More Edith Wharton

Generally I’m a fan of Edith Wharton but I’ve just read her chunkster, Hudson River Bracketed, and taken too long over it. I don’t know whether anybody else ever does this? I feel there’s an optimum reading time for all books; if I string some books out over too many days they lose their impetus and their magic, whilst other books are slow reads that are spoiled by being rushed. On the whole, I find that once I’m really into a book it is much better if I can then read it in a matter of days. Hudson River Bracketed needed that sort of focus, but it coincided with a busy patch of life and was relegated to an hour here and there. I very nearly didn’t bother reviewing it at all, but then I thought that having spent the best part of a week on it, I might as well get something back.

It’s the story of Vance Weston, a young man from the Midwest, brought up amongst banally thrusting commercial types, who heads out East to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Yes, this is Wharton’s portrait of the artist as a young man, which is an intriguing choice when she surely had the option to portray the artist as a young woman. But Vance ticks a number of personality boxes that were foreclosed to women yet seemingly necessary to Wharton for an exploration of the proper aesthetic sensibility. Vance is all caprice and impulse and an oceanic submersion in the sensations of the moment. At its best this makes him open and profoundly receptive, all raw nerve and talent responding fulsomely to the world he encounters. Writing – and Wharton writes beautifully about writing – becomes the product of focus and engagement, a wholehearted submission to a dialogue between the imagination and the world. At worst, though, this mindset makes Vance a monster of selfishness. He is incapable of balancing his commitments, and integrity towards his art always seems to come at the cost of neglect, sometimes serious, of those who love him.

Vance is flanked in the novel by two very different women. When he comes to New York to chase his dream, he stays at first with some poor relations, the Tracys. The daughter of that family, Laura Lou, delicate, beautiful, devoted and ultimately sickly, will become his ill-fated wife, much against the wishes of her mother. The Tracys work as intermittent housekeepers for a lovely old house, The Willows, that belongs to another branch of the family. The owner being mostly absent, Mrs Tracy or her children are required to keep an eye on the place. It is here that Vance comes across his first real library (a moment of awe that most readers will respond to) and Halo Spear, his cousin from the better-connected side of the family. Laura Lou will be Vance’s loyal and loving wife, but her limited intelligence means she cannot share his visions. Halo Spear, by contrast, will become his muse. She is the daughter of cultured bohemian parents who love art but lack cash, and she is one of Wharton’s sensible women. For many years it seems as if Halo has been the only grown-up in her family, and her steady common sense and emotional maturity make her intimidating to the naïve Vance. But it’s her quick mind and genuine talent for artistic appreciation that endear her to him. Halo recognizes that her own creative talents are not quite sufficient, and that she is condemned to being a handmaiden for male achievement. But she makes the most of this with admirable readiness, so long as she can do good in the arts. Or at least that’s what she tells herself as she becomes more deeply embroiled with Vance. Wharton makes a lovely job of floating the question of whether it’s possible for two people involved in creating together to remain free from emotional entanglement. I won’t tell you how that comes out.

Also brilliantly done is the portrayal of the conflict between artistic endeavour and commercial manipulation. Basically, nothing has ever changed in the rather nasty business of trying to get work published. Vance is quickly picked up by a literary review that offers him a desperately-needed salary, but attached to a contract that effectively reduces him to slave labour. Without enough money to live on, struggling with his poorly wife and her mother’s resentment of him, rarely able to spend enough time with Halo and beset by the usual problems of creativity, Vance embodies the conflicts of artists across time. Never enough peace of mind, space or energy to do the work the way it ought to be done, and yet the powerful forces of creativity will not be denied and art emerges somehow, usually at extreme personal cost. In Wharton’s work it is always the case that where there is money there is no passion, and where there is passion there is no money, and in this novel that formula functions at the level of work as well as relationships.

So there is much to enjoy and admire in this novel, and Wharton’s writing is as limpid and gorgeous as it generally is. Also, she creates some excellent secondary characters – Mrs Tracy, Laura Lou’s mother, who is prejudiced against Vance because of her own mistakes towards him, and who would do anything to see him fail so as to have her view confirmed (and in a poignant twist has some right on her side that he is bad for her daughter), and also Lewis Tarrant, Halo’s rich husband, who runs the review that employs Vance and who steals his wife’s opinions and passes them off as his own with barely a flicker of recognition at what he does. But I suppose if there is a flaw in this novel it has to lie with the complex portrait of Vance. He is presented to us as a sympathetic male lead, and yet some of his behaviour is outrageously bad. Wharton never comments on this, to her credit; she lets Vance be, as she allows all her characters to be, in the satisfyingly real and vivid mixture of their imperfect selves. But something doesn’t quite work in the way the reader has to find room in her heart for what are unjustifiable actions of neglect and selfishness. Vance’s art does not always seem worth the trouble it causes, or maybe the cliché that posits that selfishness is required to produce art needs to be dismantled. But this is still a rich and potentially fascinating read – perhaps it’s only apt that in a book about the necessity of artistic immersion, this one needs focus and concentration to get the best out of it.


14 thoughts on “More Edith Wharton

  1. I haven’t read this one either. It would be interesting to read her descriptions of writing, though I’m not keen on either the artist as necessarily selfish or the artist as necessarily torture (or the artist as necessarily impoverished!) cliches.

  2. I love Wharton and hadn’t even heard of this one. Thanks for that!

    Very interesting about the writing contract–and timely. Over here, there’s been a huge controversy over an author (James Frey) getting desperate writers to sign what looks like a rather exploitative contract to write young adult books for his company. Clearly, this is not a new problem.

  3. At first, see me registering sincere surprise – I didn’t even know about this book and yet call myself a Wharton fan?! Indeed, I must oust it and have a whirl. (yes, finding the time will be a challenge, just as you note, too, but that’s ok. Wharton is worth it.
    Her Halo sounds a bit like Countess Olenska, from AGE OF INNOCENCE, at least in terms of the more bohemian sensitivity and intelligence that attracted young Archer. Another reason I love about reading multiple works by an author, to see what he/she is up to and what themes and character types walk through his/her worlds.

    Thanks for this, LL. Rich stuff and I’m on it!

  4. I really like Wharton but I need to be in the mood for one of her books, or at least prepared for the melancholy Wharton ending. Melancholy isn’t exactly the right word, but close to that. Can an ending be biting and melancholy at the same time? In any case, I have not read this particular Wharton but I’m sure I’ll make my way to it at some point and you make it sound very inviting.

  5. I never heard of this one! Really. Complete blank. I’m with you on some books needing to go slowly and some needing to go fast. Sounds very Wharton-rich and one I should read some day though. just not for too long.

  6. Harriet – I’d love to know what you think of it! I thought there’d be more Wharton fans out there, but this post has been so very quiet she can’t be as popular as I thought. Glad to know you like her!

    Lilian – well, quite, and yet so few books manage to avoid those cliches. Can you think of good portrait of the artist novels that do something different? Only I’d love to know about them.

    Teresa – what a fascinating story. This makes me think of Colette’s first husband, Henri Gautier-Villars, known as Willy, who ran a publishing factory along the same lines. Colette wrote for him first and then found herself embroiled in copyright issues when they divorced and she wanted her early works back in her name. It’s interesting, in a depressing sort of way, to know that this kind of thing still goes on.

    Oh – hurray! another Wharton fan! I admit there are parts of her work that I know nothing about, and I’d love to read a biography (although shy away from Hermione Lee’s huge tome – although Stefanie says it’s good). I think this book would make a fascinating comparison with Age of Innocence, and I quite agree that it’s very interesting indeed to watch an author alter and manipulate her key personality types!

    Verbivore – I know just what you mean. It’s best not to be in the mood for a happy ending, isn’t it? And I like your combination of biting and melancholy – they are both very appropriate for the place where Wharton ends up.

  7. Rebecca – your comment came in while I was responding to the others! I’m really glad to find another Wharton fan, and you are so right, this is classic stuff for her, although the art world is new and unfamiliar territory. Given that it’s as tribal as her best New York families, it still suits her well. I laughed at your last sentence – it IS best taken at a good pace! 🙂

  8. I didn’t realize this was a chunkster! Thanks for the warning. Do you have plans to read the sequel, The Gods Arrive? I am under the impression that Vance may somehow redeem himself in that one, or if not redeem at least come to some sort of recognition.

  9. Coffee and book chick – yay! Delighted to find another Wharton fan. I also loved The House of Mirth, and I have Ethan Frome still to read. It’s a short one, isn’t it? I really should fit it in. I’d love to know what you make of Hudson River Bracketed.

    Stefanie – I confess, I’m pleased to see you here – I hoped you would be interested in the review. I would like to read The Gods Arrive, although you may imagine it is not the easiest book to get hold of. My university library might hold a copy (although I’ll bet it’s one I can only read on the spot, not take away). I’d love to see Vance redeem himself, or come to some kind of peace. But maybe Wharton felt that creativity and loving companionship weren’t compatible? Ah, another reason to read Lee’s biography of her! 🙂

  10. Pingback: Living Happily (Enough) Ever After… « Copywrite1985

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