Posts Tagged ‘edith wharton’

Part of my August reading each year tends to be some vmc titles (or books from equivalent publishers) for All Virago All August which is a reading challenge first started by members of a Virago group on Librarything. This year, I really didn’t do very well, only managing two books – this was the second of them, but what a treat it was.

Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for her novels that depict the upper class society that she herself knew so well. Old New York contains four short novels set in New York of the 1840s, 50s 60s and 70s. Just like in some of her full length novels, here Wharton shows us a society that is ruled by its customs, prejudices and strict moral codes of behaviour, it is a society of great privilege but also one of some suffocation. In these four brilliant stories Wharton uses themes of marriage, infidelity, illegitimacy and jealousy to explore this complex society.

The first novella is False Dawn and concerns the changing fashions of art appreciation, a young man and the expectations placed upon him by his wealthy father. Lewis Raycie is an only son of a brilliant but exacting father. As the novella opens Lewis is preparing to leave home for his Grand Tour – he has also fallen in love with the adopted daughter of another family, who he thinks his father won’t approve of for him. Halston Raycie is a man who has very particular ideas about things – and it seems it is not just his son who find themselves unequal to contradicting him.

“Now and again the gentlemen, warned by a menacing hum, slapped their cheeks, their brows or their bald crowns; but they did so as furtively as possible, for Mr. Halston Raycie, on whose verandah they sat, would not admit that there were mosquitoes at High Point.”

So, when Lewis is charged by his father to return to America with fashionable Italian old masters – it is a quest Lewis takes very seriously, determined to get as much for his father’s money as he can. Halston Raycie has a dream of creating a gallery of heirlooms. Lewis sets out on his travels – naturally he is away for a long time, and while in Italy he is lucky to meet John Ruskin – and it is under his influence and following his advice that Lewis makes the purchases he does. On his return to America, Lewis’ father judges the paintings to be utter rubbish – they are indeed great works, but by artists unknown to Halston Raycie and his associates, and so Lewis is made a laughing stock, punished and derided for his apparent error.

If I had to pick a favourite from the four novellas collected here, then The Old Maid would be it – it concerns a woman who breaks the strict sexual code of her class. Charlotte Lovell is engaged to be married when she reveals to her astonished cousin Delia Lovell Ralston the secret she has been keeping from everyone. Charlotte had briefly felt a great passion for Clem Spender – a young man Delia had once harboured feelings for, before she settled for a safe, society marriage. Charlotte had crossed the line of what was acceptable between unmarried young people of the times, and she bore Clem’s child in secret. The child was placed with people to care for her – but Charlotte loves her child fiercely and wants to be part of her daughters life. Following Delia’s advice and with her help, Charlotte breaks off her engagement – as she is ‘unworthy’ of the man who knows nothing of her transgression. Delia finds a way for Charlotte to have her daughter in her life – although she can never be acknowledged as her mother. The novella mainly focusses on the different ways society allow these two women to experience motherhood – and how the woman seen as ‘the old maid’ is the only one of them to have experienced a strong and memorable passion.

“You could always have told, everyone agreed afterward, that Charlotte Lovell was meant to be an old maid. Even before her illness it had been manifest: there was something prim about her in spite of her fiery hair. Lucky enough for her, poor girl, considering her wretched health in her youth: Mrs James Ralston’s contemporaries, for instance, remembered Charlotte as a mere ghost, coughing her lungs out – that, of course, had been the reason for her breaking her engagement with Joe Ralston.”

The narrator of The Spark is a young man who is fascinated by a man of his parents’ society – in Hayley Delane the narrator sees something different to the other men of his age and type. He is particularly puzzled by Hayley’s marriage – a marriage Hayley entered into against his friends’ advice. Leila is fifteen years younger than her husband – her father a drunken disgrace who has been ejected from his clubs. Leila has no money – and isn’t especially beautiful – she isn’t even in love with Hayley, and after her marriage is often seen indulging in other flirtations. Hayley quietly puts up with all her antics because it seems that he loves her. When Hayley Delane horsewhips a young man for his mistreatment of a horse – it is assumed by everyone that it’s really in revenge for his flirtation with Leila – however it really was because he hated to see a horse beaten. His morality is such though that his actions will be seen to compromise his wife – and so Hayley apologises to the man – and so all is well. Ironically – and Wharton excels at irony – it is Hayley’s goodness and morality bring him into conflict with the society in which he lives.

As so often in Wharton’s fiction it is society’s prejudices and assumptions that hurt those who are suspected of breaking its rules In New Year’s Day we meet Lizzie Hazeldean a woman whose fortunes improved dramatically when she married. There are too many potential spoilers for me to say much about this lovely, subtle story, but when Lizzie is suspected by those who matter of having an affair – she is judged and finally ostracised. In the fate and treatment of Lizzie Hazeldean we see how society treated women – what silly narrow lives these women had, born into a particular class, denied the right the work, yet without sufficient money – marriage was their hope and saviour. This story is, as Marilyn French in her introduction to this edition suggests, a protest to this very situation.

Old New York is a simply marvellous collection of four novellas – classic Wharton storytelling at its best. This was an excellent pick for my All Virago All August.

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Despite there being several Edith Wharton novels that I have to read for the first time – this was my third reading of The House of Mirth. It was picked as our December read by my book group – and it was a pleasure to re-read it – even though there was a tiny bit of my brain that hoped it would end differently this time. Certainly, this re-read reminded me how much I like Edith Wharton’s writing, I really must get to those unread Whartons that I have tbr.

One of Edith Wharton’s most famous novels, The House of Mirth is a brilliant portrayal of early twentieth century New York society – with its own peculiar rules and privileges. Lily Bart is the beautiful, spirited unconventional heroine, surrounded by a set of superficial society friends. Lily is someone who breaks these unwritten rules, she is judged – talked about and suffers in a way no man of her social standing would have done, as a woman there were certain expectations placed upon her – and in this world of wealthy alliances and marriages of convenience there are few choices for a woman like Lily.

Lily is beautiful, sophisticated, and witty, born into the upper echelons of American society she is however impoverished, living on the charity of her wealthy aunt and her friends. She is also twenty nine and unmarried – what Lily needs is a wealthy husband, of the right background – in order to continue living the life she was born into. She has a terrible fear of poverty – and is always in want of more money.

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in.”

Yet this is something Lily has struggled to execute – never fully committed to the final, calculated act of marrying simply for money – though she won’t marry without it either. Lily is accepted by the old money of her ‘set’ as well as being courted by those of the nouveaux riches.

As the novel opens Lily bumps into a friend Lawrence Selden – and before heading off to a house party to which Selden says he won’t be going – agrees to have tea with him in his flat. Shocking behaviour for a single woman in these times. As Lily leaves Lawrence’s flat, she runs into businessman Mr Rosedale – who sees through her hurried, clumsy lie – that she was visiting her dressmaker – rather putting Lily at an unpleasant disadvantage. At the house party hosted by her friend Judy Trenor – Lily sets about the unpleasant business of snaring herself a wealthy husband in the shape of the rather dull Percy Gryce – though her heart isn’t really in it. When Lawrence Selden arrives for the weekend after all – Lily’s obvious preference for him upsets more than one member of the house party. Any advantage she had with Percy Gryce is lost – but Lily does not seem to mind much – her friend Judy is beside herself with frustration determined to see her friend well and safely married if she can. Lawrence Selden and Lily are clearly attracted to one another – but Selden is as impoverished as Lily – and they are well aware they cannot marry each other and remain in the society they are so much a part of.

“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you – we are sure to see each other again – but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you – I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you.”

Lily is hopeless with money – is in debt because of the gambling that is so big a part of the circles she moves in (where everyone else seems to have pots of money) – and does not understand very much about investments and the like. Foolishly she allows Judy Trenor’s husband Gus to give her financial advice – allowing him to take over her investments in order to increase her paltry income at a much needed time. She allows him to flirt with her and is quite blind to where her extra income is coming from really and what Trenor might expect in return.

Lily seems to lurch from one mistake to another – as a woman in this society she isn’t allowed such mistakes – and she finds herself talked about viciously. Finding herself more and more on the outside of the social circle she had been so much a part of before. She finds herself in an increasingly worse position, friendless and desperate with less and less money, determined to repay the money Trenor gave her though with little hope of being able to do so. Ostracised and cruelly whispered about by her former friends in a society that cares more about how things appear than the truth of the matter – Lily’s fears of poverty seem about to be realised – and she finds herself horribly alone.

“As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”

Wharton is clearly critical of this society which she knew so well from the inside. She shows us it from the woman’s perspective, with all its cruelties and inconsistences its absurd rules and petty conventions. The House of Mirth remains as readable as ever it was, a novel with a lot to say it is wonderfully compelling with a truly unforgettable heroine at its heart.

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With thanks to Virago for providing me with this beautiful designer edition.

I love Edith Wharton and The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton had been on my wish list for ages – so I was very excited to receive this collection from Virago.

There is a long tradition of the telling of ghost stories, an oral tradition that saw people telling and re-telling the stories known in their own families. People have long delighted in the sharing of such stories. It seems we continue to love to scare ourselves. These stories are very much in the best tradition of ghost stories – they give one a little shiver down the spine, they are deliciously creepy – but they never descend into absolute horror – I can’t really see them as nightmare inducing. They are understated, more Gothic than frightening, beautifully written of course with well-drawn characters.

Edith Wharton’s stories are set in both America and England stories which appeared over a period of more than thirty years, in the first half of the last century. They bear witness to Wharton’s own fascination with hauntings, bewitchments and spirits. From childhood Edith Wharton had been terrified of ghost stories, and in these stories, she has channelled her fears in tales which expose the faults in us mere mortals; betrayal, grief, greed and the misuse of power. They are all endlessly readable.

There are eleven stories in this collection – none of them too short – they are to my mind the perfect length, perfect to settle down with over a cuppa when you get in from work – or at night before bed. I don’t feel I can talk about each story, so as I generally do with story collections, I shall instead just give a flavour of the whole collection and talk about a few favourites.

The collection opens with The Lady Maid’s Bell narrated by the lady maid of the title. Having recently recovered from typhoid, Hartley is in search of a new position. She is told about a Mrs Brympton, a young woman though something of an invalid, she lives all year round at her country home on the Hudson river. Hartley is warned that the house is large and gloomy, and that the lady’s husband is often away. Hartley feels that a quiet place in the country will suit her well having so recently been ill. On arrival at Brympton Place, she is greeted by Mrs Blinder the cook and a friendly housemaid Agnes. Some things feel strange, she hears about her predecessor so long devoted to Mrs Brympton who died the year before. It is explained that should Mrs Brympton want her, Agnes will fetch Hartley, that there will be no summons by bell – as is usual. So, why does Hartley wake suddenly to the sound of a bell? and who was the woman she saw in the corridor outside her room?

In Afterward an American couple seek to buy a house in England, Mary Boyne and her husband settle on Lyng in Dorsetshire. Mary asks about the presence of ghosts and is told: ‘oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.’ It is further explained that she will never know it till long afterward. Settling happily at Lyng Mary and her husband Ned laughingly look out for their ghost that they will not know about till afterward – not really feeling too worried. However, when Mary sees a figure walking toward the house as she and Ned watch from the roof – she starts to get a feeling for the trouble that will follow.

“Distinctly, yes she now recalled that she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow of anxiety, of perplexity rather, fall across his face; and, following his eyes, had beheld a figure of a man in loose greyish clothes, as it appeared to her – who was sauntering down the lime avenue to the court with the doubtful gait of a stranger who seeks his way.”

For me one of the most enthralling and memorable stories is Kerfol, set in Brittany, where the narrator has been urged by friends to buy a property going – they say – for a song. Deciding to go and view the property the young man is shocked to find his entry to the house is prevented by a pack of vicious, though silent dogs. The reason for the presence of these spectral dogs is told in the story of Anne de Cornault who lived in the house with her husband in the seventeenth century.

In Bewitched we are back in America, and in wintry rural New England landscape three local men, a farmer and two cutters, call at the house of Saul Rutledge another cutter. There they encounter Saul’s wife – beside herself with a tale of witchcraft – she claims that the dead daughter of one man has bewitched her husband over the previous year – leaving him a shadow of his former self. The men, shocked and horrified at such a tale – set out to uncover the validity of her strange claim.  

“As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice – ‘self-drowned’ he added. But the snow light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them.”

Mr Jones tells the story of another English haunted house. When Lady Jane Lynke inherits the beautiful country house of Bells, she swears she will never leave it. She hasn’t reckoned on Mr Jones however – for everything that she wants to do in her new home she is told by the old servant that Mr Jones won’t like it. Whether it is lighting a fire in the parlour or unlocking the door to the muniment room Mr Jones is apparently consulted and his disapproval communicated to her ladyship. However, Lady Jane has never seen Mr Jones – and when she and her friend begin to investigate, they discover a Mr Jones had been an important servant many decades earlier.

In Pomegranate seed a young woman who is quite newly married to a man who had been previously widowed, is alarmed at the sight of a letter lying on the table addressed to her husband. The letter is one of a series of identical letters, to which her husband reacts very oddly. She becomes fixated on the letters, which her husband won’t talk to her about – and the idea that the writer, who she guesses is a woman – has some terrible hold over him, that the wife is desperate to free him of.

All in all, a pretty perfect collection of stories for the time of year. Ghost stories read well throughout the winter though, so I think this would make a great gift for any Edith Wharton fan come Christmas.

I am currently away on holiday, and there is no Wi-Fi where I am staying (this post uploaded courtesy of a café with sea view.) So, this post will have to suffice until I get home next weekend.

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This month the Librarything Virago group are reading the work of Edith Wharton. I chose Roman Fever a collection of short stories which I have had for some time.

The short story Roman Fever first appeared in 1934 – although this particular collection wasn’t published until 1964 these stories come from across the long period in which Edith Wharton was writing. I assume, therefore, that these stories probably do appear in collections first published during Wharton’s lifetime.

The title story of this collection also appears in The Persephone book of short stories – memorable for its final line – it is the perfect story to start off this little collection, and one I was very happy to revisit. It is a little piece of perfection from Edith Wharton. Two middle ages matrons; Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are in Rome with their daughters, the two women don’t move from their position on a terrace overlooking the  city they each have reason to remember from their youth.

“ ‘I always used to think’ Mrs Slade continued, ‘that our mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in – didn’t they?’
She turned again toward Mrs Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘One, two, three – slip two; yes, they must have been she assented without looking up.”

The two women have known each other many years, first as young women brought to Rome by their mothers, and later living on the same street in New York as married women. Their friendship is gradually revealed to exist only superficially. While their daughters go off together to explore the city, to have fun, the older women stay behind, knitting rolled up in their bags, reminiscing over past days. It’s a masterly example of subtlety, as the true nature of Grace and Alida’s jealousies and a long-held secret are unearthed through their conversation.

The remaining stories were all new to me, they are all excellent in their way, but although there are only eight in the collection, I won’t be discussing each of them. Famous for her stories depicting the upper echelons of New York society, the themes Wharton explores in these stories feel very familiar. Many of these stories show the contradictions in a society of slowly shifting mores. The daughters of women whose lives were once so narrowed by convention, find their lives easier, their lives less judged than their mothers’. In others Wharton details the absurdities of the conventional society she was a part of.

In Xingu Wharton’s wry humour is revealed as she portrays the intellectual snobbery of a society ladies lunch group. The women meet to discuss the latest books or ideas, there seems little enjoyment, and a good deal of anxiety among the women who try to outdo each other in intellectualism. Mrs Roby is the newest member of the group – and the other women are already questioning her suitability.

“…it was now openly recognised that as a member of the Lunch club Mrs Roby was a failure. ‘It all comes.’ As Miss Van Vluyck put it, ‘of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.’”

Celebrated writer Osric Dane has been invited to attend the next meeting to be held at the house of Mrs Ballinger. All the women are nervous about the meeting – nobody wants to show themselves up in front of the guest. Mrs Roby however, when the great day arrives, has her own interesting way of turning the conversation. Highlighting the snobberies of the women who have been sitting in judgement of her.

Mr Waythorn is a newly married husband in The other two, his wife only thirty five, is twice divorced with a twelve year old daughter. Society is changing, attitudes now much more tolerant to divorced women. However, Waythorn has the embarrassment of having to deal with both of his wife’s former husbands. This is something, society has certainly not prepared him.

Souls Belated is one story in which the hypocrisies of society thwart the happiness of people caught by its conventions. Lydia has left her husband, and is now travelling in Europe with her lover Gannett. Lydia and Gannett find a quiet hotel to settle in temporarily yet they find that the conventions that society put upon them, mean they must either lie about being married – or slip away to Paris and get married. Lydia doesn’t want to get married eager to pull away from the conventions she so hates. So much goes unspoken between Lydia and Gannett, and the reader fears they will remain so.

With The Angel at the grave Wharton highlights the plight of Victorian women who sacrifice their lives to the men of their families. In this case a granddaughter spends her whole life trying to keep the memory of her grandfather and his life’s work alive to others. In doing so, she ends up having no life of her own, it’s a sad and no doubt all true tale of pointless sacrifice, it was also my least favourite out of a truly superb collection.

“All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring.”

Autres Temps… the final story of the collection was certainly (along with the title story) one of my favourites. Again, we see the hypocrisy of society, as the rules applied to the younger generation are not advanced to the older generation who have suffered under their strictures for years. Mrs Lidcote is a woman who broke societies rules twenty years earlier when she divorced, she has been living abroad in exile, shunned by everyone in her society ever since. Upon hearing that her beloved daughter Leila has divorced, and immediately remarried, Mrs Lidcote hurries back to New York. However, she is made aware that society doesn’t care that Leila has divorced and remarried, her daughter isn’t shunned, her remarriage is accepted and her second husband in line for an enviable appointment. Mrs Lidcote begins to wonder whether these new acceptances might not after all be applied to her – that perhaps now, finally she too may be able to find happiness with a man she has held at arm’s length. Society, however it seems is not so rational as all that.

These stories show Edith Wharton at her best, wry, satirical and astutely observed – she examines the changes in society and how it treats those who flout its rules.

edith wharton 2

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twilight sleep

The Twilight sleep of the title of Edith Wharton’s 1927 Jazz age novel, is a form of anaesthesia used (and recommended by one of the characters in the novel) by women during childbirth. It further represents the ceaseless search for a cure for boredom that seemed to have been the daily occupation for the women of certain sections of New York society.

Edith Wharton wrote three ‘jazz age’ novels; Glimpses of the Moon, (1922) The Children (1928) and this one. I thought Glimpses of the Moon was readable but as a Wharton novel a bit frothy and insubstantial, but I really rather liked The Children. For me Twilight Sleep falls somewhere between the two, not just chronologically, it has far more substance than Glimpses of the Moon. It is a little slow to get going – but having settled into it I did enjoy it, although it is a long way away from the sheer unadulterated brilliance of some of her more famous novels, it still contains some superb writing. What Twilight Sleep does give us is a slightly satirical examination of the fatuous, empty lives of the young (and not so young) wealthy inhabitants of 1920s New York society. The characterisation is sharp and while I didn’t much like most of these characters (that never matters to me as reader though) I was fascinated by them.

“Lita was on the lounge, one long arm drooping, the other folded behind her in the immemorial attitude of sleeping beauty. Sleep lay on her lightly, as it does on those who summon it at will. It was her habitual escape from the boredom between thrills, and in such intervals of existence as she was now traversing she plunged back into it after every bout of outdoor activity.”

Mrs Manford and her extended family are at the heart of this novel. Married to Dexter Manford, her second husband, Pauline Manford’s days are timetabled with extraordinary exactitude and managed by her secretary Miss Bruss. Designed to limit the possibility of having nothing to do, Mrs Manford’s days are a round of Eurythmic exercises, correspondence, committees, facial massages, meditation and consultations with which ever faith healer is currently in fashion. Pauline and Dexter’s daughter Nona still unmarried is in love with an unhappily married man, she often helps her mother with the talks she gives to the Birth control committee and the Mother’s Day committee, on one occasion almost mixing up her diametrically opposed speeches.

“Yes; Nona did admire her mother’s altruistic energy; but she knew well enough that neither she nor her brother’s wife Lita would ever follow such an example–she no more than Lita. They belonged to another generation: to the bewildered disenchanted young people who had grown up since the Great War, whose energies were more spasmodic and less definitely directed, and who, above all, wanted a more personal outlet for them. “Bother earthquakes in Bolivia!” Lita had once whispered to Nona, when Mrs. Manford had convoked the bright elderly women to deal with a seismic disaster at the other end of the world, the repetition of which these ladies somehow felt could be avoided if they sent out a commission immediately to teach the Bolivians to do something they didn’t want to do–not to BELIEVE in earthquakes, for instance.”

Nona is devoted to her half-brother Jim, the son of Pauline and her first husband Arthur Wyant. Arthur and Pauline remain on surprisingly good terms, and as Pauline frequently schedules a visit to him in her diary with a capital A – he is nicknamed exhibit A by the younger generation. Jim has been married for around two years to the beautiful Lita, but now, despite having a child, Lita is starting to feel bored and looking around for other entertainments.

“Pauline leaned forward earnestly. “I won’t pretend not to know something of what’s been happening. I came here today to talk things over with you, quietly and affectionately–like an older sister. Try not to think of me as a mother-in-law!” Lita’s slim eyebrows went up ironically. “Oh, I’m not afraid of mothers-in-law; they’re not as permanent as they used to be.”

Everyone it seems starts to concern themselves in Jim and Lita’s marriage – and whether it will fail or not – even Dexter who begins to pay more and more visits to his step-son’s wife. Dexter, a lawyer, had been horrified by Lita’s photograph appearing in a magazine article – and seeks a way to lessen the possible scandal. Pauline is relieved by her husband’s timely interest in her son’s marriage, while Nona feels his sudden interest to be unaccountably odd. In a bid to apparently try and stop the rot, Dexter arranges for Lita to spend some time with him Nona and Pauline in the country, while Jim goes on a fishing break with his father. Lita is not really suited to the country, and requires other entertainments. Nona isn’t the
only one with her (unspoken) suspicions.

There is a lovely little bit of melodrama as everything comes to a head, and the family scuttle back to New York, and then abroad.

In this novel Wharton seems to be observing (from a distance as she was still living abroad) a society in which marriage was thrown over with a mere shrug while new fads and entertainments were forever being sought. As so often, Wharton exposes the excesses and foibles of the people she writes about and charts their eventual downfall.

Twilight Sleep was my first read for Librarything’s All Virago/All August – during which some of us read as many VMC and Persephone titles as we can.

edith wharton on terrace

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Fighting France: from Dunkerque to Belport is a small collection of essays, written by American novelist and short story writer Edith Wharton at the beginning of the First World War while she was living in France.

“The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the dreaming harmony of Paris. In a night, as it seemed, the whole city was hung with Red Crosses. Every other building showed the red and white band across its front, with “Ouvroir” or “Hopital” beneath; there was something sinister in these preparations for horrors in which one could not yet believe, in the making of bandages for limbs yet sound and whole, the spreading of pillows for heads yet carried high. But insist as they would on the woe to come, these warning signs did not deeply stir the trance of Paris. The first days of the war were full of a kind of unrealizing confidence, not boastful or fatuous, yet as different as possible from the clear-headed tenacity of purpose that the experience of the next few months was to develop. It is hard to evoke, without seeming to exaggerate it, that the mood of early August: the assurance, the balance, the kind of smiling fatalism with which Paris moved to her task. It is not impossible that the beauty of the season and the silence of the city may have helped to produce this mood. War, the shrieking fury, had announced herself by a great wave of stillness. Never was desert hush more complete: the silence of a street is always so much deeper than the silence of wood or field.”

As a consort to the president of the American chamber of commerce in France, Edith Wharton was given unique access to life at the front. In these essays Wharton meets with French soldiers, seeing for herself the impact upon everyday life, the devastation and desolation in once beautiful villages along the Western Front.

In many ways this book – though gloriously written, as one would expect from the pen of Edith Wharton – is rather out of step with the world we live in now. It reads rather like a piece of flowery propaganda at times, which in itself I think is fascinating, showing us as it does the spirit of patriotism that everyone it seems wanted to show the world. Edith Wharton was a fierce Francophile, and there’s no doubt where her sympathies lay here, the French are brave and stoical, the Germans evil, laying siege to the French countryside, destroying its villages. Written in 1915, it is hardly surprising that this is her view – it couldn’t be expected that it should be otherwise, it is probably only now with the distance of time that we are able to acknowledge, faults and heroisms on both sides.

They are grave, these young faces: one hears a great deal of the gaiety in the trenches, but the wounded are not gay. Neither are they sad, however. They are calm, meditative, strangely purified and matured. It is as though their great experience had purged them of pettiness, meanness and frivolity, burning them down to the bare bones of character, the fundamental substance of the soul, and shaping that substance into something so strong and finely tempered that for a long time to come Paris will not care to wear any look unworthy of the look on their faces.

During this year in France, Edith Wharton was able to tour various parts of the front, she appears fairly matter of fact about her presence in these places, but when we consider how close she was at times to the fighting this becomes a quite extraordinary chronicle. She focuses mainly on the deserted and war ravaged villages, and shows us temporary hospitals and soldiers’ messes and once poignantly encounters injured soldiers, suffering with no one to care for them. The soldiers set up little temporary villages right behind the lines, where they were able to live almost normally between engagements, and in the company of the her party and their guide Edith Wharton was able to meet these men. Wharton’s descriptions of landscape are just lovely, in her company the breeze rustles through the trees gently, while birds sing over head in trees alongside summer meadows.

“As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. It is not in the mud and jokes and everyday activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monsters in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”

As an early twentieth century travelogue by a great American writer, Fighting France is a beautifully rendered little piece, locations exquisitely described with obvious affection. As a first-hand account of France during the first few months of The Great War, however, it is rather over blown and very one sided. The final section – entitled The Tone of France is particularly objectionable – as Wharton appears to speak for the whole of France, allowing her admiration of the French spirit and patriotism to descend into terrible generalisations. However I can’t help but also see something rather interesting in Fighting France as a social document, and I wonder what it might have been like had Edith Wharton written these essays with some greater distance to the war.

This was my eleventh read for the Librarything Virago Group’s Great War theme read (I have rather neglected it of late) links to my other Great War reads are on my reading challenges page.


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The Reef is possibly one of Edith Wharton’s lesser known novels, but according to Anita Brookner in her introduction to my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition was written during her most brilliantly creative period. In 1910 Edith Wharton’s affair with journalist Morton Fullerton had ended, and it would appear that he is present here, in some respect at least, in the character of George Darrow. The Reef is apparently the novel of Wharton’s most admired by Henry James, and is said to be the most Jamesian of all her novels. I read a number of Henry James novels about twenty odd years ago, some I liked more than others, and I can certainly see echoes of James in this novel of Wharton’s – but I infinitely prefer Wharton’s writing to that of Henry James.

Sorry folks – there may be spoilers ahead.whartonreview

George Darrow is a young diplomat seemingly in love with American widow Anna Leath, living in France with her young daughter and adult step-son. Having known one another years earlier, they have renewed their relationship after meeting in London. The marriage of Anna to her first love seems assured, once she has prepared her family for the change in her circumstances. On his way to Anna’s French chateau George receives a telegram from Anna asking him to delay his arrival by some weeks – with no explanation immediately following, George feeling angry and disappointed encounters Sophy Viner. Sophy is a very different kind of woman to Anna, having been working as a kind of dogsbody to a notoriously vulgar society woman in London; Sophy is travelling to France to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Sophy is a spontaneous vibrant young woman unable to hide her feelings; she has little of the reserved self-restraint that Anna Leath is possessed. Upon their arrival in Paris, George Darrow decides to treat Sophy to a kind of holiday while she awaits news of her friends, and decides what she will do next. Over the next few days they dine together, and they visit the theatre – where George bumps in to Owen Leath, Anna’s step son. Sophy manages to slip out of sight, unaware that Owen has caught a glimpse of the edge of her pink cloak as she slid away, and Darrow believes he is safe from any embarrassing explanations. They return to their hotel, their rooms next door to one another, George is very much aware of Sophy on the other side of the wall. There is a kiss, and the irrepressible Sophy is certainly relaxed enough in George to playfully put her hands over his eyes – a little tease if ever there was one – but just how far their relationship goes is never explicitly revealed, although one assumes they went a little further than the conventions of the time would think proper. However it is this brief relationship – if it can even be called that – that is the reef of the title – the reef on which George Darrow and Anna Leath’s future happiness may yet flounder.

“There was such love as she had dreamed, and she meant to go on believing in it and cherishing the thought that she was worthy of it.”

Some months later and George and Anna are finally together at Givre – the chateau that Anna shares with her mother-in-law, step son and daughter. Anna has employed a new governess for her daughter, and is almost ready to settle the matter of her marriage once and for all. The one thing Anna wants to get settled first is to ensure the happiness and security of her step-son Owen with whom she has always been very close. Owen, although only twenty-one has recently engaged himself to a girl who both he and his step-mother know his grandmother will highly disapprove. Anna has pledged to help him all she can to secure his grandmothers blessing; she tells George she wishes to settle this matter for Owen before she announces their plans to the family. George perfectly understands, happily pledging his own support. However, George is yet to find out who the girl to whom Owen has engaged himself is – Effie’s governess, Sophy Viner.

George Darrow spends the next few days desperately trying to ensure Sophy’s silence. This necessitates the two of them meeting for quite little chats away from the rest of the household, unobserved, or so Darrow believes. A jealous Owen, does notice – and wonders why two people who apparently only met once or twice years before in London while Sophy was working for the dreadful Mrs Murrett should have so much to say to one another. One evening Owen notices Sophy’s pink cloak, a cloak he seems to think he may have seen before. Wharton toys with her readers beautifully, as she gradually draws out the family drama, George lies without conscience, revealing his guilt as he tries to dig himself out of a difficult situation. Will the truth when revealed – mean an end to Anna and Geoge’s marriage plans? Will Sophy and Owen save their fragile young love, will Owen and Anna’s relationship become damaged in the storm? Can any relationship survive when lies have been found out? These are questions just as relevant today.

“That bliss, in the interval, had wound itself into every fold of her being. Passing, in the first days, from a high shy tenderness to the rush of a secret surrender, it had gradually widened and deepened, to flow on in redoubled beauty. She thought she now knew exactly how and why she loved Darrow, and she could see her whole sky reflected in the deep and tranquil current of her love.”

Of course all this drama over a little fling may seem a little dated now, but in the early 1900’s such things were huge. Anna seems haunted by the thought of them together, the knowledge that Sophy has “been there before” with George, that theatre, that restaurant in Paris, she now cannot bear to go with him.

Wharton’s writing is utterly sublime, the depth and subtlety of her characters emotions are brilliantly and deftly handled. There is a reckless carelessness about George Darrow that makes him rather unlikeable; in a sense both Anna and Sophy are victims of his unconcern. The ending is rather odd, with Anna visiting Sophy’s blowsy, ridiculous sister, as she reclines in bed a small dog yapping for attention and her latest lover in the next room. Against the memory of her awful sister, and Anna Leath’s indecision, Sophy almost appears the better woman.


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The Children is the fourth Edith Wharton novel I have read this year. I have been reflecting on how glad I am that I have come to her fairly late. I first read The House of Mirth many, many years ago, when, I think, I was too young to appreciate her. I then re-read it in January and it remains one of my favourite reads of 2012.
The Children I think is probably a novel that is less well-known than some and according to the introduction to my edition by Marilyn French – much less appreciated. Yet I have to say straight off that I loved it.
The subject is one that many people (especially at the time when it was written) may have found rather distasteful – the infatuation of a middle-aged man for a fifteen year old girl. Future readers however will be pleased to know that this story is not Lolita. Judith Wheater is a charmingly honest young girl by turn maternal and childlike whose preoccupations are totally innocent and familial.

“The young face mounting towards him continued to bend over the baby, the girl’s frail shoulders to droop increasingly under their burden, as the congestion ahead of her forced the young lady to maintain her slanting position halfway up the liner’s flank.”

Many Edith Wharton novels are known for their exploration of the old New York society into which she was born and within which she lived for many years. This old New York society with its mores, manners and conventions is very much in the background of this novel. The setting is Europe, yet the characters are from the very sections of society that Edith Wharton is famed for writing about.
While travelling by cruise ship between Algiers and Venice Martin Boyne an unmarried engineer from New York – and very much part of that old New York Society, although a poor one – meets the children of the title. Seven children ranging in age from a toddler to a girl of fifteen, they are a group of full blood, half and step siblings who are travelling with their governess and nursery maids. Judith the eldest has taken on the role of surrogate mother to the younger children. The children’s parents a group of self-centred wealthy nouveau riche – who live mainly out of hotels, and think nothing of marrying, divorcing, re-marrying, and squabbling over their children – are the other section of society that Edith Wharton portrays brilliantly, with a satirical slant. Martin is due to meet up with the woman he has loved for many years, Rose Sellars a conventional member of New York society is newly widowed and now free to acknowledge her feelings for Martin which her marriage had not allowed her to do. Drawn into the lives of the Wheaters however, Martin decides to stay for a couple of days in Venice before going on to Switzerland, and here he involves himself further into the lives of the children and their parents.

“Lady Wrench had snatched up her daughter and stood, in an approved film attitude, pressing Zinnie’s damp cheek against her own, while the child’s orange-coloured curls mixed with the red-gold of hers. “What’s that nasty beast been doing to momma’s darling?” she demanded, glaring over Zinnie’s head at Judith. “Whipping you for wanting to see your own mother, I suppose? You just tell momma what it was and she’ll…”

The children are determined to stay together, rather than be farmed back out to the various natural or stepparents who decide they want them at one time or another. Martin pledges to help, not admitting even to himself at first, his true infatuation to Judith. Martin does have very real affection for all the children, and does want to help them. However when the group follow him to Switzerland without their parent’s knowledge, Martin’s and Rose’s burgeoning engagement is affected. Martin is endlessly pulled between these two different worlds, the world of polite old New York that is represented by Rose Sellars and the less conventional world of the children.
The characters of the children are wonderful, they are funny and endearing, and the relationships between each of them and with Martin Boyne are poignant and deeply charming. Martin is a fool, but a sympathetic one nonetheless. Martin’s dilemmas and mistakes are age-old ones, the ending inevitable and beautifully poignant.

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This is the third Edith Wharton novel I have read this year – I am steadily becoming a massive fan. The prose is magnificent, the sense of time and place spot on. Snowy New York streets, with the brownstones rising up around the gleaming coaches taking society to the opera. It is hugely readable and I found I just wanted to read and read – unfortunately a couple of busy days meant I had to slow down.
In the Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton portrays New York society of the late nineteenth century as a repressive and claustrophobic world. Society was small – everyone connected – everybody knew the rules and played by them.

“In the course of the next day the first of the usual betrothal visits were exchanged. The New York ritual was precise and inflexible in such matters; and in conformity with it. Newland Archer first went with his mother and sister to call on Mrs Welland, after which he and Mrs Welland and May drove out to old Mrs Manson Mingott’s to receive that venerable ancestress’s blessing.”

It is on the very day that Newland Archer becomes engaged to May Welland that he sees May’s cousin the Countess Ellen Olenska in a box at the opera. Countess Olenska is already placed outside of society, returning from Europe, minus her husband, from whom she has run away; she has set up home in a small house in an unfashionable neighbourhood. Protected by her relationship with some of New York’s key families, she is nevertheless under great pressure to return to her husband and her miserable life. Newland’s fascination with Ellen soon deepens into love – but they are doomed by society. He is soon to be married to her cousin, she is still married, and part of a society that finds divorce far more shocking than having separated from her husband. Newland is destined to live a conventional life. He tries to do the right thing – and certainly by today’s standards he doesn’t really do very much wrong. However his feelings for Ellen can’t be swept away and he finds himself lying to his wife. He finds however, that his wife and her family see and understand far more than he had given them credit for.

“He guessed himself to have been, for many months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between him and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.”

The story of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is a familiar one – and not one that presents the reader with any surprises, and yet it is still a joy to read. At the risk of being shouted down for possible spoilers – I found this short passage just a couple of pages from the end, extraordinarily lovely.

“Perhaps she too had kept her memory of him as something apart; but if she had, it must have been like a relic in a small dim chapel, where there was not time to pray every day”

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On a poor farm near Starkfield in western Massachusetts, Ethan Frome struggles to wrest a living from the land, unassisted by his whining and hypochondriacal wife Zeena. When Zeena’s young cousin Mattie Silver is left destitute, the only place she can go is Ethan’s farm. An embittered man and an enchanting young woman meeting in such circumstances unleash predictable consequences as passions are aroused between the three protagonists, Edith Wharton’s characterisation and deft handling of reversals of fortune are so accomplished that Ethan Frome has remained enduringly popular since its first publication in 1911 and is considered her greatest tragic story.

I first read Edith Wharton a very long time ago when I may have been a bit too young to appreciate her writing. I read A House of Mirth earlier this year and loved it. So having determined to read more by Edith Wharton I downloaded Ethan Frome to my kindle after reading a review of it on another book blog.
This is a short novel – a novella in fact. Set in Massachusetts the story revolves around three main characters. A stranger arrives in town and sees the broken figure of Ethan Frome outside the post office – in the coming days he is able to learn something of Ethan’s life and the events which lead to the accident which left him maimed.
Ethan is married to Zenobia, (or Zeena) an older wife apparently sickly she focuses all her energies on her health. Into their poor home comes Mattie Silver, Zenobia’s young cousin. Ethan finds himself trapped in an unhappy unfulfilling life – he develops strong feelings for Mattie who in turn seems to share his feelings. In Mattie Ethan sees the possibilities of a happy life – he imagines how this could be achieved.
Right from the start the reader just knows this story will not be a happy ever after. The tension in the story is perfect as it builds slowly, and the characters beautifully crafted and observed. It is quite wonderful how Edith Wharton has managed to create a sense of past and present for these tragic characters. The ending therefore is horribly inevitable. Set against a backdrop of a Massachusetts winter, the bleak surroundings of the Frome small holding and the bitter dynamics of the three people who live there make for an enormously readable story. The beautiful cold stark imagery that Wharton managed to portray in her writing, will I imagine stay with me for a long time.

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