Drawing-rooms are always tidy

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton by Gloria Erlich
    California, 210 pp, £13.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 520 07583 8

Among the hot items at my local video store these days is a recent Hollywood thriller called The hand that rocks the cradle. A successful instance of what might be called the yuppie nightmare film, this particular contribution to the genre also manages to exploit a tear that must trouble every mother who has temporarily handed over the care of her children to another woman – not the dread that the caretaker will harm or neglect them, but the anxiety lest she win their love away. An early scene of the film adroitly converts one kind of anxiety to the other, as the audience watches the new nanny, pillow in hand, threateningly approach the baby’s cradle as if to smother him, only to discover that she is intent instead on a secret session of breastfeeding. At the climax of the film, mother and nanny battle to the death in the attic (‘It’s my family!’ the heroine exclaims), while the man of the house lies immobilised with a broken leg three storeys below. The hand that rocks the cradle capitalises on several sources of female anxiety: the entire chain of events begins when the heroine reports her obstetrician for having sexually abused her during an examination, while before the elaborate plot has run its course, it also feints with the threat of the other woman in the more familiar sense, in the guise both of the husband’s former girlfriend and in that of the nanny herself, who repeatedly attempts to seduce him. But the real horror of the film clearly emanates from the nanny’s insidious campaign to supplant the biological mother in the affections of her children.

Not surprisingly, some viewers saw the film as further evidence of the widely discussed ‘backlash’ against feminism. Though its female screenwriter denied that she had any such idea in mind, The hand that rocks the cradle does manage to suggest that letting someone else care for your children (or, for that matter, complaining about sexual abuse) can have pretty terrifying consequences. The fact that the obviously well-off heroine hires the nanny merely because she wants to build an elaborate greenhouse on her property may be meant to sidestep the issue of working mothers, but this implausible plotting only makes the act of employing a surrogate seem all the more arbitrary and self-indulgent. Each time the camera lingers lovingly on another tasteful detail of the family’s upper middle-class home, we wonder whether we are expected to fear for the heroine or resent her.

Gloria Erlich’s new study of Edith Wharton also traces the dire effects of a mother’s reliance on a nanny. Though Erlich begins with a cautious disclaimer, suggesting ‘not that surrogate nurturing is a negative practice with predictable or measurable consequences, but merely that it is likely to make some difference in the child’s inner world,’ her argument quickly takes a more melodramatic turn. A few pages later, she cites authorities who fore see inevitable loss and trauma, and warns darkly that a child who learns to divide its affections between a biological mother and a caretaker ‘will retain in its soul this early bifurcation’. For the most part, the book speaks of split psyches rather than bifurcated ‘souls’, but the solemn tone is characteristic. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton presents its subject as a woman who heroically struggled ‘with lifelong gender problems’, nearly all of which began when the cool and remote Lucretia Jones handed over the daily care of her young child to a warmly nurturing nanny.

Hannah Doyle, the nurse known as ‘Doyley’, appears only a few times in Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), but one passage pays ardent tribute to her memory:

How I pity all children who have not had a Doyley – a nurse who has always been there, who is as established as the sky and as warm as the sun, who understands everything, can arrange everything, and combines all the powers of the Divinity with the compassion of a mortal heart like one’s own! Doyley’s presence was the warm cocoon in which my infancy lived safe and sheltered; the atmosphere without which I could not have breathed. It is thanks to Doyley that not one bitter memory, one uncomprehended injustice, darkened the days when the soul’s flesh is so tender, and the remembrance of wrongs so acute.

Earlier in the same passage. Lucretia Jones is identified by the beautiful items of her wardrobe, the ornamental containers in which she stored them, ‘and all the other dim impersonal attributes of a Mother’. Judging by Wharton’s autobiography, at least, Lucretia would seem to have confined most of her maternal energies to setting her female offspring a proper example in dress, manners and the use of the English language. Wharton recalls how at the age of 11 her ‘story-telling fever’ was checked by her mother’s response to her first attempt at opening dialogue: ‘ “Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown?” said Mrs Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.” ’ Lucretia returned the manuscript with the ‘icy comment: “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.” ’

Dating ‘the birth of her identity’ from her first conscious memory of a walk, hand in hand, with ‘her tall handsome father’, Wharton’s autobiography consistently associates George Frederic Jones with whatever spontaneous feeling and poetry her childhood contained. Retreating to her father’s library, the young girl discovered the books that were to sustain her, as she dragged out volume after volume ‘in a secret ecstasy of communion’, There is no evidence that George Frederic had anything more than a gentlemanly acquaintance with these possessions, but in later life his daughter liked to imagine how his ‘rather rudimentary love of verse’ might have developed, had not her mother’s ‘matter-of-factness ... shrivelled up any such buds of fancy’. Inferences from A Backward Glance, however, can be tricky. While Erlich takes its omission of a single picture of Lucretia (there is an attractive one of George) as evidence of Wharton’s long lived anger at her mother, a previous and more subtle psychoanalytic critic, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, noted that it is the mother’s ancestry on which the text dwells, and that of the two parents, only Lucretia is given a speaking part. For all Wharton’s evident preference, ‘the tall splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lilted one so high, and held one so safely’ remains an indistinct figure, surrounded with a haze of affectionate reminiscence.

The faintly incestuous aura of some of these memories, not to mention Wharton’s fondness for quasi-incestuous themes in works such as Summer (1917), emerged into sharper focus in the mid-Seventies, when Wolff discovered the unpublished fragment of ‘Beatrice Palmato’, a bit of soft pornography depicting a scene of father-daughter intercourse. Erlich elaborates on the incestuous theme, even associating Wharton’s vivid memory of her father’s hand (‘so warm-blooded that in the coldest weather he always went out without gloves’), the suggestion of a hand in Palmato’s name, and the obvious implication in the fragment that the incestuous lovers have previously engaged in mutual masturbation. (At one point, the father presses into his daughter’s hand ‘that strong fiery muscle that they used, in their old joke, to call his third hand’.) Without quite claiming that the fantasy recorded in the fragment must have originated in an actual event, Erlich speculates, vaguely, that ‘young Edith had experienced some kind of incestuous stimulation’ and that the fact contributed to ‘her emotional volatility and overactive sense of guilt’. She also argues that ‘the partial displacement’ of Wharton’s mother by a nursemaid altered ‘the dynamics of the Oedipal phase ... making space in the child’s psyche for unusually florid incestuous fantasies.’ Given how little is known about Doyley’s role beyond the passage already quoted (not even, as far as I can tell, the dates at which she came to and left the household), this seems a weighty burden to place upon the shoulders of the nanny.

Wharton’s official memoirs preserve a discreet silence on her erotic experience, scarcely mentioning the fact of her marriage and never alluding to the subsequent divorce – let alone to her adulterous affair in middle age with the bisexual journalist, Morton Fullerton. In an unpublished autobiographical fragment called ‘Life and I’, however, she did record an anxious conversation a few days before her wedding, when ‘seized with such a dread of the whole dark mystery’, her heart ‘beating to suffocation’, she summoned up the courage to inquire of her mother ‘what being married was like’.

    Her handsome face at once took on the look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded. ‘I never heard such a ridiculous question!’ she said impatiently; & I felt at once how vulgar she thought me.

    But in the extremity of my need I persisted. ‘I’m afraid, Mamma – I want to know what will happen to me!’

    The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment, then she said with an effort: ‘You’ve seen enough pictures & statues in your life. Haven’t you noticed that men are – made differently from women?’

‘Yes,’ I faltered blankly.

‘Well, then – ?’

    I was silent, from sheer inability to follow, & she brought out sharply: ‘Then for heaven’s sake don’t ask me any more silly questions. You can’t be as stupid as you pretend!’

Since the marriage that followed was evidently a sexual failure, previous commentators have tended to echo Wharton’s own verdict on this episode: that ‘the training’ it epitomised ‘did more than anything else to falsify & misdirect my whole life’. (When she adds, cryptically, that ‘in the end, it did neither,’ she presumably alludes to the affair with Fullerton.) Erlich speculates that the young woman’s ‘stupidity’ may have resulted from massive repression rather than a lack of information, and suggests that Lucretia’s incredulity at her daughter’s ignorance was in this sense justified. Having identified all maternal love with the nurturing Doyley and made her mother into a vengeful god, Wharton ‘experienced a monumental need to placate this mother, a need so powerful that she offered up her own sexuality’ – managing to forget in the process whatever facts of life she knew.

Erlich’s refusal to demonise Lucretia is admirable, and she does well to emphasise the daughter’s role in her own upbringing. Clearly, children do exaggerate and reinforce the impulses of their parents, especially, perhaps, when they also possess the imaginative powers of an Edith Wharton. Whether matters would have taken a markedly different course without Nanny Doyle, on the other hand, seems more doubtful. When Erlich argues that because of Edith’s love for the nurse, she ‘must have failed to give Lucretia signals that would have stimulated her latent maternal impulses’, a fantasy of True Womanhood takes over the argument. The employment of nannies was standard practice in old New York; but even had a suitable candidate not been available, there is no evidence that Lucretia’s instincts would have blossomed according to plan. Under the circumstances, it seems more reasonable to be grateful, as Wharton herself was, for the presence of Doyley.

For all her adult life, Erlich argues, the novelist struggled to repair the damage of her childhood, recognising that ‘to liberate her sexual nature, she must wrestle with her internalised mother and force from it the nurturing she needed.’ Wharton’s growth as an artist matters less in this history of her career than her extended efforts at self-therapy. Erlich acknowledges that Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932) ‘are far from masterpieces’, but she reads the laboured mythology of the Vance Weston books as triumphant evidence of the novelist’s quest to become her own mother. Indeed, her ‘greatest creative act’, we are twice told, ‘may well have been the forging through her own intellect and imagination what life had denied her – an inner mother that would suffice’. This is nonsense and not merely because, on Erlich’s own account, Wharton managed this feat only in time to begin her last uncompleted novel. Such a claim does justice neither to the subject of this book nor to the numerous unknown people who have doubtless struggled, more or less successfully, to ‘mother’ themselves. The novelist’s greatest creative act, it need hardly be said, was the writing of her novels.

What disappears almost entirely from this book is Wharton’s brilliance as a satirist. Though Erlich has useful observations to make about Lily Bart’s relations with women in The House of Mirth (1905) or about Newland Archer’s retreat from experience in The Age of Innocence (1920), she tends to approach the social texture of these novels as a cover for the unresolved psychodrama. Despite the banality of its language, however, The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton does make a persuasive case for the inner ‘scripts’ at work in several lesser-known narratives. Seven years before the adultery with Morton Fullerton, for example, Wharton uncannily anticipated the dynamics of its aftermath in a novella called The Touchstone (1900), published in Britain as A Gift from the Grave. While no affair actually takes place between the hero of that work and the great novelist who loves him, the plot turns on the post-humous history of the painfully revealing letters she leaves behind – letters that end up being published, like Wharton’s to Fullerton, for subsequent generations to read. Erlich argues that for Wharton erotic love necessarily entailed an element of self-abasement, guilty tribute to the punishing mother within Erlich’s extended analysis of what she calls ‘the passion experience’ (this particularly unfortunate term is borrowed from the psychoanalyst Sophie Freud) further demonstrates how Fullerton’s own relations with his mother – who adored him – prepared him for his affair with the novelist.

The split-mother thesis also provides a convincing account of The Old Maid (1924), in which a wealthy widow who adopts the illegitimate daughter of her cousin succeeds in winning the girl’s devotion, while the biological mother dwells in the same house as the unloved spinster of the title. That novella concludes with a wedding-eve ‘communion’ of adoptive mother and bride that Erlich sees as compensating for Wharton’s painful dialogue with her own mother almost four decades earlier. At the time of the novelist’s death in 1937, Hollywood was turning this family romance into a movie co-starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.