Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton
Nearly forty years ago, Edmund Wilson wrote a little essay about an underrated American novelist and called it “Justice to Edith Wharton.” She was in need of justice, he claimed, because “the more commonplace work of her later years had had the effect of dulling the reputation of her earlier and more serious work.” During this last period—a stretch of about seventeen years, from (roughly) 1920 to her death in 1937—Edith Wharton’s novels were best-sellers, her short stories commanded thousands of dollars; but both in mode and motivation she remained, like so many others in the 20’s and 30’s, a 19th-century writer. She believed in portraying character, her characters displayed the higher values, her prose was a platform for her own views. In 1937, when Wilson undertook to invigorate her reputation, the machinery of 19th-century fiction was beginning to be judged not so much as the expression of a long tradition, or (as nowadays we seem to view it) as the exhausted practice of a moribund convention, but more bluntly as a failure of talent. Wilson accounted for that apparent failure in Edith Wharton by speculating on the psychological differences between male and female writers:
It is sometimes true of women writers—less often, I believe, of men—that a manifestation of something like genius may be stimulated by some exceptional emotional strain, but will disappear when the stimulus has passed. With a man, his professional, his artisan’s life is likely to persist and evolve as a partially independent organism through the vicissitudes of his emotional experience. Henry James in a virtual vacuum continued to possess and develop his métier. But Mrs. Wharton had no métier in this sense.
What sort of “justice” is this? A woman typically writes best when her emotions are engaged; the barren female heart cannot seize the writer’s trade? Only a decade ago, such a declaration would have been derided by old-fashioned feminists as a passing insolence. But even the satiric reader, contending in one fashion or another with this passage, would have been able, ten years ago, to pluck the offending notion out as a lapse in the texture of a measured and generally moderating mind.
No longer. Wilson’s idea returns only to hold, and it holds nowhere so much as among the literary proponents of the current women’s movement: Wilson’s lapse is exalted to precept. The idea of Edith Wharton as a “woman writer” in need of constantly renewable internal stimuli, whose gifts are best sustained by “exceptional emotional strain”—all this suits the newest doctrine of sexual exclusiveness in literature. Indeed, one of the outstanding tenets of this doctrine embraces Wilson unrelentingly. “Rarely in the work now being written by women,” according to an article called “Toward a Definition of the Female Sensibility,”
does one feel the presence of writers genuinely penetrating their own experience, risking emotional humiliation and the facing-down of secret fears, unbearable wisdoms. . . . There are works, however, . . . in which one feels the heroic effort stirring,1
and there follow numerous examples of women writing well because of the stimulus of some exceptional emotional strain.
Restitution, then (one supposes), is to come to Edith Wharton not from the old-fashioned feminists, but from the newer sort, who embrace the proposition that strong emotion in women, emotion uniquely female, is what will best nourish a female literature. What we are to look for next, it follows, is an ambitious new-feminist critical work studying Wharton’s “vicissitudes of . . . emotional experience” and correlating the most fevered points with the most accomplished of the fictions.
Such a work, it turns out, more extensive and more supple than Wilson’s pioneer brief would suggest, has just made its appearance: Ellen Moers’s Literary Women. Like other new feminists, Moers believes that there is such an entity as the “history of women,” that there are poetic images uniquely female, and even “landscapes charged with female privacy.” She writes of “how much the freedom and tactile sensations of near-naked sea bathing has meant to modern women,” and insists that a scene recounting the sensation of walking through a field of sealike grass provides that “moment when Kate Chopin reveals herself most truly a woman writer.” Edith Wharton’s life—a buried life—ought, properly scrutinized, to feed such a set of sympathies, and to lure the attention of restitution. Literary Women, after all, is conceived of in part as a rescue volume, as a book of rehabilitation and justice: a number of writers, Moers explains, “came to life for me as women writers as they had not done before. Mrs. Gaskell and Anne Bronte had once bored me; Emily Dickinson was an irritating puzzle, as much as a genius; I could barely read Mary Shelley and Mrs. Browning. Reading them anew as women writers taught me how to get excited about these five, and others as well.”
Others as well. But Edith Wharton is omitted from Literary Women. Her name appears only once, as an entry in an appendix. Only The House of Mirth is mentioned there, along with a reference, apparently by way of explanation of the larger omission, to the chapter on Edith Wharton in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds. Pursuing the citation, one discovers that Kazin, like Wilson, like the new feminists, speaks of “the need that drove her to literature.” Whatever the need, it does not engage Moers; or Kazin. He advances the notion that “to Edith Wharton, whose very career as a novelist was the tenuous product of so many maladjustments, the novel became an involuted expression of self.” Unlike the new feminists, Kazin will not celebrate this expression; it represents for him a “failure to fulfill herself in art.” Wharton, he concludes, “remains not a great artist but an unusual American, one who brought the weight of her personal experience to bear upon a modern American literature to which she was spiritually alien.”
Justice to Edith Wharton: where, then, is it to come from? Not taken seriously by the dominant criticism, purposefully ignored by the radical separatist criticism of the new feminists2—she represents an antagonism. The antagonism is not new. Wharton describes it herself in her memoir, A Backward Glance:
My literary success puzzled and embarrassed my old friends far more than it impressed them, and in my own family it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. None of my relations ever spoke to me of my books, either to praise or blame—they simply ignored them; and among the immense tribe of my cousins, though it included many with whom I was on terms of affectionate intimacy, the subject was avoided as if it were a kind of family disgrace, which might be condoned but could not be forgotten. Only one eccentric widowed cousin, living a life of lonely invalidism, turned to my novels for occasional distraction, and had the courage to tell me so.
She continues: “At first I felt this indifference acutely; but now I no longer cared, for my recognition as a writer had transformed my life.”
So it is here—in this uplifting idea, “my life,” this teleological and novelistic idea above ail—that one will finally expect to look for Wharton’s restitution “as a writer.” The justice that criticism perversely fails to bring, biography will achieve.
Perhaps. The biography of a novelist contains a wonderful advantage: it accomplishes, when well executed, a kind of mimicry. A good biography is itself a kind of novel. Like the classic novel, a biography believes in the notion of “a life”—a life as a triumphal or tragic story with a shape, a story that begins at birth, moves on to a middle part, and ends with the death of the protagonist.
Despite the reliable pervasiveness of birth and death, hardly any “real” life is like that. Most simply unfold, or less than that, dreamwalk themselves out. The middle is missing. What governs is not pattern but drift. Most American lives, moreover, fail to recognize that they are sticks in a stream, and are conceived of as novels-of-progress, as purposeful Bildungsromane saturated with an unending hopefulness, with the notion of infinite improvement on the way toward a salubrious goal; the frontier continues to inhabit the American mentality unfailingly.
And most American biographies are written out of this same source and belief. A biography that is most like a novel is least like a life. Edith Wharton’s life, though much of it was pursued outside of America, is an American life in this sense: that, despite certain disciplines, it was predicated on drift, and fell out, rather than fell into place. If other American lives, less free than hers, drift less luckily between the Scylla and Charybdis of obligation and crisis, hers drifted in a setting all horizon, in a perpetual non-circumstance clear of external necessity. She had to invent her own environment and its conditions, and while this may seem the reverse of rudderlessness, what it signifies really is movement having to feign a destination. A life with a “shape” is occasioned by what is present in that life; drift grows out of what is absent. For Edith Wharton there was—outside the writing—no destination, and no obligation to get there. She had houses, she had wealth; she chose, rather than “had,” friends. She had no family (she was estranged from her brothers, and we hear nothing further about the affectionate cousins), she had no husband (though she was married to one for more than half her life), she had no children. For a long time she resented and disliked children, and was obsessed by a love for small dogs. She was Henry James’s ideal American heroine: she was indeed his very heiress of all the ages; she was “free,” she was cultivated both in the conventional and the spiritual sense, she was gifted, acute, mobile; she appeared to be mistress of her destiny.
The destiny of such freedom is drift, and though her life was American in this, it was European in its resignation; she had no illusion that—outside the writing—she was doing more than “filling in.” Her one moment of elevated and secure purpose occurred when, inspired by the model of Walt Whitman in the hospitals of the Civil War, she founded war relief agencies in France during World War I. She supervised brilliantly: she supervised her friendships, her gardeners, her guests, the particulars of her dinner parties, her households; she even, to a degree, supervised the insurmountable Henry James—she took him for long rides in her car, she demanded hours in London and tea at Lamb House, she finagled with his publisher to provide him with a handsome advance (she herself was the secret philanthropist behind the scenes), she politicked to try and get him the Nobel Prize for literature. She supervised and commanded, but since no one demanded anything of her (with a single exception which, like the Gorgon’s head, was not to be gazed at), she was captain, on an uncharted deep, of a ship without any imaginable port. She did everything on her own, to no real end; no one ever asked her to accommodate to any pressure of need, she had no obligations that she did not contrive or duty that she did not devise. Her necessities were self-imposed. Her tub went round and round in a sea of self-pleasing.
All this was outside the writing. One learns it from R. W. B. Lewis’s prize-winning biography,3 which is, like a posthumously uncovered Wharton novel, sustained by the idea of “a life.” It has the fecund progression, the mastery of incident, the affectionate but balanced devotion to its protagonist, the power of suspenseful development, even the unraveling of a mysterious love story, that the “old” novel used to deliver—the novel before it became a self-referring “contemporary” art-object. In its own way it is a thesis novel: it is full of its intention to bring justice to Edith Wharton. A massive biography, almost by its weight, insists on the importance of its subject. Who would dare pass that writer by to whom a scholar-writer has dedicated, as Lewis has, nearly a decade of investigation and discovery? “They are among the handsomest achievements in our literature,” he remarks of her major fictions. And adds: “I have wondered, with other admirers of Edith Wharton, whether her reputation might today stand even higher if she had been a man.”
If the last statement has overtones of the new feminism—glory but for the impediment of sex—the book does not. Lewis sets out to render the life of an artist, not of a “woman artist.” Unexpectedly, though it is the artist he is after, what he succeeds chiefly in giving us is the life of a woman. The “chiefly” is no small thing: it is useful to have a documented narrative of an exceptional upper-class woman of a certain American period. Still, without romanticizing what is meant by the phrase “an artist’s life,” there is a difference between the biography of a writer and the mode of living of a narrow American class.
Can the life justify the writer then? Or, to put it otherwise, can biography take the place of literary judgment? Lewis’s book is a straightforward “tale,” not a critical biography. Nor is it “psycho-biography”: though it yields new and revealing information about Edith Wharton’s sexual experience, it does not propose to illumine the hidden chambers of the writer’s sentience—as, for example, Rudy V. Redinger’s recent inquiry into George Eliot’s relationship to her brother Isaac, with its hunches and conjectures, purports to do, or Quentin Bell’s half-study, half-memoir of Virginia Woolf. Lewis has in common with these others the revelation of a secret. In the case of Quentin Bell, it is the exact extent of Virginia Woolf’s insanity; in the volume on George Eliot, the secret is the dense burden of humiliation imposed by an adored brother more cruel and rigid than society itself. And in Lewis, the secret is an undreamed-of, now minutely disclosed, adulterous affair with a journalist. In all three accounts, the writer is on the whole not there. It is understandable that the writer is mainly absent for the psychobiographer; something else is being sought. It is even more understandable that the writer should be absent for a nephew-biographer, whose preoccupation is with confirming family stories.
But if, for Lewis, the writer is not there, it is not because he fails to look for her but because she is very nearly invisible. What, through luck and diligence, he causes to become visible is almost not the point, however unpredictable and startling his discoveries are. And they are two: the surprising place of Morton Fullerton in Edith Wharton’s middle years, and the appearance of a candid manuscript, written in her seventies, describing, with the lyrical explicitness of an enraptured anatomist, a fictional incestuous coupling. The manuscript and the love affair are so contrary to the established Wharton legend of cold propriety that they go far to make us look again—but only at the woman, not at the writer.
The real secret in Lewis’s biography is devoid of sex, lived or imagined, though its centerpiece is a bed; and it concerns not the woman but the writer. The secret is divulged on page 353, when Wharton is fifty-one, and occupies ten lines in a volume of nearly six hundred pages. The ten lines recount a perplexing incident—“a minor fit of hysterics.” The occasion is mysterious: Edith Wharton and Bernard Berenson, touring the great cities and museums of Europe together, arrive at the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin. They check into their respective rooms, and Edith Wharton, ignoring the view of the city though she has never been there before, begins to rage
because the bed in her hotel was not properly situated; not until it had been moved to face the window did she settle down and begin to find Berlin “incomparable.” Berenson thought this an absurd performance; but because Edith never harped upon the physical requirements of her literary life, he did not quite realize that she worked in bed every morning and therefore needed a bed which faced the light. It had been her practice for more than twenty years; and for a woman . . . who clung seriously to her daily stint, the need was a serious one.
The fit and its moment pass; the ensuing paragraphs tell of German politics snubbed and German music imbibed—we are returned, in short, to the life of an upper-class American expatriate tourist, privileged to travel in the company of a renowned connoisseur. But the plangent moment—an outcry over the position of a bed—dominates the book: dominates what has gone before and what is to come, and recasts both. Either the biographer can stand up to this moment—the woman revealed as writer—or the book falls into the drifting ash of “a life.”
It falls, but it is not the biographer’s fault; or not his fault alone. Edith Wharton—as writer—is to blame. She put a veil over the bed that was her work-place, and screened away the real life that was lived in it. What moves like a long after-image in the wake of reading Lewis is a procession of stately majesties: Edith Wharton always standing, always regal, always stiffly dressed and groomed, standing with her wonderfully vertical spine in the hall of one of her great houses, or in the drawing room of her Paris apartment, with her fine hand out to some equally resplendent guest, or in her gardens, not so much admiring her flowers as instructing or reprimanding the servants of her flowers; or else “motoring” through the dust of some picturesque lane in the French countryside, her chauffeur in peaked hat and leather goggles, like blinders, on a high seat in front of her, indistinguishable from the horse that still headed most vehicles on the road.
If this is the Wharton myth, she made it, she wove it daily. It winds itself out like a vivid movie, yet darkly; it leaves out the window-lit bed. What went on outside the bed does not account for what went on in it. She frequented literary salons, and on a smaller scale held them (after dinner, Henry James reading aloud in the library); she talked bookishly, and with fervor; she was an intellectual. But she was not the only brilliant woman of her time and status; all of that, in the biography of a writer, weighs little.
Visualize the bed: she used a writing board. Her breakfast was brought to her by Gross, the housekeeper, who alone was privy to this inmost secret of the bedchamber. Out of bed, she would have had to be, according to her code, properly dressed, and this meant stays. In bed, her body was free, and freed her pen.
There is a famous photograph of Edith Wharton seated at a desk; we know now, thanks to the “minor fit of hysterics” at the Hotel Esplanade, how the camera lies—even though it shows us everything we might want to know about a way of life. The time is in the 1890’s, the writer is in her early thirties. The desk is vast, shining, with a gold-tooled leather top; at the rear of its far surface is a decorated rack holding half a dozen books, but these are pointless—not only because anyone using this desk would need an impossibly long reach, but because all the volumes are faced away from the writer, with their backs and titles to the open room. Two tall electrified candlestick-lamps (the wire drags awkwardly) stand sentinel over two smaller candlesticks; there is a single letter, already stamped; otherwise the desk is clear, except for a pair of nervous, ringed hands fiddling with a bit of paper.
The hands belong to a young woman got up, to our eyes, as theatrically as some fanciful notion of royalty: she is plainly a lady of fashion, with a constricted waist and a constricting tall collar; her dress is of the whitest fabric, all eyeleted, embroidered, sashed; her hair is elaborately rolled and ringleted; an earring makes a white dot below the high dark eave of her hair; her back is straight, even as she leans forward with concentrated mouth and lost eyes, in the manner of a writer in trance. Mellifluous folds hide her feet; a lady has no legs. She is sitting on a graceful chair, with whorled feet—rattan framed by the most beautiful carved and burnished wood. (A rattan chair with not a single hole? No one could ever have worked in such a chair; the photographer defrauds us—nothing more important than a letter will ever be written at this desk.) The Oriental carpet, with its curious and dense figures, is most explicitly in focus, and over the edge of it a tail of skirt spills, reflected white on a floor as sleek as polished glass. In the background, blurred to the camera’s lens but instructive to ours: a broad-shouldered velvet chair, a marble bust on an ebony pedestal, a table with a huge porcelain sculpture, a lofty shut oak or walnut door—in short, an “interior,” reminding us that the woman at the unused desk has undertaken, as her first writing venture, a collaborative work called The Decoration of Houses.
There are other portraits in this vein, formal, posed, poised, “intellectual” (meaning the subject muses over a seeming letter or book), all jeweled clips and chokers and pearls in heavy rows, pendants, feathered hats, lapdogs, furs, statuesque burdens of flounced bosom and grand liquescent sleeve, queenly beyond our bourgeois imaginings. And the portraits of houses: multiple chimneys, balconies, cupolas, soaring Romanesque windows, immense stone staircases, summer awnings of palatial breadth, shaped ivy, topiary like oversized chess pieces, walks, vistas, clouds of flower beds.
What are we (putting aside Marxist thoughts) to make of this avalanche of privilege? It is not enough to say: money. The class she derived from never talked of money; the money was invisible, like the writing in bed, and just as secret, and just as indispensable. The “love of beauty,” being part of class-habit, does not explain it; perhaps the class-habit does. It was the class-habit that kept her on the move, the class-habit that is restlessness and drift. She wore out houses and places, or else her spirit wore out in them: New York, Newport, Lenox—finally America. In France there was the Paris apartment in the Rue de Varenne, then a small estate in St. Brice-sous-Forêt, in the country north of Paris, then an old chateau in Hyères, on the warm Mediterranean coast. Three times in her life she supervised the total renovation of a colossal mansion and its grounds, in effect building and furnishing and landscaping from scratch; and once, in Lenox, she bought a piece of empty land and really did start from scratch, raising out of the earth an American palace called The Mount. All of this exacted from her the energy, attentiveness, and insatiable governing impulses of a corporation chief executive, or the head of a small state.
In an architectural lull, she would travel. All her life she traveled compulsively, early in her marriage with her husband, touring Europe from February to June, afterward with various male companions, with the sense, and with the propriety, of leading a retinue. Accumulating “scenes”—hotels, landscapes, seascapes, museums, villages, ruins—she saw all the fabled cities of Europe, the islands of the Aegean, Tunis, Algiers, Carthage, the Sahara.
And all the while she was surrounded by a crowd. Not simply while traveling: the crowd was part of the daily condition of her houses and possessions. She had a household staff consisting of maids (“housemaids” and “chambermaids”—there appears to be a difference), a chief gardener and several under-gardeners, cook, housekeeper, major-domo, chauffeur, personal maid, “traveling” maid, secretary, “general agent,” footmen. (One of the latter, accompanying her to I Tatti, the Berenson villa in Italy, inconveniently fell in love with a Berenson maid, and had to be surrendered.) These “establishments,” Lewis remarks, “gave her what her bountiful nature desired: an ordered life, a carefully tended beauty of surroundings, and above all, total privacy.” The “above all” engenders skepticism. Privacy? Surveying that mob of servants, even imagining them crossing silent carpets on tiptoe, one takes the impression, inevitably, of a hive. Her solitude was the congested solitude of a monarch; she was never, like other solitary-minded American writers (one thinks of Poe, or of course Emily Dickinson, or even Scott Fitzgerald), completely alone in the house. But these hectic movements of the hive were what she required; perhaps she would not have known how to do without them. Chekhov could sit at a table in the middle of the din of a large impoverished family, ignoring voices and footsteps in order to concentrate on the scratch of his pen. Edith Wharton sat up in bed with her writing board, in the middle of the active business of a house claiming her attention, similarly shutting out the only family she had. A hired family, an invented one. When she learned that her older brother Freddy, living not far away in Paris, had suffered a stroke, she was “unresponsive”; but when Gross, her housekeeper of long standing, and Elise, her personal maid, both grew fatally ill within a short space, she wrote in her diary, “All my life goes with those two dying women.”
Nicky Mariano, in her memoir of her life as secretary-companion to Berenson, recalls how Edith Wharton treated her with indifference—until one day, aboard a yacht near Naples, she happened to ask after Elise. She was at once dispatched to the cabin below to visit with the maid. “From then on I became aware of a complete change in Edith’s manner to me. There was a warmth, a tone of intimacy I had never heard before.” And again, describing how Wharton “looked after her servants with affectionate zeal and took a lively interest in all their joys and sorrows,” she produces another anecdote:
I remember how once during one of our excursions with her, she was deeply hurt and angry when on leaving a villa near Siena after a prolonged visit she discovered that neither her maid nor her chauffeur had been asked into the house.
What is the effect on a writer of being always encircled by servants? What we are to draw from this is not so much the sadness of purchased affections, or even the parasitism (once, left without much help for a brief period, she was bewildered about her daily survival), but something more perplexing: the moment-by-moment influence of continuous lower-class companionship. Room ought to be given to considering this; it took room in Wharton’s life: she was with her servants all the time, she was with her friends and peers only some of the time. E. M. Forster sought out the common people in the belief that too much education atrophies the senses; in life and in art he went after the lower orders because he thought them the embodiment of the spontaneous gods of nature. In theory, at least—perhaps it was only literary theory—Forster wanted to become “instinctual,” and instinct was with the working class. But Edith Wharton kept her distance even as she drew close; she remained mistress always. It made her a kind of double exile. As an expatriate settled in France, she had cut herself off from any direct infusion of the American sensibility and the American language. Through her attachment to her servants, she became intimately bound to illiterate lives remote from her mentality, preoccupations, habitual perceptions—a second expatriation as deliberate as the more obvious one. Nor did her servants give her access to “ordinary” life (she was no Lady Chatterley, there was no gamekeeper for her)—no one is “ordinary” while standing before the monarch of the house. Still, she fussed over her army of hirelings; it was a way of inventing claims. For her servants she provided pensions; she instituted a trust fund as a private charity for three Belgian children; she sent regular checks to her sister-in-law, divorced from her brother a quarter of a century and therefore clearly not to be taken for family. For family, in short, she substituted claims indisputably of her own making. She could feel responsible for servants and acquired dependents as others feel responsible for parents, brothers, children: but there was a tether made of money, and the power-end of the tether was altogether in her hand. With servants, there is no murkiness—as there sometimes is in friendship—about who is beholden to whom.
With her friends it was more difficult to invent claims; friendship has a way of resisting purchase, and she had to resort to ruses. When she wanted to release Morton Fullerton from the entangling blackmail of his former French mistress, she arranged with Henry James to make it seem as if the money were coming impersonally from a publisher. Fullerton having been, however briefly, her lover, it was hardly possible to hand over one hundred pounds and call it a “pension”; the object was not so much to keep Fullerton’s friendship free as to establish the illusion of such freedom. It was enough for the controlling end of the money-tether to know the tether was there; and anyhow the tether had a witness and an accomplice. “Please consider,” James wrote, entering into the plot, “that I will play my mechanical part in your magnificent combination with absolute piety, fidelity, and punctuality.”
But when it was James himself who came to be on the receiving end of the golden tether, he thundered against the tug of opulence, and the friendship was for a while impaired. The occasion was a proposal for his seventieth birthday: Edith Wharton, enlisting about forty moneyed Americans, thought to raise “not less than $5,000,” the idea being “that he should choose a fine piece of old furniture, or something of the kind”—but to James it all smelled blatantly of charity, meddling, pity, and cash. Once he got wind of the plan he called it a “reckless and indiscreet undertaking,” and announced in a cable that he was beginning “instant prohibitive action. Please express to individuals approached my horror. Money absolutely returned.”
It was returned, but within a few months James was hooked anyhow on that same line—hooked like Morton Fullerton, without being aware of it. This time the accomplice was Charles Scribner, who forwarded to James a phony “advance” of eight thousand dollars intended to see him through the writing of The Ivory Tower—but the money was taken out of Wharton’s own advance, from another publisher, of fifteen thousand dollars. The reluctant agent of the scheme, far from celebrating “your magnificent combination,” saw it rather as “our fell purpose.” “I feel rather mean and caddish and must continue so to the end of my days,” Charles Scribner grumbled. “Please never give me away.” In part this sullenness may have been guilt for not having himself volunteered, as James’s publisher, to keep a master artist free from money-anxiety, but beyond that there was a distaste for manipulation and ruse.
This moral confusion about proprieties—whom it is proper to tip, and whom not—expressed itself in other strange substitutions. It was not only that she wanted to pay her lover and her friend for services rendered, sexual or literary—clearly she had little overt recognition of the quid pro quo uses of philanthropy. It was not only that she loved her maid Gross more than her mother, and Arthur White her “man” more than her brother—it is understood that voluntary entanglements are not really entanglements at all. But there were more conspicuous replacements. Lacking babies, she habitually fondled small dogs: there is an absurd photograph of Edith Wharton as a young woman of twenty-eight, by then five years into her marriage, with an angry-looking Pekingese on each muttonleg shoulder; the animals, pressed against her cheeks, nearly obscure her face; the face is cautious and contemplative, as of one not wanting to jar precious things. A similar photograph shows her husband gazing straight out at us with rather empty pale eyes over a nicely-trimmed mustache and a perfect bow tie—on his lap, with no special repugnance, he is holding three small dogs, two of them of that same truculent breed, and though the caption reads “Teddy Wharton with his dogs,” somehow we know better whose dogs they are. His body is detached, his expression, very correct and patient, barely hides—though Lewis argues otherwise—how he is being put upon by such a pose.
Until late in life, she never knew a child. Effie, the little girl in The Reef, is a child observed from afar—she runs, she enters, she departs, she is sent, she is summoned, at one moment she is presented as very young, at another she is old enough to be having lessons in Latin. She is a figment of a child. But the little dogs, up to the end of Edith Wharton’s life, were always understood, always thought to have souls, always in her arms and in her bed; they were, Lewis says, “among the main joys of her being.” Drawing up a list of her “ruling passions” at forty-two, she put “Dogs” second after “Justice and Order.” At sixty-two she wrote in her journal of “the usness” in the eyes of animals, “with the underlying not-us ness which belies it,” and meditated on their “eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us.”
The fellow feeling she had for the not-usness of her Pekingese she did not have for her husband, who was, from her point of view, also “not-us.” He too was inarticulate and mired in the slavery of a lesser intellect. He was a good enough man, interested (like his wife) in being perfectly clothed, vigorous and humorous and kind and compliant (so compliant that he once actually tried to make his way through James’s The Golden Bowl)—undistinguished in any jot, the absolute product of his class. He had no work to do, and sought none. One of Edith Wharton’s friends—a phrase instantly revealing, since her friends were practically never his; the large-hearted Henry James was nearly the only one to cross this divide—observed that Teddy Wharton’s “idleness was busy and innocent.” His ostensible employment was the management of his wife’s trust funds, but he filled his days with sports and hunting, and his glass with fine wine. Wine was the one thing he had a connoisseur’s familiarity with; and, of all the elegant good things of the world, wine was the one thing his wife disliked. When he was fifty-three he began to go mad, chiefly, it would seem, because he had married the wrong wife, with no inkling that she would turn out to be the wrong wife. Edith New-bold Jones at twenty-three was exactly what Edward Wharton, a dozen years older, had a right to expect for himself: she had heritage (her ancestor, Ebenezer Stevens, was an enterprising artillery officer in the Revolutionary War), she had inheritance (the Joneses owned the Chemical Bank of New York and much of the West Side). In brief, family and money. The dominant quality—what he had married her for, with that same idle innocence that took note only of the pleasantly obvious—was what Edith Wharton was afterward to call “tribe.” The Whartons and the Joneses were of the same tribe—old Protestant money—and he could hardly predict that his wife would soon replace him in the nuptial bed with a writing board. At first he was perplexed but proud: Louis Auchincloss quotes a description of Teddy Wharton from Consuelo Vanderbilt’s memoirs as “more of an equerry than an equal, walking behind [his wife] and carrying whatever paraphernalia she happened to discard,” and once (Lewis tells us), walking as usual behind her, Teddy exclaimed to one of her friends, “Look-at that waist! No one would ever guess that she had written a line of poetry in her life.” She, meanwhile, was driven to writing in her journal, “Oh, Gods of derision! And you’ve given me over twenty years of it!” This outcry occurred immediately after having shown her husband, during a wearying train journey, “a particularly interesting passage” in a scientific volume called Heredity and Variation. His response was not animated. “I heard the key turn in my prison-lock,” she recorded, in the clear metaphorical style of her fiction.
A case can be made that it was she who turned the key on him. His encroaching madness altered him—he began to act oddly, out of character; or, rather, more in character than he had ever before dared. The equerry of the paraphernalia undertook to behave as if he were master of the paraphernalia—in short, he embezzled a part of the funds it had been his duty to preserve and augment. And, having been replaced in bed by a writing board, he suddenly confessed to his wife (or perhaps feverishly bragged) that he had recently gone to live with a prostitute in a Boston apartment, filling its remaining rooms with chorus girls; the embezzled funds paid for the apartment. The story was in the main confirmed. His madness had the crucial sanity of needs that are met.
His wife, who—granted that philanthropy is not embezzlement—was herself capable of money-ruse, and who had herself once rapturously fallen from merely spiritual friendship, locked him up for it. Against his protestations, and that of his sister and brother, he was sent to a sanitorium. Teddy had stolen, Teddy had fallen; he was an adulterer. She had never stolen (though there is a robust if mistaken critical tradition that insists she stole her whole literary outlook from Henry James); but she had fallen, she was an adulteress. Teddy’s sexual disgrace was public; hers went un-divulged until her biographer came upon it more than three decades after her death. But these sardonic parallels and opposites illumine little beyond the usual ironies of the pot and the kettle. What had all at once happened in Edith Wharton’s life was that something had happened. Necessity intervened, her husband was irrefutably a manic-depressive. He had hours of excitement and accusation; more often he was in a state of self-castigation. He begged her for help, he begged to be taken back and to be given a second chance. “. . . When you came back last year,” she told him, “I was ready to overlook everything you had done, and to receive you as if nothing had happened.” This referred to the Boston apartment; she herself had been in a London hotel with Fullerton at nearly the same time. In the matter of her money she was more unyielding. Replying to his plea to be allowed to resume the management of her trusts and property, she took the tone of a mistress with a servant who has been let go, and who is now discovered still unaccountably loitering in the house. “In order that no further questions of this kind should come up, the only thing left for me to do is to suggest that you should resign your Trusteeship. . . . Your health unfortunately makes it impossible for you to take any active part in the management of my affairs.” Gradually, over months, she evolved a policy: she did everything for him that seemed sensible, as long as it was cold-hearted. He was removed, still uncured, from the sanitorium, and subjected to a regime of doctors, trips, traveling companions, scoldings. In the end, when he was most sick and most desperate, she discarded him, handing him over to the doctors the way one hands over impeding paraphernalia to an equerry. She discarded him well before she divorced him; divorce, at that period and in her caste, took deliberation. She discarded him because he impeded, he distracted, he was a nuisance, he drained her, he wore her out. As a woman she was contemptuous of him, as a writer she fought off his interruptions. The doctors were more polite than Henry James, who characterized Teddy Wharton as able to “hold or follow no counter-proposal, no plan of opposition, of his own, for as much as a minute or two; he is immediately off—irrelevant and childish . . . one’s pity for her is at the best scarce bearable.”
She too pitied herself, and justly, though she forgot to pity him. He had lost all trust in himself, whatever he said he timidly or ingratiatingly or furiously took back. He was flailing vainly after the last flashes of an autonomy his wife had long ago stripped from him. And during all that angry space, when she was bitterly engaged in fending off the partisan ragings of his family, and coldly supervising his medical and traveling routines, she, in the stern autonomy of her morning bed, was writing Ethan Frome, finishing The Reef, bringing off short stories. She could do all this because she did not look into her husband’s eyes and read there, as she had read in the eyes of her little dogs, the helpless pathos of “Why?” It was true that she did not and could not love him, but her virtue was always according to principle, not passion. Presumably she also did not love the French soldiers who were sick with tuberculosis contracted in the trenches of World War I; nevertheless for them she organized a cure program, which she termed “the most vital thing that can be done in France now.” Whatever the most vital thing for Teddy might have been—perhaps there was nothing—she relinquished it at last. The question of the tubercular soldiers was, like all the claims on her spirit which she herself initiated, volitional and opportune. She had sought out these tragedies, they were not implicated in the conditions of her own life, that peculiar bed she had made for herself—“such a great big uncompromising 4-poster,” James called it. For the relief of tubercular soldiers and other good works, she earned a French medal, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. An arena of dazzling public exertion. But in the lesser frame of private mess she did nothing to spare her husband the humiliation of his madness. It is one thing to go mad, it is another to be humiliated for it. The one time in her life drift stopped dead in its trackless spume, and a genuine claim made as if to seize her—necessity, redder in tooth and claw than any sacrifice one grandly chooses for oneself—she turned away. For her, such a claim was the Gorgon’s head, to gaze on which was death.
Writer’s death. This is something most writers not only fear but sweat to evade, though most do not practice excision with as clean a knife-edge as cut away “irrelevant and childish” Teddy from Edith Wharton’s life. “Friend, client, child, sickness,’ fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say—‘Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state,” Emerson advised, “come not into their confusion.” And Mann’s Tonio Kröger declaims that “one must die to life to be utterly a creator.” This ruthless romantic idea—it cannot be lived up to by weaklings who succumb to conscience, let alone to love—is probably at bottom less romantic than pragmatic. But it is an idea very nearly the opposite of Wilson’s and Kazin’s more affecting view of Edith Wharton: that joylessness was her muse, that her troubles energized her for fiction—the stimulus of “some exceptional emotional strain,” according to Wilson, “so many maladjustments,” according to Kazin, which made the novelist possible. If anything made the novelist possible, it was the sloughing off of the sources of emotional strain and personal maladjustment. As for the parallel new-feminist opinion that a woman writes best when she risks “unbearable wisdoms,” it does not apply: what wisdom Edith Wharton found unbearable she chose not to bear.
The rest was chatter. Having turned away from the Gorgon’s head, she spent the remainder of her life—indeed, nearly the whole of it—in the mainly insipid, sometimes inspired, adventure of elevated conversation. She had her friends. There were a few women—whether because she did not encounter her equals among women, or because she avoided them, her biographer yields no hint. The majority were men (one should perhaps say “gentlemen”)—Lapsley, Lubbock, Berenson, Fullerton, Simmons, James, Bourget, D’Humières, Berry, Sturgis, Hugh-Smith, Maynard, Gregory, Grant, Scott . . . the list is longer still. Lewis fleshes out all these names brilliantly, particularly Berry and Fullerton; the great comic miraculous James needs no fleshing out. James was in a way afraid of her. She swooped down on him to pluck him away for conversation or sightseeing, and he matched the “commotion and exhaustion” of her arrivals against the vengeance of Bonaparte, Attila, and Tamerlaine. “Her powers of devastation are ineffable,” he reported, and got into the habit of calling her the Angel of Devastation. She interrupted his work with the abruptness of a natural force (she might occur at any time) and at her convenience (she had particular hours for her work, he had all hours for his). He read her novels and dispatched wondrous celebrating smokescreens of letters (“I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on”) to hide the insufficiency of his admiration. As for her “life,” it was a spectacle that had from the beginning upset him: her “desolating, ravaging, burning, and destroying energy.” And again: “Such a nightmare of perpetually renewable choice and decision, such a luxury of bloated alternatives.” “What an incoherent life!” he summed it up. Lewis disagrees, and reproaches James for partial views and a probable fear of strong women; but it may be, on all the lavish evidence Lewis provides, that the last word will after all lie with drift, exactly as James perceived it in her rushing aimlessness aimed at him.
Before Lewis’s landmark discovery of the Wharton-Fullerton liaison, Walter Van Rensselaer Berry—Wharton’s distant cousin, an international lawyer and an aristocrat—was commonly regarded as the tender center and great attachment of her life. Lewis does not refute this connection, though he convincingly drains it of sexual particularity, and gives us the portrait of a conventionally self-contained dry-hearted lifelong bachelor, a man caught, if not in recognizable drift, then in another sort of inconclusiveness. But Walter Berry was Edith Wharton’s first literary intellectual—a lightning-bolt of revelation that, having struck early, never lost its electrical sting. Clearly, she fed on intellectuals—but in a withdrawn and secretive way: she rarely read her work aloud, though she rejoiced to hear James read his. She brooded over history and philosophy, understood everything, but was incapable in fiction or elsewhere of expressing anything but the most commonplace psychology. This was, of course, her strength: she knew how human beings behave, she could describe and predict and surprise. Beyond that, she had a fertile capacity for thinking up stories. Plots and permutations of plots teemed. She was scornful of writers who agonized after subject matter. Subjects, she said, swarmed about her “like mosquitoes,” until she felt stifled by their multiplicity and variety.
The truth is she had only one subject, the 19th century’s unique European literary subject: society. Standard American criticism, struggling to “place” Edith Wharton in a literary environment unused to her subject, has contrived for her the role of a lesser Henry James. This has served to indict her as an imitative figure. But on no significant level is the comparison with James pertinent, except to say that by and large they wrote about the same kinds of people, derived from the same class. Otherwise the difference can be seized in a breath: James was a genius, Wharton not. James invented an almost metaphysical art, Wharton’s insights lay close against their molds: what she saw she judged. James became an American in the most ideal sense, Wharton remained an estranged New Yorker. James was an uncanny moralist, Wharton a canny realist. James scarcely ever failed—or, at least, his few failures when they occurred were nevertheless glorious in aspiration and seamless in execution. When Wharton failed, she fell into an embarrassing triteness of language and seeing.
It is a pity that her name is attached so unrelentingly—thanks to the American high school—to Ethan Frome, a desolate, even morbid, narrow, soft-at-the-center and at the last unsurprising novella not at all typical of her range. It is an outdoor book that ends mercilessly indoors; she was an indoor novelist. She achieved two permanent novels, one—The House of Mirth—a spoiled masterpiece, a kind of latter-day reverse Scarlet Letter, very direct yet eerie, the other The Age of Innocence, a combination of ode and elegy to the New York of her childhood, affirmation and repudiation both. A good many of her short stories and some of the novellas (“The Old Maid,” for instance) are marvels of shapeliness and pointedness. This applies also to stories written during her late period, when she is widely considered to have debased her gift. The common accusation—Wilson makes it—is that her prose finally came to resemble women’s magazine fiction. One can venture that she did not so much begin to sound like the women’s magazines, as that they began to sound like her, a condition that obtains until this moment. No one has explored Wharton’s ongoing subliminal influence on current popular fiction (see almost any issue of Redbook); such an investigation would probably be striking in its disclosure of the strength of her legacy. Like any hokey imitation long after the model is lost to consciousness, it is not a bad compliment, though it may be awkward to admit it. (One of the least likely tributes to the Roman Empire, after all, is the pervasiveness of 19th-century American civic architecture.) But The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are, like everything unsurpassable because deeply idiosyncratic, incapable of spawning versions of themselves; in these two novels she is in command of an inwardness commensurate with structure. In them she does not simply grab hold of society, or judge it merely; she turns society into an exulting bird of prey, with blood on its beak, steadily beating its wings just over our heads; she turns society into an untamable idea. The reader, apprehensive, yet lured by the bird’s lyric form, covers his face.
She could do all that; she had that power. Lewis, writing to justify and defend, always her sympathetic partisan, nevertheless hedges. Having acknowledged that she had “begun to locate herself—with a certain assurance, though without vanity—in the developing course of American literature,” he appends a doubt:
But in another part of her, there remained something of the conviction drilled into her in old New York that it was improper for a lady to write fiction. One could do so only if one joked about it—if one treated it, to borrow Lubbock’s word, as “an amusement.” She sometimes sounded as if her writing were her entertainingly guilty secret, and in her memoirs she referred to it (borrowing the title of a popular children’s book of her own New York youth) as her “secret garden.”
But in the winter of 1911 [she was then at work on The Reef], as on perhaps half a dozen other occasions, it was the believing artist that was in ascendancy during the hard-driving morning hours.
Somehow it is easy to doubt that she had this doubt—or, if she once had it, that she held it for long. To believe in her doubt is to make the bad case of the orthodox critics who, unlike Lewis, have shrunk from taking her seriously as an artist because as an American aristocrat she was born shockingly appurtenanced, and therefore deserves to be patronized for her sorrows. To believe in her doubt is to make the bad case of the new feminists, for whom female sex is, always and everywhere, an impediment difficult to transcend—even when, for an obsessed writer of talent, there is nothing to transcend. To believe in her doubt is to reverse the terms of her life and her work. Only “half a dozen other occasions” when Wharton was a “believing artist”? Only so few? This would mean that the life outside her bed—the dressed life of conversation and travel, the matchstick life of drift—was the primary life, and the life with her writing board—the life of the believing artist—the deviation, the anomaly, the distraction.
But we know, and have always known (Freud taught us only how to reinforce this knowledge), that the secret self is the true self, that obsession is confession. For Edith Wharton that is the only acceptable evaluation, the only possible justice. She did not doubt her allegiance. The writing came first. That she kept it separate from the rest was a misrepresentation and a mistake, but it may also have been a species of holy instinct—it was the one uncontaminated zone of her being: the place unprofaned. Otherwise she can be defined only by the horrific gyrations of “a life”—by the spiraling solipsism and tragic drift that led her to small dogs instead of babies, servants instead of family, high-minded male distance instead of connubial friendship, public virtue instead of private conscience, infatuation instead of the love that sticks. Only the writing board could justify these ugly substitutions. And some would say—myself not among them—that not even the writing board justified them.
1 Vivian Gornick, the Village Voice, May 31, 1973.
2 Though, to be fair, I have heard of at least one new-feminist literature class which has studied The House of Mirth—evidently because it is so easy to interpret its heroine as the ideal victim.
3 Edith Wharton: A Biography, Harper & Row, 592 pp., $15.00. The prizes are: the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize.