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.