The Old Maid by Edith Wharton

Several times in 2010 I told myself I’d get back to Edith Wharton. I didn’t. But after writing my Best of 2010 list, I decided it was about time I got back to the books and authors I’d intended to revisit. That’s the good thing about compiling a list; it made me face all the reading I didn’t do.

So back to Edith Wharton–one of my favourite American authors. I’ve read her biggies: Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and a couple of others–including The Reef. It was time for something else, and I selected The Old Maid. Part of this selection rested on the 1939 Bette Davis film. I decided to read the book and then follow-up immediately with Bette. A good plan as it turns out.

The Old Maid is part of a series of four novellas intended by Wharton to depict Old New York in various decades: False Dawn (the 1840s), The Old Maid (the 1850s), The Spark (the 1860s), and New Year’s Day (the 1870s). Collectively these four novellas depict the codes and customs of New York society; these four novellas were published as  Old New York in 1924, but The Old Maid was written in 1921 and serialized in 1922. If you’ve read Edith Wharton before, you are familiar with the manner in which she places the individual in society–with characters sometimes trying to break the rules of society such as Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart–a spectator to the society she loathes and yet strives to be a part of. Thus in Wharton’s tales, what is often at stake is individualism vs. society. Perhaps that explains why The Custom of the Country’s opportunistic Undine Spragg is my all-time favourite Wharton female character.

The Old Maid is not an exception to Wharton’s premise–that society seems to be an organic being that will always further its own agenda with its members ready to winnow out the rebels for the collective good of society. The rebel in The Old Maid isn’t someone who fights against society’s rules, but rather someone who falls foul of socially acceptable behaviour and pays for it for the rest of her life.

The story opens with an introduction to the best families of New York society–in particular, the boringly respectable Ralstons:

In the old New York of the ‘thirties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. of these were the Ralstons. The sturdy English and the rubicund and heavier Dutch had mingled to produce a prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society. To “do things handsomely” had always been a fundamental principle in this cautious world, built up on the fortunes of bankers, India merchants, shipbuilders, and shipchandlers. Those well-fed, slow-moving people, who seemed irritable any dyspeptic to European eyes only because the caprices of the climate had stripped them of superfluous flesh, and strung their nerves a little tighter, lived in genteel monotony of which the surface was never stirred by the dumb dramas now and then enacted underground. Sensitive souls in those days were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.

A beautiful paragraph to start off a marvellous story. Then we are introduced to Delia Ralston née Lovell, “one of the handsomest and most popular young matrons.” Her self-satisfaction at her marriage to Jim Ralston, her pride in her beautiful home and her 2 perfect children is only occasionally troubled by “secret questioning” of the choices she made. Delia was once terribly in love with Clem Spender– “tolerant, reckless, indifferent to consequences,” he’s an unreliable, unpredictable member of New York society, so it’s probably a good thing he left and now lives permanently in Europe as an artist.

Delia’s peace of mind is shattered when her cousin, Charlotte Lovell begs for help. Charlotte is about to make an excellent, unexpected match with Jim Ralston’s cousin Joe.  Joe is Charlotte’s long-term suitor, but the courtship appeared to end when Charlotte was sent away for her health a few years before. She seemed relegated to the colourless life of spinsterhood, and this role is underscored by Charlotte’s devotion to a gaggle of poor children she tends in an old stable. Charlotte is particularly devoted to one orphan in particular, Clementina.

With the upcoming wedding, Joe Ralston asks his bride-to-be, Charlotte to abandon the children for fear of contagion. In desperation, Charlotte goes to Delia, and confessing that Clementina is her illegitimate baby, begs for Delia’s help and intervention.

That’s the opening premise of the story, and then the rest of the novella is concerned with the fallout: the relationships between Delia, Charlotte and Clementina.

The film version is moved ahead to the 1860s, and the Civil War plays a role in sanitizing some of the darker elements of Wharton’s tale. Clem Spender is portrayed as an aggrieved, depressed and rejected lover who impulsively enlists in the Union Army and is subsequently killed, and this death makes him a dead hero and takes away some awkward questions. I prefer Wharton’s byline: painful rehabilitation of Clem by a persistent, annoying relative. The film is structured around three weddings–beginning with Delia’s wedding to Jim Ralston, Charlotte’s wedding to Joe Ralston, and finally Clementina’s wedding.

The film shows Delia and Charlotte in conflict with each other over possession of Clementina (a peevish brat in the film version), and misses Wharton’s delicate positioning of society within the narrative. Whereas Charlotte (played by Bette Davis) comes out as the heroine–maligned and misjudged by all, in the novel Wharton seems to say that Delia’s actions are equally brave. By standing by Charlotte, Delia (whatever her motives are) also pays a price. The rest of New York society considers her a little eccentric, and eventually, by her later actions, Delia alienates her two children.

Wharton’s novella The Old Maid isn’t the story of two women who struggle for the love of a daughter, but the story of two women who want to exist within their society while breaking the rules of good conduct, and as such their choices are limited. Delia is at first motivated by her sense of what’s right and proper; she’s outraged and shocked by Charlotte’s secret, and yet she doesn’t thrown Charlotte to the wolves; she concocts a way for Charlotte and Clementina to stay together within the society they strive to remain a part of:

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.

The film is well-worth catching–not just for the story and the excellent acting, but for an exercise in contrast.

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32 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Wharton, Edith

32 responses to “The Old Maid by Edith Wharton

  1. I need to read Edith Wharton again. I like her descriptions, the social analysis at the same time it’s so infuriating… Fortunately many of her problems wouldn’t be problems anymore nowadays. Did you read Ethan Frome? Quite a sombre little book. I haven’t read The House of Mirth yet… I want to read more classics this year… You just gave me an idea. The book sounds more interesting than the movie in focussing on both women equally.

    • Caroline, I love The House of Mirth! It’s one of my all-time favorite books and one of the few which I have taken the time to reread. I liked the Gillian Anderson movie too, but it seems like it would be very hard to follow if you haven’t read the book.

    • Yes, Caroline, I read Ethan Frome. Liked it a lot and there’s a film version of it too.

      The Bette Davis film was good, no doubt about that, but it is a Bette Davis vehicle and makes her the heroine. It would be hard, I would imagine, to show in film how society entered the picture. At many times in the book, Delia make decisions based on pressures she doesn’t fully acknowledge.

  2. I’ve tried to read The Custom of the Country. Twice. To no avail. Perhaps I should try another one or try it again. Edith Wharton is the kind of writer I expect to like, after all, I liked the books by Henry James I’ve read. And she’s a woman writing on women’s condition, which is something I usually enjoy. So I’ll keep this one in mind.
    I’ve seen the film version of The Age of Innocence, is it faithful to the book? (Usually, I’d rather read the book before watching the film version, but I have a thing for Daniel D Lewis)
    Something else: I always wonder why they are so many excellent female authors in Anglophone literature and almost none in French literature, at least before WWII.

    • I watched it before reading the book and found it a very good adaptation. The book is wonderful.

    • I haven’t read everything from Wharton, but my favourite novel, The Custom of the Country is not considered by academia to be her best. The House of Mirth appears to be the one most often selected for study.

      The Old Maid is shorter and it seems to quite be accessible.

      As For The Age of Innocence (the first Wharton I read), I wasn’t crazy about the film version. DDLewis was decent, but Pfeiffer seemed out of her depth. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but if I remember correctly, it was fairly faithful to the book.

      On the final question, I can’t conjecture except to say that British literature and American lit seemed to produce female authors from its upper and gentry classes. I read a comment by Gore Vidal in which he argued that Henry James seems to be considered ‘above’ Wharton on the hierarchy of talent, but that he considers it to the other way around.

      Perhaps we should try and revive forgotten French female writers…..

      • Thanks for the recommendations.
        I’d like to read French female writers from that time, the problem is I don’t know any, except George Sand. And really, I don’t like her books. (Just like I couldn’t finish the George Eliot I started)

      • I wonder whether The custom of the country being in lesser favour is to do with the lesser appeal of its heroine. The house of mirth grabs you emotionally while The custom of the country is more intellectual. (Not that The house of mirth doesn’t have intellectual appeal too).

        Your review of The old maid reminds me that I’d like to re-read it too … but there are still some Wharton’s I haven’t read so I shall plough on with those first.

  3. Bette Davis is a hell of an actress. One of the greats.

  4. I think George Eliot is a toughie. I gave up on Daniel Deronda once and that irked me as I loathe to give up on books. I returned to it years later when the book was mandatory reading. Then I loved it. Middlemarch is one of my top ten of all time.

  5. There are some female writers… But earlier like Mme de Lafayette or Marie de France. Marguerite de Navarre… And quite a few more. Mme de Sévigné… I am sure we would find more. I think the 19th wasn’t too good. Mme de Lafayette is one of my all time favourites…

    • I could think of memoirs and then women held those famous ‘salons.’

      • Caroline, Guy, I agree with you both. Mme de Lafayette is good and I should read Mme de Staël as well. The 19th C is empty compared to English literature and I wonder why none of the talents found a way to be known.
        If we dig enough, we’ll find memoirs and novels from these women who were the souls of the salons (Like Mme de Girardin). But nothing really famous.
        I wonder if the French Brontë Sisters are forgotten or inexistant.

  6. I wonder if the salon gave French women of that class an outlet that Englishwomen didn’t have in the same way.

    After all, to write one needs not only talent but also opportunity and access to publication. On top of that there’s an issue of social acceptability and what competing modes of expression you have.

    All that aside, it’s funny, Age of Innocence blew me away and yet I’ve not yet read more by Wharton. I must correct that. This sounds excellent, refreshing but challenging if that makes any sense. I’d probably want to read the whole quartet in order, but that does sound doable.

    • The ‘salon’ and the power of the woman who runs it pops up in Maupassant’s Alien Hearts.

      Wharton is phenomenal, isn’t she?

    • I wonder if the education of women of upper classes in the 19C had something to do with it.
      When I read English literature, I’m prone to thinking that rich women studied at home with governesses and had the opportunity to read more and develop their own mind and imagination.
      When I read French literature, rich women are educated in convents and learn nothing. See : Emma Bovary, Jeanne from A Life by Maupassant, Mme de Rênal in The Red and The Black, Louise and Renée in Letters of Two Brides by Balzac. But at the same time, all this was written by rather mysogynistic men.

      I don’t think it’s a question of access to publication : the women who ruled those salons had all the useful connections. Maybe they were too busy with their social life to write.

  7. Gummie: Just a guess on the subject of Wharton, but Lily Bart makes such a fantastic tragic female character. She’s complex, torn by the choices she makes and ultimately self-destructive. She makes a great talking point for discussing the limited roles & choices of women in society

    The Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg is a heroine (in my book), and she flips the finger to everyone. More than a tad unscrupulous, she’s ready to scramble over the bodies of the men she discards on her way to …well whatever she’s on the way to. I think she’s marvellous, but she doesn’t exactly fit that tragic, suffocated woman role.

    • Yep, that’s pretty much as I see it … BTW you don’t seem to have a subscribe to comments (or whatever it’s called) tick box on your posts. Is that a deliberate decision. I’d love to be able to tick one so that I don’t have to rely on my failing memory to check back!!

  8. Guy: For me, the best thing about Undine is that she keeps making bad decisions — and still flips the finger at everyone. In fact, I don’t think she ever makes the right decision, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of forging forward. I’ll admit my favorite bits are when she has succeeded in getting into the French aristocracy, only to discover that she should perhaps have reviewed the rules first. All of this, incidentally, is an interesting contrast to Proust.

    And to Henry James. I certainly like him but his central characters tend to be victims of external forces (albeit with an impact magnified by character flaws) while Wharton’s tend to be more personally responsible for their own problems (cf. Lily Bart).

    The shorter fiction of both James and Wharton was already on my agenda for this year — this quartet seems to be a logical part of the Wharton component. I love the cover picture with your review — could you let me know what the edition is (and if the other three are published with similar attractive covers)?

    • Kevin: I read the Modern Library edition. Just checked on Amazon and it looks as though it is OOP.

      I liked this edition’s intro; it boasts that it’s the only single version of The Old Maid (not sure if that is still true). The thing that annoyed me about this version: the notes!

      I’d see a word with the numbered notation and then check the back of the book. Some of the notes were just redundant. For example, several of the notations were to mention the use of hyphens in the original.

      A matter of taste, perhaps, but after a while, I stopped checking the notes and concentrated on the story.

      I also have the Old New York collection. Looks like it’s 10.88 om Amazon US. I think this version has a really attractive cover, and that may explain why I bought it.

  9. I have the same request as whisperinggums : it would be nice if you added the “subcribe to comments” button.

  10. Pingback: Edith Wharton: Madame de Treymes (1907) Novella with Parisian Setting « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  11. Alvin Rutledge

    Though it is not as well-known as the other Wharton works mentioned, I would strongly recommend “Summer,” first published in 1918, and reportedly Conrad’s favorite Wharton novel. According to Cynthia Griffin Wolff´s introduction to my Harper & Row, Perennial Library addition, “Summer” is the first female “bildungsroman” (coming-of-age novel) “to deal with sexual passion as an essential component” of an adolescent’s development into young adulthood. Though set far from the upperclass NY society of “The Old Maid” (which I have not read), the protagonist of “Summer” also rebels against and falls afoul of the socially acceptable behavior of her small New England town.

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