Edith Wharton: New Year’s Day

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

  1. New Year’s Day (pp. 227-306). The 1870s

Before I discuss this last of the four novellas in Old New York, here are some thoughts about the collection as a whole. Although each story stands alone, there are links and connections that cohere across the volume.

All of them deal with an infraction against the social laws/code/traditions of upper-class New York society, which is exposed as deeply hypocritical and cruelly rigid and judgemental in its reaction to it; even some of the participants in the infraction share some of these views.

In False Dawn it’s young Lewis’s presumption in buying artworks in Europe that don’t conform to his philistine father’s idea of heirlooms for his gallery that other wealthy, aesthetically challenged socialites will recognise as works by the Old Masters.

In The Old Maid it’s the giving birth to an illegitimate child, and then pretending it’s a foundling so that the mother can help raise it incognito. In The Spark it’s the deceived husband’s thrashing his wife’s lover in public; society accepts concealed adultery that obeys the rules of appearances, but not openly exposing them to cause a scandal it can’t ignore.

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’

New Year’s Day is a little different; more about that in a moment.

All four have a complicated, syncopated time-frame. Each story has a dramatic set-up at the start, then in the second part, usually some time later, a revelation is made about the secret or issue that was the topic of the first part; this serves as ironic commentary on that topic that causes it to be seen in a new light.

There’s a common narrator in three of the stories: the young Harvard graduate also features in New Year’s Day. Only The Old Maid is narrated by a woman.

The attitude to art and literature, noted above in connection with False Dawn, serves as another index of society’s snobbery, philistinism, moral atrophy and obsession with going along with received opinions. Again, the participants in the action are often guilty of such narrow-mindedness and insensitivity to the arts.

Now for New Year’s Day. It’s difficult to say much about this novella without spoilers. I’ll focus on its slippery narrative structure and themes. As it’s focalised on the young man mentioned above, we are given only his partial account. It has the usual dramatic opening, in which his mother is remembered condemning Mrs Charles Hazeldean (Lizzie) as ‘bad’, an adulteress who used to meet her lover in The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Lizzie is seen, when the narrator is a child of twelve, leaving the hotel, which is across the street from the house he’s visiting for the titular family gathering, with her lover. They were fleeing a fire in the hotel.

Later, as a callow graduate of twenty-one, he becomes infatuated with the disgraced Lizzie, now a widow. She’s been ostracised by society, which was as usual outraged that she’d had the bad taste to let her affair become public knowledge – not for having the affair. That would have been fine if she’d played by the hypocritical rules of marital infidelity.

What follows is the young man’s breathless recounting of the story Lizzie tells him about that affair. Her version, which he swallows unquestioningly, is that she was using her lover to bankroll the medication, care and travel to warmer climates her sick husband needed. Although he suffers from a heart condition, his symptoms also resemble TB, the symbolic significance of which I discussed in The Old Maid post. (There’s another of those references seen in the earlier novellas to people being ‘shipped off to die in Italy’.)

She portrays herself as a saintly, loving wife who sacrifices her virtue and reputation in the eyes of the venomous, narrow-minded hypocrites of society to save her dying husband, like a New York Nora Helmer. She’s heroically prepared to pay the price for this sacrifice, and spends her later years, during which the narrator becomes a doting confidant, isolated as a social pariah, a tainted woman whom no other woman will call on; what’s venomously known as ‘a professional’ (ie a courtesan). This version is revealed through a complicated sequence of flashbacks over a period of time, as in the other three novellas.

The narrator repeatedly stresses how naïve and innocent he was, ‘an overgrown boy’, and how desperate to believe this glamorous, faded beauty’s melodramatic “confession”. He’s also at pains to tell us how skilful she’d always been at winding men round her little finger, using her beauty and charm as a weapon in the gender and social war; her husband Charles was her first major conquest.

Again we see how unequal the struggle is in this society for a woman born without fortune or vocation, only ‘put in the world to please’ (men); her only asset is her ability to look pretty and prosperous, provided she can find a husband to fund the look. It’s a struggle that’s been a central theme not just in much of Wharton’s writings, but in Victorian and later fiction (George Gissing’s The Odd Women, for example).

Like Delane in The Spark, she’s depicted as animated, independent and uncaring about what society thinks of her, with her own egregious moral code. Also like him she’s incapable of loving books as her husband had. This literary blind spot is perhaps another indication of her disingenuous story about her fall from social grace. She may not read fiction, but she can certainly ‘read hearts’, and this enables her to manipulate the gullible, sexually predatory men around her. The price she pays, the ‘cold celibacy’ of her widowhood, is probably genuine.

The final message is one seen throughout this collection: New York society affects not to find wealth important, ‘but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.’

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, The Spark

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

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.

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.

 

 

 

 

Fleas and nightingales: Edith Wharton, False Dawn #NovNov

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

  1. 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.

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’

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.