Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. Oxford World’s Classics, 1983. First published as a serial, 1871; as a book, 1872

The Eustace Diamonds is the third in the Palliser series of novels. They deal largely with the urban worlds of politics and social ambition. The Barchester series, which preceded the Pallisers, focused more on the parochial worlds of the country gentry and clerics.

The central themes of this novel are familiar: the struggle between head and heart of promising but hard-up young men, who need to ‘marry money’ in order to finance their political and/or social ambitions, but who fall improvidently in love with penniless young women.

The flip side of these narratives is the career of Lizzie Eustace, a Becky Sharpe type of character: beautiful, scheming and a serial liar (she cheerfully admits that she prefers lies to truth – they’re more interesting and exciting). Aged just 19 she snares the dissipated, dying Sir Florian Eustace, a man of immense wealth and minimal morals. No sooner are they married than he discovers Lizzie’s true nature – she’d borrowed money on the basis of her impending marriage, and he’s saddled with her huge bills.

Trollope tries hard to condemn ‘this selfish, hard-fisted little woman’, but can’t prevent himself from presenting her as the most attractive character in the novel – even if she is called, at various times, a ‘vixen’; ‘”I do not think Satan himself can lies as she does,”’ says another character of her. Lovable rogues are always more endearing than prudish goody-two-shoes. Aren’t they?

Sir Florian promptly does the only decent thing and dies. Much of the rest of the novel deals with Lizzie’s efforts to hang on to the titular diamond necklace (worth a fabulous £10K – a huge amount at that time) as part of the estate he’d generously left her. His lawyers insist it’s an heirloom, and therefore not hers – it belongs to the Eustace family heirs. Lizzie insists, knowing she’s lying, that he’d given it to her. This legal tussle is the central thread of the narrative, but there are numerous others.

These mostly involve fairly similar on-off love/money matches. There’s Trollope’s customary hunting scene, too. This time for once it’s quite interesting, and serves to develop characters and plot.

Frank Greystock, another of Trollope’s unheroic, flawed heroes (like Phineas Finn in the previous novel in this series), struggled to engage my interest or sympathy. He wants to do the right thing, having rashly proposed to his Jane Eyre-ish governess sweetheart, Lucy – the penniless young woman I mentioned at the start – and marry her; but he’s also unable to resist Lizzie’s smouldering, scheming charms. Unlike the dowdy, prim, plain Lucy, Lizzie has beauty, brains and wit – and pots of money and a castle in Scotland. All his family and friends tell him to think of his rising career as a new Tory MP and lawyer; he needs Lizzie’s wealth to support his lavish, overspending lifestyle and vaulting ambition. Where do you think this will end?!

The novel is, as usual with Trollope, over-long, and at times there are diversions and new characters and plot developments that feel like padding. But there are also several set pieces and exchanges between the warring characters that make this a rewarding reading experience. Some of the best of these involve Lucinda, a fiery misandrist who gives her fiancé a torrid time. The only way she can escape his creepy clutches is to go mad. Trollope always finds it hard fully to endorse his feisty proto-feminists.

I particularly liked the political elements in the novel. Although The Eustace Diamonds is seen as one of the least political of the Palliser novels, the politics is still lurking just beneath the surface all the time. As in previous novels in the series, parliamentary politics is portrayed as a cynical game, a chess match played by chancers who don’t have any firm political or ethical convictions; they just do what’s expedient to benefit their own party, which in turn will advance their own careers.

Here’s how Trollope introduces us to Frank’s party at the start of his parliamentary career:

His father was a fine old Tory [ie Conservative] of the ancient school, who thought that things were going from bad to worse, but was able to live happily in spite of his anticipations. The dean [his father] was one of those old-school politicians…who enjoy the politics of the side to which they belong without any special belief in them. If pressed hard they will almost own that their so-called convictions are prejudices. But not for worlds would they be rid of them…They feel among themselves that everything that is being done is bad, — even though that everything is done by their own party…These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon.

There’s much more in a similar ironic vein.

Things aren’t so very different today in Britain. Our beleaguered, amoral Prime Minister has just leaked to the media a series of initiatives intended to encourage the electorate to forgive his history of egregious mistakes, hypocrisy, narcissism and mendacity. Nothing to do with making things better – except for him. Trollope would have rolled his eyes and shrugged – just as he does when Frank speaks passionately against a Liberal political decision in a parliamentary debate, then adds slyly that Frank would have been just as vehemently opposed if their respective positions had been reversed.

Here to end – a picture of the first wild daffodils of the year, seen by a country lane on this morning’s walk (Monday) on a beautiful sunny day in Cornwall.

Daffodils