marriage and lineage:
He thought well of most things related to himself by ties of blood or interest. No one had ever been quite sure that he made Mrs Raycie happy, but he was known to have the highest opinion of her.
As for his two daughters, ‘fresher replicas of the lymphatic Mrs Raycie’,
no one would have sworn that they were quite at ease with their genial parent, yet everyone knew how loud he was in their praises.
The son Lewis, however, is a disappointment to the ‘monumental’ father (in physique as well as public image). He’s rather a puny specimen, and like his submissive mother and downtrodden sisters has had most of the stuffing knocked out of him by his bullying father; but he’s determined to defy the bully. His sister Mary Adeline also shows signs of pluck and decency by secretly supplying alms to the destitute and ailing Mrs Edgar Poe, of all people, who lives nearby. The father, of course, despises the decadent author, considering him ‘a blasphemer’.
Raycie snr adheres to the views of the New York élite that Wharton has skewered in her novels set in that city: be ‘prudent and circumspect’, take no risks and behave entirely conventionally (morality is less important than appearances and wealth). Only marry into the most respectable (and wealthy) families, and disparage anything outside of this narrow, self-approving social circle and its cruelly rigid moral code.
So it’s with some trepidation that we read of Lewis’s love for dowdy orphan Treeshy. She’s had the misfortune (in the Raycie view) to be born in Italy – a susipiciously foreign background – and to be less than beautiful. A society wife should adorn and magnify her husband like a trophy (as Mrs Raycie does with her expensive imported clothes and impeccably conventional household décor and customs).
Lewis’s bravado increases the further away from New York he travels. He thinks of his father’s ‘fussy tyranny of his womenkind’. Mrs Raycie is given a pittance of pin-money by her husband out of the fortune she herself had brought to the marriage, and which he’d taken over. This was of course the era when all of a wife’s property became the husband’s after marriage. What little she’s allowed by him is expected to be spent on the fripperies that make her look the part of such a grand husband.
The account of young Lewis’s tour is entertainingly done. Here’s how ‘the East’ is described:
so squalid and splendid, so pestilent and so poetic, so full of knavery and romance and fleas and nightingales.
When he meets John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and other forward-thinking aesthetes in Europe he’s rashly inspired to buy the paintings that the philistine New York-Raycie world will deprecate. Poor Lewis; his rite of passage into manhood is doomed from the start. To his credit, he sticks to his principles, and tries to behave ‘humanely’. So many of such social rebels in Wharton’s fiction, though, end up crushed by that snobbish, inbred social élite, ‘encased in [its] security and monotony’, adorned by its ‘pearls and Rolls and Royces.’
It’s a privileged, snobbish, self-perpetuating society that Wharton shows engaging in a kind of social eugenics – the theme of tainted lineage crops up again and again in Old New York and her other fiction. Like that of impoverished Treeshy, brought up among ‘ignorant foreigners’. It’s a xenophobia that is shown not just towards foreigners, but to anyone deemed socially ‘not one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher so memorably, chillingly put it.
Link to my posts on seven more works of Wharton fiction HERE.