Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton

Money, luxury, fashion, pleasure: those were the four cornerstones of her existence.”

Years ago, I spent a summer reading every Edith Wharton novel I could get my hands on. She remains one of my favourite American authors, and so I was rather surprised to pick up an unread Wharton novel and discover that I felt lukewarm about it. Glimpses of the Moon (great cover btw) covers some of the same sort of territory as The House of Mirth–considered to be one of Wharton’s finest novels, and you won’t get any argument from me about that.

The House of Mirth gives us one of Wharton’s/literature’s greatest tragic heroines, Lily Bart, a penniless young woman addicted to luxury who leads a parasitic life by being ‘useful’ to the wealthy set. Lily is a complex character who knows she needs to marry for money but is attracted to Lawrence Seldon, a man who cannot offer Lily the lifestyle she wants. Lily effectively manages to self-sabotage opportunities for security, and if you’ve read the novel you know how it ends. In Glimpses of the Moon we find a similar sort of set-up, but the novel seems superficial in comparison, and perhaps I would have enjoyed Glimpses of the Moon more if I hadn’t already been blown away by The House of Mirth. The House of Mirth was published in 1905 when women like Lily had few choices. Glimpses of the Moon, however, was published 17 years later in 1922 and Wharton shows us an entirely different world. The House of Mirth still seems decidedly 19th century whereas Glimpses of the Moon is set in the giddy Jazz Age. The lack of choices Lily Bart faced are also in front of Susy, the female protagonist of Glimpses of the Moon. In Susy’s case though the ‘marry wealth’ or work decision doesn’t seem so dire, so desperate (there were more professional opportunities in the 1920s for women), so while Lily’s agonizing dilemma seems real, Susy’s dilemma seems more superficial. This impression is only fed by the superficiality of Susy’s character.

In common with Lily Bart, Susy is penniless and makes a career as a hanger-on, being useful to the rich party people she feeds off of, and her goal in life is “eventually to marry, because one couldn’t forever hang on to rich people; but she was going to wait till she found some one who combined the maximum of wealth with at least a minimum of companionableness.”

glimpses of the moonSusy’s plans begin to falter when she meets Nick Lansing, a young writer, at a dinner party. After an initial attraction, they begin seeing one another casually until Nick’s wealthy, married, petulant , jealous “patroness,” Ursula Gillow demands that the relationship ends.

Susy made no answer. How could she, when she thought? The dress she had on had been given her by Ursula; Ursula’s motor had carried her to the feast from which they were both returning. She counted on spending the following August with the Gillows at Newport…and the only alternative was to go to California with the Bockheimers, whom she had hitherto refused even to dine with.

Susy and Nick marry on an impulse after Susy dreams up a “plan” which includes the promise that “whenever either of them got the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released.”  Her intention is to live off of gift cheques and expensive wedding presents while moving through a series of splendid houses (complete with servants) ‘lent’ for the honeymoon, estimated to last at least a year according to Susy’s calculations.  In the meantime, Nick is hoping to write a novel and begin a writing career that will perhaps support them both. With Susy’s plan of  a year-long honeymoon, they gain a sort of reprieve, a time-out while enjoying the comfort of luxury paid for by others, but they will seem to be independent and they will have a “romantic and jolly” time. It’s a sort of no strings-attached arrangement, and the plan enables Susy and Nick to live off of their rich “friends” while appearing to be independent and leading their own lives.

I suppose that if you are a giddy young thing with no real thought for the future, no ties or obligations, and you don’t mind using your rich acquaintances for their cheques & their luxury villas, it’s not a bad plan, but at the same time it’s easy to see how problems will rise. It doesn’t take long for something troubling to occur. Nick and Susy are staying at a villa at Lake Como owned by their friend Streffy before they move on to Venice, to the palace owned by the Nelson Vanderlyns. Two incidents occur which set a sour note on the relationship: 1) Susy decides to pinch a box of cigars from Streffy’s villa and 2) Susy becomes unwittingly embroiled in a plot to cover an adulterous assignation. Both of these incidents unsettle Nick and disrupt his relationship with Susy. Nick is made uncomfortable by Susy stealing the cigars, and he’s even more uncomfortable about their involvement in the adultery cover-up, and these seemingly insignificant incidents led to a break down in communication.  It’s Splitsville for Susy and Nick with Nick taking the moral high ground and Susy wondering if she’s done the wrong thing in marrying Nick. Perhaps she should have held out for the big bucks. Then opportunities arise for both of them….

Occasionally purple prose creeps in:

Ah, the loneliness of never being able to make him understand! She had felt lonely enough when the flaming sword of Nick’s indignation had shut her out from their Paradise; but there had been a cruel bliss in the pain. Nick had opened her eyes to new truths, but had waked in her again something which had lain unconscious under the years of accumulated indifference. And that re-awakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with Nick, a gift she owed to Nick and which, in leaving her, he could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child.

Nick’s moral fastidiousness seemed a little unbelievable and hypocritical given that he’s married Susy on the promise of a year-long holiday at others’ expense, and as a result, the reasons for their split seem artificial and forced–a storm in a teacup. Second tier characters in this jaded social set such as “baleful enchantress,” Violet Melrose, artist’s wife Mrs. Fulmer, and Nelson Vanderlyn seem far more interesting people than the rather bland Nick and Susy who are supposed to be driving the drama. Wharton’s frequent theme of society’s powerful grip on the individual especially on the subjects of marriage, morality and individual freedom don’t quite work as well in this later novel. Given the subject matter, it’s impossible not to compare Glimpses of the Moon unfavorably to The House of Mirth. If I hadn’t read and reread The House of Mirth before arriving at Glimpses of the Moon, a much more superficial and less polished novel, I’d feel that the House of Mirth was the much later product of Wharton’s career. I suppose this is an argument for saving the masterpieces of an author’s body of work for the last.


Filed under Fiction, Wharton, Edith

20 responses to “Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton

  1. I too went through an intensive Edith Wharton summer reading phase – several decades ago now, sobering thought! – but I don’t believe I’ve ever read this one. What a thoughtful review; thank you.

    Having recently renewed my acquaintance with Wharton by reading a collection of her short stories, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed some of her novels, so your review of this one seemed particularly well timed.

    I will be watching for ‘Glimpses of the Moon’ on my bookstore and library rambles; it sounds as if would be an interesting read, if only to compare it to the outstanding ‘House of Mirth’, as you’ve so eloquently done here.

    • If I’d read Glimpses of the Moon first and had no idea of the writing chronology and then read The House of Mirth, I would have said “ha! she honed this and wrote the perfect novel.’

  2. Interesting review. Susy doesn’t seem to be a very likeable character. There’s a bit of Undine in her too, no?

    Since I’m tempted to read all of her books, I suppose I’d better read this one before The House of Mirth. (which was next on my mental Wharton TBR)

    • No she’s isn’t a likeable character. Lily is trapped but Susy just seems spoiled and lazy. Actually I admire Undine quite a bit as she’s determined at least and not some dilettante.

  3. i haven’t read much Wharton, but I do intend to remedy that. The House of Mirth is among the finest tragic novels I have come across.

    From reading your post, I wonder what it is that made Wharton return to the themes of her earlier novel. Did she feel she hadn’t done full justice to these themes before? Was there some new perspective on these themes she wanted to illumine?

    I think The Age of innocence will be my next Wharton novel.

    • I haven’t read Wharton’s bio, so I have no insights, I’m afraid. Apparently critics felt that some of her later works showed that she was passé.

      The Age of Innocence is marvelous. Custom of the Country is my favourite Wharton.

  4. I agree that House of Mirth is a suburb novel. I have not read this one.

    No matter how much I like an author I tend to stay away from works that have a lesser reputation. There is just not enough time to read everything that as it is.

    • I’m a bit of a completist which has its drawbacks at times. Sanctuary is a minor Wharton work and it’s excellent, so you can turn over some great reads when you dig deeper.

  5. While I can think of a number of examples of authors who wrote one good book and then proceeded to write a number of disappointing ones, Wharton is the only author whom I know who wrote so many excellent books and then proceeded to fill out her career with so many of lesser quality. Given that the theme of this one (and other better ones you mention) was so closely tied to her own youthful experience, I can’t help but wonder if the longer she spent in Europe, the less powerful these memories became.

    Offsetting that thought is my impression that her short story writing (which I think is generally undervalued) continued at a very high level — perhaps because she turned her attention to other ideas and themes.

    And finally there is the Buccaneers, her final “unfinished” novel. I haven’t read the book, but the British mini-series of it is outstanding (and well worth tracking down). I’ll admit as a Wharton fan, I am almost afraid to venture into the book since I like the film version so well.

    • The theme of the woman addicted to luxury so getting it the only way she could just doesn’t work as well. Perhaps if Susy had been nastier, but she too has an element of self-sabotage (or is it realization of what she really wants). It’s as if the theme didn’t get updated although the world had moved on. Many other readers seemed to like it–finding it light and fluffy. I didn’t dislike it but it didn’t work completely for me.

      Agree re: the short stories, and the Buccaneers is one I’ve hesitated to read too.

  6. How very odd that a later book sounds so much like an early attempts. Maybe she really had said everything she could possibly say about this type of young woman.
    I haven’t read the House of Mirth yet but want to do so soon.
    Reading all of Wharton’s books is a wonderful way to spend summer.

  7. Oh dear, I hope Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t hear this goal “the maximum of wealth with at least a minimum of companionableness”. She’d turn in her grave! I must say that Susy sounded to me a bit of an amalgam of Lily and Undine. Undine Spragg has to be one of the best names in classic literature. I know what you mean about her being determined but I found her too manipulative to be likable. The thing that would encourage me to read this one – if I ever find the time – would be the Jazz Age setting. How would Susy have gone with Gatsby? Would she have found him minimally companionable do you think?

    I have a Wharton that I haven’t read yet in my pile – can’t think of its title but I don’t think it’s this. It is by the same publisher though – a similar gorgeous cover. I’ll get to it one day.

  8. For some reason, this title has many gorgeous covers, but this one is perfect for the times.
    Gatsby might have been too intense for Susy. Glimpses of the Moon has a very giddy feel to it.

  9. Sounds like a well spent Summer.

    The subject matter is hugely appealing and soudns fun, it’s a shame the execution is lacking. “the flaming sword of Nick’s indignation ” – lovely lapsarian imagery in one way but quite purple as you say.

    Is that an Alma Classics edition? The cover looks like their recent rather marvellous Fitzgerald covers.

    Age of Innocence is an extraordinary work, and I liked her Ethan Frome which though nowhere near as subtle a book is very well crafted. If I read this, and I’m a bit torn on it, I should do so clearly before House of Mirth so that I can think this marvellous and later be blown away by how she retrospectively bettered it.

    I can be an authorial completist too, but it’s not always a good idea. Some writers have very distinct strong periods after all.

    • No it’s not an Alma edition, but some of their editions are tempting aren’t they? Being a completist isn’t always a good thing, but there again I’ve been thinking lately that author Geoff Nicholson, whose characters are always plagued by obsessions, would appreciate the dilemma.

      • They’re lovely I think, though I tend to prefer ebooks these days where possible.

        Geoff Nicholson is somehow an author to be completist about. He’d appreciate I think rare copies of his works being tracked down at huge personal cost. Perhaps a limited edition bound in metal taken from a scrapped Volkswagen.

  10. Just popping in to say that I did indeed manage to acquire a copy of Glimpses of the Moon and I’m now about 40 pages from the end. I was expecting a typically Wharton ending of tragic missed opportunities but instead it seems to be going in a rather different direction…

    Great summer read, I’m finding. Not perhaps in the same league as House of Mirth, but it has merits as a story all the same. I think I will be marking it fairly high on my personal ratings scale, as I’ve been enjoying it more than I had expected to.

    Of course now I must find my battered old copy of House of Mirth to reacquaint myself with Lily Bart and to compare her with Susy.

    Off to finish this one. (And I must say, now that I’m reading the novel in question, that your review above really is spot on.)

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