On Edith Wharton

The Mother’s Recompense is the fifth novel I’ve read by Wharton and she never disappoints me. She must surely be classified as one of the all time great stylists, whose elegant, luminous prose explores the contrast between a world full of beauty and material luxury, and the often sordid and shop-soiled people who populate it. I’d go further, though, and say that after five of her novels, I think Wharton’s literary imagination reveals a particular and constant preoccupation: an obsession with the relationship between women and disgrace. No matter which eligible – or more generally, ineligible – man her heroine sets her sights upon, it’s the specter of disgrace that determines the course of the relationship for the woman. Wharton is fascinated by disgrace; it stalks the ostensibly harmless tea parties and family gatherings of old New York; it strikes in an intercepted glance, a stuttered reply, even the dark heart of a moment’s inappropriate silence. For there are so many ways in which a woman can fail to adhere to the strictures of propriety, in the rule-bound, claustrophobic tribal clans that Wharton loves to depict. The Mother’s Recompense was first published in 1925, and it shows a society that is changing and casting off the old constraints, but for Wharton’s heroines, the notion of female virtue is etched into the soul and cannot be cast aside with anything other than the usual self-torment.

The Mother’s Recompense is the story of Kate Clephane who sealed her fate in her youth by leaving a husband she detested and running off with another man. The man didn’t last, and all too soon, Kate found herself washed up on the shores of the Riviera, condemned to the eternal round of card parties and charitable works that constitute the kind of community service that atones for women’s social crimes in Wharton’s world. And then, at the start of the First World War, when Europe was in chaos and disregarding for once of social niceties, she met the great love of her life, a much younger man and an artist, Chris Fenno, with whom she enjoyed a passionate affair. The novel opens with Kate alone, impoverished, but secure in her familiar exile, until a surprising telegram arrives. The telegram informs her that her mother-in-law has finally died, and with her, the sentence of exclusion that has kept Kate thousands of miles from home. A second telegram follows it from her now grown-up daughter, Anne, whom she unforgivably left behind. ‘Dearest Mother, I want you to come home at once,’ Anne writes, and Kate, barely able to comprehend the miracle of forgiveness that has occurred, doesn’t need any further prompting.

So Kate returns to New York, to the family she escaped over twenty years ago, to the old friend, Fred Landers, who always admired her from afar, and to a daughter whom she loves blindly, instinctually, but does not know. Kate thinks she’s in paradise, until who should turn up to trouble her serenity, but Chris Fenno, the living embodiment of a disgrace that she had thought entirely hidden from her set. But Wharton’s not done with torturing Kate yet; the reason Chris has reappeared in her life is because he means to marry her daughter. To say Kate panics is something of an understatement. Her response to the proposed union of Anne and Chris is visceral and devastating, catapulting her to the brink of breakdown and making her determined above all else to prevent the wedding. The only catch is that she has to intervene without anyone guessing her reasons, and the person she most wants to protect, the relationship she most wants to preserve in its state of purity and tenderness, is the one with her daughter. Kate cannot tell Anne that she is about to marry her mother’s old flame, but unless she brings forth this justifiable reason, she has no grounds to insist that stubborn, determined Anne give up the man she has set her heart upon.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but I do want to pause here for a moment and consider Kate’s behaviour. As I was reading, I found myself intrigued and perplexed by the violence of Kate’s reaction, which remains unexplained and simply taken for granted in the narrative. Chris Fenno is no keener than Kate herself for Anne to find out about their past, and so her secret is unquestionably safe. And whilst there is something displeasing about a man dating both mother and daughter, it is not quite the incest that Kate fears it to be. It might be socially unsettling, but not if the past is sufficiently dead and buried. And so it seems fair to say that Kate reacts so excessively because at least part of the problem is that she is still in love with Chris and wretched at the thought of handing him over to another woman. Kate, having never actually been Anne’s mother, has no history of maternal self-sacrifice, and no qualms whatsoever about stepping in to destroy her daughter’s happiness rather than risk her own. But what stays Kate’s hand, and prevents her from entering into all-out competition with her daughter, is her need to remain untainted in her daughter’s opinion. For a woman who has spent twenty long years expiating her adultery, the desire to look pure and blameless, with a slate wiped clean, must be overwhelming. And I think it’s here, at the heart of Kate’s relationship to disgrace, that we may find the motivating force of the novel.

Because what disgraces a woman in an Edith Wharton novel? Every time, it’s proper, wholehearted, passionate love. The safe relationships are the mundane, banal ones, the loveless but useful ones, in which the more dependable bonds of financial and social support carry the weight of the union. Real, erotic love causes nothing but trouble in Wharton’s novels, and whilst Kate can, and indeed has, lived down the scandal provoked by a broken marriage and a romantic fugue with men she didn’t much care for, to be continually reminded of her passionate attachment to a man who no longer feels the same would be a humiliation and a disgrace that she could not tolerate. One of the obstacles that Kate simply cannot negotiate is her own pride. For all the bad decisions she has made, she cannot quite accept the full, conscious responsibility of her guilt. Women, in Wharton’s world, were required above all else to be pure, above reproach, perfect in their virtue. Kate can be none of those things, as indeed few of Wharton’s heroines can be, but this does not prevent her from longing for an image of purity, and rejoicing in her restored status within her family. Chris’s presence sets at odds her intense desire for irreproachability and her foolish, intransigent need for passionate love, in a way that cannot be reconciled. Ultimately the only place where she can hold onto her preferred image of herself is in isolation, where there are no others to bear witness to the past. And so often, exile, fugue and abandonment are the safest places for Wharton’s women to be.

This seems to me like a reasonable reason why Wharton’s novels are inevitably tragic. Her women are designed for love; they have, after all, absolutely nothing else to think about and nothing of any consequence to do. Their lives are an empty and trivial round of socializing; the only glamour and adventure they can possibly attain involves dangerous romance. But once a woman has loved in Wharton’s world, disgrace is perpetually hovering nearby. Men make women messy, in Wharton’s books, deflecting them from a path of crippling, empty virtue with the irresistible offer of passion and self-definition, but such liberation comes at a cost that is quite breathtaking. This isn’t Wharton’s best novel by a long way, and if you’ve never read her work then begin with The Custom of the Country, or The Age of Innocence. But it’s a particularly intriguing read if you already like what she does, and yet wonder why her vision is so profoundly melancholy.

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15 thoughts on “On Edith Wharton

  1. How totally heartwrenching! I guess Wharton’s women always fall in love with the wrong men–the ones that already have ties or are otherwise unavailable. They do spend a lot of time either in disgrace or working passionately to avoid it! You needn’t convince me–I’ll be looking for this one as well.

  2. Disgrace is a great theme, don’t you think? So slippery, so deadly, so complex in terms of the breach of social contract and so on… Fascinating post, Litlove.

  3. Lilian – thank you! And I do agree – Wharton’s novels always are troubling, because she writes from so deep inside the emotions of her characters that they are wholly plausible, and yet the reader recoils from the fate of her heroines.

    Charlotte – Isn’t she just a wonderful stylist? I find myself reading passages over again because I’m in awe of the sentences she constructs. I’d love to know what you think of it if you can get hold of it.

    Nicole – thank you, and I’d love to know your thoughts on Wharton some time.

    David – It’s great to find so many Wharton fans. I find her a wonderful mix of the archaic and the modern, and just so eloquent. I know you don’t talk much about books but I’d love to know what you think if you do read it.

    Danielle – I know you like Wharton too, and I was hoping you’d say that. I’d love to know what you think. Further incentive – mine’s a lovely dark green Virago copy….. :)

    Emily – oh thank you! That means a lot to me, coming from you! :)

    Doctordi – yes, you’re quite right, it IS a rich theme for any author to mine. I’ve never read Coetzee’s Disgrace, although I do want to some day. You’ve got me thinking there, Di!

  4. I have often wondered why Wharton’s books are always tragic so your thoughts here are a delight. I suspect most of her narratives come from her own disappointed/pragmatic worldview – I don’t believe passionate love resulted in happiness for Wharton herself and she wasn’t the kind of writer who could invent an alternate reality for her heroines. I also believe there is an element of feminism in her work, although mostly visible through the simple lens of exposure. She was very good at exposing the inequality between how men were affected by their affairs vs women. I will definitely add this book to my reading list!

  5. I like Wharton. I think she is brilliant. And what an interesting analysis you make! I always find it distressing though that it is the women who suffer from disgrace and the men rarely seem to face any kind of consequences for their passions.

  6. Nice post! To compare Coetzee’s Disgrace with Edith Wharton’s treatment in her books (I love The House of Mirth although it’s so depressing)would be a challenge for sure!
    At first sight, I’d say Wharton studies the influence of society on our personal image (like in “I wouldn’t bear people to see me like this…”) while Coetzee addresses more the basic dignity of a human being, regardless of society. Mmh… disgrace is such a difficult subject. I even wonder why readers are so fascinated with these prickly and nasty subjects. Are we voyeurs when we look at these characters struggling against fate or do we hope for the best?

  7. Coetzee’s Disgrace is definitely worth a look, Litlove, although it’s so disturbing and bleak I’m not sure, knowing how you feel about violence, you’ll ‘enjoy’ it. It’s not exactly enjoyable, if you catch my drift, but it is a thoroughly compelling novel.

  8. Wonderful analysis, thank you. I think you nailed Wharton completely, as Emily wrote. “Exile, fugue and abandonment.” Passion punished. She learned quite a bit from her friend Henry James, didn’t she? But Wharton takes things just that much further, into tragedy of Greek proportions. So now this book goes onto the list, and Age of Innocence will get another read. Someday.

  9. Verbivore – I absolutely agree that Wharton’s feminism is of the expository kind. The culture she depicts so plausibly and evocatively is intolerable for the woman reader. There’s a really good afterword in my edition by Marilyn French, and she points out that like many female artists (George Sand, George Eliot, Woolf), Wharton managed to get away with a lot more in reality than she permits her female characters. She didn’t do well in love – awful marriage and then a doomed but intense love affair, but she never lost status from either of them. I was really intrigued by that bit of blindness – but perhaps Wharton could see that the lot of her sisters was somewhat different? Well, I’m still thinking about that one!

    Stefanie – quite so! The men walk away scot free from all this on the whole, although occasionally they are made to suffer with an inferior happiness. Hmm, big fat hairy deal, as Garfield might have eloquently said.

    Smithereens – that’s a wonderful and intriguing comparison you make there between Wharton and Coetzee. I’m thinking about that still. I’ve also been thinking about what you ask – are we voyeurs to other people’s pain? I read somewhere some advice to authors, saying that whilst you were dealing with what was intrinsic to humanity, you couldn’t go wrong. But I do think the real answer lies in how the representation is undertaken. Good questions!

    Doctordi – that’s a very useful comment – thank you. I do like to know what to expect.

    ds – you’re so right that Wharton is James’ emotionally literate (and openly articulate) cousin. ‘passion punished’ covers it very well indeed!

  10. I’ve never read this one, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to Wharton and women’s fate. It even shows up in her ghost stories (if memory serves me well).

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