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Edith Wharton
Philadelphia: Pine Street Books, 2001.
$14.95, 216 pages, ISBN 0-81221792-6.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University


For a long time Edith Wharton’s 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 withholds.

Wharton wrote a good deal and did so seriously and with ambition but whereas only a few of James’s works (The Reverberator, for example) fail to interest and reward a reader, only a handful of Wharton’s 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 Wharton’s art, its essential tissue.

It is good then to discover that Pine Street Books have made more widely available Wharton’s 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 brother’s 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 son—should he pass off work done by a gifted friend as his own and so win a career-making competition—is not so richly sensational as the episode that triggers the story. Kate’s fiancé lies about his late brother’s marriage, burns a death bed will and this ends in the widow’s suicide and infanticide, drowning herself and her child in the lake outside her dead husband’s family home. The second half of the novel has nothing to match this. There is never much doubt of the son’s 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 Wharton’s decision to tell the story through her. Not only is her high-mindedness finally unappealing—and unintentionally hysterical—but, 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 novel’s drama.

What remains to be praised is Wharton’s prose—out of scale here, perhaps—but 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 Scribner’s 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 Wharton’s 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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