‘I can’t go on like this’
Ruth Bernard Yeazell
- The Letters of Edith Wharton edited by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis
Simon and Schuster, 654 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 671 69965 2
- Women Artists, Women Exiles: ‘Miss Grief’ and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Joan Myers Weimer
Rutgers, 341 pp, $42.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 8135 1347 2
At a critical moment in The House of Mirth (1905), just after her humiliating confrontation with Gus Trenor compels Lily Bart to realise how terrifyingly ‘alone’ she is, ‘in a place of darkness and pollution’, Edith Wharton’s doomed heroine thinks for the first time of the Furies: ‘She had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides,’ the novelist writes, ‘and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour’s repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain.’ Though Lily’s memory of the Furies obviously measures the relentlessness with which her society will pursue and destroy her, it serves more subtly to characterise the victim herself: sensitive enough to respond to the power of the dramatist’s art and to recall the scene so vividly, she has neither the education nor the discipline to know anything of Aeschylus beyond this chance acquaintance – an acquaintance casually ‘picked up’ in one of those luxurious houses where the beautiful but impoverished young woman has been a perpetual hanger-on. Having failed to make a wealthy marriage or otherwise to place herself above the reach of scandal, Lily will eventually descend from those houses to the narrow room of a shabby boarding-house, where she swallows an overdose of chloral. Wharton’s heroine clearly suffers from a lack of resources in more than one sense – and if the novel sometimes suggests that there is in any case no escaping the Furies, it nonetheless wishes us to understand the shallowness of her education, like her inability to earn her own living, as an indictment of the culture that made her so vulnerable.
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
Ruth Yeazell has provided many insights into Edith Wharton in her review of Wharton’s letters edited by Professor R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (LRB, 19 January). Many of your readers will be disappointed, however, that the review was not able to take account of the contribution of Marion Mainwaring and the letter of Ruth Pitlick (TLS, Nos 4472 and 4474) about Professor Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton and edition of her letters. These impugn both the scholarship of Professor Lewis and his editorial competence. They suggest that he has been prone to errors of fact and interpretation. Those of your readers who have relied on Professor Lewis’s biography as a definitive source of knowledge about Edith Wharton will look forward to reading in a further issue the views of Ruth Yeazell and other Wharton scholars in the light of these disclosures.
Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes: To anyone who has relied on R. W. B. Lewis’s biography of Wharton, the recent accusations of carelessness to which Christopher Herzig alludes are disturbing, though why Marion Mainwaring has waited more than a decade to make her charges known is far from clear. It is certainly true that too many reviewers rush to praise the scholarship and editing of biographies and letters without having any real basis for doing so. Mary (not Ruth!) Pitlick accuses the Lewises of wildly underestimating the number of Wharton letters that have survived, but a careful reading of the introduction to their edition puts their count at approximately eight thousand items – not the four thousand she indicates.
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s wondering (Letters, 2 March) why I waited so long to publish charges against R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton is natural and reasonable. The TLS article containing the charges (‘The Shock of Non-Recognition’) is an updating of a critique written in late 1975, as soon as I had read the biography. It was intended for immediate publication, but I was persuaded by friends to hold it so that I could complete a book I was writing on Morton Fullerton, Wharton’s lover, undistracted by controversy. That book, to the extent that it overlapped Lewis’s, would document a true narrative rather than merely attack his erroneous one without substantiation. To have it on record that I was not responsible for his mistakes, I sent copies of the critique to various people in France, England and the United States. I expected to finish my book in perhaps two years. The manuscript was only in rough first draft, however, when, in 1977, work had to stop. Severe shingles and sequelae, a broken hip, and care of two aged parents and disposal of their house after their deaths, made it impossible to carry on sustained, demanding work. Though there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to get back to the book, I could not do so until the end of 1985.
The critique was meant for the TLS, but in 1987, at the instance of Richard Howard, I sent it (in a revision somewhat different from the one now in print) to an editor of the New York Review of Books. It was ignored, as were two letters of inquiry. By contrast, the editors of the TLS thought that serious misrepresentation of data by a respected academic was an important issue, and gave generously of their time and space. I am very sorry indeed that scholars have been misled by Lewis’s errors. My own career also suffered from a delay that was beyond my control.