Studied Luxury

Margaret Anne Doody

  • No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton by Shari Benstock
    Hamish Hamilton, 546 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 241 13298 3
  • Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life by Eleanor Dwight
    Harry Adams, 335 pp, $39.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 8109 3971 1

The title of Benstock’s biography of Edith Wharton is somewhat mal à propos. Edith Wharton, other reviewers have pointed out, had plenty of gifts from chance. She was born, in 1862, into wealth and leisure, she had a sufficiency of good looks (in an era when that mattered even more than now). As a writer she was highly successful, both critically and commercially. Benstock takes her title from a snatch of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Resignation’ copied by Wharton into her Commonplace Book in 1908: ‘They believe me, who await/No gifts from chance have conquered fate’. What Arnold is celebrating is that markedly Victorian duty to bustle and hustle. Certainly Edith Wharton was no Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. In taking up writing seriously, she broke out of the mould into which she was being set, as women were set, like large bland puddings, turning away as she did so from the pleasant, vacuous life of a society matron of means. But Edith Newshold Jones did have to become the society matron first. And her marriage to Teddy Wharton might be thought of as dictated by chance. As Benstock makes clear, she had reached the point when she had to marry somebody when she got engaged in 1885: ‘At 23, her 1879 debut six years in the past, Edith was running out of time.’

Wharton did not acquire money by marrying this vacuous and not-so-young man (he was 34, and did not come into his inheritance until he was 60). They lived on the proceeds of Edith’s trust fund, until she was able to add to their funds to an extent not anticipated. The great, perhaps the sole, advantage of Teddy as a mate for Edith was that he was little inclined to interfere as long as he had the leisured and pleasant life to which he was accustomed. An ambitious or more socially aggressive man might have curtailed her publishing – as Edith’s mother, Lucretia Jones, had earlier been inclined to do. Getting married was the only way to acquire any independence of movement. Independence of means was to follow, with the delightful chance of an inheritance of $ 120,000 from her father’s elderly second cousin in 1888. Edith had already spent a good deal of money on a kind of Grand Tour, including North Africa, Egypt, the Aegean and the Holy Land. But in Edith’s life, one has to note, things did tend to turn up, and her financial life was a series of glittering happy chances.

It was ‘chance’ that forced Edith to get married – the chance of the mores of her time and place. Was it ‘chance’ that the man she chose to marry, who was so ready (at first) to fall in with her inclinations for travel or amusement, or else to let her alone, was uninterested in her – and uninteresting to her – sexually? Speculation as to whether this marriage was ever consummated remains unresolved. Perhaps Teddy’s sexual unsuitability as a partner was a result of Edith’s own wish; she never wanted to be subjugated to anyone; and at first they didn’t seem unhappy as a married couple.

Her own most private writings, however, record a frustration with her enclosed emotional life. Her sense of the pain of living as an âme close, like a light in a tomb, can be found in many documents quoted by her biographers. Eventually, in her forties, she was to have what seems to have been her first and only love affair, with that ambiguous creature Morton Fullerton. Fullerton’s life is complex enough to be confusing to any reader of Benstock’s biography, or even of the clearer and more detailed biography of R.W.B. Lewis. Fullerton was the lover of several women (and some men). He constantly complained about being blackmailed by one of his ladies, Henrietta de Mirecourt, without being able to pay her off, close her mouth, or break from her. The blackmail story, which Fullerton related pathetically to Henry James as well as to Edith Wharton, his new mistress (or one of them), might, one thinks, have been all an interesting fiction to put a polite face on Fullerton’s lack of interest in committing himself elsewhere. Sherlock Holmes, following Arsène Lupin, would have stolen the purloined letters for him – Fullerton might have done as much for himself.

Edith Wharton knew, in some sense, as her fiction of the period shows, that Fullerton was not only unfaithful but capable of inordinate deceit and crafty manipulation. Yet the sense of being freed into a sexual self was a very powerful educational experience in Wharton’s life; without it one doubts whether she could have written The Age of Innocence (1920). Her major success, however, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905, well before the Fullerton affair. By the time she became involved with that other and more devious expatriate, Edith Wharton had taken to living in France for long periods of time, and it was there that the affair really took place. Teddy grew gloomier and gloomier in France, and more and more difficult. He seems to have been afflicted with some sort of manic-depressive malady, and Edith had had some hints of mental illness in his family which she later felt she hadn’t investigated thoroughly enough before her marriage. But Teddy’s slide into depression can hardly have been alleviated by the constant stress of living with someone who despised him, however many benefits and little treats were flung his way.

The advent of World War One saw Edith in Paris working ardently for the cause. She not only raised money for the soldiers at the front; she also led a serious and well-organised campaign for the aid of war orphans and displaced persons that was the equivalent of a complex, multi-million dollar business. Very responsive to the plight of women in wartime, she set up institutions that would enable them to work, earn money and maintain their self-respect. The aggressive America of the 1880s and 1890s lost a powerful businessperson in Edith: had she been a man, she might have turned to that area of human endeavour, despite the satire with which Wharton the novelist greets the advent of the big businessman on the social scene. She was undoubtedly curious about such people, but her own great business capabilities could flourish only in a time of desperation, and the peacetime organisations swallowed up her own creations: they could not re-create the inventive compassion that had founded a charity for French Tuberculosis War-Victims, when Edith found out that victims of TB were feared and shunned. A large amount of her own personal fortune had gone into these charities, and she suffered at the same time from an abatement of popularity, especially when she wanted to write about the war. Editors told her nobody wanted to read about it. Suffering was out of date. The Twenties were interested in writing that was upbeat and smart for its magazines – smart, yet not immoral. Benstock reminds us that several times Wharton was hampered by the standards imposed by periodicals like the Ladies’ Home Journal. There was a wide readership (and a good deal of money) available to writers for these magazines, but Edith’s stronger views and deeper knowledge had often to be camouflaged.

One of the ‘gifts of chance’, as Shari Benstock clearly explains, was the work of Rutger Bleecker Jewett, a senior editor at Appleton, who became in effect Edith Wharton’s literary agent for 16 years. He unstintingly advanced her career, as Benstock says, ‘nominating her work for literary prizes and securing for her the largest royalty advances and serial rights contracts then known in American publishing’. Their friendship was very valuable to Wharton. Undoubtedly any writer who lived abroad as she did was at risk of falling out of view back home; Wharton could sustain her life in France as long as she was guaranteed a constant representative presence in the United States. She got the Pulitzer Prize; her books received lucrative movie contracts. The Children, for instance, run first as a serial in the Pictorial Review in 1928, earned ‘$95,000 from the serial rights contract, Book-of-the-Month Club sales of more than fifty thousand copies, and a $25,000 contract from Paramount Pictures for the film rights’.

Benstock’s chief strength lies in her depiction of Wharton’s financial life. How much Wharton had, inherited, managed (in the charities), made and spent – for these things we can go to Benstock. She appears happiest when giving us a digest of Wharton’s accounts and fretting over her taxes. Part of her point is to show how Wharton acquired power in an era when women were not officially supposed to have it. She does not, however, create a bridge between the social-financial Wharton and the artist for whose sake we are interested in the society lady with the formidable wealth.

The reader of Benstock’s book may soon wish to go back to Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975). It was Lewis who first told us about Wharton’s affair with Fullerton and who printed the puzzling erotic text of ‘Beatrice Palmato’. Lewis brought before us a creative woman with a complicated emotional life, a deep character whose depths were adumbrated by the poems and other hitherto unpublished materials he produced in evidence. His biography has by now called into being so much printed material, so much editing of formerly published works, that Benstock’s task is infinitely easier than his was. Yet her discussions are curt, even cryptic. Unless one already knew from Lewis about certain characters (Fullerton is the salient but not sole example) and their role in Wharton’s life, one could be puzzled by their appearance in her book. One thing Benstock does touch on, though the subject is not developed, is the possible change in Wharton’s religious thought; Benstock indicates that, towards the end of her life, Wharton, under the influence of a Roman Catholic servant, was turning philosophically and not just formally towards Catholicism. This matter remains to be explored by future biographers.

Eleanor Dwight’s Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life is a pretty thing; it is a pity that some of its illustrative photographs, especially of the oil paintings and gardens, could not have been in colour. There are some unobtrusive notes, and a decent standard of scholarship is understood. Letters have been looked up, some manuscripts consulted – and even a graphologist – but this is a book for looking at and skipping though. In one of the few instances of interpretation, Dwight remarks that when we consider her book on interior decoration, The Decoration of Houses, and some of the early short stories, we sense that ‘Wharton was often projecting sexual feelings onto rooms and houses.’ ‘The fear of entrapment,’ she writes, ‘the obsessions with entrances keeping out and letting in, and the fascination with privacy can be seen as expressing sexual desire.’ But can we not also see an even stronger expression of sexual wariness in the desire for privacy and control? Self-reliance is as important as hospitality.

Erotic feelings are certainly present in Wharton’s descriptions of houses and gardens. Indeed, there is an unusual degree of attention to the accoutrements of luxury in her fiction and to the sensuous gratification they afford:

Near the bed stood a table holding her breakfast-tray, with its harmonious porcelain and silver, a handful of violets in a slender glass, and the morning paper folded beneath her letters. There was nothing new to Lily in these tokens of a studied luxury, but though they formed her atmosphere, she never lost her sensitiveness to their charm. Mere display left her with a sense of superior distinction, but she felt an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth.

The ‘tokens of a studied luxury’ enter Wharton’s fiction ironically through the point of view of the person who is without them, the needy pretender who looks in on or plays with a luxury felt as theatrical and known as impermanent. An illustrated book like Dwight’s engulfs us in the Gilded Age and the furry Edwardian opulence of Edith Wharton’s social world, and may well make us wonder how she imaginatively stood her distance. No doubt it was, at least in part, by translating emotional exigency into all other forms of need and desire. Wharton had little use for Joyce or Lawrence, but she liked and evidently understood Proust. The circles in which she moved in Paris included many of the originals of his characters; and although she and Proust never actually met, she was asked to translate Le Temps retrouvé.

Edith Wharton’s novels typically deal with a changing society which is declared by some of its members to be a society blessed by permanence and stasis. The changeless values are upheld most usually by a masculine observer who is curiously remote and sexless, who values the aesthetic qualities of the men, and more especially of the women dancing dangerously around him, who may even be attracted to them, but rarely beyond prudence. This male observer, like Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth (a cross between Teddy Wharton and Little Women’s Teddy Lawrence?), is both refined and critical, but powerless, a timid Perseus, a Selden who seldom acts, who can never save the Andromeda sacrificed simultaneously to both flux and convention. The strongest variant of the type is Newland Archer, who aims to free himself and Countess Olenska from the bondage to convention, but finds himself powerless to do so. Even Ethan Frome can be seen as a variant of this type, a sufferer from the oppressive dual conventions of marriage and poverty, who tries to save his beloved and can only damage and cripple them both, leaving them at the mercy of the cruel proprietorship and grudging propriety represented by his wife Zeena.

The unhappiness of marriage is a constant theme in Wharton; she will not avail herself of the mystique of happy courtship. One might attribute the continual reflections on this subject to her own ill-starred marriage, which had sacrificed both her and Teddy to the proprieties. Yet, it is a theme that emerges in her juvenile writings, as we can see in Fast and Loose, written in 1876-7 and not published until a century had passed. This novel, begun when she was 14 years old, already exhibits her constant motifs. Georgie, the heroine, is caught between her love for blond, moustached, indolent Guy and her engagement to Lord Breton, ‘a real, live Lord, with a deer-park, & a house in London, & ever so much a year’. Guy is one of the ineffectuals who cannot take what they want, and Georgie is one of the ‘fast’ young women, like Lily Bart and Countess Olenska after her, who are rebellious at the fact that they cannot get what they emotionally want and yet themselves participate in the materialism that politesse of society barely conceals. When Guy, the hero, has received the letter from his jilting fiancée, enclosed with her engagement ring, he goes into his club’s reading-room to reread it: ‘Guy, with the masculine instinct of being always as comfortable as possible, settled himself in an armchair, & reread Georgie’s note, slowly, carefully and repeatedly.’ From Fast and Loose at the beginning of her career to the unfinished The Buccaneers at its end, Wharton kept up a wry pursuit of human sexual relations shaped and warped by social and financial wants which are none the less urgent for not being needs but what we have learned to call ‘mediated desire’.

Not only does the individual shape him or herself, Quixote-like, according to the shadows cast by public fictions, those public fictions (among which happy marriage is included) also shape who we are and what we can do. This bleak knowledge is part of the secret of Wharton’s artistic success. What enabled her to attain that knowledge was the force of will and imagination to hold aloof from complete acceptance of values and behaviour which in her daily life she had (as she knew) accepted.

In the Twenties Wharton turned her considerable gift for satire to an official critique of the modern American scene. In doing so, she was hampered by lack of knowledge of post-war America; brief visits and interrogations of friends, combined with reading magazines, did not quite make good the deficiencies. She is happiest when dealing with expatriates (as in The Children); least happy when she tries to set a novel entirely on home ground, as with the now little-known, and highly embarrassing, Twilight Sleep (1927). This novel sets out to be an official excoriation of modern values, and the evil is blamed – ah, conventionality! – on the mother, the wicked mother who does not do her proper duty. The central character is Mrs Manford, the villain of the piece, descendant of mine-owners and bicycle-manufacturers, moving blithely along in her second, middle-aged marriage with endless parties, good causes and gurus. We will no longer see it as a contradiction that Mrs Manford addresses both the National Mother’s Day Association and the Birth Control League. Wharton’s sense of humour (as distinct from her wit) was decidedly in abeyance when she, so deliberately childless herself, had the nerve to mock women who eased the pain of childbirth through anaesthetic, the source of the ‘twilight sleep’ of her title, indicating a world that sleeps through its responsibilities. Here, as more subtly in The Children, she is trying to uphold what we call ‘family values’, to say that tradition and stability matter, and that women should thus be governed by their men. It is a betrayal of Wharton’s own insights in The Age of Innocence and elsewhere.

Yet even in Twilight Sleep, the ineffectual male – the first husband – when he tries to assert his authority simply goes off the rails, after years of alcoholic indolence, and shoots the person dearest to him, his stepdaughter. Wharton, even here, cannot get out of her profoundly consistent view that the application of authority is always wilful and stupid cruelty, and that efforts at social constraint never work, no matter how much lip service is paid to them. The modern world may be frenetic and amoral, giving too much room to the personal desires that Wharton herself had had partly to eschew. But, as she knew inwardly, she had also given rein to those desires, not only in having her own love affair, but in having her own house, her own furniture, and keeping her own husband out of her way. She too was a divorcée. Her satires on modern times are uneasy about their unearned irony.

Wharton writes much more honestly when she sets her work in the past: more particularly, the past of her own childhood and of her parents’ maturity. The Age of Innocence conjures up an Old New York that had now ceased to be and was in frantic flux during the lifetime of Lucretia Jones and the youth of her daughter. Scorsese’s film of The Age of Innocence justly picks up the aggressiveness and cruelty an organised high society can manifest in bending its members to a corporate will – yet this aggression goes on even as that society itself changes, erodes and disappears. We know that the lives of Archer’s children will be altogether different from his own, and that the standards that govern him will not govern others. This disjunctiveness is Wharton’s special province, though she later tried to betray it by pretending that there were simple solutions of the mothers-should-go-home, become-dowdy and stick-with-bad-marriages kind.

Divorce was a complicated subject for Edith, as her parents had been so against it, yet probably both of the Joneses had affairs on the side, and all of their children got divorced. The culprits Edith excoriated were herself and her brothers, for they had let down Old New York, and shown themselves unworthy, common, vulgar. But the elegant and educated, too, are unworthy, as Wharton’s best novels constantly show. Ellen Olenska’s desires include money, and social excitement, not just ‘love’. Being ‘good’ means being uniform, and we cannot bear eternal uniformity: ‘ “sameness – sameness!” he muttered, the word running through his head like a persecuting tune ... He knew not only what they were likely to be talking about, but the part each one would take in the discussion.’ A vulgar character like the delightfully social-climbing Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country gets more of the authorial attention and even sympathy than good respectable sticks like Undine’s Old New York husband Ralph Marvell. We dwell personally in moral halls of mirrors, multiple reflections with no single version truly definitive. Wharton’s triumph is to show this without any Nietzschean posturing. There is always moral agency, moral accountability and moral effect: we can never get ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, even though in her Fullerton days Wharton, as private documents show, was attracted by the phrase. Times change, but that does not mean a triumphant beyond. The love of ‘progress’ is an illusion always ripe for vulgarisation, but so, too, is nostalgia for a moral past that never existed outside power, control and desire. Wharton is most modern – even unwillingly so – when she denies that there are answers, or even that our special difficulties can be stated as ‘problems’ that supply solutions. Her novels’ titles customarily give us an indicator (place, time) of a constraining definition: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence. A governing notion, which is always abstract, presses on and endeavours to define human beings, eliciting the blessed reaction, the cruel contradiction, the defiance of mirth, innocence and custom.