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.