Edith Wharton, The Old Maid

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Old Maid (pp. 75-172) The 1850s

Running through three of the four novellas comprising Edith Wharton’s Old New York is the fear and presence of disease, in particular tuberculosis; it seems to be a metaphor for a number of things (as well as being an ever-present danger and cultural motif, as so many Romantic poets, Victorian novelists and artists attested in their own lives and work).

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

In The Old Maid the disease has a central significance: Charlotte Lovell, an impoverished member of one of the ‘prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society’ of New York, falls ill and is feared to be “going like her father” – he’d died at thirty of ‘lung-fever’ – another name for TB or ‘consumption’. She has ominous ‘rounds of brick-rose on her cheek-bones, which almost (preposterous thought!) made her look as if she painted’.

This description early on in the novella is focalised through the narrator, her married cousin Delia Ralston. Delia’s patronising appraisal – that hint of the ‘painted woman’ or courtesan – invokes perhaps the stereotypical Camille/Violetta figure. Charlotte’s sickliness arises from her contaminated character in Delia’s old New Yorker’s eyes.

Robert Koch published in 1882 his microbiological findings on the tubercle bacillus (hence TB) as the contagious cause of tuberculosis. Until then it was believed to be inherited – hence the assumption about the physiological (as well as the metaphorical) etiology of Charlotte’s disease. Susan Sontag points out in Illness as Metaphor (1978) that TB was long thought to produce ‘exacerbated sexual desire’, afflicting ‘the reckless and sensual’ – a disease of passion or, paradoxically, repression.

Having the disease was ‘imagined to be an aphrodisiac, and to confer extraordinary powers of seduction.’ Charlotte could therefore be seen as representing a dangerously sexual woman, ‘consumed’ by passion. Her confession to Delia that she had an illegitimate baby daughter would confirm such a view.

It would also add weight to the interpretation that her disease is a consequence of the suppressed secret of her shame. A melodramatic plot follows (it was made into a stage play in 1935, and filmed in 1939 with Bette Davis in the title role, and Miriam Hopkins as Delia; life imitated art, in that they apparently strove to upstage each other on set with barely concealed mutual jealousy).

The baby’s father is revealed to be the man Delia had rejected as being too ‘reckless’; he was that unthinkable combination as a potential husband: a penniless artist and living in Italy. He’d not consented to ‘give up painting and Rome’. As in all the novellas in this collection, Italy is perceived as only good for taking the Grand Tour (as in False Dawn) and a suitable climate for consumptives to be shipped off to. As Italian-born Treeshy Kent says to her lover in False Dawn:

“My uncle Kent says the European countries are all wicked, even my own poor Italy…”

Delia chose instead the safe, unadventurous Jim Ralston, a stalwart of her ‘safe, friendly, hypocritical New York’, and settled for ‘the insidious lulling of the matter-of-course’, a marriage to a dull man whose forebears ‘had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account’. His ancestry is described in one of Edith Wharton’s more acerbic images:

Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative element that holds new societies together as seaplants bind the seashore.

As I suggested in my post on False Dawn, there’s an obsession with breeding in these top New York families that verges on eugenics. This is made clear in the opening pages of The Old Maid, and the description of the Ralston heritage. Marriages with Dutch Vandergraves:

had consolidated those qualities of thrift and handsome living, and the carefully built-up Ralston character was now so congenital that Delia Ralston sometimes asked herself whether, were she to turn her own little boy [after four years of marriage she’s the mother of two children] loose in a wilderness, he would not create a small New York there, and be on all its boards of directors.

The wittiness of this image is darkened by Delia’s uneasy acceptance of the underlying snobbishness and moral atrophy – characteristics of old New Yorkers that are skewered throughout the four novellas.

As for that racial purity: Delia warns off Charlotte’s fiancé, Joe Ralston, her husband’s cousin (there’s that obsession with blood purity again) – not by telling him about Charlotte’s baby, but that she’d recently coughed up blood. She knows what the outcome will be:

The bridegroom who had feared that his bride might bring home contagion from her visits to the poor would not knowingly implant disease in his race…[W]hich one [of the top New York families] had not some grave to care for in a distant cemetery: graves of young relatives “in a decline”, sent abroad to be cured by balmy Italy? The Protestant grave-yards of Rome and Pisa were full of New York names; the vision of that familiar pilgrimage with a dying wife was one to turn the most ardent Ralston cold.

The gender inequality in what were considered acceptable social mores is spelled out starkly when Delia justifies to herself her action in thus ‘sacrificing’ Charlotte as the only honourable thing to do:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

One would hope that Delia’s subsequent taking in Charlotte and baby Tina to her household results in a rare case of female solidarity in Wharton’s world; instead their ménage becomes unbearably strained. Delia is fondly called ‘Mamma’ by the growing girl, which makes her biological mother jealous (she calls her ‘aunt Charlotte’); meanwhile Delia is jealous of Charlotte because she’s the biological mother. Charlotte’s acquiescence and abasement in the dowdy title role, sacrificing the possibility of a loving maternal role with her daughter to take on that of a shamed, sterile outcast, and is treated with condescending pity by the other two women, is painfully dramatized by Wharton.