Today is the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth. She is one of the writers I admire the most and could even be the top contender for my favorite writer ever. I have been captivated by her work ever since I read The Age of Innocence. I can say that to date I haven’t read anything written by her that hasn’t blown me away. I recently read Roman Fever and other Stories, an exquisite collection of short stories depicting the private tragedies of people at the turn of the century in upper class New York society. As soon as I finished the last sentence, I went back to the first page and re-read the whole book again. Is there a better compliment one can pay to a writer?
The stories deal with marital relationships, gender identity and class dynamics and expose the hypocrisy of the stuffy upper crust which swallows up an individual’s sense of identity within its regimented and stifling lifestyle. Wharton reveals the complexities of human nature with astute psychological observation and trenchant satire. Usually in a collection you will find a few wonderful stories and a few mediocre ones. But all eight stories of this collection are unequivocally brilliant.
Roman Fever– Two middle-aged and widowed American ladies, Grace Ansley and Alida Stale, who have been lifelong friends are visiting Rome with their daughters. The two young ladies have stepped out with Italian aviators on a romantic outing and have left their mothers to their knitting. The mothers who are sitting on a terrace in Rome overlooking The Colosseum, reminisce and reflect on their experiences when they had undertaken a similar excursion with their mothers when they were the same age as their daughters. The women put on a façade of politeness but they are analyzing each other in their minds. Needless to say, their perspective of one another is flawed and viewed through a narrow prism. “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope..” The story gradually builds up the tension between the two friends and before long secrets slip out revealing past infidelities, betrayal and jealousies. The knitting is symbolic as their lives are analogous to the tight patterns. Gradually like the knitting, unravel ruminations, recriminations and remonstrances. The last line packs a punch with an unexpected twist! The ingenious title “Roman Fever’ could refer to a fatal strain of malaria in the Roman night air or to the excitement of young love and sexual excess or perhaps even to the seething rivalry of the friends. The setting and the scenery along with the setting sun foreshadow the ruined friendship similar to this great city in ruins.
Xingu is a satire of the intellectually pretentious and snobbish women of the upper class whose literary club is hosting a luncheon for Osric Dane, a famous author. These “indomitable huntresses of erudition” are bemoaning the fact that they have to invite Mrs. Robbs, their least fashionable member to the event. Mrs. Robbs hasn’t read the contemporary book they are reading in preparation for its author’s visit but admits that she reads Anthony Trollope for amusement which is an outrage in the eyes of these pompous ladies. On the day of the much anticipated event, Mrs. Robbs introduces ‘Xingu’ as a topic of conversation. Nobody knows what it is including the guest of honor but will not admit to their ignorance. Even after Mrs. Robbs and Osric Dane leave the gathering, the ladies still continue discussing Xingu wondering if it is a language, a philosophy or a religion. This hilarious story is a classic illustration of the motif of the fox outfoxed or should one rather say the vixen outwitted.
The Other Two– Newly-wed Waythorn is happy with his wife Alice who is a double divorcée. He is not bothered by her past until he comes in repeated contact with the two ex- husbands. The story is told in the third person through Waythorn’s perspective and reveals his insecurities. The husbands don’t seem to be the brutes he had imagined them to be. Could Alice who seems outwardly like a compliant woman, be a calculating social climber? Does he fear deep down that he’ll end up with the same fate as the previous two when he makes the disturbingly misogynistic statement that she was “as easy as an old shoe…a shoe that too many feet had worn.” Will he ever come to terms with her past? Divorce was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and the story could reveal Wharton’s own ambivalent feelings towards the dissolution of marriage. She herself was considering a divorce at that point in her life, and interestingly, the name Waythorn itself is an anagram of Wharton.
Souls Belated– Lydia Tillotson is a recently divorced woman who wants to continue living with her lover, Gannett, a bohemian artist, rather than marry a second time as he wishes. She is jaded as her previous marriage was unfulfilling:
“Do you know, I begin to see what marriage is for. It’s to keep people away from each other. Sometimes I think that two people who love each other can be saved from madness only by the things that come between them.. children, duties, visits, bores, relations, the things that protect married people from each other. We’ve been too close together-that has been our sin. We’ve seen the nakedness of each other’s souls.”
She knows that conventional marriage is suffocating but if she wishes to live freely with her lover, she has to live outside society. Gannett and she are traveling in Europe and they stop for a few days at a hotel in Italy full of other Americans. People assume they are married and they carry on with the charade. In fact the hotel seems to be a microcosm of the society they have escaped from and Lydia even begins to fit in. She joins the other ladies in treating a certain Mrs. Cope, who, ironically, is also on the brink of divorce and at the hotel with another man, with disdain. She thinks she has rejected the rules of society but she seems to have internalized them and ends up caring more about society and respectability than she believed she did. Meanwhile there is a growing chasm in her relationship with Gannett. Will they conform to society for security and acceptance or will they boldly flout its conventions? The title like many other titles in this collection is fascinating and could refer to soulmates, old souls or lost souls that meet at a too late or inopportune time.
The Angel at the Grave– Self-effacing Paulina Hanson rejects a romantic proposal from Hewlett Winsoe and chooses to devote her life to the memory and work of her grandfather, a once renowned Transcendentalist philosopher. She is working on his biography but when she takes the manuscript to the publisher, they tell her that his work is no longer of interest. The story has a Gothic feel to it as the spirit of the deceased grandfather haunts the mansion and exercises its influence over Paulina who is the angel at the grave of this man:
“She sat in the library, among the carefully-tended books and portraits; and it seemed to her that she had been walled alive into a tomb hung with the effigies of dead ideas”
She feels she has wasted her life, when, one day out of the blue, a young and enthusiastic scholar who wants to write an article on one of her grandfather’s discoveries, enters her life like a ray of sunshine.
The Last Asset is told through the perspective of Paul Garnett, a journalist and an outsider who has made the acquaintance of a fellow American in a Parisian restaurant and who is also friends with the wife, Mrs. Newell. The latter wants him to locate her estranged husband and convince him to attend the marriage of her daughter to a French aristocrat. Mrs. Newell is a social parasite who lives off others and has a daughter who lives in her shadows. She will use anyone including her own daughter and husband to serve her social needs and climb up the ladder. Her husband’s presence at the wedding is indispensable and an asset that will enable this marriage to take place and cement her position. Are Paul and Mr. Newell bitter that her machinations met with success or is there a silver lining in the clouds?
After Holbein- Anson Warley is an aging bachelor, who, on a morning when he has a stroke, is determined to go out for dinner. He doesn’t know where he is going and stumbles into the house of Evelina Jasper thinking that he is headed there although he used to avoid her parties when he was younger. Evelina Jasper was once a famous socialite who used to host elegant dinner parties but now suffers from “a softening of the brain”. Mrs. Jasper is slipping into dementia and has lost touch with reality and hosts imaginary dinner parties. The servants humor the two people who are dining together blissfully unaware that death is at the doorstep and imminent. There is no mention of Holbein in the story although the story is entitled After Holbein.The characters could be portraits in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younge, portraitist of the 16thcentury known for his realism or this eerie and otherworldly story with images of ghosts, coffins and mummies could have derived its inspiration from Younge’s series of woodcuts called “The Dance of Death”.
Initially entitled Autres temps, autres moeurs, (Other times, other customs), Autres Temps is yet another story that tackles the topic of divorce and social rehabilitation. Mrs. Lidcote is on a long and voluntary exile in Italy as she had become an outcast after a former indiscretion and divorce. She is returning to New York from Italy on a steamer ship on hearing the news of her daughter Leila’s divorce and upcoming remarriage. She is worried that her daughter will be shunned by society as well and she shares her fears with an old friend, Franklin Ide, who assures her that times have changed and she needn’t fear social censure anymore. But then why is she being excluded from Leila’s dinner party? Leila seems to be keeping her mother from mingling with her guests masking her reasons as concern for her mother. Is Franklin Ide who has also shown a romantic interest in Mrs. Lidcote, genuine or does he harbor the same prejudices? This is a painful and heartbreaking story as her own daughter is able to survive a divorce and remarriage but she can’t escape her past as “society is much too busy to revise its own judgements.’
The stories in this collection address the age old conflict that is universal; do you put duty and honor above personal happiness and freedom or do you follow your heart in a society that is unflinchingly unforgiving about transgressions? These eight stories about other times, other customs are, in fact, still shockingly resonant. How much further have we come as a society is a question worth pondering!
When I finish a book by Edith Wharton, I can’t pick up anything else to read for a day or two as I need to process everything I’ve read. The only other author who has such an effect on me is Daphne du Maurier. One evening after I had finished Summer, the bewildered hubby asked me why I wasn’t reading anything and I told him nonchalantly that I had to think a little about life before moving on to the next book.