“Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.”
I discovered Wharton many summers ago. I read several of her marvellous great novels and was annoyed that I hadn’t read her sooner. Since then, I’ve read her lesser novels from time and time, and then recently I stumbled upon a copy of The Children, tucked away in a corner of a shelf. There’s a problem when you’ve read ‘the best’ (or at least the acknowledged best) of an author; you expect everything else to be a disappointment.
In The Children, 46-year-old American engineer Martin Boyne is sailing to Europe to join widow Rose Sellars, the woman he loves, who is in the Dolomites. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, but now, following the death of her husband 7 months earlier, Rose is free. Martin has every intention of having a wonderful holiday, mostly spent with Rose, proposing and then finally settling down
In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal.
Now their moment has come. Or has it?
In the port of Algiers, other passengers embark, and leaning over the deck, Martin spies a young woman who herds several young children. Looking at her face, he literally “gasps” and murmurs to himself “Jove– if a fellow was younger.” He begins to count the children and decides that this girl “must have been married out of the nursery.” Over the course of the trip, he learns that this young girl, Judith Wheater, is the oldest child of old acquaintances: Cliffe Wheater, one of “the showiest New York millionaires,” and the former Joyce Mervin. At one point, Martin was one of the young men who circled Joyce but she married Cliffe and his money instead. Martin is intrigued by 15-year old Judith–especially when he learns that Cliffe and Joyce married and divorced, married other (unsuitable) people and then subsequently patched things up and married each other again. Judith heads a troupe of 7 children which includes her brother Terry, who has frail health, several ‘steps’ and Chipstone, the latest child from the Wheater’s (re)union.
Cliffe and Joyce Wheater’s former spouses include a shifty Italian prince and an actress; two of the children are Italian and aren’t the Wheaters’ children at all. As the Wheater parents, part of the glittering social set, traverse Europe, the 7 children are moved from one location to another, rather like luggage, with a-too-malleable governess and various servants in tow.
During the sea voyage, Martin and Judith strike up a relationship, and when the situation between Cliffe and Joyce Wheater turns south (again), Judith turns to Martin for help. The children are about to be separated and sent off to various households, and Judith begs Martin to help her keep the children together. Martin has been enjoying a wonderful, peaceful reunion with Rose, but in the company of Judith and her siblings, Martin’s opinion and relationship with Rose shifts. …
But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt: as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.
Martin is a classic Wharton character whose actions sometimes undermine his security, his respectability, and certainly his future. Also as with Wharton characters, Martin doesn’t examine his (uncomfortable) murky motives too closely. Is Martin, who’s loved Rose from a distance, now looking for excuses to slip the yoke of domesticity? It’s one thing to love someone who is unavailable and quite another when the woman who is worshiped, the ‘perfect’ unattainable woman, is suddenly up for grabs. Marrying Rose means moving to New York and joining the society he despises. Plus now Rose is courting an elderly aunt who has promised her niece a legacy, and this is a relationship that repels Martin.
he had schooled himself to think that hat he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within himself he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more
Then what of Rose? When we first see her through Martin’s eyes, she’s elegant, patient, calm, understanding, mature, but as Martin becomes more involved with the children, Rose’s disapproval alters how Martin (and we) see Rose. Her perfection slips.
All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains.
And then there’s Judith. … 15- years-old, an ill-educated girl who, due to the tawdry aspects of her parents’ lives, seems mature beyond her years, and yet her spelling reveals both her immaturity and the sad lack of a proper education. Is Judith as naive and innocent as she appears? Martin, a middle-aged bachelor who has avoided commitment his entire life, suddenly assumes the responsibility of 7 children. This is extreme behaviour, and it’s completely impractical. Does he agree to help because of his infatuation with Judith or is he deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Rose? Is Martin attached to the children partly because this is the family he never had? Is it a coincidence that Judith happens to be the daughter of a woman he once courted? Is he, in essence, trying to step back into the past? That’s for the reader to decide.
One of the memorable scenes in this memorable novel takes place when Rose’s lawyer, the much older Dobree, travels to Cortina to see her on the excuse of business. Dobree, Rose, Martin and the children go on a picnic, and there’s Martin staring at Judith’s sleeping face when he spies Dobree, also watching the girl. It’s classic Freudian projection:
As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened–he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind –with a faint recoil from the reminder–that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith.
On the (minor) down side of this novel, the children are annoying–especially the ‘steps’ who all sort of merge into each other. While the Italian children are described unpleasantly at times, I saw this as a reflection of the children’s unfortunate upbringing and lack of structure which became increasingly fragmented with each marriage and divorce. So Judith and Teddy, for example, had the benefit of at least some early structure while the younger children did not. One of the subtle questions asked by this novel is: should the children stay together? Obviously Judith runs the governess, not the other way around. The younger children are wild. Would they be better separated?
Wharton’s focus on the psychological aspects of Martin and Rose’s actions make this novel well worth reading. Martin is attracted to Judith but he can’t admit it to himself. At one point, he plies her with alcohol and cigarettes and then there’s a walk in the moonlight. Martin, who doesn’t examine his feelings for Judith, can’t say no to her, and that places his relationship with Rose is jeopardy. One of the themes of Wharton’s work is the individual in society, and here we see Martin, who has spent his entire career working across the globe. At several points in the novel, Martin is depicted as an outsider watching various social situations, questioning and longing for the choices he passed by. Marriage to Rose means settling down in New York, and as the prospect moves closer, it becomes unappealing.
Finally: the dream sequence towards the end of the book along with the book’s final scene … both are exquisite.
There’s another, excellent, review at: