The past decade has provided something of a bonanza for aficionados of Edith Wharton--the biography of Wharton by R. W. B. Lewis in 1975, "Letters of Edith Wharton" two years ago, and, last year, "Henry James and Edith Wharton, Letters 1900-1915." And now, two new editions have appeared: "The Stories of Edith Wharton," selected and introduced by Anita Brookner and "Edith Wharton: Novellas and Other Writing," edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Both collections are so intelligently conceived and so revealing of Wharton's craft and personality that I will venture this dictum: No self-respecting Wharton addict should be without these two books.
One wonders what Wharton, herself, with her ironic and incisive eye, would make of this surge of interest in her work half a century after her death. That she was conscious that she would be posthumously judged and written about seems clear; indeed, she left a packet of memorabilia and letters marked in her own hand, "For My Biographer," to be opened after her death. But she also tried to outwit that would-be biographer by shaping the perceptions of her past in the form of her own memoirs, "A Backward Glance" (a work which Anita Brookner, in her introduction to Wharton's stories, aptly describes as "a brilliant exercise in both worldliness and concealment"). And it has always seemed to me that the fragment of Wharton's strange, erotic tale of incest, "Beatrice Palmato," was hardly left by chance, but was meant as still another clue, albeit a perverse one, to illuminate the more subterranean alleyways of its author's highly sensuous intellect.
No doubt it would amuse Wharton to find herself so in vogue during our own fin de siecle, with its rash of bi-coastal Undine Spraggs (the ambitious heroine of "Custom of the Country"), a period whose atmosphere of nouveaux riches and ruthless social climbing has such affinity with that of the fin de siecle New York that she depicted--most powerfully in her novels ("Age of Innocence," "House of Mirth"), but also in these two recently published collections of novellas and short stories.
How to approach these two volumes of Wharton's shorter works is the question.
I would suggest turning to the Library of America collection first, which contains Wharton's classic "Ethan Frome," as well as her almost Flaubertian novella "Summer," similarly set in a claustral New England town (and which Wharton herself amusingly described as "the hot Ethan"). But rather than plunging seriatim into the novellas, I recommend perusing the excellent chronology of Wharton's life at the end, then beginning with the autobiographical fragment, published here for the first time, "Life and I." This is surely one of the most charming recollections of a writer's childhood ever penned, and far more candid than Wharton's formal memoir, "A Backward Glance."
In "Life and I," we see the roots of Wharton's complex personality, and, from the opening sentence, her propensity to make cerebral the erotic. "My first conscious recollection is of being kissed in Fifth Avenue by my cousin Dan Fearing," she briskly writes, before expatiating on her early "love of pretty things," her fascination with Europe and travel, her enthrallment with words, and most of all, her early passion for creating stories--"making up," she would say. "Dashing into the drawing-room," she writes, "(I) would pant out, 'Mama, please go & amuse those children. I must make up.' And in another instant I would be shut up in my bedroom, . . . while I poured out . . . the accumulated floods of my pent-up eloquence.' "
Brookner's selection of stories bears the fruit of that passion for "making up"--stories that run the gamut of Wharton's career, from "The Pelican" (1899) and "The Mission of Jane" (1904) to the last, and perhaps the most masterful, stories of the 1930s.
The setting of these 14 stories does not deviate from the upper-class world that Wharton knew so well, with its formal--some might say stultifying--tribal rituals. Only cavilers would find this a fault (just as one could say--with a greater degree of rectitude that Wharton's male characters never achieve the strength or interest of her women). What changes and deepens, rather, is the nature of Wharton's investigation into relationships that escape the labyrinthine clutch of society, and her ability to suggest the complexity and nuances of those relationships in a highly compressed way.
In the earlier stories, one feels Wharton's preoccupation, even obsession, with the constraints of marriage (not surprisingly, as her own marriage to sportsman Teddy Wharton was a failure from the start, and ended in divorce when she was 51). There are the frequent, and often quite chilling, descriptions of matrimony--"the spectral claim," she calls it at one point--and its mutations, such as this one from "The Last Asset," in rapier-like early Wharton style:
"She had always struck him as the most extravagant of women, yet it turned out that by a miracle of thrift, she had for years kept a superfluous husband on the chance that he might someday be useful."
Another passage, from "The Mission of Jane," combines Wharton's ironic view of marital relations with her characteristic use of the building as metaphor:
"He looked at his wife with new eyes. Formerly she had been to him a mere bundle of negations, a labyrinth of dead walls and bolted doors. . . . Now he felt like a traveler who, exploring some ancient ruin, comes on an inner cell, intact amid the general dilapidation, and painted with images which reveal the forgotten uses of the building."
In the later stories--Wharton's own marriage having dissolved, and divorce having lost its aura of scandal (see her "Autres Temps," 1916)--her eye seems to veer toward increasingly primordial and enigmatic territory. There is the ambivalence toward motherhood in the masterful "Her Son," which also includes a devastating portrayal of a sleazy American couple on the make in Europe. Finally, in the ghost story "All Souls"--the last story she ever wrote, which was published posthumously in 1937--comes the chillingly creative metamorphosis of what must have been Wharton's final fears: the fear of death, of being utterly alone and without control, an old woman alone in a stately house that everyone has abandoned. This was the darker side of the same woman who had written to her friend Mary Berenson two decades before (as quoted in the Lewis biography):
"I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one's centre of life inside of one's self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity--to decorate one's inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome any one who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same in the hours when one is inevitably alone."
The fact that Wharton, as an elderly woman, was able to transform her own anxieties into an exceptionally elegant ghost story seems not only typical of her gallant spirit, but a fitting end to her illustrious writing career as well.