‘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.

The former Edith Newbold Jones had been shaped by that culture also, but her newly-published letters remind us of how strenuously she resisted some of its influences. Not that they provide any immediate record of the years when such resistance must have been critical: except for a mildly teasing report from the 12-year-old Edith Jones about the engagement of a friend – a letter in which she casually calls herself ‘the only good correspondent of our family’ – nothing apparently survives before a document from the 31-year-old Edith Wharton to her editor at Scribner’s which opens by thanking him for the firm’s offer to collect her stories in a volume. Yet if the letters that remain tell us very little about the process by which she turned herself from the Joneses’ only good correspondent into an author who had already published a number of poems and stories, they offer impressive evidence of the mature woman’s learning and of her capacity to pay her own way. ‘It was not a good day for a beginner at motoring,’ she reports to Sara Norton in the summer of 1906, after detailing the muddy consequences of a narrow encounter with a ‘nervous man & woman in a buggy’ on a country road, ‘but we took no harm, & finished off the evening by reading the Symposium.’ Though Edith Jones seems to have had no more formal education than did Lily Bart – young women in her set simply did not go to university – her editors are not merely making a boast about Yale when they report that it took the combined resources of ‘one of the world’s great libraries ... and a great humanities faculty’ to track down her allusions and references. Among the ‘formative influences of my youth’, she herself cites Darwin, Spencer, Lecky and Taine; and allusions to works of science, history, art and philosophy crowd these pages almost as thickly as do passages of imaginative literature. ‘Alas, my Latin is too imperfect to permit any enjoyment of Lucretius, even with a crib,’ she writes to a friend in 1923, but it is clear that she reads widely and with great enjoyment in French and Italian, and perhaps above all in German: one letter to Bernard Berenson speaks nostalgically of returning to her adolescent love for the 13th-century Minneleider and the Old Icelandic Edda; in another, she picks up Nietzsche’s Jenseits von Gut und Böse as a ‘diversion’ from her own writing and finds it ‘great fun – full of wit & originality & poetry – dashes of Meredith & even Whitman’. She may have shared Lily Bart’s ignorance of Greek, but when she reread Aeschylus’s trilogy a year after publishing The House of Mirth, the version she chose was a distinguished German translation. Having received a copy of Barrett Wendell’s Traditions of European Literature from Homer to Dante (1920) – a work based on Wendell’s comparative literature course at Harvard – she characteristically reports to Berenson that the first thing she did was glance at the bibliography (‘they tell so much in such books!’), and was ‘saddened’ to see how ‘terribly premasticated & primaire’ it all was: ‘in addressing Harvard students and the general reader in the US, he gives only books that have been translated into English, & ... La Cité Antique figures as “The Ancient City”.’ ‘But I suppose,’ she adds, ‘he’s subdued to what he works in’ – the dyer’s hand, as Wharton imagined it, presumably having taken on the cultural tone not just of Harvard Yard but of the entire nation. ‘I despair of the Republic!’ she had written to Sara Norton after spending a night in an American hotel in 1904: ‘Such dreariness, such whining sallow women, such utter absence of the amenities, such crass food, crass manners, crass landscape!! ... What a horror it is for a whole nation to be developing without the sense of beauty, & eating bananas for breakfast.’

When Lily Bart briefly tries to support herself by trimming hats in the work-room of Mme Regina’s millinery establishment, her ‘charming listless hands’ prove incapable even of sewing on a straight line of spangles. Unlike her future heroine, Edith Jones had no need either to make money or to marry it. Indeed, the fact that most of the Whartons’ inherited wealth came from her side of the family rather than Teddy’s undoubtedly contributed to the strain and eventual break-up of their marriage. Recording his ‘pity’ for Edith when he learned of her husband’s ‘sinister’ financial activity in the years immediately preceding the divorce (Teddy had embezzled and spent some $50,000 from her trust), Henry James couldn’t help regretting ‘that an intellectuelle – and an Angel – should require such a big pecuniary base.’ But require it she apparently did; and in the later decades of her career especially, she appears to have been capable of driving some hard bargains with her publishers. ‘I cannot consent to have my work treated as if it were prose-by-the-yard,’ she responded when the Pictorial Review threatened to cut passages from The Age of Innocence in 1920; but when the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal proposed cutting her autobiography by a fifth in 1933 – and reducing the Journal’s $25,000 fee accordingly – Wharton pronounced him ‘at liberty to cut out anything he wishes, but not of course to back out of his price.’

No doubt she was hurt by more than the threat to her pocketbook. Like her earlier quarrel with the Pictorial Review, the battle with the Journal was part of her long-standing struggle with the quality of the American magazines and the imagined tastes of their readers. ‘I am not in the least surprised that the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal finds my reminiscences too long and parts of them “dull”,’ she wrote with obviously wounded pride: ‘I always wondered how they could interest such a public as the American illustrated magazines are addressed to.’ Yet three years before her death, and in the midst of the Depression, she was threatening to leave Appleton ‘for the simple reason that I cannot afford to neglect any chance of selling my books’ – this despite the fact that in the Twenties she had largely abandoned her original publisher, Scribner’s, for Appleton’s own higher fees. Need in such matters is relative, of course, and the Lewises conscientiously note the ‘huge’ costs of restoring and running her two French houses (a villa outside Paris and a former convent on the Mediterranean coast), as well as her considerable generosity to a large number of personal dependents and charities. Even a feminist appreciation of Wharton’s toughness in such matters does not always make her negotiations with her publishers pleasant reading, however.

For all the privileges and immunities to which these letters testify – the succession of luxurious houses both in America and Europe, the crowded social life, the frequent travel – their author also writes as a woman all too familiar with ‘my good friends the Eumenides’. The resigned intimacy with which she repeatedly alludes to them tends to make Orestes’s furious pursuers seem more like household gods, or perhaps simply unpleasant guests who habitually overstay their welcome. Though the class background of these persistent visitors remains a bit ambiguous – one letter follows an initial report of trouble by exclaiming that ‘the Furies had only just taken their apéritif,’ while another speaks of their dancing in ‘hob-nailed shoes’ on the ‘sensitive tracts’ of her consciousness – she never wavers in the conviction that ‘the Furies know their job, & generally do it thoroughly.’ If the job in question often seems dictated more by the laws of domestic farce than of high tragedy, the very casualness of such allusions testifies to her sense that she and the Furies had long been intimately acquainted and that the best way of coping with these particular ‘good friends’ was to adopt in their presence a certain ironic stoicism.

Ever since she began ‘making up’, as A Backward Glance (1934) calls the private imaginings of her childhood, Wharton seems to have felt herself fated to pay for her vocation with a deep and inveterate loneliness. And neither the abundant friendships to which these letters attest nor the new record which they provide of her passionate affair in middle age finally alters the impression of her essential solitude. When R.W.B. Lewis published his biography of the novelist in 1975, its revelations about her adulterous affair with the American journalist, Morton Fullerton, inevitably attracted much attention: especially when combined with the printing of ‘Beatrice Palmato’, a previously-unpublished fragment of soft pornography written only two years before her death in 1937, they seemed to tell of a private, erotically intense and abandoned woman dramatically at odds with her rather strait-laced public image. To the evidence available when Lewis’s biography appeared – chiefly the poems Wharton wrote during the course of the affair and the extraordinary private journal which she addressed to Fullerton, as well as some of the latter’s correspondence with other people – have now been added some three hundred letters from Wharton to her lover which turned up in 1980. Twenty-six of these were published in 1985 by their purchaser, the University of Texas at Austin, and slightly more than double that proportion are now printed here. (By the Lewises’ own count, their edition as a whole represents approximately a twentieth of the novelist’s existing correspondence.) The survival of the letters to Fullerton is more than a little remarkable. After the death of her close friend, Walter Berry, Wharton herself apparently entered his apartment and burned all her letters, and only a very few of the many she wrote to Henry James somehow escaped his celebrated bonfire. Though at the beginning of the affair Wharton glories in the ‘miraculous’ survival of an early note from Fullerton, ‘preserved, no doubt, by its predestined significance’, before the year is out she is making the first of many requests that he send back her letters – preferably, by registered mail. ‘In one sense, as I told you, I am indifferent to the fate of this literature,’ she writes on a later occasion; ‘in another sense, my love of order makes me resent the way in which inanimate things survive their uses!’ Given her love for so many other forms of inanimate survival – that, for instance, of beautiful objects and places – the remark is more than a little disingenuous: but Fullerton’s preservation of the documents is nonetheless striking, especially since his archival habits had already made him the victim of at least one blackmail attempt.

‘Please seize the event, however delicate the problem,’ the self-important Fullerton once advised another potential biographer of Wharton, ‘to dispel the myth of your heroine’s frigidity.’ The advice is offensive, but it has to be conceded that the detailed documenting of the woman’s sexual awakening has permanently changed our understanding of the novelist, even if only by making it all too easy to register the difference between the curiously sexless House of Mirth, published three years before the affair began, and the erotically sensitive fiction written afterwards – especially, Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912) and Summer (1917). In her early letters to Fullerton, Wharton repeatedly testifies to her own sense of a radical break in her identity – a transformation of that ‘numb, dumb former self, the self that never believed in its chance of having any warm personal life, like other, luckier people’. ‘You woke me from a long lethargy, a dull acquiescence in conventional restrictions, a needless self-effacement,’ she tells him in one letter: ‘all one side of me was asleep.’ ‘Before that, I had no personal life,’ she writes in another, recalling ‘a happy hour’ spent together the previous year: ‘since then you have given me all imaginable joy.’ Yet like most adulterous lovers, perhaps, she seems to have made the vivid sense of an ending a virtual condition of beginning, and she had no sooner entered into the affair than she was writing its conclusion, imagining the moment at which Fullerton would say: Ma pauvre amie, c’est fini. ‘My last letter will have shown you how I have foreseen, how I have accepted, such a contingency,’ she writes as early as June 1908, a month after they had apparently first consummated their relationship: ‘Do you suppose I have ever, for a moment, ceased to see the thousand reasons why it was inevitable, & like to be not far distant?’ Among the ‘thousand reasons’, one of the most prominent was presumably her marriage to Teddy, whom she would not divorce – on the formal complaint of his own adulteries – until 1913. Another, it is tempting to argue, was Wharton’s keen awareness of how desire feeds on the foreknowledge of loss. But what seems most ‘inevitable’ to the reader as she follows the rapid succession of these letters over the course of several years is not the tragedy of love but its bitter disappointment: there is more expense of spirit in a waste of shame here than in Antony and Cleopatra.

Fullerton seems to have been one of those people whose charms can only be appreciated in person. Among his many conquests he numbered Margaret Brook (the Ranee of Sarawak) and Lord Gower, the sculptor; Henry James warmly befriended him, and his talented first cousin, brought up as his sister, was long passionately in love with him. Yet it is hard to have very much sympathy with his silent presence here. Of course all Wharton’s correspondents are perforce silenced by the nature of the collection, which contains only her letters, but so many of those she wrote to Fullerton begin by protesting the absence of any reciprocal word from him that they quickly become painful reading. After numerous variations on ‘won’t you tell me soon the meaning of this silence?’ and ‘I can’t go on like this!’, it is something of a relief when Wharton is once again thrown back on her own resources.

The resource that counted most was the storyteller’s mastery. ‘This is one of the days when it is more than I can bear,’ she had written during their first prolonged separation: ‘just now, when I heard that the motor, en route for Havre, had run into a tree & been smashed ... I felt the wish that I had been in it, & and smashed with it, & nothing left of all this disquiet but a coeur arrêté. In Ethan Frome a similar wish yields bitterly ironic consequences: not the death of the two lovers as their sled crashes into the big elm, but an awful survival, which permanently chains the injured hero to his now crippled lover as well as to his resentful and hypochondriac wife. With its icy and isolated New England setting, its barely articulate lovers, and its central masculine consciousness, Ethan Frome seems as far from Wharton’s own life as anything she ever wrote, but it is no disparagement to her imagination to argue, as Lewis did in his biography, that the novella also bears very closely the impress of her recent experiences, even containing passages directly transposed from the journal she addressed to Fullerton. Edith began working on Ethan’s story just as her own adulterous affair was coming to an end, and the cultural remove at which she placed her fictional triangle, as well as its reversals of gender, proved powerfully enabling. Ethan Frome gives us her personal situation ‘carried to a far extreme’, Lewis suggested, ‘and rendered utterly hopeless by circumstance’. But still more horrible than the irrevocable entrapment of the ill-fated pair is the final destruction of Ethan’s illusions about Mattie Silver, the tale’s relentless demonstration that the imagined difference between spouse and lover is no difference at all. The moment when the narrator first reveals that the querulous droning voice he has been overhearing is not Zeena’s but Mattie’s is as chilling as any that fiction has to offer.

As in Wharton’s case, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s close friendship with Henry James may have done more to obscure the nature of her literary achievement than to clarify it. Certainly Woolson herself was acutely aware that a woman writer’s friendship with the Master was not an unmixed blessing. Woolson belonged to an earlier literary generation than Wharton: when the older woman jumped or fell to her death from her balcony in Venice in 1894, the younger one had yet to publish her first book, and her first real meeting with James was some half a dozen years away. Joan Weimer’s fine selection of Woolson’s stories demonstrates the writer’s early affinities with Hawthorne and her own great-uncle Cooper as well as with female contemporaries like Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin. Both in such romantic and allegorical tales as ‘The Lady of Little Fishing’ (1874) and ‘Castle Nowhere’ (1875) and in the more realistic or satirical ones like ‘Miss Elisabetha’ (1875), Woolson is an extraordinarily evocative landscape artist as well as a subtly ironic stylist; if the early stories make her a ‘regionalist’, her region extends from the northern shores of the Great Lakes to the coast of Florida. As Weimer’s thoughtful introduction suggests, Woolson also questioned and revised the literary traditions she inherited.

Only the last three of the nine stories reprinted here are unmistakably Jamesian – and that in several senses, not all of them flattering. Each of these stories concerns American expatriates in Europe; in each the heroine is an artist or would-be artist and the hero a fastidious egotist more or less obviously resembling the Master. Though Woolson is equivocal at best about the talent of the woman – Ettie Macks, the Daisy Miller-like heroine of ‘The Street of the Hyacinth’ (1882), abandons her painting after the third male authority convinces her that it is ‘insufferably bad’ – she is consistent about the failings of the man, who has excellent taste, a quietly refined manner, and an unshakable belief in the truth of his own opinions. In both ‘The Street of the Hyacinth’ and ‘At the Château of Corinne’ (1887), the hero, having helped to persuade the heroine that she has no artistic gift, ends by marrying her; but in none of the stories in this volume does romantic love come to women except as a fall, and in none of them does it seem to promise much compensatory satisfaction. Only in the title story does the hero, himself a successful writer, acknowledge the heroine’s ‘divine spark of genius’ (together, of course, with her ‘absolutely barbarous shortcomings’): but it is no accident that Miss Crief – whom the hero’s butler has significantly mistaken for ‘Miss Grief’ – is prematurely aged and dying, or that despite his confidence in his own abilities, the hero finds that trying to extract the faults of her work ‘was like taking out one especial figure in a carpet – impossible, unless you unravel the whole’. Like the entry in Woolson’s notebook which seems to have inspired ‘The Beast of the Jungle’, that image would of course have its subsequent uses. James’s own 1888 essay on ‘Miss Woolson’, reprinted here as an appendix, is at once deferential and defensive, alluding much to the separation of the spheres and implausibly insisting on the ‘singularly and essentially conservative’ spirit of her work. It is not necessary to believe that Woolson committed suicide out of unrequited love for the Master to find this discouraging.

Everywhere in Paris these days, posters displaying the embracing forms of Gérard Dépardieu and Isabelle Adjani invite one to witness the tumultuous history of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s fellow sculptor and longtime mistress, who ended her life in an insane asylum, convinced that her former lover was trying to steal her work. There is both a great distance and no distance at all between these grandly cinematic passions and the finely-controlled writings of Woolson and James.