Category Archives: Wharton, Edith

The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

“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.

The children

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:

Tredynas Days

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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.

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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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