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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Constant Nymph

I’ve been busy with work again lately, so the next few posts, if I get time to post what I plan to, will be quick recaps of some recent reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph, VMC 2000; first published 1924

This is another of those novels that most reviewers have raved about; I struggled with it, and nearly gave up after thirty or so pages. I simply didn’t relish reading about ‘Sanger’s circus’, the chaotic-bohemian ménage in the Austrian Tyrol of English avant-garde composer Albert Sanger. This neglected, wayward genius and his tribe of shabby, barefooted feral children (by three different mothers; certain British prime ministers come to mind) are supposed I think to be charmingly alternative, spontaneous and precocious – a sort of antidote to the saccharine von Trapps. Instead I thought their spiteful anti-Semitism and careless selfishness repellent.

One of the male characters, a Jewish suitor of the oldest Sanger girl, is portrayed in unpleasantly negative stereotypical ways, and is treated by many of the others, including his lover, with undisguised contempt.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph cover

It wasn’t me who made the image blurred: it’s that way on the cover. It’s by the Swedish photographer Irmelie Krekin.

A budding composer called Lewis, one of the central characters, is a friend and disciple of Sanger, and another less than charming figure. He’s anti-social to the point of misanthropy, another supposedly eccentric genius – in fact he’s just another selfish boor.

When his new wife tries to tame him, make him presentable in chic London society as a means of promoting his stalled career, he rewards her by becoming romantically attached to one of the younger Sanger girls, Tessa (the nymph of the title) – just 14 when the novel opens. She’s been hopelessly in love with him since she was a little girl. She’s an unlikely mixture of shrewd precocity and naiveté, and Kennedy just about succeeds in making her an attractive, increasingly confident and rounded character.

Tessa’s is easily the most successfully drawn character in the novel. She’s described as plain and skinny, but also vivacious, witty and charmingly ingenuous, the only one who can handle the irritable, moody Lewis. But this Lolita-like relationship is worryingly one-sided: she’s far too young for such a committed affair with an older man whose interest in her isn’t surely as pure or innocent as hers in him. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the sexual element, either, and this too is troubling. All the older Sanger children show unabashed awareness of their sexuality. It’s probably this frankness that contributed to the novel’s being a huge best-seller in its day.

I enjoyed the scenes by the Thames at Chiswick; I’d been walking there with friends the week before reading them. It’s a lovely part of outer London.

The ending is predictable and disappointing, and shows perhaps a loss of nerve by the author in her daring plot and unconventional protagonists.

No, I’m afraid this novel left me feeling rather irritated with most of the characters, particularly the odious Lewis.

 

 

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller. VMC paperback, 1993 (first edition 1979). First published by Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950

Antonia White The Lost Traveller coverThe cover image is a detail from ‘Elinor’ by Dod Procter (who was associated with the Newlyn school of artists in Cornwall. She and others in the Lamorna sub-group, including her husband Ernest, did some of the decorative paintings in St Hilary Church near Penzance, where Bernard Walke had been parish priest: see my post on his memoir HERE).

There was very little plot in Antonia White’s account of Nanda Grey’s four years in a catholic convent school (from the ages of nine to thirteen/fourteen) in Frost in May, about which I posted last time. This sequel is very different. There’s plenty of incident, and the narrative adopts a more traditional, adult omniscient voice, rather than focalising on the young protagonist. The style is more sophisticated, too, in keeping with the more mature Nanda: in The Lost Traveller her story continues from her leaving the convent to the age of seventeen.

This first of three sequels to FiM took seventeen years to appear. Antonia White apparently had a tough time during them: she had writer’s block, mental health problems, and was busy with work as a journalist, among other things during the war.

Although there’s much more incident in this sequel, I found it less engaging. Nanda has had a name change: she is now Clara Batchelor, and the names of the schools have also changed. Maybe this was to indicate that the novel is less autobiographical than FiM. This also might account for its less satisfactory impact.

Part of the problem is the depiction of Clara’s parents, which dominates much of the novel. Her father is decidedly unpleasant: a doctrinaire pedagogue with some unsavoury sexual inclinations. He teaches classics at the school to which Clara, very much a ‘daddy’s girl’, is moved after the convent school became too expensive.

Isabel, the languid mother, is a drama queen, always expressing how ‘sensitive’, romantic and artistic she is. This manifests itself in particular with serial flirting – an indulgence that leads her into dangerous territory.

Clara’s friendships made up the basis of FiM, and the same is the case in this novel. Here too they represent the most interesting and original aspect of the narrative. WWI takes its toll on the young and their families, and there are hints of the terrible fate of European Jewish people a few years in the future.

It’s inevitable as Clara grows up that she’ll become more engaged with the world, become interested in developing adult interests and relationships, including romantic or sexual ones, and this means the narrative takes on a rather more conventional bildungsroman quality.

There are some delightful portraits of her family in rural Sussex, where she and her parents spend their summer holidays. Her eccentric, warm-hearted maiden aunts love having the visitors, and Clara enjoys their affectionate hospitality, and walking in the picturesque downs.

Why this title? Well, Clara/Nanda is still a bit lost, desperate to find where she belongs. Her catholic faith is the foundation on which she believes she can build her life, but it’s a conviction that wavers under the stress of circumstances.

This sequel benefits from having less discussion of dogma and description of ritual, and the dilemma Clara experiences in the final section of the novel is well handled, and includes a truly shocking event that I hadn’t seen coming.

It might sound like I’m lukewarm about this novel, but I’m not. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from FiM. It lacks some of the charm and innocence of that novel, but still satisfies as a portrait of a young woman’s painful growth out of her ‘awkward age’ into adulthood.

But those parents…It’s amazing Clara survived more or less intact.

 

 

 

 

Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

Antonia White, Frost In May. Virago Modern Classics no. 1, 1978 (my edition was from 1993). First published 1933.

Antonia White (1899-1980) began writing this autobiographical novel when she was just sixteen, but it wasn’t finished or published until almost two decades later. Frost In May famously kicked off the groundbreaking Virago imprint of modern classics, bringing back into the mainstream literature by women that had largely become neglected or overlooked.

Antonia White Frost In May cover The protagonist of Frost in May is Nanda (Fernanda) Grey, nine years old when she’s sent to the ‘rare, intense element’ of the convent school of the Five Wounds, at Lippington, near London. There she spends four of the most formative years of her life. Her experience is bitter-sweet.

She doesn’t entirely fit in – as is often the case with school novels. For a start, she wasn’t born a Catholic; she was only admitted a year earlier, when her father converted from being an agnostic/Protestant. He’s a teacher, so she’s one of the few middle-class girls at the school – most come from ancient, prestigious Catholic European families, and the friends she becomes closest to are a few years older than her.

There’s raffish Léonie, of French-German lineage, beautiful Rosario from Spain. Their relatives are found ‘in every embassy in Europe’, and during school holidays the girls attend ‘diplomatic dinners in Vienna and St Petersburg’.

Once or twice a term, they would go out together to a well-chaperoned tea at the Ritz, or a polo match at Ranelagh.

Clare is English, and also of Protestant stock, but she is less of an outsider than Nanda, because like most of the other pupils she comes from an upper-class family. These girls holiday in Paris, Biarritz and other swanky European locations, have governesses and dance with royalty. They and their older sisters are expected to make dazzling, dynastic marriage matches.

There’s a disturbing hint of the carnage of war to come – but this would have been WWI; in 1933 when the novel was published the same could have been said for what was building in Nazi Germany: the origins of WWII. Léonie points out that when she was in Berlin and Vienna during the school holidays (this would have been probably around 1911-12) there’d been ‘a lot of talk about [war]’. With her usual sharpness of tongue she suggests that the Prussian young man with whom Clare had said she’d had a flirtation that summer in a Leipzig art school ‘will get conscripted and one of your hearty brothers will probably put a bullet through his cropped head.’

It’s partly this dark humour and strange, intoxicating mix of intense, erotic attraction and fierce rivalries and jealousies between these lively, spirited, emotionally vulnerable schoolgirls that makes Frost In May such an engaging novel. It’s also the weirdly contradictory attitudes of these older girls to Catholic doctrine and the rigid discipline the nuns instil in them; while they all rail against both from time to time, they ultimately  accept placidly that they will become good, conformist Catholic mothers and homemakers.

The nuns are aware of these (as they see them) dangerous, intimate liaisons. When Nanda writes a letter home, gushing about the beauty and glamour of these older girls, it is as usual intercepted for censorship by the ever-watchful nuns. Mother Radcliffe, the scarily severe Mother of Discipline, upbraids the culprit:

The school rule does not approve of particular friendships. They are against charity, to begin with, and they lead moreover to dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling. I do not think your father and mother will share your rather morbid interest in Clare Rockingham’s appearance.

She goes on to accuse Nanda of being wilful. When Nanda agrees, the nun lays out the school’s purpose uncompromisingly –

…no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely. Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?

Elsewhere Radcliffe tells the whole school that the school’s severity ‘which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule…We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

Near the end, when Nanda’s career at the school is threatened because her unfinished, derivative bodice-ripper novel MS has been found during one of the nun’s usual searches of the girls’ desks, Radcliffe is merciless as she orders its destruction:

“God asks very hard things from us,” she said, “the sacrifice of what we love best and the sacrifice of our own wills. That is what it means to be a Christian…I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.”

It’s a ruthless system, designed to instil total obedience and submission, that reminds me of the depiction of the despotic drill sergeant’s breaking in of the young male marine recruits in the first half of Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

But this is more than just a story of a girl’s faltering attraction to and acceptance of this stern, austere Catholic dogma of self-denial, humility and self-mortification; it’s also a kunstlerroman: Nanda spends much of her time drafting that doomed novel and honing her writing and other aesthetic sensibilities – despite the school’s vigilant, often cruel efforts to crush them.

It’s not an entirely anti-school or -Catholic portrayal; when, at thirteen, Nanda’s father suggests taking her out of Lippington, she feels ‘overwhelmed’ by the revelation of her ‘dependance’ on the school and its ethos, and horrified at the prospect of moving to a more educationally sound, non-Catholic high school to prepare her for life at a Cambridge college and a career (for she will have to make a living when she grows up). She prefers the ‘cold, clear atmosphere’ and ‘sharper outline’ of things at Lippington to the ‘comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside’.

She rebels intermittently against the frigid, anti-romantic, authoritarian regime of the school, especially when her artistic impulses are crushed, but she always retains a romantic desire to belong in this harsh but alluring world. The discipline of Lippington does at times show a fanatical opposition to what its doctrine proscribes.

The bad news for Nanda is that this includes the spark of spirit with which she was born, an acute sense of individualism and aesthetic sensitivity. These are seen as incipient sins of pride by the nuns.

White’s prose has the lucidity and unadorned directness of her heroine’s character.

I’ve started reading the sequel.

 

 

 

Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

5 books and a pencil

Castle hotel train cakeOur oldest grandson’s birthday falls just before Christmas, so Mrs TD and I travelled to Somerset to celebrate with his family. We broke our journey in Taunton and stayed overnight in the atmospheric Castle Hotel, with its cobbled forecourt, crenellations and Norman garden.

The lobby looked very festive, with the centrepiece of this huge gingerbread cake, with a miniature electric train chugging around its circular track. How our grandson would have loved it when he was little, and train mad.

Before sharing a delicious seafood meal with our old friend the regulator, who lives nearby, we trawled the shops (in my case, charity bookshops). I came up with this haul of five titles.

Taunton book haul

Taunton book haul

Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller is the first volume in the trilogy sequel to Virago’s first-ever title in its iconic Modern Classics green-spined series: Frost in May. I have yet to read it, but it’s good to have both volumes to anticipate.

I posted on Stefan Zweig’s poignant novel Beware of Pity last year, and The Post Office Girl was recommended by a Zweig aficionado soon afterwards.

I have a couple of other William Gass titles waiting to be read, and liked the look of this American paperback edition of Cartesian Sonata and other novellas – his fifth work of fiction.

I saw the Werner Herzog film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ a few years after it came out in 1974, so it was good to get hold of the 1908 novel by Jakob Wassermann based on the same strange story, in a handsome PMC edition.

Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, was a friend of James Joyce during his Trieste years. I read The Confessions of Zeno pre-blog, so I was pleased to find another of his novels in the older PMC format.

Kaweco brass pencilBack home in Cornwall for Christmas, and a pleasant family time with the other grandchildren and their parents, over from Catalonia. Among my presents was this handsome brass clutch pencil: SketchUp 5.6. It’s made by the German company Kaweco. It was a thoughtful gift from Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law.

Kaweco pencil and tinIts design I think goes back to the 1930s. It looks very art deco and Weimar. It came in an equally retro tin box. I’ll enjoy using it. Problem is, I now want its companion fountain pen.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, if you celebrated it, and that 2020 is full of good times. I can’t say I look forward with much relish to living in Britain once we’ve left the EU. Let’s hope we can somehow maintain good relations with our friends and neighbours across the Channel – despite turning our backs on them in a fit of ill-tempered petulance.

 

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.