Philadelphia: Pine Street Books, 2001.
$14.95, 216 pages, ISBN 0-81221792-6.
Liverpool John Moores University
For a long time Edith Whartons critical reputation suffered
from being in the shadow of Henry James but her stock has slowly risen.
Her greater moral certainty and more definitive tone continue to prove
attractive, as does her preoccupation with the lives of women and
the power of money and her anthropological curiosity about social
mores of her day. James is greater but more difficult, wiser but less
easily penetrable. It can sometimes feel that Wharton gives what James
Wharton wrote a good deal and did so seriously and with ambition but
whereas only a few of Jamess works (The Reverberator,
for example) fail to interest and reward a reader, only a handful
of Whartons novels compel true and unequivocal admiration. No
matter how intriguing when summarized, later novels such as Hudson
River Bracketed and A Son at the Front are turgid, laboured
affairs. Perhaps the coming biography by Hermione Lee will make us
reappraise such works but her reputation will always be assured because,
when Wharton was good, she was exceptionally so.
The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence are
works of insight and bold assurance but there is also, even if those
two novels are technically superior, The House of Mirth, the
base matter of Whartons art, its essential tissue.
It is good then to discover that Pine Street Books have made more
widely available Whartons 1903 novella, Sanctuary, a
work that immediately preceded The House of Mirth. In it, a
young woman, Kate Orme, discovers her fiancé has lied about
his late brothers final days. The secret sickens and appals
Kate but she marries him anyway, arguing that any other woman he might
marry would not know of his moral weakness and so would not be able
to protect her children from inheriting and so displaying a similar
moral frailty. Years pass. The husband dies. We join Kate once again,
the mother of an architect son with whom she lives in conspicuous
harmony but he, too, is now faced with a dilemma he may fail to solve
honourably. Kate can only watch and wait to see if the son will repeat
the sins of the father.
Truth to tell, this is a top-heavy tale. The moral dilemma faced by
the sonshould he pass off work done by a gifted friend as his
own and so win a career-making competitionis not so richly sensational
as the episode that triggers the story. Kates fiancé
lies about his late brothers marriage, burns a death bed will
and this ends in the widows suicide and infanticide, drowning
herself and her child in the lake outside her dead husbands
family home. The second half of the novel has nothing to match this.
There is never much doubt of the sons innate nobility and the
dilemma he faces is weakened by the fact that the dead friend wants
him to pass the work off as his own.
What damages the novella most is the heroine and Whartons decision
to tell the story through her. Not only is her high-mindedness finally
unappealingand unintentionally hystericalbut, crucially,
most of the events that make up the story happen at several removes
from her and so she proves to be a poor choice through which to filter
the novels drama.
What remains to be praised is Whartons proseout of scale
here, perhapsbut lavish and stately, alive to every nuance and
discrimination and yet always certain and authoritative in its expression.
It is also a delightfully produced book, with the original Scribners
illustrations by Walter Appleton Clark. They give us a series of Wharton
Moments; tableaux of heroines striking poses with teacups and
fur muffs above subtitles such as It is simply that you have
ceased to love him and She laid her hand on the latch,
whispering Dick! Isolating lines like this does
not exactly do justice to Whartons seriousness but the illustrations
do charm and suggest that early Wharton was as influenced by stage
melodrama as she was by Henry James.
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